Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Uncertainty of Christian Evidence and the Benefits of Inclusion

           The conversion to Christianity is considered one of the most important turning points in Scandinavian history, but tracking the religion’s progression through the north is a tricky task that must be studied delicately using certain methods ascribed to by scholars like Alexandra Sanmark. The main ways by which Christianity is measured are grave and burial customs, church sites, coins, rune stones, written sources and laws. Using these methods, the Christianization of Scandinavia can, to an extent, be measured in degrees of belief, attitudes, values, behavior, and social institutions (Sanmark 2004). However, the conversion can be only nominally traced throughout Scandinavian history. When attempting to measure how “Christian” a country or kingdom was, the results can be murky if not entirely misleading (Shepherd 1996). In order to better understand and follow the conversion process, Sanmark breaks it down into two phases (2004). The first phase consists of the scattered network of independent missionary efforts while the second phase begins when the secular rulers take over the spread of Christianity (Sanmark 2004). Applying the aforementioned methods to both phases of the conversion unearths evidence, and in many cases a lack of evidence or consistency, that dismisses any certainty that Christianity can be measured.

            Contrary to popular belief, the conversion of the Scandinavian kingdoms was relatively peaceful, especially during the second phase (Sanmark 2004). Aside from Norway, the rest of the Viking world converted if not willingly, then mostly, without bloodshed from either an internal decision or at the behest or political threats of contemporary rulers (Roesdahl 2008). Violence in the first phase, according to the few sources available, appears to be minimal (Robinson 1921). One could make an argument suggesting that the missionaries intentionally put themselves in harm’s way owing to how potent a martyr’s cult could be (Brink 2008). Certainly a number of Vikings fought against the oncoming Christian tide, but the resistance that did arise can often be attributed to the political turmoil of the time period. For instance, the bloody interactions in Norway were less about religious change and more about the loss of power during the unification process (Hollander 1964).

            Having raided all over Christendom, the Vikings were familiar at least with some aspects of Christianity (Melnikova 2011). Some of the original Icelandic settlers claimed to be believers (Palsson and Edwards 1972). Birka was home to a diverse community that most likely included a small collection of Christians (Sanmark 2004). The religion may not have embraced but it certainly appears to have been tolerated. Even the proclaimed pagan leader Svein Forkbeard seemed utterly indifferent to Christianity—not promoting but not fighting against it either (Derry 1979).

            This lack of resistance and indeed indifference makes using methods like archaeology and written sources to measure the conversion confusing and difficult. Some of the confusion can be alleviated by understanding how Scandinavia was targeted by missionaries. Pope Gregory had centuries ago instructed missionaries to implant Christian meanings into existing pagan religious and cultural traditions instead of eliminating them (Melnikova 2011). The Vikings may have viewed a religious conversion as a cultural defeat, but through Gregory’s method, they not only held onto their identity but also made Christianity distinctly Scandinavian (Graslund and Lager 2008).
"Uh, yeah, whatever you want - just slap a cross on it and we'll make it Christian."
Pope Gregory's great plan

            The gap between the Norse pagan religion and Christianity may not have been as wide as once believed. In his introduction to Njal’s Saga, Robert Cook suggests that Christianity functioned not as antithetical to pagan values but as complementary (2001). Perhaps the best example comes from the Icelandic hreppr law in which the farmers, in line with Christ’s teachings, worked together to make sure none of their neighbors went hungry (Byock 2001). The meek and suffering Christ, however, would not have registered with the Vikings. They would have picked up instead on his more authoritarian traits that were more in tune with their power and honor driven culture (Melnikova 2011). In fact, Christ was often incorporated into the Norse pantheon right next to Odin and Thor (Melnikova 2011). This acceptance of Christ as a god on par with the traditional deities might have been viewed as a victory for Christian missionaries, but, with no evidence of immediate change, there were no milestones for missionaries to celebrate (Brink 2008). At this point Christianity in Scandinavia was a slow and creeping stream of muddle and mixed cultural preferences, and Christ may have been seen as little more than just another idol.

