Since moving to Kansas City six years ago, my identity as a city boy, an urbanite, has taken on new meaning. We now live three hours from the small town of Neodesha, KS, where my partner spent twenty plus years before our marriage. I have gotten to know some of her long time friends and like all of them a lot. They live in small towns of southeast Kansas like Chanute, Coffeyville, Yates Center, Fredonia and Climax and I have enjoyed thinking about what if anything makes them different from the big city residents like myself
The observation that there is a greater appreciation of the value of community in small towns I accept as true but inadequate. Spending a recent weekend on a Lake near the town of Emporia, KS yielded for me a better understanding of what community in a small town feels like. And it was a pleasure to experience. Almost all those present resided in a small town of the region. Some still lived in the town of their birth, some nearby in the state college town of Emporia.
During the early decades of the 20th century, William Allen White’s opinion pieces in Emporia’s newspaper were read nation wide. He became famous as the voice of small town residents in the “heartland of America”, People in the big cities, and the nation’s capital in particular, saw him as a kind of oracle, a modern day sage expounding on the enduring values of what made the U.S. a “great” nation. The origin of those values he attributed to the community life that grows in small towns across the Midwestern United States.
The weekend festivities at the Lake began with a rousing jam session Friday night where the musicians joined around the lead guitars of Kenny and Jeff, both leaders of popular regional bands thirty or forty years ago. Two or three newcomers to the “shrimp boil” weekend joined to sing or play some fiery rock-a-billy” and blues, including a few songs written by the musicians themselves.
The harmonica player in Jeff’s band and his wife, who now live on 40 acres of woods on the outskirts of Neodesha remain among Kate’s best friends. Though not herself a musician, Kate has been a fan of the bands represented at the “Shrimp Boil” since moving to southeast Kansas. Later in the weekend I was amused to learn that “Uncle Vance” who trucked the seafood up from the Alabama Gulf Coast had been an eager fan of hers forty years ago.
The fact no one needed a ticket to be present either for the jam night or Saturday, when one of Kansas City’s favorite rock-a-billy bands played, added to the joy, ambience and charm of the weekend. Most of the Lake’s families who attended did bring a dish and all were displayed on a crammed L shaped table arrangement. Uncle Vance supervised the preparation of a delicious gumbo soup made with the shrimp, mussels, crabs, scallops. For me the melt in your mouth scallop was the eating highlight.
There seemed to be an instant community created at the “shrimp boil” by the seafood smorgasbord, the music that summoned us all to “let the good times roll” and the lifelong relationships renewed and restored by the gathering. It had the feel of a family reunion which all present had looked forward to attending. People were at their best: not a despairing word, not an offensive gesture, not a cutting remark, no wrestling for the limelight. William Allen White would have been proud.
I returned to Kansas City assured that human beings are social creatures who thrive in community. We are made for life in communities. Whether it be a community of musicians, a church congregation, a union local, a small town. We are most productive, we are more creative and satisfied when we submerge our personal interests to participate in a group. For many people in this heavily urbanized country, the small town they live in or were raised in is that “something bigger than ourselves” which transmits the values they seek to defend and represent.
Life in a small town encourages a panoply of values, sometimes conflicting and all seen at risk by some of the residents and former residents. There is first the identity of belonging to a community created by geographic isolation. Relationships with persons who hail from the same town endure often in spite of age, class and vocational differences. One honors and elevates one’s own existence through reminiscencing about shared experience and the persons, alive and dead, whose lives continue to intersect with our own. Each conversation with persons of the community, after a prolonged absence or not, reinforces our recognition of the sacred quality of relationships and our desire to preserve them against threats both perceived and real.
