A Powerful Tool to Uncover and Uproot the Origins of White Supremacy

“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television”  Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”.  The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO.  The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.

Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States.  President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.”  The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.

The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present.  The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective.  “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer.  In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment.  “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings.  What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.

HBO)

In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil.  The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862.  Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor  continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.  

This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege.  Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history.  Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power.  An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education  that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.

There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S.   “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated.  “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone.  In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place.  “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”

Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition.  In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed.  Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.

Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries.  An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”.   While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film.  Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.

From Piacenza to Alabama – Amazon Workers Unite

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union on the eve of strikes at 15 Italian Amazon warehouses: “In Italy, Germany, Spain and in Bessemer, Alabama, and elsewhere, Amazon workers are demanding conditions that respect their dignity as human beings and jobs that do not put their safety at risk.” 

Amazon employees are joining internationally to oppose the mega corporation’s squeezing of its workers for huge gains in profits and stock price.  While the loss of the Alabama vote to form a union disappointed, the company is facing a swelling tide of indignation over the heartless treatment of its workers.  One of them who helped lead the organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse pointed to the international impact of their movement.  58 year old Perry Connelly told In These Times that the organizing team realized that if a union could be formed in the most anti-union region of the U.S. “we’ll be making a huge difference not only in Alabama, but globally”.

Coinciding with the end of voting in Alabama, workers went on strike at six Amazon warehouses in Germany on the Monday of Easter week.  The German strike was planned with the traditional Easter buying surge as well as the customary Polish workers’ holiday in mind. This prevented the company from relying on its Polish Amazon warehouses to fill the season’s orders.  A worker at one of the German Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the company’s term for its warehouses, led in organizing Amazon Workers International (AWI) that has enlisted workers at 175 Amazon facilities worldwide. 

Another German Amazon worker described coordinated international strikes as Amazon’s “biggest fear”. He went on to summarize the importance of the Alabama struggle to form a union, “If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” he said and further emphasized, “If one fulfilment center falls, everything will go.”  His assessment is supported by the magnitude and variety of Amazon tactics to defeat the union in Alabama.

The company initially counted 1500 workers as the warehouse labor force but at the National Labor Relations Board hearing two months later (after the U.S. presidential election) submitted 5,800 as the total.  The union organizers had no trouble garnering the threshold of 30% of the work force’s signatures to hold the election, but they could not counter the intimidation tactics that led many card-signing workers to vote no.

Constant surveillance and inhumane pressures to produce on ten hour shifts have led Amazon workers internationally to declare, “We are not robots”.

The company had Bessemer change the location of traffic lights to force organizers to contact workers directly in front of the warehouse entrance.  A postal service mailbox was installed in the facility parking lot and employees were encouraged to use it for their election ballots.  Outspoken union supporters were removed from and/or not allowed in the mandatory anti-union one hour “training sessions” the company repeatedly held in the pre-election period.  A few days after its defeat, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  Not included in the list of charges is the fact that Amazon hired a consultant with the Center for Independent Employees to advise on how to defeat the union.  The Center receives substantial funding from the ultra-conservative billionaire Charles Koch and its President also heads RWP Labor which declares its mission is to maintain union-free workplaces across the U.S.

Amazon’s intimidation of individual employees and threats to cut pay and benefits, if not close the warehouse, are standard tactics in U.S. companies’ response to union organizing.  Widespread media coverage of the Alabama vote along with support by the Biden administration have helped call attention to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass the House bill to Protect the Right to Organize or PRO Act.  Nearly all the anti-union practices deployed by Amazon during the Bessemer campaign would be illegal under the PRO legislation. 

In his summary of how U.S. labor law currently favors companies in their defeat of union organizing one union official drew a comparison. “Imagine the 2020 elections but only [former President Donald] Trump was allowed to talk to voters” Ryan Kekeris told journalist Rebekah Entralgo. “Biden had to stay in Canada and shout over the border, and Trump and his supporters had unfettered access to corral U.S. voters into a room, forbid you from leaving, and tell you that you had to vote for Trump,” Kekeris continued. He concluded by noting, “Now imagine that under the eyes of the law this is considered completely fair and legal. That is how U.S. labor law works right now.”

Senate passage of the PRO Act appears unlikely but the U.S. Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may well call for another vote in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse.  And the Alabama workers’ dramatic and bold example has fired organizing at warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California.  Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign stated following the announcement of the defeat in Alabama, “This is just the first round.”  He emphasized that “Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote”.  The North Carolina-based leader praised the Alabama workers as having “set a fresh trend in the South”.

