Paul and the Apostolic Period


The Writings of Paul

The Letters of Paul: Introduction

March 8-22

In terms of the development of Christian thought and institutions, the logical next step in our intellectual journey is to examine the letters of Paul, said by many to be far the second most important individual in the growth of Christianity after Jesus himself. The letters are conventionally organized in modern Bibles in the order of their length. This is not too useful to us, because we want to understand the growth of Paul’s theology, as well as the development of Christianity. Accordingly we will skip about, taking important ones in the order of his writing.

Each of the collections of his letters were written to particular churches, usually in Greco-Roman cultural areas. Paul’s letters are commonly advice to congregations experiencing doubts and disunity, and hence show us contemporary issues and Paul’s solutions to them.

Accordingly, we begin with the First Book of Thessalonians, written about 50 A.D. (There are some issues with 2nd Thessalonians, so I propose to skip over it.) First Thessalonians shows us Paul’s beliefs in their early stages, though the Church at Thessalonica was founded on his second missionary journey, and shows his thought already very systematic and well developed.

This particular Book is also useful to us in that it picks up in some regards where First Peter left off, with particular attention paid to the issue of the Parousia, the Second Coming.

After Thessalonians, Galatians and then Romans are logical next steps. The church in Rome was not only to be the center of Christendom within several centuries, but it was very troubled by the issues between Judaic Christians (Jews who had converted, but still had some concerns, usually dealing with the place of Mosaic Law (often this refers to traditional Jewish ritual and practice more than thought as such) and Greco-Roman groups, a controversy which Paul ultimately solved in a dramatic and highly controversial way, by declaring that the Laws of Moses had been superseded by the coming of Christ.

Biography of Paul: (Here I am following The Jerusalem Bible and Shelley’s work, Church History in Plain Language, as well as well as Duchesne’s, Early History of the Christian Church, Vol I., rather closely.) Paul is a fully historic figure. His place as the chief Apostle of Christ is secure, even though he probably never met Jesus.

Paul was born about 10 A.D. in Cilicia, in today’s Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast, perhaps a hundred miles from the scene of today’s fighting with ISIS in NW Syria. He was of a good Jewish family and studied in Jerusalem with a noted Rabbi of the period, Gamaliel (See for a good summary of his teachings.) Gamaliel was said to be one of the foremost Rabbis of his age, and particularly important in the study of Jewish law. He taught Paul Jewish law (Acts 5:34-40), giving him some standing as an expert in traditional practices and ritual. Paul was fully educated in both Greek and Roman learning. He was also a Roman citizen and could travel freely throughout the Roman Empire. He was, in short, the perfect Apostle to the widely varied ethnic and cultural groups in the Mediterranean basin.

As is well-known, Paul (Saul) was initially a very active Jewish opponent of Christianity, and is held to have been present at the martyrdom of Stephen—perhaps even responsible for it. (Acts 7: 58; 22:20; 26:10) In 34 A.D. he was directly addressed by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus in Syria (Acts 9:3-16; Ga 1:12.) From that time forward, Paul became an inexhaustible evangel for Christianity, until his martyrdom in Rome, presumably in 67 A.D at the hands of Nero.

Paul clearly saw himself as the evangel to the pagans, by which he meant those steeped in Greco-Roman culture. Though born a Jew, he came to see conservative Jews as enemies of Christianity, and later in effect read them out of the Christian Church when he led other Christian leaders (At the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D.) in refusing to compromise with Jewish rituals (Often referred to as “following the Law”).

Paul made several extended trips among widely separated Christian churches, often responding to discord in those congregations, or to attacks from teachers of other religions, including Judaism and European and Asian Mystery religions. In addition to Acts, which is in the more familiar form of a Book of the Bible, he left behind large collections of letters, with which we shall begin.

Paul’s main task as he viewed it was to plant new Christian churches in the Mediterranean world, then to nurture and protect them as they grew. Though Paul occasionally had visions and moments of religious ecstasy, his writings reveal him to be more “intellectual than imaginative” (Jerusalem Bible, p. 253). His prose is very direct and straightforward. Though he was doubtless trained in rhetoric and in the teachings of various Greek philosophical schools, he has no recourse to them at all. In short, Paul seems utterly sincere.

Paul’s Theology: Paul’s religious ideas were very straightforward though they do show increasing complexity as he deals with the many attacks on Christianity he was to encounter in his travels. He believed in what was known simply as the kerygma in Greek: The teaching that Christ was crucified, rose from the dead, and that all this had been foretold in Jewish texts.

In general, Paul’s letters are not meant to be elaborate theology, but rational and instructive responses to particular problems. We sometimes have to recreate what those problems might have been from the historical context of the period. Often those are rather vague, and we do not always know what particular attacks he was responding to, although the audiences for those letters certainly did.

Our approach:

  1. First, read and discuss Thessalonians because it shows early Pauline thinking.
  2. Then follow with Corinthians because it further develops issues of “Wisdom” which we have been following…
  3. Then Galatians which shows more complex issues…and prefigures the more elaborate arguments of Romans.
  4. Lastly, Romans, which also follows the critical Council at Jerusalem in the opinions of most experts…


We begin with Thessalonians 1, written about 50-51 A.D. and addressed to the large congregation at Thessalonica. Thessalonica was on the Mediterranean coast in what was then Macedonia; probably today it is the NE corner of Greece (Achaia or Attica in the language of the period). (There is a useful site at, which ties specific statements of Paul in his writings to the sites which he visited, with excellent maps.)

Thessalonians is very useful to us because in Book I, Paul is primarily interested in teaching his audiences the basics of Christianity, particularly on the twin issues of the nature of death, and rebirth following the Second Coming. (This letter was written after his actual journey  to Thessalonica—(50-51 A.D.)—Paul was then in Corinth in the “boot” of Greece)— and was probably intended to clarify some of his earlier teachings in Thessalonica. The ideas in them are still very close to Jewish apocalyptic teachings.
Answering these questions should clarify some issues for you:

  • Note at Book 1: 1-2 who Paul’s companions are…
  • For discussion: What is expected of these relatively new Christians? (See Book 1: 4-10)
  • What problems does it seem the Thessalonians might fear as presented in Book 2: 1-12)
  • For discussion: (First Thessalonians 1:4-13 through 1:5-11) What issues does Paul seem to be discussing here? How do they differ from your own beliefs?
  • What issues does Paul raise at Book 2: 14-17?
  • Closing: Potential issues here?   (5:12-22)


Corinthians (Written 57 A.D. Note that Paul often spent extended periods in residence at one community before moving on to another; he was to spend 18 months in Corinth…) Paul had by then left Thessalonica. (See Acts 18:1-15)

Again, answering these questions should help pull your understanding of Paul’s thought at this time together.

  • Discussion: At Books 1 and 2 what seem to be the issues Paul is dealing with?
  • For Discussion: Who were the Corinthians before accepting Christ? See (Cor 6:1-11)

At Corinth Paul probably encountered Greek “Mystery” religions that often taught “higher” or “hidden” truths available only to initiates. The Greco-Roman Corinthians would have been especially vulnerable to such teachings and the early Christian church was still more open to variant materials and practices than it would later prove to be. What were in Paul’s time just a wide variety of beliefs, would later find some of those declared to be heresies and weeded out.

  • See Cor 1: 15-17.
  • See Cor 1: 17 to 2: 16. What is the new nature of Wisdom? You might review the ideas on Wisdom we read in Job and Proverbs to better understand the new definitions Paul is proposing.
  • The Eucharist: 11:17-35
  • Paul has sometimes been accused of being overly flexible. Read Book 9: 19-27. What do you think?
  • Paul is also accused by many modern women of being a misogynist and a patriarchal thinker. See the issue of marriage? (7:25-40) Women at service: 11:2-16
  • Analogy of the Body: 12:27-30 This reflected a very important Greek and Roman idea to use the metaphor of the body in many different ways. See how Paul has adapted it here.
  • What is the most important gift? 13:1-14
  • 15: 12-20. Any changes visible here in Paul’s doctrines from Thessalonians?


Letters of Paul: Galatians (For April 18) Galations (and Romans) were written between pre-49 A.D. and 57-58 A. D. The two collections of letters form a sort of unity, some have argued: This was was a period of much confusion and dissidence in Galatia. [The Galatians were the remnants of an earlier Celtic (Or Gallic) invasion, who spoke their own language, now lost. But they spoke Greek as well. Galatia was located in today’s Turkey, south central from the Black Sea.] But the later work, Romans which presents Paul’s mature consideration of the issues facing the Galatians is more thoughtful and better organized—closer to a sermon or a Book than is Galatians.

Galatians: While it is not so obvious as in Corinthians, Paul is again working with issues dealing with “Wisdom.” Perhaps trying to correct imbalance in Greek thought which is too closely tied to human effort (reason/philosophy) to suit Paul as an evangel. Recall that in earlier letters he is mostly concerned with Judaizers’ drive to push The Law on new Christian communities. Now Paul seeks a middle way between Reason, Faith, and Practice.

  • An excellent on-line site which links Galatians together with an easily understood commentary is found at:
  • Please note in reading Galatians that it was held to be, by Martin Luther, the most important of the Bible for the origins of the Protestant movement. The issue for Luther was faith vs. works. Paul states the importance of this issue very strongly, though his most highly-developed statement is found in Romans.
  • Questions for Discussion, April 18
    1. Book 1: 6-10. What is the issue here?
    2. 2: 15 to end of 2. What is the relationship between Faith and Acts?
    3. What is the “Good News?”
    4. 3:1-6. What problems face the Galatians? Note that this is the one letter that opens without praise for the recipients…
    5. 3:6-9. This discussion of Abraham and Faith vs. Acts is very important to Paul and to early Christianity. What does it seem to be about, to you?
    6. 3:23-29. How does this fit Paul’s purpose in Galatia?
    7. 4: 8-11. What has so angered Paul here?
    8. 5: 13-26. This is Paul’s summary and prefigures Romans

    and Romans to follow below….

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Book of James & I Peter: Introduction


The Apostolic Letters: James

With these Books, we depart from the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament. As we shall see, these Books, once thought to be written by the appropriately named Apostles, are now thought to be by slightly later figures. These writers, often completely unknown to us, faced the problems of the early Christian Church. They usually wrote in Greek, and they were addressing themselves to the problems of the early Church in bridging from Jewish people and Jewish traditions, to Greco-Roman congregations. They were well aware of the teachings of Christ, though were very unlikely to have known him personally.