That commitment to preserving the community and the relationships rooted there means once a community member always a community member. Unfortunate and at a disadvantage is the politican who cannot announce his or her candidacy in the community which nurtured them. How distressing it is, though, whenever politicans twist and distort small town values to stoke fear and division. Recent history of the U.S. proves there is nothing good, whether it be faith in a loving God, the values fostered by life in a small town, democratic ideals expressed in our founding documents, nothing good that cannot be used for the pursuit of self interest and power. Loyalty to a community’s way of life becomes easily transformed into opposition to the changes required by the climate crisis, opposition to acceptance of migrants fleeing from injustice and violence, or opposition to the truth of the nation’s oppression and cruelty. But rather than close this blog on a somber note, let’s consider some lines written for books or articles by the sage of Emporia, KS William Allen White.
“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others”
“So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold — by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.”
“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” (Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote)
“Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily – certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn’t enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay.”
“If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”
Elena Huegel is a “Mission Co Worker” in San Cristobal de las Casas , Chiapas, Mexico. She is assigned to work with INESIN, a local human rights and peacemaking agency, and leads workshops for the staff and community. INESIN is one of many “partner agencies” of the Global Ministries work of the theologically progressive U.S. Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Disciples of Christ (DOC).
Like most partners of Global Ministries outside the U.S., it is ecumenical in nature and does not aim to found churches. Mission churches started decades ago with the help of missionaries of the two Global Ministries denominations are now self-governing and self-propagating. Most are growing much faster than the U.S denominations and benefit from Elena’s and other Mission Co Workers’ presence in the their programs of community economic development, agriculture, healthcare, education and protection of human rights.
Elena’s grandfather, Frederick Huegel, went to Mexico early in the twentieth century, as a missionary trained in preaching and evangelism with the intention of growing the Disciples of Christ presence in central Mexico. Elena’s parents also worked with the new churches of the Disciples of Christ in Mexico. Bilingual at an early age, Elena has been a Mission Co Worker in Chile for over twenty years and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico to work with INESIN staff.
The following interview with Elena Huegel took place last August while driving her to a speaking engagement in the U.S.
DS: So Elena what does INESIN stand for?
EH: The Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.
DS: Tell us a bit about the history of that organization.
EH: When Rios Montt was President of Guatemala and all the refugees from the country were crossing the border into México, the Catholic Bishop (Bp Samuel Ruiz) had people all along the border helping with the refugee crisis. The UCC and Mennonites from the States had mission workers helping as well and they all got to know each other. In fact when opportunities opened for resettlement back into Guatemala the mission workers all began to accompany them back as human rights watchers. That resettlement began in January of ’94.
That’s also when Canada, the U.S. and México signed the Fair Trade agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatistas had said that if the trade agreement was signed they were going into open warfare against the Mexican government. It was signed and the revolution explodes, the heart of it being San Cristóbal and the communities around it. So with that the inter-religious turmoil that there already had been between Catholics and Protestants was heightened. It took on a whole different turn because the government began taking advantage of the Protestants who were among the most oppressed of the population. The government encouraged creation of paramilitary groups among the Protestants. The groups were mainly children of Protestant converts from what I can tell.
DS: But you say there had been turmoil and tension between Protestants and Catholics before the Zapatistas came on the scene. What was that about?
EH: This is a simple question to a very complex situation. To read more I suggest:
There are many points of view as to why there are conflicts between the different protestant and Pentecostal groups and the different Catholic groups as well as newer religions (mainly Muslims) in Chiapas in general and the Chiapan Highlands (including San Cristóbal de las Casas) in particular. I would summarize by saying that there have been and are political and economic forces that have used religious differences to divide and conquer the Mayan communities. Nowadays, organized crime has also come onto the scene sowing further confusion and chaos within communities and, in some cases, bringing different religious groups together in the struggle against the cartels while in others causing further unrest and division. There is a very long history of violence connected to the different religious expressions, with victims and perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to different religious affiliations.
DS: So the Protestant grievances about the Catholics had been long standing and were used by the government.
EH: The government was trying to get at the Zapatistas from different directions. And as the inter religious strife got worse the Bishop (Samuel Ruiz) realized that he needed someone to help him build a bridge and talk to the Protestants. He had already done quite a few things to build bridges. There were a whole lot of Protestants driven off their lands in the Chamula area and he supported the ones who fled to San Cristóbal. As the Bishop saw better what was happening, he went to the UCC and Mennonites who had worked with Catholics on the border and together they went on to found INESIN, the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research. It was to create a space for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialog using various forums and projects to do that.