Likely to be of even greater concern to Amazon in the long run is the progress made among labor organizers in creating ties with workers in the U.S. and internationally.  There are currently an estimated 1,538 Amazon facilities in the world: 290 in Europe, 294 in India and 887 in North America.  When workers went on strike at 15 of the company’s warehouses in Italy, some carried banners that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama – One Big Union”. A Dutch Amazon worker involved in the international organization Make Amazon Pay told The Intercept last year, “Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition”. Concluding his case for support of its work force uniting across borders, he noted, “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”

U.S. Workers at a Crossroads

In one of the 15 countries participating in an Amazon Black Friday 2020 protest, Bangladesh garment workers’ march for fair wages and a union as participants in the company’s global supply chain (Mamunur Rashid of Nur Photos via Getty Images)

On this Good Friday in the U.S. we await the result of the most significant union organizing drive in decades.  Workers in Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse have voted this month on creating the first collective bargaining unit in one of this country’s multiple Amazon “fulfillment centers”.  A yes vote will mean the 6,000 Bessemer warehouse workers will negotiate on their wages, benefits and working conditions that now are determined solely by the corporation’s management and board with the aim of maximizing profits and the price of company stock.

With growth of the global economy in the late sixties and early seventies, the number and strength of union organized workers has fallen dramatically in the U.S.  As manufacturing jobs in “heavy industries” like steel and automobile have grown overseas, they have been replaced by jobs in the retail sales, restaurants and fast food, transport and warehouses of the “service sector”.  Global trade distributes products to consumers around the world products made outside their country’s borders. This applies as well to purchases made by U.S. manufacturing companies for assembly of their products.

The largest retail sales company in the U.S. and the world today did not exist before 1962.  Wal Mart was founded and has grown on a business plan wholly dependent on the global economy and lower costs for labor.  Advances in shipping and air transport permitted the company to rely on importing products made at much lower wages, from China in particular, and selling them in sprawling stores at prices below the competition.  Low wage labor overseas was complemented by steadfast, and often fierce, opposition to unions being formed by their U.S. workers.  The result is a dependence by many Wal Mart workers on meager U.S. government programs of food stamps, health care, and housing.

Little progress in union organizing has been made in the past five decades among the U.S. service industries’ workers.  Prevailing anti-union media references, the dwindling power and funding of union organizing and state and federal governments’ failure to defend the right to organize have militated against the organizing of service sector workers.  The “neo-liberal” economic policies proposed by politicians of both parties, ex-President Clinton being the leading example among Democrats, have left workers with little support from those in power.  

Among President Biden’s programs and positions representing reform of U.S. capitalism the most significant among them could be the administration’s outspoken support for unions and organized labor.  A former union leader has been named to the Cabinet position of Secretary of Labor for the first time in fifty years.  More vigilant oversight of company malpractice in opposing organizing and the holding of elections is promised.  And President Biden himself has urged Amazon workers to vote yes on a union at the Alabama warehouse.  These gestures could signal growing recognition of the role of organized labor in creating a stronger economy and healthier social climate in this country.

Seattle Amazon warehouse employee marches in Black Friday 2020 international protest (Jason Redmond/Agence France Presse- Getty Images)

The organizing campaign among the Alabama Amazon workers has been aided by an international effort to “Make Amazon Pay” higher taxes in all countries where the company operates and by Amazon’s shoddy treatment of its workers during the pandemic.  At the outset its white collar staff were told to work from home while the warehouse workers were offered unlimited unpaid leave. As consumer orders immediately increased in March 2020, the company raised the hourly wage $2 an hour and doubled overtime pay to further motivate workers.  For workers proving a positive COVID test result for themselves or a family member, two weeks of paid leave was offered.

Once Amazon had hired more workers for its 500 U.S. warehouses, the unpaid unlimited sick leave was rescinded in May 2020 and the wage increases revoked the next month.  By July the total shareholder value of Amazon had increased $500 million to $1.4 trillion confirming founder Jeff Bezos’ status as the richest person in the world.  Company growth did not lead to favorable responses by unionized workers in the European countries where Amazon operates and the workers in Germany announced a strike prior to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Amazon then trumpeted the awarding of Thanksgiving worker bonuses amounting to $300 for full time workers and $150 for its part-time workers.

The Amazon worker bonuses received an unanticipated reaction from the global coalition which organized Black Friday protests in 15 countries. UNI Global Union, Amazon Workers International and other participating groups in a statement noted Bezos could give $105,000 bonuses to every Amazon employee and not have lost in net wealth during the spread of the COVID virus.  The coalition statement on Black Friday last year faulted the company’s impact on the environment asserting that its “growing delivery and cloud computing businesses are accelerating climate breakdown”.  Amazon’s “carbon footprint” is “larger than two thirds of all countries in the world” the multiple coalition groups, including OXFAM, the Sunrise Movement and Public Citizen, stated.  A coalition leader, Global Union’s Christy Hoffman, responded to the Thanksgiving worker bonuses, “To show it values its workforce, Amazon should collectively bargain wages and conditions with workers throughout its operations, rather than make one time unilateral gestures”.

