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Concerning four flags and two tees

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]

Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.


My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.


Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?

Raqqa, Syria: the Stations of the Cross

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a small devotional exercise for our sometimes too-secular world ]

In the upper image of the pair above, a crowd in Raqqa, Syria, is protesting the desecration of a church by Islamist enthusiasts who had pulled down the cross atop a church. The people of Raqaa took to the streets in protest, chanting:

Syria belongs to Muslims & Christians.

The Roman Catholic devotion known as the Stations of the Cross involves a prayerful mini-pilgrimage around fourteen “stations” representing stages in the passion and crucifixion of Christ — each of which is traditionally marked with an image of the “station” in question. In the case illustrated in the lower panel above, the station is that of Simon of Cyrene, who was pressganged into bearing the weight of the cross on his shoulders for part of the way, to give the agonized Christ some relief.

The good people of Raqqa are thus enacting, informally, with courage and grace, the Station in which Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross. And there’s an echo here, too, of Christ’s injunction recorded at Luke 9.23:

And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

There’s a spontaneous beauty that crosses the lines between two world religions — and secularism — in all this.


But the cross itself also suffers its indignities, and thus the two images of the pair that follows can also be considered Stations of the Cross.

In the upper image (below), the cross is removed by State of Iraq and al-Sham militants from its proper station atop the church, to be replaced with their black banner one of their number is holding, while in the lower image we see another screen cap of the townspeople, who have retrieved the cross and are carrying it through the streets to safety:

The people are chanting:

Syria belongs to Muslims & Christians.

Nairobi tweets 1: Bulletproof?

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — taking a hint from the twitter stream of HSM Press and running with it ]


As of Monday morning 11am California time:

I now think it’s clear that the twitter stream I was commenting on in this post and the second in the series was not an official Shabaab feed, and thus untrustworthy as to its statements — although it’s exact status (fan, mimic, troll, loosely connected?) is undetermined.

I am leaving the post up (a) for the record, and (b) for whatever minor interest it may still have.

Original post:

Al-Shabaab’s “HSM Press Office” had been tweeting up a storm during the Nairobi mall “operation” — it’s been shut down at least rwice, maybe more? — and some of the claims made are worth a little exploration. Let’s start with the “bullet-proof” claim:


For some (not by any means exhaustive) historical context on that, consider this report from the Phillipines a decade ago:

The kidnapped head of the Jesus Miracle Crusade, fiery televangelist Wilde Almeda, particularly has special powers that will protect him from bullets, said Robert Chua, a member of the group. Almeda and the 12 other members of his ministry went to the camp of the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf in southern Jolo island on Saturday to pray over 20 mostly-foreign hostages seized by the rebels from a Malaysian resort on April 23 and to convince the kidnappers to free their captives. The military says they together with a German journalist, Andreas Lorenz, are also now being held hostage by the notorious Abu Sayyaf.

This, from Myanmar:

Thailand said Wednesday it may give humanitarian asylum to Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twin boy leaders of a mystical rebel movement from Myanmar who have surrendered with some of their followers. Hunted and hungry, 14 members of the God’s Army group – nine of them children, including the charismatic twins – turned themselves over to Thai authorities on Tuesday after a year on the run along the Thai-Myanmar border. For more than three years, the boys fought to overthrow Myanmar’s military government, and their followers believe Johnny and Luther have magical powers that make them invincible in battle.

Or this from the Lakota Ghost Dancers:

The presence of the troops frightened the dancers into running for the outlying areas of the some skirmishes fought. One legend of the Ghost Shirt was born during one of these skirmishes. The Ghost Shirt was part of the special clothing worn while dancing the Ghost Dance. The Sioux were the only Indians to give the Ghost Shirt bullet proof qualities. (2-42) During one of the skirmishes with the soldiers, a lone Indian rode his pony within easy rifle range of soldiers, line and allowed them to fire on him. Whether true to the qualities of the Ghost Shirt he was wearing, or due to the poor shooting of the soldiers he escaped unscathed.

And this, from Thomas Muentzer‘s Anabaptist deviants in Martin Luther‘s early Protestant Europe:

They’re singing hymns. They literally are awaiting a glorious triumph. Muentzer assures them that he will catch the cannonballs in his shirthhsleeves. Of course, it turned into a slaughter. Five thousand ill-equipped peasants were slaughtered. The Peasants’ Revolt was utterly destroyed. It was one of those incredible explosions of apocalypticism that arise in history.


Just whether the individuals in the Nairobi mall or tweeting for HSM Press take that “bullet-proof” reference literally or figuratively is an open question.

For a sense of the levels of non-scientific thinking — ie shamanism aka “witchcraft” — in today’s Kenya, see for instance this semi-skeptical account and its apocalyptic touch, or perhaps Believe it or not: Witchcraft in Kenya, with this interesting and quite relevant paragraph:

Another friend’s sister was victim of a grenade attack at a church in Mombasa. Shattered glass went everywhere but she, standing at the window, was not injured. She said that people were muttering things about the protection afforded by genies. Interestingly, she was at church but had recently converted to Islam, not that anyone knew. Not anyone visible, anyway.