DS: Did the UCC have people in place there to participate in INESIN’s creation with the Catholics, Bishop Ruiz in particular?
EH: The UCC overseas mission office, Global Ministries, had a couple down there at the time. The couple were preparing to go down in late ’93 but finally arrived in February ’94 and were there then for some pretty incredible things. They were Paula Biddle and George. They knew the area as they had been working with Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and had been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Chiapas since the refugees began crossing the border.
DS: And what are you doing at INESIN now?
EH: So I am helping in staff development and education in trauma healing and conflict transformation primarily with the staff of INESIN. Protestants in Chiapas have seen INESIN as a Catholic organization and there is a lot of distrust and suspicion of any Catholic program among the Protestants. It’s going to take a long time of trust building before they join with Catholics in a process of trauma and conflict healing. So I’ve had some small groups and I’ve done some Christian Education trainings for Protestant Sunday School teachers which have attracted larger groups. I do other things as a way to start building up trust and relationship. I am also the local, national and international coordinator, facilitator, and trainer of the Retoños en las Ruinas: Esperanza en el Trauma (Roots or New Shoots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma) program with facilitators in Chiapas, different states of Mexico and 5 other countries in Latin America.
DS: In addition to your training for trauma healing and conflict transformation you’ve been trained in environmental education?
EH: My undergraduate training was in recreation and outdoor education and my first love has always been environmental education.
DS: What is the tie between trauma healing and the environmental education?
EH: I came to realize there is a soul wound in our relationship with the earth and that’s one of the great things about being here with the Mayans. There’s the opportunity to come full circle. It used to be environmental education was concentrating on how we take care of the earth. Now, coming full circle with the help of the Mayans and other indigenous groups we understand better how the earth takes care of us.
We can’t be fully healed unless we attend to this relationship with the earth and how this is an essential part of our wholeness. Many people among the Mayans have that very clear. How a healthy relationship with the earth is essential to our relationship with oneself, with others and with God. So I’ve been thinking more in the last four years here about how our reconnecting with nature brings about our healing and how for example a sense of awe is essential to our recognizing something bigger than ourselves, something where hope lies, something that moves our souls. I’m doing more work around that now. How immersing people in nature can be part of their healing process.
DS: So how is this Mayan tradition of relationship with nature transmitted these days?
EH: I would say that not all Mayans today practice or have experience of the relationship. One of the things that the Institute has been doing especially on the Catholic side is helping to reconnect to that spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth. So one of the things that is still practiced but not everyone practices is the Mayan altar. The Mayan altar is always transitory. It is made from things from nature. It is created by the community. Using different flowers but it can also have dirt and seeds and fruit. These are placed in four quadrants representing the four cardinal directions.
And that transitory altar also has candles on it. Once the candles are lit they’re not put out. And the altar lasts as long as the candles last and once the candles die down, the altar is taken apart and the fruits are eaten and everything goes back into nature again.
DS: And the altar is built at a certain time of year.
EH: No it can be at any time the community needs to gather. And we at INESIN always have groups that visit us build a Mayan altar together.
In the last six months we’ve lost three leaders whose contributions to peace and reconciliation will last beyond our lifetimes. Desmond Tutu’s work on behalf of interpreting and organizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is best known today. Among activists and advocates for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s role as the leading Vietnamese Buddhist peacemaker is well known in the U.S. and Europe. Less widely known at present is the African-American feminist and Buddhist writer bell hooks. Her meeting with “Thay” or “teacher” as Nhat Hanh was called by his followers bolstered hooks’ growth in Buddhist thought.
The former Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Emma Jordan-Simpson described bell hooks’ account of meeting Thay in the late 1960’s with these words:
“When she (hooks) was introduced to Thay, she blurted it out: “I’m so angry!” Immediately she felt ashamed. In the presence of a loving teacher, she was only able to bring up the ugliness she was feeling inside!” Simpson continues with Thay’s response. “Thay’s words to bell hooks are the words that all of us who are exhausted and depleted by what it means to live in a world perpetually at war, but who are still able to feel anger, need to hear and to hold.”