Unlike the U.S. employees, Amazon workers in most of the countries where Black Friday protests took place have been able to organize unions to negotiate with the company and/or appeal to the courts to address their needs.  Activist workers in this country are  vulnerable to being fired with no defense by a union.  Support for Amazon organizing from the Biden administration could also foretell increased pressure to pay higher taxes in this country.   Tax avoidance through the use of profit shifting, tax havens and loopholes enabled the company to pay just under 2 per cent of its profits in 2019 tax reporting and no taxes in the previous two years.  In the country where it was founded and still has its headquarters, Amazon pays little to nothing to uphold the public infrastructure and the “common good”.

There is now growing recognition in this country that major corporations devote little attention, let alone concern, to the “common good” or the well being of their rank and file workers.  Executive compensation and performance of the company stock are given priority through their public relations campaigns, tax dodges, hire of anti-union consultants and dismissal of workers with complaints.  The grotesque preoccupation with profit taking by executives and company boards dehumanizes all participants in an economy which threatens world survival.  On this Good Friday, the U.S. worker hangs on a cross of corporate greed.  There is more at stake in the Amazon worker vote than just forming a union in one “fulfillment center”, as the company calls its warehouses.  Amazon’s fear is justified that a worker victory in Alabama will lead to organizing campaigns among its warehouse employees nationwide.  We can only hope that is the outcome.

Decolonizing Christian Mission and Evangelism

The World Council of Churches’ Commission on Mission and Evangelism sponsored the Arusha, Tanzania World Mission Conference of March 2018 . Many of the over 1000 participants commented on the influence of African spirituality and worship on the mission statement adopted.



“Today, empires are striking back in new forms, with their own dictatorial requirements of allegiance to mammon, market, consumerism, militarism, sexism, racism, fascism, and fundamentalism.”  Summarizing the context for global mission in our time with these words, 1000 plus delegates from churches around the world issued the 2018 Arusha Call to Discipleship  . Inspired by the theme of “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship,” the Conference adopted the Arusha Call challenging the world’s 2.4 billion Christians to live in “transforming Discipleship”.  Unfortunately, most Christians, clergy and lay, in the world’s largest “Christian” nation, the United States, have never heard of the Call much less studied any part of it.

Organized by the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Mission and Evangelism the Conference represented the largest international gathering focused on Christian mission since 1910. The World Council is “a fellowship” of 350 plus churches in 110 countries representing over 500 million Christians.  Nearly all formerly “mainline” U.S. Protestant denominations are active, and multi-national Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders participate in some of the meetings as “observers”.  Church bodies based in the global South, now out number the Council members from the North thus mirroring the profound change in world Christianity over the last hundred years.

The Arusha Call bears the stamp of church leaders in Africa, where the number of Christians and churches is growing fastest, and in other poor nations of the southern hemisphere.  The Call departs significantly from the historic 1910 Edinburgh “World Missionary Conference” emphasis on conversion in the context of colonial rule. Chaired by U.S. Methodist John R. Mott, the Edinburgh 1910 Conference was guided by the theme “Evangelization of the World in This Generation”.  The charge it made to Protestants, especially in the U.S. and Europe, led to significant increases in recruitment of missionaries and the funding of mission conceived by most as a project of conversion of people and nations to Christianity.

With a new conception of evangelism, the Arusha Call urges all Christians to see themselves as “missionaries”: “If we wish evangelism to be convincing today, the first thing we must do is to be disciples”. Its section on “Disciples Committed to Evangelism” concludes with the clear statement, “The more we are true disciples of Christ, the more effective our evangelism will be.”  In the introduction to the Call, it is described as issuing a warning against the attitude of some former missionaries and mission agencies, “Humility and sacrifice are urgently needed to liberate the gospel from captivity to projects of self-aggrandizement”.

Charged with leading the way in interpreting and supporting implementation of the Arusha Call is the World Council’s Commission on Mission and Evangelism.  One year after the Conference in Arusha, the Commission leadership noted that the “Call to Discipleship” has been seen as “exhilarating, transformative and challenging to the point of discomfort for some”.  The Commission’s Moderator, director of the Student Christian Movement in India, Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos commented on one of the roots of the controversy over the Call, “It is a specific exhortation to ensure the purity of faith, to make sure that the faith was not corrupted.”  Rev. Dr Janet Corlett, vice moderator for the commission and a former Director of the South London Mission, also commented, “The Arusha Call was the outcome, the consensus of the meeting, and I believe it was a very prophetic call.”

