The legacy of Luther’s conscience cannot be understated—it is the impetus for all manner of religious and philosophical developments that have defined the modern world. It also had political and cultural effects, ones relevant to our current American distemper, much of it driven by one particular element of that Saxon monk’s conscience: its scrupulosity. From the tearing down of monuments, to dietary fads, to foreign interventions, America owes much to Luther’s scrupulous conscience.
.. By his own admission, his was a tortured soul, wracked by feelings of guilt and unworthiness before a righteous God. One imagines a Luther who confesses his sins, receives absolution, and within minutes of leaving the confessional is overwrought with self-hatred over some perceived personal failure. Luther himself characterized these years as ones of profound spiritual despair, later observing, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
.. Luther’s confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther to direct his gaze not to his own sin, but to the merits of Christ. He exhorted the monk to remember that true repentance comes not from outward signs of piety, but primarily and fundamentally from the heart:
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
This ultimately was insufficient for Luther. His conscience continued to ravage him.
.. Or consider the obsession of one strata of American society with the ethics of food. Is it organic? Grass-fed? Free-trade? Single-origin? Artisanal? We can always find something to feel guilty about, regardless of what food or drink we’re consuming
One morning, Oliver Sipple went out for a walk. A couple hours later, to his own surprise, he saved the life of the President of the United States. But in the days that followed, Sipple’s split-second act of heroism turned into a rationale for making his personal life into political opportunity. What happens next makes us wonder what a moment, or a movement, or a whole society can demand of one person. And how much is too much?
Through newly unearthed archival tape, we hear Sipple himself grapple with some of the most vexing topics of his day and ours – privacy, identity, the freedom of the press – not to mention the bonds of family and friendship.
When you look back at that era, you are struck by how many civic institutions were founded to address the nation’s problems. Not only the Forest Service, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the municipal reform movement, the suffrage movement, the Federal Reserve System, the Boy Scouts, the 4-H clubs, the settlement house movement, the compulsory schooling movement, and on and on. Four amendments to the Constitution were passed in those years.
In fact, when you look back on most periods of American history you see a rash of new organizations being created. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin helped build the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Fire Department, The Pennsylvania Gazette, The American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital and much else.
.. In the 1930s, the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies were created. The late 1940s saw the creation of the big multinational institutions: the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, the I.M.F., the beginnings of the European market.
When you look around today, you see a lot of history-making new companies being created, but you don’t see too many big civic organizations... I wonder if there is also a malaise, a loss of faith in the future and a loss of expertise in institution building, a sense of general fragmentation and isolation. American foreign policy, which used to be about building positive coalitions to make life better, now seems to be based on the idea that we should defensively withdraw from things. There has been a loss of civic imagination... one could have said the same thing in 1890, when politics was steeped in corruption and the economy wracked by crisis. But by 1910 the landscape was transformed. There were new organizations, new movements, a new mentality and a new burst of optimism.
Even the worst fires clear the way for new growth.
.. Her reticence is a tactical decision, according to people in her inner circle. Ms. Suu Kyi worries that speaking more forcefully would antagonize the military, which once ran the country and still wields considerable authority, and jeopardize her goal of achieving a full democracy after years of struggle... When a visiting diplomat raised the issue of the Rohingya with Ms. Suu Kyi in 2013, she admonished: “Please don’t call them Rohingya. They are Bengali. They are foreigners,” according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. The term “Bengali” is often used in Myanmar to describe illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The person also recalled that Ms. Suu Kyi complained the international community underestimated the threat Buddhists faced from Muslims in Rakhine State... She has repeatedly stopped short of criticizing soldiers for setting fire to Rohingya settlements... Antipathy to the Rohingya, who live in Myanmar without citizenship or the right to vote, goes back decades. Some Rohingya say they were the original inhabitants of the coastal strip along western Myanmar, before Buddhist ethnic-Rakhines settled there... During World War II, Rohingya sided with retreating British forces while many local Buddhists took up arms with the Japanese in hopes of gaining independence, inflaming tensions between the two communities that have lingered to this day... what Myanmar military strategists call the “Four Cuts.” Developed in the 1970s against the country’s rebel armies, it involves sweeping through civilian areas to deny insurgents food, funds, recruits and information. The general later described the operations as “unfinished business” dating back to World War II... The crisis is raising questions about whether the push among Western nations to restore ties with Myanmar, a resource-rich nation in a strategically important region bordering China, was justified... The constitution which Myanmar’s army drafted in 2008 grants it control of the defense and interior ministries, the administrative backbone of the country. Soldiers are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the parliament, enough to veto constitutional changes... Ms. Suu Kyi is barred from being president because she has foreign-born children... Many human rights activists and some diplomats now believe Ms. Suu Kyi may have been better suited as an icon of the opposition than a mainstream politician.
.. “What was described as strength and steadfastness is now being called inflexibility. But it’s really the same person if you look at her closely over years,” said one diplomat who knows Ms. Suu Kyi well... “A parody of democracy is infinitely worse than dictatorship,” she told one diplomat, according to a person familiar with the discussion... She has struggled to build trust with the insurgent armies, many of which regard the Myanmar military as the real power... Ms. Suu Kyi seized on an analogy used by an audience member comparing the government to a parent, with ethnic armed groups as its children. A person with knowledge of the exchange said she urged camp-dwellers to tell the armed groups: “Listen to your parents.”.. Ms. Suu Kyi has also expressed reluctance to provide the Rohingya with citizenship, saying it would only encourage more Muslims to come from Bangladesh... “She is binding herself to the military because both sides understand they have to hang together,” he said. “For all her rhetoric past and present, her leverage on the military is nil.”