            This hybrid union of a chaotic paganism and the infant disorganized Christianity left Norse burials in disarray. Even before the Viking Age, burial customs in Norway were at best inconsistent (Saebjorg 2007). Inhumation and cremation graves coexisted in different parts of Norway before and during the conversion period (Saebjorg 2007). While inhumation graves in churchyards eventually won out, certain pagan burial customs continued to thrive in parts of Scandinavia well after the conversion (Shepherd 1996). Even churchyard burials cannot be trusted due to later generations re-burying their unbaptized kin, just as Harald with his father at Jelling (Roesdhal 2008).

            The way a body faced and the goods with which it was buried are two other ways scholars attempt to identify Christian graves (Tolochko 2011). The direction a body was buried can be misleading because many early Christian graves were positioned southwest to northeast instead of the official west to east direction. Every pagan Viking grave found at Luistari holds a body facing southwest to northeast (Shepherd 1996). With such a variety of behaviors and values present in Norse graves, many burials are left to guess work. A more dependable indication of religion in burials is the grave goods (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998). Traditional Viking graves included tools, weapons, jewelry, and other goods for use in the afterlife (Price 2008). Christian graves included similar dress, food, and containers, but lacked those individualized items that went on to define Viking graves (Graslund 2008). The importance laid upon grave goods may be misplaced. Many Viking graves were empty, while some graves boasted signs of Christianity, as well as traditional grave goods (Shepherd 1996). Even the cross pendants found in the female graves at Birka do not hold concrete evidence that they were in fact Christ-worshippers (Graslund 2008). As an international trading town, Birka would have hosted travelers from every type of background (Sanmark 2004). The crosses could just as realistically been gifts from Christian pilgrims or an aesthetically appealing piece of fashion purchased from a European merchant.

Great model of what Birka may have looked like

            A more flimsy method of measuring Christian beliefs and institutions is the study of church sites, which some scholars believe to have been built upon or near former pagan worship sites (Graslund 2008). Tacitus, however, claimed that the Germanic people worshipped their gods out in the open or in sacred groves (Mattingly 1970). The lack of evidence for pagan structures, such as Adam of Bremen’s extravagant temple in Uppsala, seems to agree with Tacitus. The early church relied heavily upon urban areas the thrive (Shepherd 1996). Outside of hubs like Birka and Hedeby, towns were virtually nonexistent in Scandinavia (Skre 2008). Without the Roman governmental structure, a church would have failed in the vast rural Scandinavian communities and were therefore unlikely to have been built upon pre-existing pagan sites (Shepherd 1996).

            The two religions do merge, however, on coins and on rune stones. In Norway and Sweden, the earliest minted coins coincided with the rise of Christianity (Bragge and Nordeide 2004). The coins that originated from these kingdoms, as well as from Denmark, all seemed to be copied after Anglo-Saxon coins (Geltig 2004). Olaf Skotkonung, almost immediately following his conversion, began minting coins in Sweden (Sanmark 2004). Christianization would not have suddenly boosted Sweden’s economy, nor had any resemblance of an ecclesiastical system been propped up yet, so why would the king immediately begin producing coinage in a kingdom that was not fully converted or unified? Olaf’s reaction is but one of many indications that the Viking leaders were trying to take advantage of the rising power and wealth of Christianity.
Are you really a Christian?

            The mixing of both religions is most evident on rune stones, many of which can be dated to the 11th century or later (Graslund and Lager 2008). They appear to increase in number after the conversion, and many are thought to be public displays of Christian messages (Sanmark 2004). Some stones simultaneously depict biblical scenes and messages alongside mythological images (Shepherd 1996). It would appear that the carvers of the stones saw no reason for Christ and Odin not to coexist side by side. The tapestry of Skog, though not a rune stone, is another example of the two religions blending almost harmoniously (Graslund 2008). Eventually, rune stones were replaced by ink and paper, but even in the written word, measuring the degrees of belief is difficult.