Thay said to hooks, “Hold on to your anger and use it as compost in your garden.” The FOR Director commented on hooks’ encounter, “We are angry that we live in a perpetual state of war and we are angry about what these times are revealing to us. But we reveal who we are when we can find ways to use that anger as compost in gardens growing peace”.
Martin Luther King acknowledged Thich Nhat Hanh as having helped lead him to oppose publicly the U.S. War in Vietnam. After his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in April, 1967 King nominated the Buddhist leader for the Nobel Peace Prize. His conversation with Thay was arranged by the FOR, which sponsored Nhat Hanh’s tour of the U.S. after the escalation in Vietnam. Thay’s gentle, forceful presence accompanied by words of profound compassion for perpetrators and victims of the War on his country led many other people in the U.S. to question if not strongly oppose their nation’s mission in Vietnam. His stories and views had a profound impact on people’s stance on the War. But it was also his interpretations and descriptions of Buddhist practices that made a lasting impression on the lives of many.
In a 1974 article for Fellowship magazine, the journal of FOR, Thay wrote about one encounter with a U.S. Christian. “One day I was asked by a Christian in a bus: ‘Why do you monks burn yourselves to death? It is an awful thing.’ I tried to explain to him what Thich Quang Duc wanted when he set himself on fire. But the gentleman did not want to listen. He said ‘I can’t understand a religion that allows its members to burn themselves.’”
Thay then reflected in the article on the encounter, “I could have told him that I did not believe that Christianity could allow its followers to go and burn other people either. Thousands of women and children have been burned by napalm that was dropped from the sky. But what is the purpose of such a discussion?” Nhat Hanh concludes, “The only thing that counts is the ability to understand the pain of a brother. And this brother is neither a number nor a concept. This brother is made of real flesh and skin and feeling.” He then comments with the insight, “We cannot recognize our brother through an ideology or a political label. People have been shooting at labels and by doing so they have shot many of their brothers and sisters.”
Thich Nhat Hanh concludes the opening chapter of his best known book in English, The Miracle of Mindfulness with the question, “If you spend all day practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to change and build an alternative society”. His answer follows with his calligraphy on the next page:
His practice of “breathing mindfully” is clearly and powefully elaborated for readers unfamiliar with Buddhist thought and many in the West have integrated his instructions in their own meditation. When one is able to live mindfully one is in control of our constantly distracted mind and be fully present in the moment. The essential component of “mindfulness” is attention to our breath. Thay explains, “You should know how to breathe to maintain mindfulness, as breathing is a natural and extremely effective tool which can prevent dispersion. Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of our mind again.”
Order a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness from your local indie bookshop. It comes in all formats including audiobook.
Read about the friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh in a book available in the Fellowship of Reconciliation bookstore. Also available at the website below is a copy of the Spring 2020 issue of Fellowship magazine devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s articles and poems for the magazine as well as peacmakers’ tributes.
On Being host Krista Tippett paid tribute to Thay in a podcast this winter and replayed her earlier interview with him at:
If a health care system which serves all residents and citizens
If free quality education for all children from pre school through university
If the public ownership of all natural resources essential for human life – water, power, and natural gas
If foremost priority in public expenditure is given to improved systems serving citizens and residents and not to securing the control of resources in other nations
If an economy driven by production for human consumption and use and not the production of weaponry
If international collaboration rather than competition in meeting global crises: climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and pandemics
If progress toward making one or more of these aims our reality requires adopting our own form of socialist rule in the U.S., then I am all for it.
The increasing U.S. rule by a corporate and financial elite supported by the knee-jerk charge that a policy is “socialism” serves to defend a flagrantly unjust and unsustainable status quo. Does making some dramatic changes in this country’s economic and political systems necessitate serious consideration of socialist solutions? Yes, it does and yes it will. Evidence mounts that in European nations with some mix of socialist and capitalist economic policies the people are healthier and happier and increasingly more financially secure than here.