One month after the Call was published by the World Council and its Commission, the chief leaders  of four North American churches – the Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the U.S. and their counterparts in Canada commended the “richness of the Arusha Call to Discipleship and invited their members to embrace the call”.  To this date, there has been little to no attention to the Arusha Call among other North American denominations.  A leading source of news on religion in the U.S., the Religion News Service, has ignored the Arusha Call. 

                                                ********************************************

The Arusha Call to Discipleship and accompanying commentaries by the Conference participants can be downloaded free from the World Council of Churches’ website:

https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/the-arusha-call-to-discipleship

Every Single Other

U.S. urban street scene. (Photo by Amel Disdarevic)

The title “Every Single Other” comes from a kind of mantra we recite at the end of worship at Peace Christian Church which my partner and I, both retired ordained Christian ministers, attend. The congregation is affiliated with two theologically progressive denominations in the United States, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s spirit is in them – living and breathing God. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” Ro 8:5-6 (The Message Peterson translation)

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was on his customary shopping rounds in Louisville, waiting on a busy downtown street for the traffic light to change.  The sidewalks were crowded with people and suddenly Merton experienced what he described as an epiphany. He saw each person as he imagined God saw them.  All of them in search of meaning and joy.  All in need of love.  He wrote in his Confessions of a Guilty Bystander “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” Merton’s “epiphany” helped guide him for the rest of his life.

A former member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, Michael Harrington, wrote the small book that helped guide the policies and programs of the Kennedy and Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty.  The Other America detailed with current statistics the suffering of the poor from hunger, illnesses, violence and broken families.  It helped lay the groundwork for the civil and human rights legislation that moved the nation closer to its founding vision of “liberty and justice for all”.  It helped lay the groundwork for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and expanded aid for persons injured at work.  

I’ve thought about that book while watching and supporting the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign over the last two and a half years.  The Campaign now is active in organizing and partnering with other groups in calls for a living wage, for union representation of workers, for Medicare for All, for giving voice to the demands of low wage workers and the unemployed.  The Campaign highlights current conditions of 140 million poor and low income persons in the U.S. Since the 60’s little has been done legislatively to improve housing, health care, and wage security for the “other America”.  Many view state and federal policies after 1980 as constituting a “war on the poor” in contrast to the progress of the War on Poverty towards a more just society.

Years after his epiphany on the Louisville street corner, Merton wrote a sentence that for me beautifully captures the struggle we all, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, those with and without faith in a loving Creator, face in loving “every single other”.  It returns to me again and again as a prayer to leave behind “obsession with the self” and be freed to lead a more “spacious life”. Merton wrote, “If today I hear God’s voice, may I not reject a softer, more compassionate heart.”  With the spirit of this prayer in mind, I wrote a poem/prayer shortly before the U.S. presidential election that imagines the hardening of heart we must overcome to help bring about a government “of, by and for the people” (Lincoln’s description of our political system).  The poem tries to direct our attention to those rendered voiceless and to some of the characteristics of a heart that has hardened.

Election Time in the Super Power

Hear our prayer, O Lord –

         Of the silenced, unseen, unheard,

         Of the devalued and degraded,

         Of those known by their labels,

         Of all considered disposable when they

             are considered at all.

Let our cries come to You, O Lord –

By those who confuse ambition with conviction,

By neighbors who cede power

     to one who boasts of his own.

By all brought up to doubt and never trust,

  By all who seek to preserve their

           dignity with falsehood,

Hear our prayer, O Lord  –

For us whose ‘we’ keeps shrinking,

       For the others known by their fangs,

       For those who must prepare for a future in peril,         

For us all whose freedom comes at a cost.

The Conjunctions of 2020

The planets Jupiter and Saturn during “the Great Conjunction” seen above the third tree to the right of erupting Guatemalan volcano. (Photo by Francisco Sojuel)

The winter solstice of 2020 also brought the “Great Conjunction” of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. The event was hailed by many as the return of the “Star of Bethlehem” which guided the magi to the manger cradle of the baby Jesus.  Although that designation remains conjecture, there is no disputing that 2020 was an extraordinary year in the life of our world.

As we begin 2021 with vaccines, the eagerness to return to “normal” is tempered by what we have learned during the past year. The failures of the U.S. in protecting and treating its citizenry during the pandemic and yet more graphic evidence of the nation’s devaluing of its black residents and persons of color in general cry out for change.  It is as though the guardians of our hyper individualistic political and economic order must in 2021 ponder the needs of the disadvantaged and discriminated and allow significant change to begin to take shape.