            The written sources that describe the conversion period are few and riddled with problems. Perhaps the most famous is Adam of Bremen’s clumsy history of Angsar’s missions into Scandinavia. Aside from bungling a number of facts, Adam, like his contemporary ecclesiastical authors, buries the truth under exaggerations (Tschan 2002). Snorri Sturluson’s HeimskringlaI may be more organized than Adam’s account but it is no less problematic due to its being written centuries after the conversion period and through the lens of a Christian worldview (Hollander 1964). That is not to say that the sources cannot be useful. On the contrary, texts like the Royal Frankish Annals provide invaluable information regarding the spread of Christianity, in particular Harald Klak’s groundbreaking baptism in 826 (Scholz 1970). It is essential to read these sources carefully as they carry outsider biases, or, as what happens in most hagiographies, are written to make a certain saint look much holier in retrospect (Sanmark 2004).

            The laws, while a more concrete source, also survive in manuscripts that were put together centuries after they were put into effect (Geltig 2004). Christian laws, such as the banning of certain pagan practices, appear to have been implemented almost immediately following a state’s official conversion (Gronlie 2006). The earliest Christian laws started to take hold around 1020 and are concerned with practical issues that did not require a priest’s supervision, such as feast days or burying bodies in churchyards (Sanmark 2005). The Icelandic sagas are the only source that can shed light on how these laws were actually enforced, and even these are inconclusive (Miller 1990).

            To give better context to Scandinavia’s Christianization, Sanmark uses the conversions of Saxony, Frisia, and Anglo-Saxon England as a comparison (2004). Even though there are similarities, like the 150-year conversion time frame, it is an unfair comparison because of the political disadvantages in Scandinavia, which lay outside of the Roman periphery (Shepherd 1996). When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity stepped into the void it left behind. The church then took over the bureaucratic system the Romans had created and developed a strong ecclesiastical network that would define the Catholic Church for centuries to come. At this time to be Roman was to essentially be Christian (Read 1999). The Roman structure that was in place in Britain and Frisia made their conversions much easier—both had been part of the Roman world, and both contained towns to support ecclesiastical centers (Shepherd 1996). This may explain why the top-down conversion method worked in the fragmented Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Saxony, on the other hand, was a forced conversion (Scholz 1970). Against its will, the kingdom was enveloped into the already established Christian Carolingian Empire who wasted no time in setting up diocese to maintain the ecclesiastical order (Roesdahl 2008).

            Without the Roman institution in place, the missionaries, followed by the secular rulers, had to adapt in order to Christianize. For instance, Norway and Sweden lacked sovereign kings and had yet to be unified near the end of the 10th century (Hollander 1964). Churches had become major assets to the Christian rulers of Europe, and they needed towns and cities to thrive (Downham 2012). Inspired, Scandinavian kings developed some of the first urban areas in order for Christianity to flourish (Androshchuk 2011). This may not have been unique, but the Vikings appear in many cases to have converted on their own terms.

Romans were the first Christian punx.

            The Vikings also seemed to take Gregory’s message to heart. The Scandinavian church for centuries took on its own independent nature, especially in Greenland and Iceland (Byock 2001). The geographical isolation surely played a part in Icelandic secular laws influencing the church more effectively than the papacy (Byock 2001). In both island communities, churches were built on private land, in direct opposition of Roman tradition (Arnborg 2008). The mainland Scandinavian churches may have operated more within the European norm, but Christianity existed for many years with the Norse pagan paradigm (Graslund and Lager 2008). For instance, bishops served in the king’s royal hird, rather than in a more ecclesiastical position (Krag 2008). The lack of conformity to the global church begs the same question that inspired Melnikova’s article: just how Christian were the Vikings?

            The blurred lines of Scandinavia’s brand of Christianity and the lack of hard evidence of beliefs and attitudes could be the result of the opportunistic Vikings using Christianity as just another stage on which to operate. When Vladamir raided in Constantinople, he became all too aware of the benefits that accompanied monotheism (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000). Vikings were known to feign Christianity simply to trade with the Muslim Caliphate (Mikkelson 2008). The Rus likewise were baptized in order to serve the Byzantine Emperor (Tolochko 2011). The Vikings appear to be taking advantage of the benefits that Christianity presented, just as they had taken advantage of splintered kingdoms or defenseless monasteries.

