CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Must man always talk like other people or keep quiet? ... Not the slightest truth could show its head without arousing anger and jeers," wrote Emile Zola in 1866.
Zola could have, had he been asked, enumerated instances of the slightest truth arousing anger and jeers or instances of the most radical truth bestirring madness and maledictions and murder.
I learned Zola's lesson, not from my parents or schools, but from experience. I learned it, when as a teacher in Virginia, I wrote letters to newspapers denouncing unequivocally Virginia's legislative and judicial reaction to Brown v. the Board of Education, which was to let the blacks have the poor public schools and to build model private schools for the whites. My employment as a teacher was terminated forthwith.
It was not an event of any historical consequence. It was just a disillusioning awakening for a naive idealist. But it was a lesson, even though insignificant, that caused me to cease and remember when I read the quote from Zola. It came back to me when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
She refused to keep quiet. She came to confront the Islamic fundamentalists and do what she could to counter their influence in her country. She angered them with secular and rational talk, and they murdered her. She is the latest in a history of men and women who have refused to keep quiet and have suffered the consequence.
Jesus, a carpenter, would not leave ill alone. He spoke up and infuriated the orthodox and ruling theocrats. He taught from a mount the most radical, unsettling message ever recorded. Even today, 2,000 years since, his teachings are so morally challenging they are rationalized or subordinated to less exacting morals. For his efforts to create a more humane and equitable world, he was crucified. Martin Luther King walked in his footsteps and died from a bigot's bullet.
Michael Sevetus (1511-1553) a physician and theologian, who was a doctor to a bishop couldn't be quiet. He couldn't accept the irrational concept of the trinity and clandestinely wrote that he couldn't. His heresy was discovered by the Inquisition, and on Oct. 27, 1853, by order of Calvin, he was burned at the stake. He was one of thousands who disturbed the placid waters of orthodoxy arousing anger and jeers and homicidal retaliation from the clerical hierarchy.
Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, looked into the heavens, studied the stars and decided that conventional wisdom was incorrect: That, in fact, the earth wasn't the center of the universe and that the sun did not circle the earth but that the earth circled the sun. Thus, man was suddenly reduced from the Prince of the Universe to a mere inhabitant of a planet among many planets and of one of an infinite number of celestial bodies in an infinite universe. He angered every Christian in Christendom.
Giordano Bruno, a philosopher-priest, on Feb. 17, 1600, pursuant to a decree of inquisitional authorities, was brought by his executioners from a dungeon where he had languished for seven years, was stripped of his clothing, gagged and in the center of Rome's Compo di Fiori square burned to death. His crime was that he had contumaciously over a period of 10 years refused to recant his belief, among others, that the earth was not the center of the universe and not the body around which the sun revolved. Who in Christendom now believes the earth is the center of the universe?
By every historical measure of the range of radical and revolutionary change in the beliefs of mankind, the conversion brought about by Charles Darwin's revelations in "Origin of the Species" and "The Descent of Man" is unparalleled. Prior to Darwin there was little question that mankind's origin occurred as related in the Book of Genesis of the Holy Bible. The Creation of man and all else was the work of a God in six days some 10,000 years ago. Darwin's theory upended that concept of life's beginning. Thus began a heated controversy that has continued for 150 years. It was fortunate for Darwin that he did not live in the times of the Inquisition.