The conjunction brought the two planets closer relative to the earth than they had appeared since 1623 and could be viewed anywhere on earth. This photo was taken in the Alborz mountain region of Iran. (NASA photo by Alireza Vafa)

The poem following reflects on this time of “Kairos”, crisis, and chaos and what the “Great Conjunction” of 2020 might be messaging us.  

 The Great Conjunction
  
 Phenomenal but how interpret the orbits’
          coincidence?
 A tryst, a search, a studied return or a 
          reconciliation?
 Don’t ask Galileo since his lenses 
          were trained elsewhere.
 Your answer discloses clues of what you
          were looking for.
 Its appearance yet a visitation while longing
          for connection
 Fed by centuries of bearing us to a place
          of rebirth
 Or bearing us to our contemplation starving
          for a sign.
  
 On first sighting the illumination turned the lens
          back on us
 Turned where the ancient message belonged before
          we left the slime
 When the addressee remained unknown
          with no forwarding
 As we hurtled through the heavens fiddling
          to our end.
 The clock ticks toll louder ‘til defeaned 
          by the rage
 We find ourselves released to join the dance
          of heavens’ embrace
 Calling us to explore the wink of elements
          in our lives.
  
 What do the lights tell us now that we know
          they are two
 Their brief approach again creating
          that great light
 For the seers and all those who notice 
          such things
 And allows our access to all the darkness
          within
 our complicity in the scheme of things which ignores
          the magi
 who returned from the cradle of love 
          a new way
 Wondering if the babe will overcome 456 million miles 
          of separation. 

David Gilbert’s Path from Terrorist to Non-Violent Resister

“Anti-imperialist political prisoner” David Gilbert with five year old son Chesa Boudin in 1985. Chesa was elected last year as the District Attorney for San Francisco. The boy’s mother, Kathy Boudin, now is an adjunct professor at David’s alma mater Columbia University following her release from prison in 2003.

David Gilbert, U.S. political prisoner for nearly 40 years, is serving a 75 year to life sentence in New York State prisons.  Last month five Nobel Peace Prize laureates and multiple interfaith religious leaders, including the chief ministers of four U.S. Protestant denominations, signed a November letter calling for his release.  In 1981Gilbert participated in the “expropriation” of $1.6 million from a Brinks armored van at a Nyack, NY shopping center.  Two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed and Gilbert with two other veterans of the Weather Underground were apprehended at a roadblock that night.  Although unarmed as the driver of a getaway van, Gilbert and all other participants in the action received lengthy sentences.

Seeds of remorse for the victims’ families and regret for his participation in the action were planted at his trial.  In his 2014 book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond he described a disturbing incident during the trial.  “Trying to show that life sentences didn’t deter revolutionaries, I declared that the issues that motivated us to fight—the depth of racism in the US and the millions of people killed each year by the economies and wars imposed by imperialism—were much larger than three lives. I meant the three of us facing life in prison.”  He goes on to note, “But when I said ‘three lives,’ I caught a glimpse of a woman in the court who flinched as if I had struck her. Only later did it dawn on me that she was a relative of one of the men killed on October 20, thinking, feeling, that those three lives were the ones I was dismissing so cavalierly.” 

In 37 years of incarceration, David has led an exemplary life.  Soon after one of the other Brinks action participants died of AIDS in prison, Gilbert started an HIV/AIDS education outreach program.  One former prisoner recently wrote, “It was at Dave’s urging that I took the HIV/AIDS Peer Training Class which he had developed. It changed my life and that of so many family and friends at that time and up to this very day.”  Under Gilbert’s patient encouragment, Jerome Wright enrolled in college classes while incarcerated and became an HIV/AIDS peer trainer. The older white man with “an undying commitment to not only bring out the best in people” is credited with turning Wright’s life around.  He sums up David’s impact on his life here, “The person who, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me–along with literally hundreds of other young people–become a productive and contributing member of society is still in prison today.”

One of the leading organizers of U.S. student opposition and resistance to the Vietnam War remains in prison.  For his participation in a 1981 action of the Black Liberation Army in which 3 persons were killed, David was given a 75 year to life sentence.  World leaders now appeal for his release at age 76 given his exemplary prison record and COVID vulnerability.
Buffalo NY church deacon, radio show host and social activist Jerome Wright met David Gilbert while spending thirty plus years in prison. After his release on parole, he credited David as the main influence in his becoming a “productive and contributing member of society”.