And before we assume that all these experiments pitting prayer against guns always turn out badly for the prayerful side — it’s worth noting that “fiery televangelist Wilde Almeda” survived to tell the tale….


There’s a great deal more of interest on several levels in the HSM tweets, but I’ll break here and pick up in a following post.

Of nested and coiled serpents in logic

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — another exploration into forms of insight — in this case the Matrioshka effect, spiral staircases and the like, with a glance at holy winds and human fingertips ]

A mention of blogs about blogs about blogs seems to me to qualify for the “nested serpent” category of forms that are worth watching out for, the nest (or spiral, from which I am guessing the nest is not entirely separable) being of particular interest because while seemingly simple enough, it all too often reaches at one end or both into the infinities, where paradox meets epiphany… as my second example will show.

But first, by sheer good fortune, I came across this verse from the book of Ecclesiastes as I was polishing this post for publication:

The winde goeth toward the South, and turneth about vnto the North; it whirleth about continually, and the winde returneth againe according to his circuits.


That’s the pattern we’re looking for, and I ran across it recently in a comment my friend Allen Stairs made, and the response he received:

Okay, I didn’t follow — so I asked Allen for an explanation, and he wrote me:

Actually. “equipollent” was a bad choice of terms. “Equinumerous” wold have been better.

But the thing about numbers and those dolls: natural numbers have their identity intrinsically, so to speak. In set theory, one way to represent them is as the series

1 = {Ø}, 2 = {Ø,{Ø}}, 3 = {Ø,{Ø,{Ø}}}, etc.

In fact, we can even use the simpler construction

1 = {Ø}, 2 = {{Ø}}, 3 = {{{Ø}}}, etc.

So if we’re given the set, its structure tells us which number it is. I

Now a finite set of Russian dolls does much the same thing. We could count the innermost one as 1, the next as 2, the next as 3, and so on, and if you were given the doll, you’d be able to tell which number it represented. Or if we wanted, we could let the outermost doll represent 1, and work our way in. But if we take the set of all natural numbers, things get a little wonkier. The thing about a set of dolls is that there’s an outer one; the charm is in the fact that there’s a place to start opening them. So suppose we have an infinitely nested set of dolls. What number does the outermost one correspond to? It can’t be a natural number, because for any natural number, the nesting would have to be finite. It can’t be the infinite number Aleph-null because among other things, if the nesting is infinite downward then each doll has the same structure as the one that encloses it, and so it seems that there’s no way for the individual dolls to represent distinct integers.

Now if we’re given the whole set of dolls, there’s a sort of substitute: match dolls to numbers depending on how many “predecessors” they have. The outermost doll has no predecessors, so let it be 1; the next one in has 1 predecessor, so let it be 2. And so on. But we still have a problem: there’s nothing about the doll itself that tells us which integer it represents.

So my little point was that Harold’s joke was about “how many?” but the thing about the dolls is that they might seem at first to have the right structure to represent the natural numbers, and yet they don’t — at least, not the whole set of natural numbers.


Did Ecclesiastes mention the winds? Here’s a discussion of wind spirals from David Avram‘s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World:

Although invisible, the Holy Wind can be recognized by the swirling and spiraling traces that it continually leaves in the visible world. The Winds that enter a human being leave their trace, according to the Navajo, in the vortices or swirling patterns to be seen on our fingertips and the tips of our toes, and in the spiraling pattern made by the hairs as they emerge from our heads. As one elder explains:

There are whorls here at the tips of our fingers. Winds stick out here. It is the same way on the toes of our feet, and Winds exist on us here where soft spots are, where there are spirals. At the tops of our heads some children have two spirals, some have only one, you see. I am saying that those (who have two) live by means of two Winds. These (Winds sticking out of the) whorls at the tips of our toes hold us to the Earth. Those at our fingertips hold us to the Sky. Because of these, we do not fall when we move about.

That last italicized quote is from James Kale McNeley, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy — a remarkable book for anyone interested in the holiness of spirit…

Flags, shrouds, martyrs and the Fallen

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — burial flags, shrouds on the unknown, and the black banner seen from a new angle ]

I feel grief.


We are, by now, all too well aware of the cost of war in lives. Sometimes those lives are of unknown souls, perhaps belligerents, perhaps partisans, perhaps peace-makers, perhaps simple souls caught in the cross-fire…

Caitlin Fit Gerald has a suitable memorial for those recently dead in Egypt, which I won’t reproduce here because I would make her already scaled-down images even smaller and less impressive if I did — click through to The Dead, When The Dying Is Done, then click again to see the images at better scale.


Sometimes the dead are our foes.

What interests me particularly on this occasion is seeing the Sunni Islamist black banner in what is for me a new context — draped like the Shi’ite flag of Islamist Hezballah on the martyrs of their faith.


It raises for me another question: Hezbollah and the Salafi jihadists alike term their dead “martyrs”. We honor ours no less, wrapping them in symbols of that greater cause for which they gave their lives — “country” — and call them “patriots” to distinguish their cause, and “heroes” to salute their courage.

Yet they gave their lives. To indicate and honor this, we call them “the Fallen” — and perhaps in its quiet way it is enough.

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