This was then a period of transition. Several early Christian churches were growing up abroad (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria important among them; others were soon to follow…) and the Apostles and their successors were struggling to define Christianity in this new period, after the death of Jesus but before the formation of a highly organized Church, which is usually said to begin with the First Council of Nicea, in 325. (See a good summary of this event at: ) During this period the critical issue was the relationship between traditional Judaism and emerging Christianity. We have chosen the Book of James, and the First Book of Peter to illustrate these issues.

We begin with James, which is closest to the Wisdom traditions of the Books we have studied. Those books, along with the Gospels, are the main source of this Book, which is really more of a sermon. The Letter of James was accepted as canonical (that is, appropriate to be included in what would be known as the Bible)  from the 2nd century A.D. on.

One reason for rejecting the author as either of the Apostles James is that it was written in excellent Greek. At the same time, it shows that the author is steeped in Jewish traditions. He was very familiar with the teachings of Jesus. It was probably intended for Jewish converts, perhaps in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. It presumes that those readers were very familiar with the Old Testament. The range of possible dates is from 49 A.D. to 57-58 A.D.

Although the book is superficially quite similar to the writings of the Apostles facing troubled churches, it raises some new issues. One of particular importance to Methodists is the issue of the relationship between Faith and Works. Our founder, John Wesley, believed that Grace came freely from God and did not need to be earned through works, though these were important to him. But as we will see in James, he believes that both are necessary, and if anything, works are primary and faith can be empty—some have thought this a sort of veiled attack on Paul’s perspectives. This produced some intellectual calisthenics for Wesley, and we shall look at these too.

So let’s begin this unit with  with James, Books one and two. These are quite brief so we will have some time to get oriented in James and the issues facing him.

For this unit, in addition to the commentaries included in the Jerusalem Bible, I am also looking at:

  • Gundrey, Robert H., Commentary on James. I found this a bit more fundamentalist and less aware of conflicting interpretations than I would prefer. But I thought it good to keep those interpretations in mind.
  • John Wesley, James, Explanatory Notes & Commentary.
  • I have begun reading in the classic three-volume Church history by Louis Duchesne, Early History of the  Christian Church. Originally published in French as L’Eglisse (Paris: 1905-1919), it is now seriously outdated, but still encyclopedic and quite handy to put important events and personages into a unified perspective. It is .99 a volume at Amazon.
  • Nancy Danielson recently gave me a copy of Bruce R. Shelley’s work, Church History in Plain Language, which I find a nice companion to Duchene’s magesterial work.

Both Gundrey and Wesley are available in .99 versions for Kindle, etc. Search Amazon under title or author…

Week I. Questions for discussion; Books 1 and 2.

Book 1-2

  1. What ties do we see to Wisdom literature here?
    1. Where does Wisdom come from? (1:5)
    2. But Wisdom of OT is wholly Jewish, though influenced by other cultures.
  2. What seems to be the surface issues that James is discussing in Books I and II?
  3. Behavior: patient; slow to argue; God as responding to prayer
  4. Underlying tensions?
    1. (Differences in congregations between religion (Perfect Law of Freedom (1:25) follows Jewish tradition: Freedom comes from obeying the Laws of Moses; Paul is meanwhile preaching Christ as freeing man from the Law, (See also 2:8) Name of Yahweh invoked protection in OT; in NT it is the Name of the Lord, Jesus.
    2. Status (1:9-10) (Book 2)
    3. Faith and Good Works (2: 14-26)
      1. See Paul’s treatment at Romans (3: 20-31) Jerusalem: p. 271
      2. James: (2:14-26)
    4. References to God use what names?
      1. God (1:1)
      2. Father of all Light (1:17) (Similar to Job and arguments about origins of universe?)
      3. God the Father
  1. Books 3-5
  1. What does James say of teachers? (3:1)
  2. Images of the Tongue?
  3. Contrast these images of Wisdom with those from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
  4. Where does war and conflict start? Especially between Christians (4:1-3)
  5. When will the Lord come? (5:7-8)
  6. Prayer and Healing? (5:13-18)



For March 8th:
To prepare for discussion of Peter read I Peter Books 1-3
(this guide sheet is a draft of March 6, 2015)

Who was the author?  There are strong arguments for this book being by the Apostle Peter, and strong arguments against it (including the usual linguistic ones; the author’s Greek seems to be just too good given his humble origins). But there are those who argue, rather convincingly, that Peter may have been assisted by another early Christian, Silvanus, who is thought to have been a secretary and companion of Paul (See Acts, 15:22) and Peter I, 5:12).  The Second Book of Peter is usually thought not to be by the same author as is the First Book—it has too many references in it to later materials.

For Discussion of Peter, Book I: Chapters 1-3.

1) What are the implications of being said to be living among “Foreigners?” Book 1, (1:1) (1:18)

2) Treatment of time here at (1:5-6)? Note that the implication at 1:6-7 is that it will be but a short period to the end of time and the implication is that those living as of the writing will see it…See also (4:7-8); (5:10)

3) How does the author tie together the Old and the New Testaments at 1:10-12?

4) Place or images of the Angels (1:12)? Note that at this time there was disagreement among many Christians as to the place of angels…some saw them as still under punishment for their rebellion against God.

5) Jewish attitude toward Angels vs. Christian attitudes at this time? (4:22)

6) Book 3:18-20 are somewhat controversial because there are a number of ways to interpret the language—some see it as Jesus preaching to spirits in hell after his death but before the resurrection; others see it as concern for the spirits of those who drowned in the Great Flood.

7) What are the New Priesthood and the New People of God? (2:9-11)

8) What is the Christian obligation toward nonbelievers? (2:12) Toward slave masters? (2-18) Were some Christians then slaves or is this a metaphor for their relationship to Christ or God?

9) The Romans at this time were favoring Christians over Jews because they were thought to be less rebellious. Can you see why from (2:16-15) and (2: 18-20)?

10) The early Church fathers, especially Paul, are often thought of today as very misogynistic and patriarchal. What do you think of these charges as related to 3:1-8? )

11) How is Baptism compared to the Flood? (3: 18-22)

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Book of Ecclesiastes: Cumulative…


The Book of Ecclesiastes As Wisdom Literature”

  • Part 1: January 5, 2015, this intro and please read to Book 2, v. 26.
  • Part 2: January 11 Please read Books 3 to 6
  • Part 3: January 18 Book 7-Book 9 to verse 11.
  • Part 4: January 25 Book 9:11 to 11:6.
  • Part 5: February 1 11:7 to end.

Introduction: Once again we are looking at Hebrew Wisdom Literature (Wisdom meaning more “How to Live” than “What to Believe”) within the context of Middle Eastern Literature in general.

Ecclesiastes is more like Job than Proverbs in that it is apparently by one author and forms a coherent whole. Its closest parallels in Mid-Eastern wisdom literature are found in Egyptian culture, and primarily in Babylonian culture— today’s Iraq, with considerable Persian (Iranian) influences.

solomonPortrait of Solomon

The author gives many clues that he is King Solomon, but this is a literary device to root the book in Imperial authority, and who better than Solomon for Wisdom literature? Remember, the same claims are made for Proverbs.

Social Frame: The word Ecclesiastes is the Latinized form of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Qoheleth” (Some Bibles refer to the Book by this name rather than as Ecclesiastes, and sometimes as “The Preacher”.) Qoheleth is actually a title for a person who collects Wisdom literature.

Time Period: traditionally Biblical scholars have said that the work was written sometime between the 10th and the 1st century B.C. However, modern linguists have narrowed this— because of the Persian influence in the language—to 450-350 B.C. This makes it post-exile, and at a time when the Jewish kingdom Judah was a Persian Satrapy or satellite. But the Jerusalem Bible places it later, in the Hellenistic period, oriented toward Egypt and Greek influence: as late as 3rd century B.C. (200’s)

Remember dating of books we have finished:

  1. Proverbs: A number of sources are combined, written from one thousand B.C. to late sixth century B.C. At latest, several centuries before Job and Ecclesiastes.
  2. Job: Estimates range from 7th to 4thC. May overlap at latest with Ecclesiastes at its earliest (5th to 4th). I tend to think that Job is a bit earlier than Ecclesiastes on basis of economic context

The Persian Empire, then centered on Baghdad, which was closer to maritime trade roots at the time (today, it is centered on Tehran in Iran, of course…), was highly commercialized and the economy was based on the circulation of money (money itself was a commodity and could be speculated in, bought and sold, just as today), rather than on barter or trade. Commerce was then somewhat democratized and private, and not dominated by local or national courts, unlike earlier periods. The author may perhaps have been a speculator or an investor of some sort, but certainly was not a farmer and probably not a tradesman, either.

This type of economy is more uncertain than earlier more primitive ones. Prices, supply and demand, even the value of currencies, can fluctuate suddenly in such an economy and this is a constant cause for concern among certain classes of people, including, probably, the author of Ecclesiastes.

Questions for discussion, Part I:

  • How is this book like Job? Unlike Job?
  • How is God like or unlike God as seem in Job?
  • What is new? Why do we think it is new? (1:10)
  • Has the author sought “Wisdom”? (1:16)
  • Did Wisdom help? (1:18)
  • To what did he then turn? How did that work? (2:11)
  • What do we see of slavery here?
  • What fate awaits the Wise man? The Fool? (2:14-15)
  • Which will our successors be? (2:18-20)
  • What happiness remains to man? (2:24-26)

Part 2: January 11: Please read Books 3 to 6

Books 3-6

  • I want to call our attention to Book 1: 24-26. Very important point of the first section of Ecclesiastes. Back to issue of Job: Why do the good suffer and the evil often be rewarded? Let’s read it in several of the Bibles we have here…(Some argue for a non-moral interpretation of these verses: God is not rewarding good behavior so much as inexplicably and almost randomly sometimes rewarding the bad and punishing the good, according to his own design.)
  • Many different ways of breaking the book down for analysis:
  • Clifford argues that today’s readings consist of three sections: 3 and 4 repeat earlier arguments that humans cannot know the universe nor control their destinies;
  • Book 5 discusses religious conduct;
  • 4:17-5:6 show a new sort of God, some say; 5:7 to 6:9 a coherent literary unit; 5:19 is heart of the argument.
  1. Book 3 Verses 1-8 among most famous verses in the Bible. Was anything left out of the list? Can it serve in our contemporary era? Modernize it? A time to sleep and a time to wake?
  2. What do you make of the reference to “storing up stones”?
  3. Verses 9-12 Sort of a historian’s view…
  4. What do you think, according to Ecclesiastes, is the greatest gift from God? Why? (3-13; 3-22)
  5. But why do we work: (Book 4: 7-9)?
  6. Someone prepare to read 3:14-21 aloud please…
  7. Does Book 5: 7-9 seem appropriate for today?
  8. Does his conclusion at Book 5: 17-19 seem appropriate from foregoing materials?
  9. Book 6:12: Another conclusion?
  10. Why does the author seem so depressed given his great power and wealth?
  • Part 3: January 18 Book 7-Book 9 to verse 11.
  • LadywisdomWoman Wisdom

As we get deeper into Ecclesiastes we increasingly encounter the importance (or impotence?) of Wisdom. (See Readings on Job for a fuller understanding of Wisdom and its relationship to God.) Can Wisdom lead humanity to an understanding of God? Different scholars have interpreted Ecclesiastes in quite different lights….