The letter appealing to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begins with these words, “The extraordinary October 3, 2020 Papal Encyclical calls for ‘a better kind of politics’ based on rethinking social charity and justice approaches to the death penalty, and ‘forgiving not forgetting.’ We write with those sentiments in mind, aware that inordinately long prison sentences are designed more for punishment and revenge than rehabilitation and remorse.”  One of the letter co-signers, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had previously written his own letter in support of David Gilbert’s release.  He wrote in his letter, “our common beliefs in renewal, rehabilitation, and positive change all provide a foundation which makes it possible for Governor Cuomo to grant freedom.”

Another noteworthy supporter of the 76 year old’s release during the spread of COVID among U.S. prisoners is newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Son of David and Kathy Boudin, the Rhodes Scholar campaigned for the position of the City’s chief prosecutor by arguing that prison sentences should be used only as a last resort.  An article this year in Mother Jones magazine reported, “during the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January.”  In the same article District Attorney Boudin laments the dangers threatening his father and other elderly and COVID vulnerable persons as the pandemic spreads.  “They are not a public safety risk,” he stated. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”

The aging revolutionary has not changed his forthright advocacy for revolutionary change in the U.S.  In a podcast interview last year, he continued to describe himself as “an anti-imperialist political prisoner”.  He then went on to say, “It’s funny to define yourself as anti-imperialist, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression define the current society. I’m really pro-people. I’m for all people of the world to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. To me, imperialism is the best way to sum up those structures of domination.”

While it was the U.S. civil rights movement of African Americans that opened Gilbert’s eyes politically at age 15, internationalism and international solidarity shape his political positions today.  In the same interview last year he cited where he finds hope.  The wisdom of his response indirectly makes a powerful case for his immediate release. “Love can defeat hate. That our sense of humanity is bound up with everybody else and with the natural world. And this can be awakened in everyone if there’s a chance, and there’s an opportunity. And if we create a world where people have a chance to develop their creative powers, we can solve all kinds of problems. So yes, I’m anti-Imperialist as I said at the beginning but that means that I’m for humanity and for nature and we have that potential.”  During 37 plus years of reflection, study and writing in the “involuntary monasticism” of prison, David Gilbert has changed and our country and the world would benefit from granting this revolutionary change agent the freedom to tell us how and why.

Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?

As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic surges, thousands of protesters demonstrate on the new Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Cheryl Diaz Meyer for NPR)

The defeat of Donald Trump in the U.S. election marks another significant victory for nonviolent resisters over those who would hold on to power.  In the face of strategies of voter suppression and outright disenfranchisement of voters of color, the U.S. voter turnout was the largest in history.  For many U.S. citizens, the election will be remembered as the only national election in which the current administration orchestrated a campaign to subvert and ultimately reject the outcome. 

From jeopardizing the safety of mail-in absentee ballots to pressuring Republican election commissioners to withhold or oppose certification of the results, the subversion of the voting began early and continued after the Biden win had been declared.  Two weeks after the election, the President hosted at the White House the two white commissioners in Detroit, an 80 per cent African American city, in an effort to discredit the voting in the swing state of Michigan.   

That Trump and the Republicans failed can be attributed primarily to unprecedented participation in the election by persons of  color and the impact of voter registration drives especially in Georgia. A southern State which a Democratic presidential candidate had not won since 1992 went for Biden and will determine who holds a Senate majority with their run off voting for their two allotted Senators in January.  Georgia is a prime example of effective nonviolent resistance to voter suppression and other Republican efforts to rig the election.

We can now include the United States in the list of countries where nonviolent civil resistance has protected the democratically expressed will of the people.  Also in 2020, massive demonstrations in Malawi in southern Africa denied an incumbent president’s third term.  The election there followed the ruling by the nation’s highest court that the 2019 announced results defied credibility and demanded a rerun of the voting. Multiple examples of the defense of people’s rule by movements of civil resistance have attracted the attention of more political scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere.

A post-election article in The New Yorker titled “How to Stop a Power Grab” focused on the work of Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth. In her 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works Chenoweth and co author Maria Stephan analyze how in the last century nonviolent campaigns of resistance proved more than twice as effective as those employing violence in achieving their goals.  A memorable example cited by the two authors is the mass organizing of protests which rule brought the Shah of Iran’s regime to an end in 1979

Apart from the effective mobilization of voters in the U.S., we expect to experience more change resulting from the Black Lives Matter nonviolent protests in cities across the nation in 2020.  Reforms in oversight of policing and in budgeting for public safety and mental health are among the topics prioritized now in many City Councils. Despite the administration’s attempts to blame outbreaks of violence on protestors, evidence has emerged that counter-protestors, many of them heavily armed white supremacists, provoked the violence and any looting that occurred.  This year of 2020 highlights then a major shift from expressing rage and opposition by endorsement and practice of violent practices such as those the U.S. and Europe experienced in the 1960’s and 70’s to the recognition and embrace of nonviolent resistance in this nation today.