            The benefits of inclusion came from an internal desire to convert to Christianity, not because of missionary work, but because the secular leaders acknowledged what they as individuals and their kingdoms stood to gain by joining the Christian community. Political pressure was certainly a factor, particularly in Denmark, but there is more to the conversion than external threats (Sanmark 2004). No evidence of forced baptism has been found in either Denmark or Sweden, and both kingdoms seemed to have been more than willing to allow missionaries to serve within their boundaries (Sanmark 2004). Iceland’s conversion, though tumultuous during the first phase of missionary work, came to a peaceful and pragmatic head at the Althing (Gronlie 2002). Only the Orkneys and Norway showed substantial resistance to Christianity, and in both cases wealthy earls and petty kings found their independence being wiped out by Olaf Tryggvason who was a powerful and Christian warrior (Crawford 2013). Norway, at least on the surface, seems to be the odd one out.

            Norway’s conversion was violent, but the reasons behind the resistance, like in the Orkney Islands, are often misinterpreted (Sanmark 2004). The Norwegian farmers were not fighting against Christ; they were fighting against tyrannical kings who were unabashedly breaking traditional laws and doing away with the local jarls (Hollander 1964). Both Olaf Tryggvason and Saint Olaf had spent time raiding in Christian kingdoms overseas and both were baptized at the courts of different Christian kings (Derry 1979). They would have seen firsthand the wealth and organization that Christianity could bring to a kingdom, not to mention how the religion could bolster and strengthen their own kingships (Somerville and McDonald 2010). The man who fully realized the potential of what Christianity could do for a Viking king was Cnut. He watched his father wring out thousands of pounds from England before eventually taking the throne himself (Lawson 2004). Cnut seemed determined to be a player on the European stage, and in order to act the part, had to fashion himself after the rulers on the continent. He brought the ecclesiastical organization from England to Denmark, attended coronations on the continent, and even made a pilgrimage to Rome (Lawson 2004). Cnut was the ultimate Viking opportunist, carrying on the spirit of the heroes before him but within a new and organized context.

Cnut trying very hard to fit in

            Could the Christianization of Scandinavia be an extension of Viking opportunism? The Rus equated serving in Christian Byzantium with a degree of wealth and prestige (Tolochko 2011). The Scandinavians modeled their coins after the Anglo-Saxon mints, impressed more by their power and wealth than any religious affiliation (Geltig 2004). The lack of opposition to the religion and what appears to be welcoming invitations to missionaries stand in stark contrast to popular depictions of Vikings (Downham 2012). The fact is that Vikings took what they could get wherever they could get it: an outpost in Greenland, a duchy in Normandy, a town in Ireland, an earldom in Orkney. Yet they also knew when to give in. When confronted by the formidable Alfred the Great, the Vikings retreated behind the Danelaw (Garmonsway 1972). The aggressive Native Americans and the intense winters of North America gave the Vikings enough trouble that they abandoned their Vinland camp (Fitzhugh and Ward 2000).

            With a history of preying on pressure points and striking while the iron was hot, there is no reason to think that the Vikings did not see Christianity as one last opportunity to achieve that power, prestige, and wealth they sought throughout the Viking Age. Of course, the riches that could be gained as part of a Christian kingdom outweighed what could be stolen from churches and monasteries and with much less personal risk! In fact, there is evidence that they were well aware of this fact, choosing to take part in pre-baptism rituals but refusing to be actually baptized (Sanmark 2004). By performing these rituals, Vikings, like Harald Klak, were able to leave the door to Christianity open in case they needed it (Robinson 1921). The evidence suggests that Christianity in the north was chaotic and that the Viking rulers seemed to pick and choose what religious customs they would adhere to and made them their own.

            If this was indeed the case, it is no wonder why measuring the Christianization of Scandinavia is so ineffectual. Because of the geography, the lack of towns, and the lack of Roman institutions, the first phase of the conversion was not seen as all that successful (Sanmark 2004). Angsar and Rimbert had to lower their expectations and just try to convey the essentials of Christ as a god rather than embark on any theology (Melnikova 2011). Some Vikings took these teachings gladly and incorporated them into their own existing beliefs. Ambitious contenders dominated the second phase of the conversion, whose goals were not to convert for the sake of Christ but for their own political ends, which culminated in King Cnut shamelessly advertising his desire to be on the same level as his European contemporaries. There can be no doubt that Christianity’s movement throughout Scandinavia can be marked and followed, but the evidence tells us very little about common attitudes and behaviors. The Vikings were aware of Christianity and its beliefs, but how much this actually affected the lives of those brilliant opportunists is impossible to tell.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Grass is Deader on Every Side

In the wake of the recent tragedy, I attempted to contact an officer that I had met in order to get his take on the whole ordeal. To offset his side, Jeff Grunewald, who specializes in the study of hate crime, had agreed to answer some questions. Unfortunately, the officer never responded and History Books never took on the Ferguson case.