  1. Some argue that we should read 7:19 to Book 8 as metaphorical: woman = “woman folly;” Wisdom = “Woman Wisdom” as per Job and Proverbs, not simply womankind—which would make these verses very misogynistic. What do you think? Some think that verse 7:28 is a later addition to build on the argument.
  2. Some argue that there are four distinct sections here: 7:1-14; 7:15-24; 7:25-29; 8:1-17, each signaled by repetition of the phrase “(not) find out”. Why do you think these are meant to be distinct, or not?
  3. 8:1-10. Any different view of kingly power here? This is held to be an especially difficult passage; why???
  4. 8:16-9:11. Any hint of an afterlife here?
  5. 9:1-11 often held to be a unit, due to signal phrase: “I have seen observed.” This would make in our Part 4 study, 9:13-10:4; and 10:5-25 also distinct units signaled by the same phrase…we can consider that next week…or this if we have time….
  6. Traditional Near Eastern Wisdom Literature emphasizes connection between “Godly” behavior and a rewarding life—even Job seems to come to that conclusion finally. What does Ecclesiastes think?

    The Book of Ecclesiastes As Wisdom Literature”

    • Part 4: January 25 Book 9:11 to 11:6.

    Introduction: This section of Ecclesiastes is somewhat puzzling. Most authorities do not see it as having a particular focus, but being a sort of hodge-podge. Many passages in the very earliest mss are confusing and have been lightly edited by subsequent translators so as to make more sense and be more consonant with foregoing materials and other Bible books. Nonetheless, by focusing on apparently related verses, perhaps we can make sense of it all.

    As you read these selections look for formulaic terms which signal, the opening or closing of related passages: Such points are often expressions such as “I have seen…observed…learned…

    • To help us better understand our own texts, try to spot some of these signal expressions in this week’s readings and mention them in our seminar…
    • The first apparently related section is often held to be: Books 9-12 and we only read to 11:6 this week. In those sections we find several blocks of related material which seem not to be tied to closely to preceding and following materials…
    • Book 9, verses 11-17 do make a sort of unit.
    • We get a sort of introduction to risks in 9:10 to 10:15—what do we make of these?
    • But what do 10:12-15 tell us about Wisdom? Compare Wisdom at this point to Wisdom in Jobs and Proverbs…what has changed??? THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT SHIFT….
    • 10:14-5 are a good example of editing…I suspect all our various editions of the bible may differ here; let’s be ready to compare them. In my bible it is a short couplet: “Fools find hard work irksome; he who does not know the way cannot go to town.” Italicized terms are missing in the original and have been added in my translation…
    • Notice that at verses Book 10-16 to 11:6 the “voice” has changed from third person to Second Person. Why? Any guesses?
    • 11:1-6 is another short section. What does it add to the readings for today, if anything?
    • We have one week of readings left. Some authors have argued that there are many possible interpretations of Ecclesiastes and that we should be aware of these. For this week, begin identifying three key passages (in your opinion), including next week’s readings, which may be consistent with each other or not. You could find a key point repeated three times, or three different conflicting points…


  • The Book of Ecclesiastes As Wisdom Literature”

    • Part 5: February 1st—– 11:7 to end.

    This is the conclusion of our study of Ecclesiastes. We end with a survey of six scholarly analyses of the Book, as outlined in R. J. Clifford’s work, The Wisdom Literature. Clifford summarizes these scholarly commentaries on the work as follows below.

    Your Assignment: Based on your readings of your favorite or key passages in Ecclesiastes, which of these thinkers do you find closest to your own position?

  • W. Zimmerli, a German Old Testament professor, argued in 1962 that the speaker in Ecclesiastes was critical of the sages who had taught that “Wisdom” mediated between God and Man. Zimmerli believed that Wisdom could not provide all that Man needed to understand God. His criticism revolves around the human inability to understand time. See esp. Book 8:16-17 and 3: 1-15.
  • J. L. Crenshaw, another specialist, believes that the book argues that life is ultimately absurd, and that death makes life meaningless. God has abandoned man to chance and death.
  • N. Lohfink argues that God is behind every event in the world, but humanity cannot understand God’s activities, so we necessarily experience him as both mysterious and amoral. We believe that there is an overall meaning, but we simply cannot “get” at it.
  • Roland Murphy believes that there are ten key ideas in Ecclesiastes: vanity, profit, portion, toil, joy, fear of God, wisdom, retribution, death and God. He believes these to be central not only to Ecclesiastes, but to the Old Testament as well, and sees the book as the central work in the Old Testament. He thinks that it is the key work to setting up the New Testament and Christ’s mission. He quotes a noted German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in Hitler’s prisons: “It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything [would be gone] that one can believe in the resurrection and the new world.”
  • Michael Fox comes to three main conclusions:
    1. Ecclesiastes denies the rationality of existence. God is just, but life is unjust.
    2. Fox believes in the importance of “Wisdom.”
    3. As we cannot know the world because of the nature of God, we can cling to the reality of inner experience as the one domain of human freedom.
    • Choon-leong Seow argues not that everything is meaningless, but it is beyond human apprehension and comprehension. Man must respond spontaneously to life even in the midst of uncertainties and accept both the possibilities and the limitations of being human.


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Christmas in China at Wenzhou

This piece is updated from a blog entry of 12/2006 written while in Wenzhou. Wenzhou has recently been referred to in a number of periodicals: A google search at: will give list as of 12/27/14. This is largely about Christmas in Wenzhou, which has recently been said to “ban Christmas.”

Another sermon which I have given, also speaks to some of the issues I raise here:  See

INTRO of DEC 2006: I have been in Wenzhou, a “Small city of 7.5 million” as the Chinese describe it, on the coast southeast  of Shanghai since December 7, 2006. This is our fourth visit of one month (this year six weeks) to Wenzhou. We have been working and studying here annually since 2003…our first visit to China was in 1979, and we have lost count of our subsequent visits, though total time living and working in Chinese cultural areas is well over six years now…I speak Chinese Mandarin quite well and read well for daily or professional purposes….

Like Shanghai, we are located in Zhejiang province, easily the wealthiest province in China. In turn, Wenzhou is probably the wealthiest city in the province, and our contact school, Wenzhou Medical College, probably the wealthiest school in the city. So we are under no illusions that our view here is anything like representative of all of China.

But on the other hand, we have how lived for extended periods in Taipei, Taiwan, and in Guilin South China, PRC, for a total of more than six years since the mid-’60’s, so we feel qualified to make some judgements based on experience and a good working knowledge of Chinese history and culture.

First entry: Having now seen Christmas celebrated in in “Greater China” including Hong Kong, Taipei, Guilin, and Wenzhou over almost thirty years, I have some observations on the last several days. I suppose fair disclosure would require stating that I am a fairly faithful member of the United Methodist church, have taught 7th-and 8th grade Sunday school for well over a year, and even preach once or twice a year when my local congregation is truly desperate for a substitute minister. I have also of late been leading a Bible study group, the materials from which are found in this Blog as well at: That said, I am also deeply conflicted as to missionary activity in China.

The 19th century missionaries once referred to a type of convert as a “rice bowl Christian,” probably a translation of a critical Chinese term referring to poor Chinese who converted or at least attended church for economic gain…I think of many of the Christians I have met here recently as “Modernization Christians.” That is, they rather uncritically become Christians in the same manner in which they buy a Chanel knock-off; it is a brand of the moment associated with success and modernity….

I am also aware, however, that the first principle of understanding the appeal of any given religion is to assume that there is something about the religious principles or practices taught that appeals to the believer…any amount of discussion of social context, psychological factors at work, economic pressures, etc, should begin with an acknowledgement that individuals adopt religions as they speak meaningfully to them…

This means to me, that the Chinese Christians may hear a very different message from Christian sources than I do. But, nonetheless, it is something in Christianity itself that is appealing to them, though it may do so in ways that do not appeal to me. This may well be God’s plan—“let those who have ears, hear,” as Matthew said.

By that standard, the Chinese in Wenzhou have been exposed to missionary activities for a very long time…among the first here were French people. On Christmas eve we attended services at the rebuilt and relocated version of their 19th century cathedral. Lay-out and fittings were recognizably 19th century catholic, but the church at some point was turned over to a protestant congregation, when and by whom we do not yet know. So the service was quite eclectic.

Much of the service was very basic training: what is prayer, how to do it, the Christmas story recounted as historical event, some very good choral carols, plus Yankee Doodle played on a harmonica and yodeling from the film “Sound of Music,” said to be the absolutely favorite film of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

During the extended service (2+ hours and we left early) I read through a very slick non-denominational tract in Chinese intended to persuade non-believers. It consisted of a 10-12 page dialogue between two old friends, Wang and Li, as I recall. Wang had been a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution, had attacked Christians and churches and now had gotten his doctorate and become a Christian. Among other things, he made a close study of Christianity and on intellectual grounds decided, like 90-some percent of Western scientists and engineers, the pamphlet says, to convert. Li, now a successful plant manager, was persuaded by Wang’s patient response to his questions and also decided to convert. The actual religious content of the tract was quite light, and would have been unobjectionable, I think, to just about any denomination. The major message seemed on my quick perusal with no dictionary handy to be that Christianity is modern, based in logic and reason, and associated with successful people.

The crowd was quite large, all three tiers of seats were filled, perhaps a many as 250 people. And while there are other churches and other services, it was not an astonishing turn-out for a city of 7.5 million. Certainly there were many more people downtown that evening shopping the Christmas sales, which illustrates another generalization: as in all other Asian Christmas celebrations I have seen—usually as a participant observer—it is primarily a commercial event.