Those nations also prove that adopting a form of socialism does not require authoritarian rule and loss of individual freedoms as most people in this nation seem to think. The youth in this country are more aware than most adults that making socialism a “bugaboo”, as one commentator recently called it, serves only the small minority who gorge on profiting from the status quo. It now appears more likely that the charge of “socialism” assigned universal health care and similar programs by conservatives and some liberals is now approaching its expiration date. As a hold over from the Cold War propaganda of the 50’s, increased allocations for an already bloated budget for defense (and the corporations subsidized by the defense budget) at the expense of increased budgeting for health care, education and public utilities has begun to lose force in shaping public opinion. At the same time, we in this country remain under the sway of an extreme form of capitalist economics that subverts the aims of the majority who work more and die earlier year by year.
As we consider the consequences of ignoring and now in some states banning discussions of race and the history of white supremacy in classrooms, it would be helpful to look at how discussion of contemporary examples of socialist and capitalist economic strategies have also been largely ignored in our schools. That someone is now and has been able for many years to graduate from a U.S. secondary education with the conviction that only socialism leads to authoritarian rule is not by chance. To ignore completely the history of capitalist Germany’s descent into barbarous, genocidal rule in the last century is to avoid by intention serious critique of our form of capitalism which now threatens the country’s survival as a democracy. That many of Germany’s leading corporations and members of the economic elite supported the Nazi regime is still kept secret from most of our students throughout their education.
But I would be renouncing my call as a Christian to neglect mention of some personal and social developments of our time that many U.S. Christians and others ignore. First, on the personal level there is an even more precipitous decline in church attendance and membership in leading Western democracies, such as Germany, than in this nation. At the same time, the China Christian Council of what we identify as “godless” Communist China has experienced growth that would be the envy of “mega-churches” in the U.S. When restrictions were lifted in the early 1980’s by the Communist Party and Chinese state, the China Christian Council as the unified Protestant Church and the heir of the work of pre-1949 missionaries has been hard pressed to build enough churches and seminaries to keep up with the rising number of Christians in China.
On the social plane, is it not time for Christians who oppose universal health care in the world’s richest nation to reconsider their position in the light of Jesus’ example? How can followers of the healer and advocate for the poor favor an economic system driven by one’s own interest over an economic and political system based on “from each according to his/her abilities to each according to their needs”. It is now time to ensure that the mischaracterization of socialism as inherently or practically against faith in a higher power be ruled out of our public policy discussions. To continue to equate socialism with either authoritarian or godless rule is to make an argument founded on lies and fear. How many of the NATO members which have implemented social welfare policies many persons here characterize as socialist have banned religion or severely restricted public religious activity?
How do so many U.S. Christians justify the ethical principles of many members of our corporate/financial ruling elite? Let me single out the example of our former Chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan whose ethics were shaped by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The system of thought condemns altruistic behavior and elevates self interest as the fundamental principle of a free society. Through his forties, Greenspan contributed articles to the Objectivist movement’s newsletter in the 60’s and remained close to Rand until her death. As an upper class refugee from the deprivations of the early years of the Soviet Union, Rand developed a philosophy of life that extolled the extreme individualistic ethics of capitalism. Greenspan’s background as a devoted Rank acolyte did not hinder his rise to prominence in service of the U.S. economy, deregulation of the financial industries and free market trade policies.
That the influence of a declared socialist Senator from Vermont has risen significantly and that so many of our country’s youth now condemn the unfettered capitalist economy in the U.S. can be attributed to the crises that overwhelm our country today. Not having experienced the fear mongering of the Cold War they perceive lame anti-socialist policy arguments rooted in corporate domination of our political discourse as impeding the nation’s progress in eliminating fossil fuel production, the priority of spending for defense, criminal justice practices which divide white workers from workers of color, and fierce opposition to union and other organizing to make change. Will we in the U.S. progress toward the implementation of a mixture of socialist and capitalist policies in our political economy? Yes, we will, provided our rule by and for the people survives and defeats the current onslaught making voting for many persons harder in defense of a grotesquely unequal and unjust status quo.