With the non-indictments of both officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I felt that I needed to write something down, say something out loud. Nothing said here will change anything, but at least for my peace of mind, I want to be able say it.

I don't necessarily have a unique view, but because of my occupation I am able to see certain sides that I think some people cannot see. Let me start with a few things.

Unless you are a police officer, you have no idea how terrifying and difficult that job can be. I have taken some 911 phone calls that have scared the shit out of me, and I cannot imagine actually being there and dealing with those people and those situations in person. I won't say it is a thankless job because they tend to pat each other on the back and there are many out there who respect what they do. I consider myself included. They put themselves at risk every day to ensure order and maintain peace.

However. . .

I have met some officers who actively seek conflict. I have watched officers who thrive off of the adrenaline rush, who create games and contests at the expense of citizens. Short tempered and abrasive, some officers demand respect, and when it is not given, things get out of hand. I have never witnessed any officer I have worked with ever display what I thought was excessive force. But I heard the stories they told and picked up on their attitudes. It's a tough job and quite possibly the only way to cope is to become tougher.

On the other hand, I met plenty of officers who truly cared about their communities, who strove to be a positive force. One explained to me that he never liked pulling over people without a good reason because he knew it was scary. I couldn't believe my ears! At one agency, the traffic stops increased when the officers got bored. I'm sure there are plenty of statistics involved and perhaps some quotas to fill. But in the end, it seemed to me, and this has been acknowledged by other dispatchers, that there are two types of officers: those who do their job and those who live their job.

Which type of officers killed those two men?

The answer is irrelevant. The fact is that both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo took another person's life.

Whether they were good at their jobs or were bullies in uniforms does not matter at this point. There HAS to be repercussions for killing another human being.

There have been unfortunate whispers in the discussion as to why no one cares about black on black crime, or stories of a black officer killing a white citizen.These tangents do not take away the amount of black lives that have been erased by law enforcement. And shame on any of you who tried those antics. You were belittling two lives.

The "what about this?" argument accomplishes nothing. When an Indianapolis police officer passed away in the line of duty, the community mourned his loss. When people were run down in Broad Ripple, the community mourned their loss. The majority of this country does not delight in violence and whether you or the Facebook posts you read are aware of it, THERE ARE PEOPLE TRYING TO DO THINGS ABOUT IT.

Cure Violence
Force Change
Peace Over Violence

...just to name a few.

And, again unfortunately, officers are always going to back each other. It's a brotherhood that seems to ignore certain moralities and says, "I'm here for you no matter what." An admiral sentiment, and even an understandable one. No one but fellow officers can understand the hardships they face. Blind support, however, has its snags. What happens when their brothers are wrong? Neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner had a brotherhood to lean on. The police community will rally around fallen officers or endangered officers, for good reasons. But the community has to be able to acknowledge its mistakes because these facts cannot be denied:

Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner. Neither were held accountable for their actions. Part of me thinks that the reason they were not indicted was to save Ferguson from further harm, but does the grand jury and the police force understand the message they are sending to us? Neither man's life was worthy enough to be looked at in a court of justice. Think about that. It would be one thing if the facts showed in court that there was a shadow of doubt, that there was some truth to Officer Wilson's story, and they were acquitted by a jury. But the families do not even get that.

In both cases, at least from a 911 dispatcher's point of view, protocol was broken. Speaking to a couple dispatchers, one of whom used to be an officer and another who is a veteran, provided their thoughts on the matter: If Wilson's account is true, they said, they would have fired 20 more times. But even then, they should have gone to trial to present a defense, to at least give some dignity to Michael Brown who was shot multiple times and left in the street to rot.