We usually shop for Chinese New Year’s decorations for our American home and offices while in Wenzhou. While it is still six weeks off, usually the decorations are widely available and Christine, who must return early to get back to her American classroom, takes home a suitcase of them in late December…but this year they are not to be found.

I asked our favorite cranky purveyor of holiday cheer, with whom we have had several conversations over the three years here, each of which has invariably begun with the all-purpose cross-cultural greeting, “What do you want to buy?” She states that she is holding back the New Year’s stuff until after Christmas is over so as not to cut into the sales of either holiday’s decorations. Sam Walmart must surely be looking on approvingly….

The problem that missionaries most usually encountered here earlier was not Chinese intolerance, but Chinese tolerance…they were very interested in a powerful new god, just found it hard to see why he had to be so darned exclusive in his teachings…if you ask a Buddhist which is the best temple to attend, he or she will eventually ask what you want to pray for…some temples are better for women’s problems (husbands and child birth) others are better for delivering material gain, especially the consumer prize of the moment. Probably a Chinese Buddhist in either Taipei, Hong Kong or Wenzhou could tell you which temple would lead most directly to a lower mortgage rate on a new apartment.

I think another lesson from the 19th century mission effort that should be better understood is that Chinese invariably put the Christian message into their own cultural context. The most famous example is Hong Xiuquan, an 19th century failed Chinese scholar who understood the message to mean that he personally was the younger son of god, brother to Jesus, and that he was expected to kill all the Manchus, whom he identified with the devil. By the time the rebellion he inspired was over, some 20-30 million people had died. This is not to say that Christianity is still that misunderstood or as politically threatening, just to say that you can never be sure who is listening, and what they may hear. One of my Christian contacts of the last few days refers, for example, to “the god Jesus,” which seemed to me to smack of both polytheism and some confusion in the basic message.

I think another lesson might well be the old saw, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” If Chinese do convert in large numbers, they are going to put their own spin on Christianity. They are much more drawn, for example, to a sort of crude Christian socialism than to a competitive sort of Christianity. this is not because of their Communist heritage, but because of their core cultural values, which always emphasize cooperation over conflict or competition. Just as Latin American Liberation theology has been deeply threatening to many other groups, and certainly to American national goals in Latin America, we could one day see a very powerful but different version of Christianity coming out of Asia…

To sum up, when I asked a Christian acquaintance–a scientist—why so many Wenzhou people were Christians, I got the following carefully thought out and expressed answer:

1) Wenzhou has been a port for centuries and there is much foreign influence.
2) The Wenzhouese have gone abroad for a long time, principally to Europe (as most Chinese immigrants to America were from the Canton area, most to Europe were from Wenzhou.) and brought foreign religious influences back with them upon returning.
3) Wenzhouese are sharp business people–often called the “Jews of China”—and hence welcome foreign influences.
4) Wenzhouese are highly intelligent and highly intelligent people will seek god….

Not being in Wenzhou at present, I cannot say precisely what is going on now, and how threatened Christianity there may be. But the Christians there are quite experienced in rapid transitions in national policy, and will endure. Most often local political and economic conditions strongly influence local reactions to hints and portents in national policy. The Wenzhouese, being especially wealthy and Westernized, are quick to learn new slogans while continuing old practices, particularly making vast amounts of money in quasi-legal financial practices.

Henry IV of France (1554-1610) a strong Protestant leader, is said to have explained “Paris is well worth a mass” when compromising with Catholic leaders, prior to establishing religious freedom in France upon ascending the throne. I suppose a modern Wenzhouese equivalent would be “A shopping trip to Paris is well worth postponing a Mass.”

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Bible Studies: Proverbs

 proverbs1 The Book of Proverbs as Wisdom Literature”

November-December, Yamhill United Methodist Church as below, 10 to 10:45
Jeffrey Barlow


  • Reading the Book of Proverbs in any Bible of your choice. The readings are broken down by week below.
  • I will occasionally hand out copies of a page or two from Richard J. Clifford’s work The Wisdom Literature from the series Interpreting Biblical Texts, Abingdon Press. This work often uses a vocabulary specific to the academic field of Biblical Studies with which most of us will be unfamiliar. I will leave it up to participants to decide how deeply they want to go into such studies. We will rely primarily upon our own readings of Proverbs
  • Proverbs shares some characteristics with Job, and we will want to be on the lookout for such similarities. They are both said to be “Wisdom Literature,” but they take quite different approaches.


  • November 9, first meeting. Prepare by reading both the two-page handout from Clifford, and Proverbs 1-9.
  • November 16, second meeting. Book of Proverbs 10-22:16. Some feel that these chapters divide quite naturally into Chapters 10-15 and 16-22. We will try to get through both sections.
  • November 23, Third meeting. Book of Proverbs, Chapters 22-25
  • November 30, Fourth Meeting. Proverbs 25-29
  • December 7th, Last meeting: Proverbs Chapters 30-31.

November 9, first meeting.

  • Prepare by reading both the two-page handout from Clifford, and Proverbs 1-9.
  1. Proverbs as Wisdom Literature
    1. Proverbs is, like Job, classified as “Wisdom Literature.” Point of Wisdom literature is not so much theology or religious doctrine as a “How To” manual for ethical behavior.
    2. Focusing on the proverbs as religious lessons or philosophy represents the modern doctrinalization of Christianity.
      1. The underpinning is religious, however; (The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God)
      2. Does not however, answer the “Big Question” of Hebrew ethics: How do we reconcile God’s failure to punish the wicked and reward the good on this earth, if Yahweh invariably punishes the wicked in this life???
        1. Remember that at least the early Hebrews did not conceive of the possibility of a spirit existing after death independent of the body.
          1. Jesus ultimately answers this question…Greek Platonism makes this intellectually possible, no wonder Christianity took such a rapid hold in Greek Mediterranean cities where Paul preached.
        2. Historical Development of the Book of Proverbs
          1. A number of sources are combined, written from one thousand B.C. to late sixth century B.C.
            1. Proverbs of Solomon? Time is right, generally speaking, but a variety of sources seem to have contributed:
              1. Oldest and simplest form is the Hebrew mashal: a short, pithy saying.
                1. These develop later into extended arguments or discussions; most intricate is the Book of Job, which discusses the Retribution Problem.
                2. In Proverbs itself the most highly developed mashal is the first nine chapters, which we will discuss today. Oldest strata are 10-22
              2. Organization of Proverbs
                1. Introduction: The newest section, added later to bring coherence to the collection.
                2. The oldest portion: “First Solomonic Collection: 10-22:16 (Our second week) Remember some divide this portion into 10-15 and 16-22.

                  Egyptian Goddess of Wisdom, Maat.

                3. 22-25. These stem at least in large part from an Egyptian source, “The Wisdom of Amenemope.” (Our third week)
                4. Also oldest: 25-29 “Second Solomonic Collection.” (Our fourth meeting)
                5. 30-31. Arabic wisdom literature from “The Words of Argur” (Proverbs 30:1-14) and the “Words of Lemuel” (Proverbs 31: 1-9.) Both were Arabs from the Massa tribe of Northern Arabia.
  • Development of Proverbs
    1. Shows a sort of combination of three earlier types of speakers: Priests, Prophets, and primarily, Sages.
      1. Sages are concerned primarily with the individual and his or her behavior, little on the future of Israel (Prophets) or proper behavior toward Yahweh (Priests who grew very rigid and concerned largely with Law by Jesus’ time)
        1. Can see a sort of move away from rural concerns for example: “The prostitute” as evil woman, to “The Adulteress” and the “foreigner’. City brings men into contact with both, prostitutes more likely found in markets, periodic or otherwise.
      2. Notion of “Wisdom” as shown in first nine Chapters.
        1. Why is wisdom personified?
        2. Why is wisdom a woman?
        3. Why given such very high status? Book 8, verses 22-31.
        4. How should we behave? Not behave?
        5. Why discretion and discipline so important?
        6. What seem to you to be most relevant today? Least?
        7. Is wisdom useful in the world?
        8. Who are the evildoers?
        9. Who is Dame Folly?

November 16, second meeting.

  • Book of Proverbs 10-22:16. Some feel that these chapters divide quite naturally into Chapters 10-15 and 16-22. We will try to get through both sections, though this will require that we be very selective.
  • General remarks
    • Remember that proverbs generally assume that action will follow from understanding and that understanding requires deep thought and contemplation.
    • Some code words that meant different things to the Hebrews than they do to us: Generally bodily nouns refer more to the function of those organs than to the organ itself. The eye means seeing, the ear hearing, and the heart = what we mean by mind or brain.
  1. Some general questions: what is the economy like?
  2. What is government like and what problems might it present to individuals?
  3. In 10-15 we see the supposed Proverbs of Solomon. Little is known of authors or the process of collecting and compiling them. Assume it is work of “sages.” Perhaps clerks and recorders?
  4. Contrasting pairs, “Mashal”. Divided into “knowing,” “Ethical” and “religious.” Find some examples of each to share with us. Pick your favorites…
  5. What are the problems presented by living in family groups? Its joys?
  6. Where in the public sphere are problems likely to occur? At court?
  7. What proverbs most apply in our current society and economy?
  8. Which cautions seem to you to apply to you? That is, what proverbs have you failed to learn from?

November 23, Third meeting.

  • Book of Proverbs, Chapters 22-24:23

This material, from Book 22:17 to 24:22, is derived from Egyptian Wisdom literature, namely The Instruction of Amenemope (c. 1200 B.C.)

Egyptian wisdom literature had a different audience than Hebrew equivalents. The audience was young men who hoped to work at the court of a higher-ranking man—so the point is how to behave around the powerful. Literacy estimated to be about 1% but there may have been concentrations of literate people.

In Israel? Deuteronomy emphasizes father teaching children basics of religious values. The Hebrew Shema, expressing the core belief of Judaism: “Hear Oh Israel, the lord thy God is one.” Public education was absent until first century A.D. in every town and hamlet—for boys. Emphasized oral recitation and memorization.

This material was adapted to the Hebrew audience in some regards. Which ones?

For the Hebrews, the audience is most interested in how to behave as the member of a household, even if a high-ranking or wealthy one.

  • 22: 1-17 are not Egyptian, but Hebrew. How can we tell?
  • Any reactions or comments upon 22: 1-17?
  • 22: 17 to end of 24:23. Any new themes surface here? Does it seem more relative to the Law once more?
  • Wine? Why so critical do you think?
  • How is format different? Why?