During my second visit on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in the checkout line at the Malama Market in Honoka’a the cashier addressed me as “Uncle”. It was not the first time a young person had honored me with this traditional Hawaiian sign of respect. But as a reminder that wearing a face mask was still required in the grocery store, it made a deeper impression. I retrieved a mask from my back pocket and put it on before removing the items from my basket. After I thanked the young woman for this gentle nudge, my gratitude grew. Like the colorful bird species, the abundant growth of mango, papaya and other tropical fruits and trees, this custom of calling an elder “auntie” or “uncle” had captured and filled me.
My delight had nothing to do with removing my identity as a “foreigner”. I would always remain a “haole” in the land and culture of the native Hawaiian. It was like the customary welcoming to Hawaii another kind of lei showing that the native traditions include the embrace of persons wherever they come from. You cannot spend a day on the Island of Hawai’i without the recognition that you are not on the North American continent. And that you are and will forever be a “haole”.
Having returned to Kansas City, I am even more grateful for our friends who are natives of the “Big Island” and whose hospitality falls on us like the soft rain of the rainforest surrounding their birthplaces near Honoka’a. I understand better the pride displayed by the son of our closest Hawaiian friend who as a three or four year old, though born in California, protested to my wife Kate, “I am not an American, am I Mom? I’m Hawaiian.”
I also now appreciate more our role as “hanai” or “adopted” grandparents of this child now preparing for college on the “mainland”. When my wife introduced ourselves at a Sunday worship service in Honoka’a as Gabriel’s “hanai” grandparents, expressions of approval were quietly uttered by the congregation. From now on, all our efforts to encourage and support the young man’s growth will be not just out of love for him but will also stem from the desire to honor the Hawaiian tradition and our identity as his “hanai” grandparents.
How sad and unfortunate that so many of our would be “leaders” in the mainland U.S. portray the nation’s increasing population of foreign born persons as a loss for the heirs of white settlers. How could someone be persuaded to view immigrants as posing a threat when their contributions are so many and so obvious? Against all the white supremacist theories and arguments we can all learn from and enjoy the embrace of other cultures in the history, language and customs of native Hawaiians.
As an example, there is much more to the meaning of “aloha” than our “hello” and “good bye”. After my recent visit, I now associate the Hawaiian language’s “aloha” with the Indian custom of greeting and leave taking with “namaste”. My favored interpretation of that Hindu greeting and leave taking is “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”.
The foreign-born population of the United States has grown from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million persons in 2015. Immigration accounts for the majority of population growth in the nation since the 1960’s and is likely to continue to do so for decades to come. In 2065, the U.S. population is projected to number 441 million with the increase largely due to immigration of the foreign born to its shores.
In its embrace of refugees and the self image cherished by most U.S. citizens as the world’s leading refuge for all people fleeing oppression and claiming their rights as human beings, there are strong undercurrents opposing a multi-racial identity. Foremost among them is the current of fear of “the other” centered historically on the African slaves imported as a critical contributor to the nation’s economic growth. Since the worldwide outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the country has explored more deeply than at any time the dimensions and effect of the legacy of white supremacy in our history and culture. Most of the immigrants to our shores since 1965 are non-white.
Even among U.S. adherents of the Christian religious traditions, very few persons claim as ancestor the middle Eastern Semite identified in this familiar biblical passage: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous”. (Deuteronomy 26:5 in NRSV translation). White citizens’ resistance to acceptance of our common ancestry with Jewish or Semitic Muslim immigrants, much less the entire human species, is fed by many sources in U.S. history. While complicated and diverse these diverse sources can be summarized in the phrase “fear of the other”.
As a people settling on non-white persons’ land who then forced black Africans to work in their fields and factories, we have relied on guns and an ideology of legitimate white rule to defend and develop as our own a land of great abundance. And that “we” has historically been identified as the land’s white Christian inhabitants.
