Remember Aaron Swartz

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Homily

As an itinerant author and educator considered over-qualified in the current climate within higher education, where marketing strategies now dominate, I wish to offer a little tribute in remembrance of Aaron Swartz, who suffered from depression, as I have all my life. Like me, Aaron was also a casualty of our country’s growing uneasiness with intelligence, expertise, and learning, what Richard Hoftstadter eloquently defined fifty years ago in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963). I ask with genuine pain and disbelief, what has become of us as a nation when we seek abroad for scholars far less qualified intellectually than Aaron Swartz while persecuting our own? How much better we would be if we could accept all of these gifts–theirs and his–with equanimity and cultivate them for the common good.

To Aaron’s friends and family, and others who feel as I do that his death is a genuine loss, I would offer a brief homily drawn from one of the most widely known works in the English language, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678, 1684). Folklore has it that it was written by John Bunyan, an indefatigable Protestant preacher (1628-1688), while he in jail. Like Aaron Swartz, who had to face the possibility of serving prison time for his beliefs, Bunyan was imprisoned repeatedly for insisting on disseminating teachings it was illegal for him both to publish and to “profess.” It is a stark reminder that our legal system, which owes such a great deal to that of England, is still a work in progress–and should be. I wish John Bunyan could have counseled Aaron Swartz, both to assuage his fear of prison and to alleviate the suffering caused by his personal demons. In Bedfordshire, England, Bunyan was kept in a fairly lax jail from which he was occasionally allowed to come and go. Whenever free, he returned to his Puritan congregation to preach the word of God as he saw it, so he ended up imprisoned time and again. Nevertheless, he was a family man, who lost one wife shortly after his first imprisonment at the age of thirty and married another to care for his four children (one of whom was blind); by his second wife, he had two more children. Besides writing “The Pilgrim’s Progress” during two separate, years’-long periods of imprisonment and maintaining a congregation of about sixty other prisoners while in jail, John Bunyan managed somehow to support his family, in part by weaving shoelaces. Though “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was popular in his lifetime, when not in prison, he lived as an itinerant preacher and probably never made a living from his book that was for centuries the second work in English missionaries worldwide translated after the Bible. No homily would be complete without a quotation from scripture, and for this I select the famous account of how one pilgrim ended his journey, as has our young prodigy Aaron, and passed over to the other side:

After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons by the same post as the other, and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends and told them of it. Then said he, “I am going to my Father’s, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me to be witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.” When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which, as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper he said, “Grave, where is they victory?” [I Corinthians 15:55] So he passed over, and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Bonnie Jean Birtwistle