Persons with Dignity

As the Supreme Court wound through oral arguments about same-sex marriage this past Tuesday (Obergefell v. Hodges), I was struck by the way debates over what it is to be a “person before the law” have pervaded recent judicial cases. In my graduate school studies some fifty(!) years ago, I focused my dissertation research on the question of our use of “body” to speak, with great emotional impact, of the Church, of organizations, of political orders and even of the Body of Knowledge. In the course of that research I stumbled on the long and winding history of the word “person,” derived from the Latin word persona. After the Citizens United case (2010) I wrote about how this ancient word had evolved in that decision to give business corporations the rights to free speech (meaning expenditure of funds) originally attributed to individuals in public debate. I found this development profoundly troubling for the life of a republic rooted in the rights of individuals to participate in public life.

But “personhood” debates have also taken us in other directions as well. One, of course, is the intractable debate over the personhood of the human fetus, which requires attributing the rights of living individuals to this emerging human being. In this regard our continually developing notion of “personhood” has led most of us to a more nuanced understanding of the solicitous care and protection to be given to this developing self, posing legal and moral quandaries that defy even the Wisdom of Solomon.

The same-sex marriage case, with its appeal to the “dignity” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity brings into clearer focus yet another attribute of the person. Dignity (Latin: dignitas) itself is another term originally attributed to the gods and to leading men in a patriarchal society who conducted affairs of government and war. This attribute is now extended increasingly to all individuals as persons. Just today an article by Jeffery Rosen on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s use of this term in gay rights cases has appeared in the Atlantic. Not only is personhood being applied ever more expansively, but it has intensified its attributes of autonomy, legal status, liberty, and economic freedom. It is not only a matter of protecting an individual “person” from government intrusions, it is a matter of enhancing and supporting that person’s access to a public life, in this case, the public life and status of marriage.

As a matter of extending personhood to individuals, this is a development to be applauded and nurtured. I hope this view prevails in the Supreme Court. However, like Rosen, I have some concerns about its wider impact. In particular, the application of personhood (itself a legal construct derived from ancient philosophy and theology) to the corporate “bodies” (also legal fictions) that dominate our economic and political life. Will we also see an expansion of the Citizens United doctrine to expand the public rights of corporations even further? The first development, now before the Court, enhances our republic’s life. The second, I fear, can sink it.

One of the torpedoes that can sink it might come from the infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 that eviscerated the Founders’ concept of “people,” replacing it with a disconnected group of individuals who now had the right, as individuals, to act like a militia that “the people” had originally formed as states. The proliferation of guns on the waves of fear in a time of social turmoil and change could indeed render us incapable of engaging in the unhindered free speech and reasonable debate that persons of dignity conduct as citizens of a flourishing republic.



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Searching for Identity on Cyprus

We returned almost a month ago from two weeks on Cyprus after a rich tour of Egypt’s ancient sites. As we flew over the Mediterranean from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus, we left a land where people have known for thousands of years that they are the people of the Nile. Since the union of Lower and Upper Egypt some 5000 years ago, they have known who they were—Egyptians. Even when they were ruled by outsiders in the Christian and Muslim eras, they remained a people with an unbroken identity. We flew to an island whose inhabitants had hardly known independence until 1960, and, since 1974 have lived with a division across their land based on a struggle between Turkish- and Greek-speaking Cypriots. The question they face continually is whether the identity of being a “Cypriot” can find full flower in some kind of political unity.

My own life is now intertwined more deeply with the people of Cyprus, ever since my mother began telling me about the two years of her childhood at the Skouriotissa mine, where her father was the engineer who helped re-establish the ancient copper works there. Now I was back, for the second time, to try to preserve the written and photographic Bill in Famagusta 100record of that experience so that Cypriots as well as my own family could claim yet another piece of their history. While we were there we visited places in northern Cyprus where my mother and her parents had been—the coast at Xeros, Kyrenia, Salamis, and Famagusta. Here’s a picture of me (the weather was chilly and damp!) against the backdrop of the Gothic cathedral built by French rulers of Cyprus in the 14th century. You can see a minaret that was attached to the cathedral when it became a mosque under the Ottomans in the 16th century. Now, under Turkish control as part of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, it is cared for as an active mosque, with a beautiful copy of a Qu’ran on display at the entrance. And then there is me, an American grandson of a mining engineer. Somehow, this picture brings together both the richness of Cypriot history and the conflicts that divide it today.

As I contributed copies of my documentation to the Hellenic Copper Mines Company, which continues the work my grandfather was engaged in, I was even more deeply aware that I was part of the extended family of people whose lives have been shaped by this part of Earth. As I also gave copies of these archives to the Center for Visual Artistic Research in Nicosia, I was aware that this was a tiny part of the effort to claim and reclaim a Cypriot identity that might overcome the divisions of the island. The pictures, as records of a time “before division,” even if under colonial rule, might contribute to that goal.