November 30, Fourth Meeting.

Proverbs 25-29 (“The Second Collection According to Solomon.”
Remember that at the end of our studies we want to be able to put together a list of our own favorite or most useful proverbs to share with the congregation!

  • What are the primary attributes of a “good” man?
  • Of a good woman?
  • Are their bad equivalents merely opposites or do they have other characteristics as well?
  • How should we treat fools or evil people?
  • The poor?
  • Slaves or bad servants?
  • What distinguishes good and bad rulers?
  • How does this collection compare to the first one by Solomon?
  • What does the legal system seem to be like from this material?
  • What, according to Proverbs, is the value of proverbs?

December 7th, Last meeting: Proverbs Chapters 30-31.

  • There is a good Wikipedia site on this first section, often known as “The Sayings of Agur” at: Who is Agur? Lots of discussion but many think either a person from the borderlands between Judah and Babylon, or an honorific term for Solomon.

Questions for discussion:

  • How do we compare the cosmology at Book 30 verses 1-6 with other proverbs? With Job? Some have compared this section to Isaiah 40:12-14
  • 1-14 seems quite different from rest of Proverbs. What are its concerns?
  • These numbered items at 30: 15-33 are very reminiscent of Canaanite Wisdom literature. Perhaps collected in a different geographic area than foregoing verses???

Book 31 The Sayings of Lemuel. Nothing known about him. Jewish tradition says this is Solomon receiving instruction from his Mother, Bathsheba.

  • Point?

Verses 31: 10-31. Very famous: Poem on the Perfect Wife. Not clear in translation but each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet from beginning to end. This section is very much about women and has been a source of inspiration for many Christian women; others find it a bit patronizing and outmoded. See:

  • Is this description useful today? Why or why not?

After discussing the readings, we want to discuss where to go from here. If we have not yet produced a list of our own personally favorite Proverbs for the congregation, we should do it at this meeting.

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Bible Study: Introduction

wisdomstoneINTRODUCTION: This is an introduction to a study course which I have conducted on selected books of the Bible at the United Methodist Church in Yamhill over the past year. I am only marginally qualified to teach these materials in that I did not study them as theology, but rather as historical documents. I was a History major at three different institutions, culminating in a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. Still, there is an advantage to approaching theology as history in that this approach can show how the religious materials and their expositors have continually responded to the needs of their times.

As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, under the direction of Dr. Lonnie Shelby, a Medievalist, I engaged in both Middle Eastern Studies, beginning with ancient Egypt and other great empires, and including both Israel and Judea, and a series of courses through the Medieval Period, with a close study of the Patristic Fathers.  At the M.A. level at the University of Pittsburgh, I did additional Medieval Studies as an outside field.  At the Ph.D. level, I worked entirely in Asian histories, as well as in an outside field in U.S. diplomatic history.

I have been a life-long Methodist, and take the Methodist teachings, which I personally find both attractive and satisfying, quite seriously. I have substituted for successive ministers a number of times, and have always found these occasions both deeply humbling and deeply spiritual experiences. A number of my sermons or messages are included in this site.

METHODOLOGY: Our Bible study group’s organization was to approach the materials as a group of friends and fellow congregants. I set up a general syllabus, dividing the materials into 4-5 week-long hourly sessions taught on Sunday before our regular church activities, following organizational schemes which more qualified scholars have felt to be inherent in the materials themselves. We then discussed them thoroughly—that is, each week’s materials had a sort of coherence vis-a-vis the others week’s. At some points,  among the regular group of attendees, ranging from 8-10 participants, we had three retired College Professors in our groups, as well as a number of very active and thoughtful Christians. We always ran out of time with a great deal left to say.

As is usual in a good class, I think that I learned as much as I taught, but it is perhaps necessary to have one person directing the studies and being responsible for discussion, etc. I would estimate that I probably put in five hours of preparation weekly.

I myself decided that I wanted to better understand what are often called the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and in some collections, Songs. I therefore chose these to study and prepare. I usually did a number of additional readings related to each book. I found Richard J. Clifford’s work The Wisdom Literature (Abingdon Press 1998) very useful as an introduction to the concept of Middle Eastern Wisdom literature (which, generally speaking, tends to teach how to live properly, as opposed to what to believe, though of course we are constantly reminded in each of the Books that “The Beginning of Wisdom is the Fear of God.”

Because these Books show a definite progression through various social, political, and economic stages of life in Ancient Israel, I have also found Israel Finklestein’s and Neil Asher’s wonderful scholarly work, The Bible Unearthed. Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, (Touchstone Press, NY 2001) a good refresher to other works studied much earlier. It also offers in every case a good summary of scholarly perspectives over the modern era.

The scholarship of an earlier era emphasized proving the truth of the Bible, and often began by locating sites presumed to have been mentioned in the Bible—not as easy as it might seem, languages have changed a great deal in the Holy Land over the millenia—and then digging to reaffirm the truth of the biblical content. Werner Keller’s The Bible as History, (New York: William Morrow, 1956) is one such text which has been reprinted many times, and I have looked at it. A recent much edited version of the work is same title, (BN Publishing, 2008.) It is useful as a sort of guide to that earlier scholarship, as well as contributing a great deal to it.

Many “lessons” also cite a wide variety of other materials which I consulted. My own personal Bible is the 1966 edition of The Jerusalem Bible, (Doubleday and Company, 1966) a translation of the French work La Bible de Jérusalem, often regarded as a “translator’s Bible,” and its copious notes have proven very useful. It is sometimes regarded as a”Catholic” Bible, but the profound learning of the scholars who have contributed to it more than makes up for any occasional sectarian perspective in the notes.

A sort of corrective to the deep scholarship which sometimes makes the Jerusalem Bible a bit murky, may well be Dr. Bruce Shelley’s work, Church History in Plain Language. I am indebted to Nancy Danielson, a member of our local study group, for a gift copy.

Some may be surprised that I have made a free use of Wikipedia articles, and I can only assure you that after more than a decade of Director at the Berglund Center for Internet Studies at Pacific University, I learned how to evaluate electronic materials. Above all, they must reveal their sources and have an extensive bibliography attached to them.

What you will find in this section of my materials then, are the outlines which I prepared for the weekly lessons. I have not often “taught” in these materials, though I occasionally did put in useful facts or comparative ones. The outlines, then are not particularly didactic but could be used by any individual or group to study these Books, both learning the materials and drawing one’s own conclusions.

I think it safe to say that we all enjoyed these studies, have achieved a closer acquaintance with materials we may have never read at all, let alone repeatedly and thoroughly, as we have done.

The organization of the remaining materials is quite simple, I have put in my notes and the pages of the loose syllabus in the order that we used them. I hope that the materials might prove useful to others.

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Choke Holds and Erik Garner

Garner300232This photo, taken from Black Enterprise, is of the actual event
and the nature of the choke hold is very clear

A Discussion of the Choke Hold: (This discussion began in but seemed to me to interrupt the flow of that piece, and to be able to stand alone. )

In the women’s self-defense classes which my daughter Clare and I coached over more than eight years at the collegiate level, we taught several different styles of choke holds. For practical purposes, they can be divided into two types: 1) A very sophisticated hold that cuts off blood flow to the brain resulting in almost instant unconsciousness. This hold probably comes originally from Japanese Judo. (Judo training is where I initially learned it, at the beginning of my martial arts studies in 1962.)  This can give a defender a very quick victory over a much stronger opponent. Most victims of the hold will go weak, then unconscious, in less than one minute. It also quickly induces passivity in the victim who is often not sure what is happening until too late to act.

But, unfortunately, a certain small percentage of chokees will pass quickly from unconscious to dead. In our classes we taught the practice chokee to slap out the moment they experienced even minor changes in their breathing or vision—well before they passed out or suffered a rapid drop in blood pressure as the hold denies blood to the brain, which subsequently may not restart some vital systems.  Even a few seconds of applying the hold was sufficient for both aggressor and defense practitioners to see that they were learning a very powerful but dangerous technique.

2) The far more primitive version is an arm-bar choke across the front of the neck which subdues the opponent by closing off air passages to the lungs. This can be placed from either the front or the back of the chokee and is usually fairly easy to achieve in a rough-and-tumble struggle, providing that the contestants are roughly equal in strength. It requires less control over the victim, but it also is both far more dangerous and will produce much greater resistance from the victim. The victim will experience being in effect strangled and will certainly thrash around to the best of his or her ability. This may provoke the aggressor in the hold to continually increase pressure. This can easily result in a shattered larynx or trachea and ultimately, asphyxiation and death.

In Oregon, at least, any choke hold was outlawed as a police control technique in the 90’s. The reason was quite simple: the holds produced a number of unintended fatalities. Each type of hold has a slightly different potential for fatality. The judo choke can shut down the brain permanently, particularly if held just a bit too long. The arm bar could strangle the victim if prolonged, but the greater danger lies in crushing the victim’s larynx or trachea as they thrash about.

The choke hold applied in NY then, as in Oregon, was potentially deadly and blatantly contrary to both law and established police procedures. From the photo above, I am not sure that it was even applied so as to be made as least life-threatening as possible.

It looks to me like the officer’s forearm is probably pressing on the windpipe, a very dangerous as well as slow procedure which can easily collapse the trachea. If he in fact intended to apply the Judo choke, the officer should have driven the hold deeper, keeping the Adam’s Apple in the hinge of his elbow, creating a soft open space while constricting the blood vessels on the left side of the perp’s neck with his own upper left arm, and the right side with the forearm. The right hand of the officer should than have levered the forearm against the neck and unconsciousness would have been nearly instantaneous. It is possible that the officer intended to apply just the arm bar choke hold rather than the more sophisticated judo choke. If so, he was badly trained and made a bad choice, though either choice was dangerous and illegal.

The fact that Eric Garner apparently never passed out, and that his last words were “I Can’t breathe” suggest that the trachea was injured by the hold and that the victim suffocated. There has been a quick response from pundits to the effect that if you announce that  you can’t breath it, it isn’t true: you can breath—you are talking. This is glaringly specious reasoning which betrays a commitment to  partisanship rather than to reality. There are many possible situations where victims are seriously injured and are experiencing increasing difficulty in breathing, but while they can speak in short phrases—such as ” I can’t breath”—surely almost everybody’s first choice of words in such circumstances— they cannot get enough oxygen to maintain consciousness.