What do we do now? Are we to be terrified or defiant? The backlash against protesting, both peaceful and violent, has been huge. But what do we do? Our country just told us twice in a brief period of time that these two citizens, these two black men, did not matter enough to receive a fair trial by a jury of their peers. What if the only way to be heard is through destruction?

I heard this question often: why would you destroy your own community?
Because your own community just told you that your life isn't worth a god damn.

I do not hate cops. I am thankful for the service they provide and I do my best to follow the laws that they were hired to enforce.

But black lives DO matter. Criminal lives DO matter. Homeless, deadbeat, white trash, immigrant lives DO matter. Police officers' lives DO matter.

Whatever Michael Brown did that day does not matter. A confrontation occurred between an unarmed man and an officer who sat in a running vehicle with multiple non-lethal options at his fingertips, one of which he did not take with him that day because it was cumbersome. Whatever Eric Garner did that day does not matter. According to the video, he was nonviolent. And even if he said the worst possible thing a man can say to another man, Officer Pantaleo had a fucking duty to serve and protect that man. If a law was in fact broken, then there is protocol in place so that officers would not have to resort to a choke-hold--a tactic that had since been disbanded.

Now the grass is deader on every side. Black men will be more defiant, demanding to be treated as equals, to not be hassled. And officers, who are already on edge, will respond with their continued history of aggression. I can't tell you how many calls I've received saying that there were suspicious black men in the area. One time, we caught a thief! Another time, two men were sitting in their car on their lunch break. Another time, a man was stopped while walking home from work. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, the officers are RESPONDING TO A CITIZEN'S CALL. Very rarely does an officer self-initiate a suspicious activity. We are the ones asking them to see what those black men are up to.

On the other side, officers have one goal at the end of the day: to make it home. They are going to shoot you before you shoot them. And can you honestly blame them, with the shit they have to see? That badge gives you a right to carry a gun, and I think most of the general public puts their trust in you to make the right decision. You won't always make the right decision. And when you don't, you have to admit it.

Would anything have changed if Officer Wilson had come out immediately and said, "Yes, I shot and killed Michael Brown. I wish that I hadn't, but my life was in danger and it was the decision I made"? I don't know. It certainly would have been better than the PR circus that followed, slandering the deceased Brown's name and ultimately attempting to justify those shots fired.

The ends do not justify the means. Criminals are put into prison, not fired upon. And unarmed citizens should not shot multiple times or choked until they die. Again, any past transgressions are irrelevant now. Even if Mike Brown stole some cigarillos, does that justify his murder? How can a terrorist or school shooter or theater shooter be kept alive to stand trial when a man minding his own business on the streets of New York City is murdered without a second thought given to his killer?

A precedent hasn't been set--it has been fortified. Two unarmed, black citizens were murdered by police officers and not one god damn thing has been done about it.

There is an impasse: officers will not want to give up their guns. The minute they follow non-lethal protocol, an officer will be killed and we will have another controversial tragedy on our hands. But I guarantee you the man who kills him, regardless of his skin color, will see the inside of a courtroom. Here is the only point I am making: Michael Brown's life was worth just as much as Darren Wilson's life and should be treated that way. Eric Garner's life was worth the same amount as any officer. His passing should be mourned by the country. An officer understands and accepts the risks and responsibilities when he puts on that uniform--he chose this profession. What choice does a black man have? Dress the way white people want him to so that he doesn't look like a thug? What about a poor man? Mexican immigrant?

I am in NO WAY down-playing what law enforcement has to face and the demons that probably torment them for the decisions they have to make. I can almost guarantee that both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo made a thousand good and right choices that helped citizens and their communities, decisions that hurt no one, decisions that caused them to quietly and thanklessly sacrifice certain things and we should be grateful for that duty. But they both made just one terrible decision, whether or not you think it was warranted. The bottom line is that these officers killed two black men, to add on to the growing list, and walked away without anyone in the judicial system even saying, "Wait a second, let's at least give this a once over." Both officers could have been exonerated, but at least they would have stood trial and held accountable. But they weren't, and our country sent a message loud and clear: black lives do not matter.