Just as Germany was reunited by a deep identity that broke down the walls established by outside powers, so must the people of Cyprus claim an identity more powerful than the lines that divide them. And indeed, because of the divisions of language, culture, religion, and historical memory on the island the task is much more difficult here. I began to think that it is finally the island itself that must be the source of its inhabitants’ identity. And at the core of this island has always been the mine, rooted in the peculiar geological features of the Troodos Mountains, and which has bound its copper to the island’s very name. (Check out the fascinating documentary about the island’s geological history, Troodos: The Birth of Cyprus on YouTube.)

As an American I have grown up with an identity that is shaped by being a citizen of a conglomeration of earlier nationalities. Immigration, though hotly contested, is the story of America. Its Constitution, binding people in a common law, appeals only to this voluntary assent to be citizens of a commonwealth, calling out common endeavor from the particularities of the religions, languages, customs, and memories of a pluralistic people. We continue to experience sometimes traumatic conflict over identity—the children of enslaved Africans and of European settlers, of Asians and Hispanics, of original Natives and conquering Colonials—but it is taken for granted that we shall always be a plurality in a constitutional unity.

But this specific history itself always raises the deeper question of what does constitute our collective identities. Is it simply the genealogy of our birth (our “natus,” the source of “nationality” as a concept)? Is it our beliefs and rituals? Is it our culture of language, art, and common memory? Is it allegiance to a Constitution? Certainly at the core of identity is some sort of common memory, which is why history is so important and why the efforts to re-cast history, erase history, and control its telling are so fraught with conflict. And, indeed, as I drove through the northern part of Cyprus, presently under Turkish control, I saw ample evidence of the effort to rename the land to claim a history separate from its Greek memories. Would it be possible, in a time and place of such colliding histories, that the ecology of the island itself could become the core of Cypriot identity?

Cyprus can be seen in some sense as a laboratory of the Earthling Hypothesis: that we might be joined at the deepest level in our love of the land that holds us in common. While the European Union, Russia, a resurgent Ottomanism in Turkey, as well as the residue of the British Empire all contest for control of Cyprus’s unity, is it also possible that the island itself, born of the collision of the Eurasian and African plates, might cultivate an identity as a bridge, as a unique condensation of contesting cultures? Might it then claim a kind of vocation to be a bridge place, where division, indeed seemingly intractable division, becomes a unique meeting place of peoples? Might it become, in the name of one organization struggling to forge this identity, a true “Home for Cooperation”? These are the more visionary questions that have been raised as I reflect on the meaning of Cyprus in my own family’s life and in the wider public of the “nations” of Earth. It’s a question I carry into my work on this book about life in Cyprus in the 1920s.

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Memories in Egypt

People my age are acutely aware of their memories and the work of memory. It starts with our own effort to figure out what all these pictures are that were never put in an album, the backs of which are blank. Maybe we kept a fitful diary to help us. We are trying to sort the dates and faces out and make of our life a coherent, meaningful story, one that can inform our children and future generations. This leads us to our parents and grandparents, back to the stories that generated stories, the pictures of likenesses handed down by genetic code and geographical wanderings. This then becomes the search for the memory of a people, often worn away under neglectful feet, defaced by traumatic warfare and willful manipulation.
And so we are led to Egypt, whose long history evolved like silt along the single river that fed it —the Nile. Such a slender thread of water has knit together a series of kingdoms whose memory survived in stone monuments covered in symbols that shaped dozens of rituals by which the people remembered and hoped over the centuries. In Egypt memory is all about the monuments and their writings. But we are cut off from the lived reality of that ancient culture, first by the Christians, who defaced what statues they could, proclaiming the God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus. And then the Muslims came, disdaining even the Trinitarian monotheism of the Christians, smashing more idols, building their grand and austere mosques of word and obedient prayer.
We were in Egypt in February with Archaeological Paths, whose team of Polish and Egyptian leaders guided us through the melee of Cairo, the windswept desert, the placid Nile. Their principal lecturer is Dr. Zahi Hawass, whom many of you have seen as the face of Egyptian archaeology—the older man with the Stetson in the National Geographic films. That’s him. He began our stay by passionately telling us that he and many other Egyptians feared, and feared intensely, that the Muslim Brotherhood would bring in the kind of radicals who are now smashing antiquities in Iraq and Syria, just as they did in Afghanistan. They were going to destroy Egypt’s memory and with it the tourist influx that feeds its economy. Now, with a new stability and order, with many in prison or eliminated, they have a chance not only to preserve their priceless heritage but to build a democratic order. It is not merely a matter of whether they have the hope, but of whether they have the memory. What memory will inform this struggle for democracy?
The pyramids and temples we were about to see, said Hawass, constituted a vast “National Project” that united Upper and Lower Egypt, binding together the families, clans, villages

Temple of Luxor at Night

Temple of Luxor at Night

and kingdoms that lay along the Nile. That, he said, is what Egypt needs today. For him, it is the national project of discovering, preserving and sharing their unique cultural heritage with and for the world. Hawass has been central to the discovery of some of the villages where the workers, architects, artists, and managers lived as they spent their lives on these vast public works. They have never discovered any evidence that slaves built the pyramids. In their recovery of memory, the memory of Jews, Christians, and Muslims fed by the Bible is called into question. The clash of memory becomes a conflict in faith, a resettling of the religion that is the template of our collective memory.
Indeed, we can look at the murderous mayhem and butchery that burns in the region as a frantic struggle over memory—the memory of origins, of imperial oppression, colonial subordination and liberation, of future allegiances and hopes. In memory lie our burnished fears and our bonds of primordial trust.