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Ferguson and Subsequent Protests: Something Important is Happening…

I find myself truly shocked by the very rapid speed with which Ferguson-related protests are spreading throughout the U. S.  I have some thoughts on what is going on, stemming both from personal experience and from academic research and writing, and will try to express them in as non-partisan a fashion as I can.

A key assumption of my analysis is that this problem is largely but not entirely about race—I prefer to use the term “ethnicity” rather than race, but I am using “race” below in a general manner so that many readers can better understand my perspective. But these protests are cross-pollinating with many other social issues as well, such as demands for minimum wages, Walmart treatment of employees, environmental destruction, global warming, etc., which explains their rapidly growing significance.

My research on this point comes from days of reading through articles in both the U.S and Britain discussing Ferguson and subsequent events and more importantly, the comments on those articles. It is clear that the phenomenon almost certainly to be known simply as “Ferguson” is thought to be about race by those sufficiently mobilized to take the opportunity to discuss the issue.  Nearly all commenters—and I have read hundreds of postings—almost invariably center around views on race. The comments often descended to race baiting as well, again showing the extent to which concerns are race-focused.

You may be one of the many of us who think Ferguson not a race-related issue but merely a drearily familiar law and order issue: a criminal—if only an extremely incompetent shoplifter—was shot by a policeman who was defending himself with appropriate force and the grand jury, following careful consideration of much evidence, refused to charge the policeman, and that is properly that!  Even the President, while expressing sympathy, initially adopted this line (more about this issue in a subsequent posting). To continue discussing the events is perhaps, to you, race baiting, or some similar provocation.

But to deny that it is about race itself raises the race issue. If race were not a factor why do nearly all commentators discuss that topic either positively or negatively? Why are so many of us trying to view the events in absolutely polar fashions:

“Ferguson is about race!
No, Ferguson is not about race!
Is not! “

In addition, the degree to which the issue and its accompanying events is spreading widely and rapidly shows that the problem is more complex than a simple local issue. People of many different ethnic groups have been in the streets in many different cities (90 cities in 34 states and Canada) for days since the event occurred. This is remarkable, for a number of reasons.

  • Many college students are locked down studying for end of term exams. Most schools are already all but through for the term or preparing for Winter Break. Otherwise many of them would, judging by local activities, be out on strike. College environments are very diverse and cooperation and sympathy with other ethnic groups, while certainly not universal, is way more prevalent than in the wider society.
  • Also, it is winter and the weather is bad. By four p.m. in the Portland region, over the last week a freezing gorge wind out of the north has been very biting and painful; nonetheless there have been numerous people in the street protesting late into the night. While this disruption was considerable, consider what it might have been like—most probably will be like, given the rate of occurrences of such events—had it happened in good weather or in a July heat wave.
  • The stakes of active participation in protests are, as always, quite high; even in peaceable Portland—this event, occurring in Portland, has been pictured widely. I include it here with a certain amount of local pride, as evidence of our remarkable empathy.

HugBut there have been numerous arrests and several uses of force–flash bang grenades were used—a seeming escalation over tear gas—aggressive police lines, etc. Being arrested is not only frequently painful, sometimes dangerous, and always expensive, but also can pretty much end any chance of getting most jobs or perhaps being fired from your present job. Nonetheless thousands are showing up daily across the country and in Canada.

That these events are occurring is in part an outgrowth of the Occupy Movement. Mainstream media believed the Occupy Movements in many cities and, certainly nationwide, to be simply a flash-in-the pan, no real lasting effect, comical, impossibly romantic, etc. This had the consequence of trivializing the concerns of that movement.

But, as was predictable, in many cities more or less durable grass-roots organizations were created, sometimes around ongoing projects of common interest, sometimes around groups of friends and lovers who discovered each other in the Occupy Movements. One thing that history certainly shows over and over is that movements and demonstrations frequently take savagely violent turns (Among many I would list the Mexico City Plaza shootings (1968?), Red Guard in the Chinese Proletarian Revolution, American freedom Rides, 43 Mexican student-teachers in Iguala on 9/14, etc.). But they are also downright fun much of the time, sometimes both intellectually and physically rewarding, even. Probably even the KKK have moments of levity—one hopes so, given how they are wont to dress up—(more about my own KKK organizer of a maternal grandfather later in this series) and police benevolent association are renowned for their high jinks!

Currently some of the Ferguson protests are originating in Occupy-related groups. In other cases the movements seem to be spontaneous, but veterans of the Occupy Movements are easily assuming leadership roles because of their greater experience with demonstrations.

I, of course, have more info about the Portland demos than those in other cities, because I have access to a number of purely local sources. I emphasize that I am merely an interested bystander at this point, both in a desire to better understand events, because partisanship clouds reason, and because I am saving my physical energy so as to survive chemotherapy.

This movement is, it seems to me,  largely following a very loose cellular structure (many participants would probably laugh at the idea that there is any structure at all) which makes it very strong internally, but restricts to a degree its use of inter-group communication, save by short announcements and example. Hence the Occupy Movement is almost of necessity formed of highly localized movements. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the growth of a wider movement because every large urban area has its own examples of similar cases.

1, 2, 3, Many Fergusons: To show the deep roots of this problem, here is a discussion of the background of one of the local  Portland leaders, taken from The Oregonian.

“Among those differences: Unlike Occupy, which was more spur of the moment, the post-Ferguson protests have been in the planning for months and have identifiable leaders with deep roots in the community. Raiford, for example, is a 1988 Jefferson High graduate whose grandmother owned the former Burger Barn in Northeast Portland in 1981 when two Portland police officers tossed dead possums outside the restaurant’s front door. She’s been advocating for tougher gun control laws since her nephew was shot outside an Old Town nightclub in September 2010.”

Ms. Raiford  is a graduate of Portland’s Jefferson High, the “Black” high school, with a fine program in dance and the arts, as well as the usual classes–my wife taught in it during her first year of returning to teaching. Black graduates of Jefferson have particularly high standing in the Black community.

For additional understanding of local events, know that the Burger Barn incident of 1981 was basically shrugged off at the time— in the media and in the White community—as a bad joke by two officers. But to the Black community, the possums were a classical KKK threat of violence, directed at a Black owned business.

The shooting of Ms. Raiford’s nephew speaks for itself, I think. I know nothing of that event but, true to White stereotypes, assume that it was probably Black on Black crime.

But so what? no ethnic group’s crimes against itself excuse violence against that same group by a different group. If mostly Whites kill Whites—as is overwhelmingly true—this does not mean that Blacks get a freebie round at banging away at Whites, who evidently don’t value other members of their own race that highly, either: no such quotas here, yet.

I think that in most large urban communities there are a fair number of Ms. Raifords, who believe that they are seeing something far larger than any one violent event. They are in part driving a rapidly growing movement.

As for the rank and file of the local demos, many of them are mobilized because race is an important issue to them. If the issue were not more complicated than a law and order issue, so many people would not be responding in unaccustomed ways to the event.

There are other reasonable attitudes adopted by many critics of the protests and the Ferguson incident which can block an understanding of the significance of these events. There is a constant theme in the comments I have read that the demonstrators are largely (if not all) simply bums and criminals. “Get a job!” was apparently a common critical response to demonstrators both in the original events and in the local protests. This again trivializes the protests. That participants are both lazy and bored would seem to be the point: “No real issues here, move on why don’t you. And get a job! Or two or three jobs, like I have!”

But this movement is drawing in many, both Blacks and Whites, who are neither unemployed nor bored. Recently I was in my marvelous HMO for cancer treatments and encountered a magazine I was unfamiliar with: “Black Enterprise.

Many of we cancer patients, some with 2-4 hours of treatments on a weekly basis, (I have just finished my 41st three-hour long infusion) have read all the back–sometimes waaay back— copies of magazines dealing with very fancy automobiles, private airplanes, yachts, exotic hotels and international travel, very high fashion, all the major American sports, Hollywood entertainers and other social icons, and my personal favorite, The New Yorker, donated by doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who otherwise don’t know what to do with them.

So Black Enterprise was attractive to me for a number of reasons. It is a serious magazine in its early stages intended to publicize Black role models in business, assist Black business people with information on a wide variety of franchises, how to raise funds, tax issues, etc. These are people who have jobs and want other Blacks to have not only jobs, but also their own businesses.

The lead editorial began by listing many Black youth who had been killed by police officers under dubious circumstances, who were subsequently not indicted nor in all but rare cases disciplined in any manner. It then went on to ground that issue with a number of related statistics. It makes for sobering reading and if nothing else, shows that this issues resonates with very responsible and accomplished members of the Black community. This is also equally true for White writers, activists, etc.

It is important to be aware that many protesters, if not all, are not seeing merely one incident, the shooting of Michael Brown. I think that community surely knows that Brown is a bad example around which to build a movement. He broke one of the primary rules of being a Black youth: be polite to Mr. Charlie, particularly if he is driving a black and white. At the least, this makes poor Brown ill-advised if not downright foolish. He brought cigars to a gun fight.

But protestors see not only the one incident, Ferguson and Michael Brown, but  a pattern of events extending over many years. Every community in which the protests are happening can readily bring to mind its own conspicuous examples of shootings of unarmed Black youth, or adults for that matter, as well as Whites dying in custody. Even in the short time since the legal announcement in the Brown shooting there have been several questionable examples: the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice just before the Brown jury returned its verdict; Eric Garner, 43, died some months ago after being placed in a choke hold by a New York police officer while being arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. The inquiry into the events also recently returned a judgement of no charges, despite the illegality of the choke hold. (A subsequent more fully developed discussion of choke holds can be found at:

The fact that Eric Garner apparently never passed out, and that his last words were “I Can’t breathe” suggest that the trachea was injured by the hold and that the victim suffocated. (There has been a quick response from pundits to the effect that if you  announce that  you can’t breath it, it isn’t true: you can breath—you are talking. This is glaringly specious reasoning which betrays a commitment to  partisanship rather than to reality. There are many possible situations where victims are seriously injured and are experiencing increasing difficulty in breathing, but while they can speak in short phrases—“I can’t breathe” would probably be many people’s first choice of words—they cannot get enough oxygen to maintain consciousness.

The judgement of no charges brought was announced in early December and quickly fueled protests.  The “Don’t shoot” call of Ferguson protesters has been joined by  the “We can’t breathe” response of the choke hold protesters.

The New York events have also brought the federal government into the issue.