U.S. citizens, young and old, intent on helping create a more just, equitable economic order and further democracy are intent on applying nonviolent tactics in making change possible.  This is cause for celebration and gratitude among those who will always lament the suppression of the movements for change fifty years ago which succumbed to and foundered on their resort to violence.  Armed with the experience of the Gandhian movement for Indian independence, the civil rights gains of nonviolent protestors in the 60’s and  multiple nonviolent social change achievements of the last century, change agents and activists today represent a “force more powerful” than the armies of empire and autocracy.

So who holds now “the spiritual atom bomb”? In 1965 Chinese Defense Minister Lin Piao coined the phrase in an article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper when he declared “the spiritual atom bomb that the revolutionary people possess is a far more powerful and useful weapon than the physical atom bomb.” In an essay entitled “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” Rev. A.J. Muste envisions U.S. unilateral disarmament as the answer to Piao’s advocacy of violence and the world’s acceptance that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”.  With ample evidence provided in this year’s political developments “revolutionary people” in the U.S. know mass nonviolent resistance will represent the “spiritual atom bomb” for years to come.

Note:  For more on A.J. Muste, the organizer of nonviolent resistance protests from the era of WWI through the Vietnam War, see this website’s 2020 blogs of March 3, April 1 and April 21.

A United National and International Response Was Essential in Containing Ebola

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first woman to be elected President in sub-Saharan Africa, led Liberia during its eradication of the Ebola virus 2014-16 (Reuters Photo)

From 2014 to 2016 the Ebola virus took over 11,000 lives in West Africa. Outside that region only 36 cases and 15 deaths were reported.  As the COVID-19 virus cases began to rise and spread, the former President of Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola pandemic, described what worked to contain and eradicate the disease.

In a letter addressed to the “citizens of the world” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emphasized unity, both national and international, as crucial in curbing Ebola.  On March 30, 2020 Sirleaf read her letter for the audience of BBC World News.  She admitted that Liberia had made mistakes in its initial response, but “we self-corrected, and we did it together”. Liberia learned, according to its former President, that in fighting a pandemic “every person, in every nation, needs to do their part.”

Sirleaf, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2011, attributed the defeat of Ebola to “a mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US”.  This year she was heartened by early signs of a collective response to the COVID public health emergency. “Watching from my home in Monrovia” she wrote in March, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power led in convening a 2014 emergency Security Council meeting to promote an international response to the Ebola crisis (Reuters Photo)

Tragically for the world and the U.S. in particular, Johnson Sirleaf’s initial optimism has not been supported by policies of the U.S. administration.  With little to no endorsement from public health officials in other countries, the U.S. has gone its own way in the official pandemic response.  On the day she read her letter to the world, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID.  That approval was rescinded June 15 two weeks after the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).  The President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America commented on the decision, “We will not succeed against this pandemic, or any future outbreak, unless we stand together, share information and coordinate actions.”

The lack of a coordinated response within the U.S. has further divided the country in a time of national emergency.  Ignoring the urgent recommendation of most public health officials and virus research findings, refusal to wear a face mask has become a political statement. States have been rebuked by the federal administration; rural and urban residents have been divided on mask wearing.  In this context, the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hailing Liberia’s unified response to Ebola seem haunting, “In Liberia, we emerged resilient from the Ebola epidemic, and stronger as a society, with health protocols in place that are enabling us to manage the Covid-19 disease.” 

The complete text of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s letter to “the citizens of the world” follows:

March 30, 2020

Dear fellow citizens of the world,

On 19 October 2014, at the height of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when 2,000 of my citizens had already perished and infections were growing exponentially, I wrote a letter to the world pleading for the mobilisation of personnel and resources.

I demanded a show of global unity to avert what we feared would be a worldwide pandemic.

Today, I take this opportunity to raise my voice in a message of solidarity.

Almost six years ago, I explained how Liberia’s post-conflict economy, and its fragile healthcare system, made it vulnerable to the rapid spread of disease, and I contended that how the world responded to the localised crisis in West Africa, would define our collective healthcare security.

I argued that an uncontrolled contagion, no matter where in the world, and no matter how localised, is a threat to all of humanity.

The world responded positively. And did so boldly.

A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.

In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, I am making a similar plea to my fellow world citizens. I do this with an acute awareness that while African nations have so far been spared the worst, it is only a matter of time until it batters the continent which is the least prepared to fight it.

We must act to slow down, break the chain of transmission, and flatten the curve.

It is clear that lapses were made in the initial response to the virus, from Asia to Europe, to the Americas.