Sylvia and Queen Hatshepsut at her Temple

Sylvia and Queen Hatshepsut at her Temple

But looking into memories does not merely open up the raw sores of conflict, it also exposes continuities that both disturb and clarify. In temple after temple we would come across some portrayal of a “Triad” of Gods, whether of Ptah the creator, Sekmet the warrior, and Nefertum the Healer, or Sobek the crocodile god, Hathor, the goddess of love, joy, and fertility, and Khonsu the god of the moon and fertility. Each place, it seems, had its own Triad. At Abu Simbel, on Lake Nasser (another National Project!), Ramses II modestly included himself to form a foursome. And so I thought about the Trinity, which brings the transcendent God into contact with frail and fleeting humanity. Is this where our concept of the Trinity was born?

And how many times did we see Horus seated, often suckling, on the lap of Isis? Horus was the son of the union between Isis and her brother Osiris. He was dismembered by his fratricidal brother Seth, and resurrected to sit upon the throne that she herself represents. And all of this, I presume, flowed through the theologians of Alexandria into our own Christian creeds, icons, and rituals in the form of the Madonna, suckling the King of the Universe.
And in other places we saw wall carvings of the

Recent Mosaic of Baptism of Jesus at Hanging Church

Recent Mosaic of Baptism of Jesus at Hanging Church

anointing of the king with water from the Nile, pouring over him in the same way that Baptism is depicted in the “Hanging Church” of the Coptics in Cairo.
At the core of their ritual was the journey across the river of the deceased king, in whose future immortal life the continuity, stability, and order of their world would be preserved. For them it was the Nile, but for my Christian tradition, especially for our Gospel songs, it is the Jordan. How deep the river runs.
And then, what about the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus into Egypt? We rehearsed this memory by visiting the church that legend says is built where they were lodged. A

Akhenaten's Sun in the Citadel Mosque

Akhenaten’s Sun in the Citadel Mosque

Bethlehem of refuge from the evil powers. In encountering Egypt’s memory I began to think that maybe the flight went the other way. The image of the Holy family fled out of Egypt to impregnate the fledging Christ movement with its comforting memory of mother love and father care.
The strands of incarnate fleshly care in Egyptian symbolism were momentarily shattered by Akhenaten’s attempt to introduce a monotheism of the sun, whose delicate hands extend to every arena of life from the one unifying ball of heat and light. And in that brief flicker, some say, the one who came to be called Moses caught the monotheistic vision and burned it into the heart of a people who carried it off to a rocky land called Israel.
And then came Muhammad of Mecca and Medina, who lit up the warring tribes of Arabia to unify around this transcendent unseeable, untouchable God and so bring peace. Yet still the tribes war on, murdering mothers, fathers, and babes, murdering our rich, conflicting, and disturbing memories.
Yes, Egypt was the awesome monuments, the overwhelming artistic achievements in tomb and temple, the muezzin’s call from minarets along the Nile, the chaos that is Cairo traffic, but it was also the tanks and guns that say “We are watching. There will be order.” There will be continuity and memory. But will it be a memory of democratic governance or of monarchical military rule? That is the question.
The Nile still rolls on, now tamed by the enormous Aswan dam. As I stood on top of it, looking at the hydroelectric plant below, I realized that if this dam broke, the entire country of Egypt would be scoured into oblivion. The dam still holds, for now. But some say that cracks are developing in it. Some deep hidden fault. Visit Egypt now. And remember.

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Travel Update

Dear Readers,

The reason that you are not receiving any extensive blog entries is that we are traveling in Egypt and Cyprus in the month of February. Yes, Egypt is safe for tourists and the ancient monuments, as well as new discoveries, are as fascinating as ever. Upon our return, when my brain has also arrived back, Bill w Sphinx edI will try to put some reflections up for your own response. Our own tour was under the auspices of Archaeological Paths, which did a fine job of guidance and logistics. I recommend them highly. Getting to meet Dr. Zahi Hawass was an added unusual experience. Just to prove we have been there, here’s a picture of me (on the right).

We are now in Cyprus for our second visit, in which I am concentrating on conversations with people who are very knowledgeable about the mine where my grandfather worked, about geology, archaeology, and the cultural history of Cyprus. Yes, Cyprus has been divided by a buffer zone for 40 years now but people of good will on both sides are still working toward a solution that would honor the cultural integrity of both Turkish and Greek speaking people as well as the necessary unity and integrity of the island. Many people are pitching in to assist us in finding the best way to put together our own family materials in a way that would be of interest to others here. The story continues to fascinate many as well as myself.

You’ll hear more from me in March!

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