It is no doubt coincidence that two of these three events involved legal disputes over tobacco products. (One hopes that in future such cases, neither the perp nor the cop mounts a nicotine defense similar to the successful Twinky Defence in the case of the shooting of San Francisco gay leader Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. That case seemed to open the possibility of the perp declaring diminished capacity because of his raging nicotine jones, or the cop arguing that the nicotine in the air produced a violent depression in him…)

If my lame japes here seem inappropriate to the killings–whether legal or illegal—of two unarmed Blacks, all I can say is that sometimes you got to laugh or cry, and I find the laugh more therapeutic right now.

So, in summary if you think that this is a trivial issue which will soon, like the Occupy Movement, simply go away, I fear that you are quite wrong. Participants come from a wide range of American ethnic groups and social or class standing. Something very consequential is happening…

In my next piece I will try to establish the credentials and experience which let me speak with some authority on these issues.

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Four WW I Vets I Have Met….

As an historian, I have always found war a very interesting topic. Americans are absolutely obsessed with it, because we have had so very many wars and so many of us had relatives who served. I once asked a largish gathering of scholars—75-80? how many of them had veterans in their family whom they could name by relationship (My great-grandfather) or by proper name: (My uncle George), beginning with the Revolutionary war.  I knew I was taking a chance, perhaps the exercise would prove nothing.

But we averaged, as I recall, 4-8 vets per person. I myself could count 15 family members and was by no means the one with the most vets. There wasn’t a war that wasn’t covered, including the Indian wars, where we had a Cherokee descendant whose family had fought on the losing side… At the end of the process, the board was full of wars and numbers. I asked who had no vets. One guy raised his hand. He was a recent immigrant from Ireland and said his family had the good sense to avoid wars.

Personally, though proof will always be elusive, I think the violence of American society is both the cause and the effect of the degree to which we enshrine martial valor and celebrate its practices. Our American views are of war as work (“Gotta get the job done!), war as natural phenomenon (The killer ape–Hey, war is in our genes…), war as sport (We just gotta hit ’em harder!) war as masculine contest (We can win in Vietnam where the French failed because they are cheese-eating surrender monkeys…) and, of course, as a necessity to maintain our international position so we can do good. And, almost as if by accident, we have often solved other people’s problems, if not always our own, with our military actions.

The Second World War was clearly the “Good War.” Wars since have been at least a bit more nuanced, the balance of good and evil was not always entirely clear. But, I feel, the First World War had very few positive points, at least from the point of view of the soldiers, based on my discussions with four veterans of that war. Admittedly this is a very small sample…However, their perspectives are also supported by a great deal of scholarship, the biographies of many other soldiers, the art, and the poetry of that war. I have met four vets of the First World War whom I had the time to interview, sometimes formally, usually informally.

The first was my mother’s younger brother, Uncle George. George was the cautionary Uncle in our family tree—“Don’t be like Uncle George!” A sad, older, divorced alcoholic who traveled cross-country wearing out his welcome with friends and relatives on a semi-annual basis.

My mother always did the best she could to offer George shelter, but he would inevitably throw up in bed, or get lost down-town and the cops would drop him off, rolling and reeling, and we would get him sober and move him on down the line, usually bound for Florida where he sometimes wintered. I often walked down-town with him where we would invariably wind up in a dim bar where, despite his infrequent appearances, he was always instantly recognized and where he would begin working other customers with some minor bar bet for a free drink which he usually won, and which always hinged on some clever interpretation of the rules—George was that guy. Needless to say, this was my one chance to walk on the wild side, and I think my mother let me do it despite my youth just to see how pitiful a lifestyle it truly was.

On one of these outings, George had a little extra money and got high very quickly on some dark highball. I got him talking about the First World War as I knew that he was a vet. The family always minimized his service, because George had always weaseled his way through everything—losing job after job for minor thefts, losing a wife and family for unknown causes, etc., etc. We had no doubt that his war-time service was similar—probably some cushy rear-echelon job.

But, given what George told me that night, and my own eventual research skills, I eventually managed to put together quite a different picture. When I began to learn about PTSD from Vietnam vets I met in my classes and with whom I sometimes worked on one Vietnam-war related project or other, I began to wonder about Uncle George.

I knew from other family members that George had served with the Illinois National Guard. My research showed me that very probably no American unit had a harder war. Their first European service was with the British army at the battle of Hamel ( Then they were filled out with additional units and fought under American command at The Meuse-Argonne (A 47-day long battle, the largest in American military history), at the Somme (100 days with 5600 casualties)  and at St. Mihel (Americans were fed into the line to stop a German offensive. The result was a significant victory at the cost of four thousand plus American dead.) George fought through all of these battles.

Otto Dix, Stormtroopers during a Gas Attack, 1924

Otto Dix, Stormtroopers during a Gas Attack, 1924

I don’t know which of these battles he was describing, but he said, and I can quote with high accuracy because his words burned their way into my 14 year-old memory: “I was feeder for a machine gun… The gunner was killed, hit in the head, and I pulled him out of the way and ran the gun myself. The German boys just kept coming and I piled them up like cord wood in front of the gun.” Then he started crying and couldn’t finish, almost forty years after the event itself.

George died after a visit with us later, while I was in college. He got forty miles from our home, and didn’t feel well, so went to a VA hospital where he died in the waiting room, waiting, of course, for service.

Here’s to you, Uncle George, a nice dark Bourbon of your choice. You fought as ugly a series of battles as has any American soldier since the Civil War. You had terrible PTSD of course, and got no help at all with it, only contempt. I now ask myself if not only were you self-medicating, but I also suspect those bars were the places you reliably met other vets who would understand your issues. Our bad.

My second vet was a family friend of the California branch of the family, named  after Napoleon. I knew him in his late 70’s. He was an Armenian immigrant and joined the American army to get citizenship, I believe. He absolutely could not talk about the war except to curse and say, “We were no better than young lambs, they (the allied generals) led us through blood and mud and shit and then slaughtered us, slaughtered us. Like young lambs, no better than lambs. I saw a new replacement step off the boardwalk as we moved up to the front from miles away, in broad daylight, under German artillery the whole way and he drowned, disappeared instantly, no one could help him.”

My third vet was my college chemistry teacher at Southern Illinois University. I wish I could remember his name, but our relationship was an adversarial one and I have repressed it so I will call him Professor G. He did much to prove to me in my first term at school that I could never be a physician, as I pulled a D in the intro chem course.


Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Allied soldiers blinded by gas leading each other out of the front lines…

Professor G. had been gassed in the war, and would often be unable to speak in class for his coughing, and was frequently sick. However, he sticks in my mind because he could not discuss the Periodic Table without mentioning the English physics scholar, Henry Moseley.  Moseley all but invented the periodic chart—or perhaps discovered it?—and was thought to be well on his way to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1916, but was killed with British Empire forces at Gallipoli in 1915.

At this critical battle, a major defeat for the Brits which kept them from putting Turkey out of the war as a German ally, it is generally held that the indecision of the Brit officers, first delaying their move inland after a successful surprise amphibious invasion, then repeatedly throwing men at Turkish machine guns after they had reinforced their lines, cost the lives of thousands of soldiers, including Moseley. For Professor G, Moseley’s death, like that of many other scientists and scholars, set back human progress for decades, if not generations. This is probably true by the time you throw in all the dead on all sides…A good thing to remember while celebrating the war as we do now.

My fourth WW I vet taught me a great deal. Initially, I had trouble listening to him because of my own prejudices. Eddie was quite old, this was the 1970’s when I was teaching at the University of Oregon and he had actually ridden in 1916 with Pershing against Pancho Villa— which had to make him in his 70’s by the time I knew him. He was also quite short.

So there I was, in my prime, new Berkeley Ph.D., gorgeous wife, and soon to be co-author of several books with her, completely full of myself, trying to treat a short old guy seriously. We were teaching a Parks and Rec class in Eugene on Americans in China before the Chinese revolution.

Once we got to know Eddie and his wife, we found that he had first served in the American coast guard, then rode with Pershing, then when WW I began, he thought the U.S. too slow in getting into a righteous fray and joined the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders out of Vancouver, B.C. These were primarily Canadians of Scottish ancestry.

Seaforths2Survivors of a Seaforth action leaving the line, WWI.

This regiment became well-known as shock troops in the Empire forces, returned home with sixteen battle honors and from among its 3,791 officers and men, 2,515  casualties.

But Eddie was not with the Seaforths when they returned to Vancouver. He had, he said, cracked under the constant shelling and been invalided out as a coward. To redeem himself, he saw additional service in the American Expeditionary Force, then in World War II served in China. His son, who also served there, died with John Birch as a member of a “Marshall Mission.” Oddly this did not make Eddie anticommunist, he was the sharpest and most objective witness of the Chinese civil war that I ever was to meet.

So there stands Eddie, all 5′ 2″ of him. Veteran of three or four armies, innumerable campaigns beginning with Pershing’s incursion into Mexico, months, if not years of trench warfare, including trench raids fought hand to hand in the dark—the combat specialty of the Seaforths—of World War II in China, and despite all, a man who judged himself a coward.

I hope that Eddie, Uncle George, Napoleon, and Professor G and his idol, Henry Moseley, as well as the German Boys George mowed down, meet often in some ghostly French cafe, healed and whole, and get gloriously drunk together. I know it is important to honor their service, and certainly it was an honor to know them, but I am not sure that any one of them thought their sacrifice worth it.

Jeffrey Barlow

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Because I love Hong Kong 1….


Summary: This piece discusses both the background of the current unrest in Hong Kong, and my authority to discuss it…

My Ties to Hong Kong:
I have been very fortunate, because of my profession as an Asianist, to live and work in a great many of the world’s most interesting cities, including Guilin, Nanning, Wenzhou, Nanjing, Taipei, Hong Kong, Saigon, Hue, Paris, London, the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland. Of all of them, my favorite is easily Hong Kong, which I have visited dozens of times since my first trip in 1967, as well as residing in for extended periods. I find it terribly easy to identify at present with Hong Kong Belongers as they are sometimes known.

Christine and I had planned a Lewis & Clark College Overseas Studies Program for Hong Kong in the Spring and Summer of 1979. Our goals for our 23 students were to live and study in Hong Kong while getting the group into China, making contact with at least one Chinese university which might be a good base for additional “China Trips.”  The students dubbed our group the “China Trippers,” hence the name of this blog. These goals proved successful and were the beginning of a series of similar Chinese Overseas Studies Groups for Lewis & Clark, giving us the honor, so far as we are aware, of leading the first American undergraduate study program into China since 1948 with our Guilin program in 1982.