Cues were missed. Time was wasted.

Information was hidden, minimised, and manipulated. Trust was broken.

Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own, when the only solution is, and remains based in the community.

I know this. I made all of those missteps in 2014, and so did the world’s responders. But we self-corrected, and we did it together.

We are at a critical juncture as borders are closing around the world to slow the rate of transmission.

Let us not take the wrong cue from this. It does not mean that we are on our own, every country for themselves. On the contrary, it is the sign of a communal response, that border closures make a difference.

Watching from my home in Monrovia, what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared.

It is happening within nations, and increasingly across international borders; an indispensable, albeit delayed reaction, that every person, in every nation, needs to do their part.

This realisation led to our turning point of disease control in West Africa.

In Liberia, we emerged resilient from the Ebola epidemic, and stronger as a society, with health protocols in place that are enabling us to manage the Covid-19 disease.

I fervently believe this is the path we are all on.

I have full faith in the relentless spirit of the individual, a conviction that leaders emerge in times of crisis at every level of society, and that our religious and communal differences pale in comparison to our collective belief in the power of prayer, and our respective faith in God.

As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President of Liberia 2004-2016

The U.S. Heresy of “Christian Nationalism”

Christian pastors pray before the President signs the declaration of a national day of prayer in the White House September 2017. Note that no leader of any other faith community appears to be present.

“When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith’.”  Mt 8:10

Fifty days from an election that has been called the most important in our nation’s history I’ve been thinking of Christians around the world who pray with us now about the outcome.  I’ve been thinking of Christians who have survived years of political instability, coups d’etat, civil war and dictatorial rule.  Thinking of how at this time they are praying for us, because they are aware how fragile is a political system of democratic rule by the people. 

I’ve been thinking of Christians in Mexico and Congo where I’ve served with them for five years and how as they pray for us and the fate of our nation, we are threatened by the kind of civil unrest and rigging of the election that they have experienced in their own countries in an electoral season.  “It’s not my brother, not my sister …..in Mexico, in Congo, in India, in the Philippines and China O Lord ….it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer!”

When they pray for us, I imagine they are praying that the Jesus who served among the poor and the scorned of his world will guide U.S. Christians in their political action now.  I imagine they are praying that our nation’s values of “liberty and justice for all” will be upheld and strengthened by this year’s political process.  I imagine they pray that “the heresy of religious nationalism” (in the phrase of Rev. William Barber of the U.S. Poor People’s Campaign) will be rejected by the citizens of the nation with the largest Christian population in the world.

“Islamaphobia” and the denigration of the faithful of other religions that characterizes U.S. Christians infected by “religious nationalism” is not an option in minority Christian nations like Egypt or India.  At this time it is worth remembering that the Bishop of the Coptic Church in Egypt (the oldest Christian community in the world) declined to meet with Vice President Pence in January, 2018.  Responding to the Vice President’s defense of the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Bishop said the decision had been made “at an unsuitable time and without consideration for the feelings of millions of people.”  The Bishop’s dismay over the U.S. decision was shared by Pope Francis and the World Council of Churches. 

“Religious nationalism” is on the U.S. election ballot this year.  A belief that our nation’s policies and actions represent the will of God has inspired the current administration to spurn international treaties and agreements.  As a result, we have been opposed by our allies and friends for rejecting collaborative global solutions to threats of pandemics, climate crisis, economic collapse and nuclear warfare. Our boundless “religious nationalism” has excluded us from participation in solutions agreed on by the overwhelming majority of nations.  Can we doubt that the majority of the world’s Christians are praying we abandon our current position and rejoin the world’s nations as a responsible leader?  Can we doubt they are praying we rejoin the majority of the world’s Christians in solidarity with the cause of of the poor and peace in our world.

The life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have become more relevant since his execution 75 years ago by the Nazis.  As the guards took the young German theologian to the gallows, Bonhoeffer asked a British fellow prisoner to give a message to his closest British friend. His final words, for the Bishop of Chichester, might have been addressed to us today, “Tell him, that with him I still believe in the reality of our Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain.” May our actions as Christian citizens of the U.S. be guided by a love that “rises above all national interests and conflicts”.   And may that love of God, of Jesus and of all humankind be the soil for growth of a faith which knows “our victory is certain”.

The “wall of the martyrs” in Westminster Abbey, London, includes Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I am convinced that the future victory Bonhoeffer referred to depends on the recognition that the “our” who share in that victory does not exclude any nationality, class, or racial construct.  The victory is certain only when and if it is claimed and enjoyed by all of humanity.  When our own actions as individuals and those of leaders of all nations can be judged as contributing to the well being of us all, then and only then are we moving toward the “victory”.