In Hong Kong, we lived for four months of 1978 at Mei Foo Sun Chuen or simply Mei Foo (美孚), at that time the world’s largest private–owned by Mobil Oil, I believe–housing development in the New Territories. There we experienced life amongst seventy to eighty thousand neighbors living in more than thirteen thousand high-rise apartments on perhaps ten acres.

In subsequent years, our frequent China (and Vietnam) Study Programs from first Lewis & Clark College, then later from Pacific University, followed by our annual programs teaching in Wenzhou, allowed us to spend several weeks in Hong Kong on pretty much an annual basis from 1979 to 2011.

In addition, several of our former students soon returned to Hong Kong/China to work in their professions. By 1998 we had friends or former students at each of the major universities in Hong Kong, and in many businesses as well. They provided an excellent continually updated perspective on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong History
Hong Kong, of course, was long a rather sleepy port in Imperial south China, but was detached from China almost as an afterthought by the British after the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars to become a Crown Colony. (For more information on the Opium Wars and its effects on Sino-Western relations see:

After the Communist victory in China proper in 1948, Hong Kong began to boom as Shanghai capitalists took their money out of China, and millions of refugees fearing draconian social change in the PRC poured south. At one point the average Hong Konger had a sleeping space exactly the size of a tatami mat, and many shared that space in eight-hour shifts while they worked in Hong Kong’s booming export industries.

So long as Great Britain was strong, and China was weak, this imbalance of power protected Hong Kong quite nicely. Many attribute its success to the combination of the Chinese family system and work ethic with the British legal, financial, and political systems. If you compare this mix in Hong Kong with that in India, also long a colony, it is difficult not to conclude that culture and history are far more important than colonial political systems in that the same political and economic systems yielded quite different results in the two countries.

With regard to the latter, however, it is important not to contrast today’s beleaguered Hong Kong with some idealized golden-age of British colonial occupation. No such period ever existed. The British ruled directly, yielded limited powers slowly and very, very reluctantly. During our stay at Mei Foo, the students and I arranged countless meetings with Chinese businesspeople, academics, police authorities, social workers, scientists and engineers, etc., etc. Our Chinese language tutors in Cantonese were refugee Red Guards who had fled political retaliation in the Mainland to work in Hong Kong factories; we were guests of honor at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange Chinese New Year’s luncheon.

Consistently, from the Chinese directors of the Hong Kong stock exchange to members of the Legislative Council (LEGCO), we heard nothing good about British rule. I remember one dinner with some members of the LEGCO when I asked what their agenda had been that day. One of them laughed and said, ‘Oh, it was a hard-fought discussion over what color to paint benches in the public parks.’ I assumed this was some form of hyperbole—not a Chinese characteristic in general—and was told, ‘That is one of the few issues that we can decide on our own. Most decisions here are top down; the Brits tell us what to do and we do it.’

The British governed with a very light hand if their financial and political interests were not threatened. In the evening, the Hong Kong police locked themselves into their stations in the large public housing projects, and the Triad gangsters took over. The Triads were in charge of most of the mini-bus transportation and most forms of vice, including the omnipresent trade in the “White Powder,” Heroin. (Police estimates were that 15% of Hong Kongers were addicted.) As modern and secure as Mei Foo was, we were awakened one morning to a shoot-out between two Triad gangs a few stories below our apartment. The battle was still going on as we watched.

This was the period of large refugee camps composed of Chinese and Vietnamese fleeing the communist take-over in Vietnam, and those were little better than concentration camps. Some of our students taught ESL in them on a volunteer basis, and shared horrifying stories with the rest of us. When we went to Macao for some beach time, there were swollen bodies of Vietnamese boat people, who had drowned before making it to Hong Kong, rolling around in the surf.

Hong Kong was a great deal for Great Britain. Because of the nature of their book-keeping and largely opaque tax structure, it is impossible to estimate how much money the Brits took out of Hong Kong. This game was played in an uneasy partnership with China. Chinese refugees would take up marginal lands around Hong Kong, or on the several large islands around it, and systematically improve them. As soon as the refugees, having no civil rights at all, had sufficiently developed the land, the Crown would step in, grab control of the lands, and then auction them off for the development of expensive high-rise buildings like Mei Foo. The export economy let China get many goods into the United States under Hong Kong’s quota.

The Decision to “Return” Hong Kong.
Great Britain long made a pretense to protecting Hong Kong by virtue of its superior and military powers. By the time we lived there in 1979, the pretense was very thin indeed. Chinese and ex-pat friends joked that one phone call from Beijing would send the Brits scurrying: “Hello, Governor, this is Beijing. It’s over. No more food, no more water. You have a week to get out.” Deng Xiao-ping reportedly told Margaret Thatcher during negotiations that he could take over the whole thing in one afternoon.

Some of the more cynical of our LEGCO friends said that Great Britain was hanging on basically to drain the colony of as many of its portable assets as possible before “quitting” Hong Kong, as the British terminology had it. The last Crown Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was the man chosen to in effect turn off the lights there. After years of negotiation, an agreement was reached and a date  set for the Return and the establishment of Chinese sovereignty: July, 1997. (For a good article see: For the document spelling out the legal future of Hong Kong, still important in today’s disputes, see: ( For those interested in the details of the turnover, here follows a summary of important points taken from the original documents:

A Summary of Some of the Basic Points in the Legal Structure: The Basic Law stipulates the basic policies of the PRC towards the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. As agreed between the PRC and the United Kingdom in the Joint Declaration, in accordance with the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, socialism as practised in the PRC would not be extended to Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong would continue its previous capitalist system and its way of life for a period of 50 years after 1997. A number of freedoms and rights of the Hong Kong residents are also protected under the Basic Law. (from

Fundamental rights and duties
All Hong Kong residents shall be equal before the law. Permanent residents of the HKSAR (The Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region, Beijing’s administrative term for it.) shall have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in accordance with law.[5]

Hong Kong residents shall have, among other things, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and of publication; freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of procession, of demonstration, of communication, of movement, of conscience, of religious belief, and of marriage; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.[5]

The freedom of the person of Hong Kong residents shall be inviolable. No Hong Kong resident shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention or imprisonment. Arbitrary or unlawful search of the body of any resident or deprivation or restriction of the freedom of the person shall be prohibited. Torture of any resident or arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of the life of any resident shall be prohibited.[5]

The provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and international labour conventions as applied to Hong Kong shall remain in force and shall be implemented through the laws of the HKSAR.[5]

Political structure
The selection of Chief Executive and members of legislature is to be ultimately by means of universal suffrage.

We  planned another trip to permit us to be present in June, 1997, when the Transfer happened. It was clearly understood as a historic moment by the entire world. After that, the last European colony in Asia was Hong Kong’s near neighbor, Macao. I was in favor of the transfer, considering it inevitable, hoping that Hong Kong and its rollicking culture and economic system might in fact transform China, rather than the other way around. The Chinese promised in the transfer documents that the political goal was universal suffrage (Long resisted by the British until they saw it as a useful lever to use against the PRC).

britflagloweredThe British flag is lowered for the last time in Hong Kong…

Today’s struggle has several important elements:
First, Hong Kong people feel themselves quite separate from China in many respects. True, they are ethnically Chinese, but so are the residents of Taipei, Singapore, etc., all of whom might agree to such designations as “Greater China” with which to self-identify, but by and large Hong Kongers  still identify with their home city to a far greater degree than would a Beijinger or a Shanghaiese. This makes the current struggle difficult for Chinese Mainlanders to sympathize with or to fully understand.

Secondly, Hong Kong has developed a great deal since 1978. It has benefited enormously from Globalization. International business well understands the importance of Hong Kong as an entrepot to China, millions of tourists go through annually and the great majority of them are very much intrigued by Hong Kong and often find it to be a much more convenient place to shop than China itself. Social media has also brought the current conflicts into every media market. The students in particular are proving very adept at utilizing this new media world.

Mobilization of mass protests has grown easier and easier. There is a wonderful system of subways which would now make our long commute of 1978  almost a pleasure. The subways and associated bus routes and cheap taxis can easily dump thousands of people into Central, the focus of the current protests, in a matter of perhaps 90 minutes.

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Protestors in Central

There is also a definite feeling of the accumulating loss of freedoms in Hong Kong. There have been a rich variety of mass protests during the period since 1997. The local government is very much, at the top at least, a creature of Beijing. Election laws have been manipulated in such a way that leaders with very little popular support but with close ties to China have risen to the top. Some of the difficulties at present revolve around the role of Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive. He was chosen by a small electoral college which, it is widely felt, was directly manipulated by Beijing. As the following graphic shows, he is less than popular:

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong hold up a giant cutout of Leung Chun-ying, whom they are calli

The dismissal of Leung has become a goal of all of the major protest groups. (For more information on Leung see:

The more direct stimulus for the protests was the announcement by China that while suffrage might be universal, the Hong Kong government would carefully select those individuals who could run for office in 2017. It quickly became obvious that only wealthy conservatives with close ties to Beijing (like Leung himself), would be allowed to stand for elections.

Many different groups, including long-active ones, saw this as a critical point requiring mass opposition. Student groups also rose spontaneously and quickly became the shock troops of the protestors, as in other countries. (For more information see: )

  •  Student groups, which make very effective use of social media and provide a wide range of graphics as well, include:
    • “Scholarism,” led by Joshua Wong;
    •  The Hong Kong Federation of Students, led by the elected Alex Chow. This group is apparently the driving wheel of the protests at present.
  • More traditional (and usually older) groups include:
    • Occupy Central, led by co-founder Chan Kin-man. This group is in some ways a continuation of previous groups which have led mass protests over the last several years.

Anti-Opposition Groups: There are also groups opposing the resistance, the most important of which is Silent Majority, led by Robert Chou, who has said: “What Occupy Central has achieved is simply holding Hong Kong hostage and disrupting the livelihood of general Hong Kong people.”

 These, then, are the people and the issues involved as of this writing. (As of this update, 11/11/14, I find myself deeply involved with my health. I wish Hong Kong and its many friends world-wide good fortune in its relationships with China…)

To keep current on events as they develop in Hong Kong, I suggest reading The Guardian, and The South China Morning Post.  In my experience both are reliable on Hong Kong reportage and have deep staffs who present a variety of perspectives, though admittedly, neither has much sympathy with Beijing’s perspective.



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