By the year 2055, non-Hispanic “whites” in the U.S. will be in the minority. No racial or ethnic group will be in the majority but the fact that the white population will lose its dominant presence is testing the nation’s institutions and its coveted status as the world’s leading democracy as never before. The challenge of the last presidential election results is but one of the threats posed by the historic increase in diversity of the nation’s population base.
Once he entered politics, the former President was careful to avoid blatant appeals to people’s racial prejudice, lack of understanding of other cultures, and fear of “the other”. Looking back at his pre-campaign public stances, it is preposterous to claim he eschewed racist attitudes or positions. In 1989 the former President paid $85,000 for front page ads in all the New York City newspapers, including The New York Times in response to his hometown’s hysteria over the charging of five black teenagers for a rape they did not commit. His stoking of the fear of black youth among the City’s white population is but one evidence of the man’s racism now denied by most of the future President’s supporters.
Not to be ignored however in our focus on race as a cause for the country’s division is the lack of understanding and acceptance of other religions. While Muslims in the U.S. still account for fewer than 2 % of residents, the number of mosques has more than doubled since 2000. A reminder of conservative Christian support for beginning the war in Iraq as a modern Crusade has come with the efforts to resettle Afghans following the Taliban take over last summer.
Here in Kansas City, a new “Ambassadors” program for resettling refugees has been started. In its description of purpose the organizers state, “Ambassador Teams come alongside our new-American neighbors so that they might flourish in their new country and follow Jesus into His Kingdom”. U.S. conservative Christian vision of triumphal nationalism has been fed by our wars in the Middle East since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The former President encouraged and benefited from the vision’s anti-Muslim distortions as he did from the nation’s original sin of white racism. Whether the nation’s politics and self image as a nation of immigrants will overcome the division and damage caused by our history of ignorance and fear of the other will be determined by the nation’s young civic minded activists of the present and future.
The views of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were transformed in the 1960’s by their heightened awareness of the global context of the African American struggle in the U.S. The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes the dramatic impact on the American Muslim leader’s 1964 sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and also visiting Egypt on the trip. His travels taught him that the revolution for black freedom and equality in his country was bound up with the movement of oppressed peoples around the world. This enlargement of his historic role also took shape in the vision and leadership of Dr. King.
In celebrating King’s legacy on the now federal holiday, the Baptist preacher’s emphasis on global solidarity of the poor from 1965 until his death in ’68 is often ignored. His call for a “revolution of values” is a call for the nation to move from a “thing oriented” system to a “people oriented” system in its international policies. This would mean, he made clear, that the shift would demand giving priority concern to the effect on the poor worldwide of our policies and not only on those of our nation. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
The speech, delivered in Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before his assassination proclaims that the injustice done to anyone in the country is linked to the injustice perpetrated beyond our borders. The title of the speech “Beyond Vietnam”, we need to remember, is a warning that should the nation fail to recognize the humanity of the Vietnamese people and withdraw our armed forces, we will be fighting next in Venezuela, Peru or El Salvador. The 37 million people displaced by the U.S. led “War on Terror” since 2001 testify to our nation’s failure to learn the lessons of the Vietnam debacle and take King’s prophetic message to heart.
Although the criticism of the nation’s leading media sources, i.e. the New York Times and Washington Post, focused on King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, the critique of U.S. policies and presence in the world went much deeper and farther. It is a speech not just about the U.S. war on Vietnam. It is a speech about the U.S. defense of an unjust global system. It is a speech with a global reach. It is not just a speech for the Vietnam era. It is a speech for us today and for the future of humankind. Here below is the conclusion of the speech:
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.
When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word,’.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
For an audio recording and the text of the speech go to:
“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”
As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.
This year’s release of the music documentary Summer of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.
Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders. Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized. Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest. “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”. A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart. In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.
Featuring a staggering assembly of musical styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day. Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up. That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.
An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar. With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.
Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable. Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler. It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen. Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.
As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton. Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.
Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent. That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965.
A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s. After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony. When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us. No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it. Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.
As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”. One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band. Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul. The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension. Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”. The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.
Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted
most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”. It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan.
“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”
Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:
“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”
The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.
It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.” You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.
For years Mexican women crossed the border for an abortion in the U.S. Until medication was developed which can terminate a pregnancy the options in Mexico were limited in the second most Roman Catholic country in the world. Following the unanimous Mexican Supreme Court September decision ruling the border State of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional, Mexican activists have been offering assistance to Texas women seeking an abortion.
Co-founder of the Coahuila women’s rights organization Accompañtes Laguna, Laura Hernández, told The New Yorker they had already helped 3 U.S. women and are establishing the protocol to aid more. “It’s painful to know that not everyone can access the same rights,” Hernández said. “We feel a great responsibility toward women there.”
Two drugs enable a woman to terminate a pregnancy. While they both require a prescription in the U.S., in Mexico they are prescribed for treatment of gastric ulcers and other disorders and sold over the counter. As the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson explains however, a new Texas law criminalizes delivering those medications to women in the seventh week of pregnancy and beyond, potentially placing at risk anyone making them available.
Another Mexican Right to Choose organization, Las Libres (“The Free Ones”) is now busy building a “confidential network to give women instructions on use of the drugs and accompanying them throughout the procedure.” They offer close oversight on the day the medication is administered and daily check-ins thereafter. A Las Libres organizer was asked if she is worried about being sued in the U.S. for aiding the women. “No, not really.” When asked if Las Libres has found a way around the TX law she responded, “We are doing it.”
In the U.S. today, the right to abortion is threatened as never before since the historic 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Laws restricting access to abortion and calling for harsh penalties if violated are being considered and passed in many States with Republican majority legislatures. In Texas with the 2021 SB 8 TX law, the New York Times wrote that “effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect.”
Appointment during the Trump administration of a sixth conservative justice to the 9 member U.S. Supreme Court has placed on alert activists and the public majority in the country which favors a woman’s right to choose. With the Court decision to hear arguments in December against a harsh new Mississippi anti-abortion law, Mexican women’s assistance of women in Texas and other States takes on added significance.
Although a minority, the strategies of packing U.S. courts with ideological conservatives, taking control of State legislatures and further restricting access to voting have paid off for Republicans. Some of the super wealthy intent on expanding their fortunes are bank rolling right wing thinkers in universities, foundations and politics. At a time when U.S. young adults openly denounce capitalism, some conservative voices have been heard espousing authoritarian rule and the pitfalls of democracy. Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote a pair of tweets last fall arguing that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are.”
Throughout the “American century”, as the publisher Henry Luce named the last century, U.S. relations with other nations sought to promote capitalist economic policies as essential to a democracy. It now seems likely that this doctrine will be increasingly disputed by partisans of the right and the left. In such a time of confusion and uncertainty, with little consensus on what is truth and its most reliable source, some of us find cause for hope in the actions and voices of world citizens outside the U.S.
The solidarity of Mexican women with U.S. women choosing to have an abortion is another example of the role of international support and solidarity in the defense and progress of human rights in the world today. Christians celebrated Sunday November 28 as the first Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Traditionally, the theme for that Sunday is hope. As we contemplate sources of hope in our lives, on the social plane the work of the Mexican activists on behalf of us all stands out.
In a blog dedicated to “erasing borders” I want to address what force or forces serve to defend and strengthen national borders and border enforcement in the world. Now is the time because increased migration of threatened people across borders, “free trade” agreements, new technologies, and more travel (among other factors) all call for easing traffic across borders.
It is a confounding paradox for citizens of the U.S., especially for those born in the country with a single cultural identity, to delight in being surrounded by persons of other cultures while the politics and political economy of the country fosters suspicion and enmity of other nations and cultures. How could it be that a nation whose ideal self image, the ideal we grew accustomed to celebrating in our lives and in the life of the nation, has been that of a country leading in welcoming immigrants, how could it be that the same nation remains deadlocked on immigration reform for 35 years and focuses on combatting one enemy overseas after another?
Any attempt at a satisfactory answer to this question must consider some indisputable facts too long ignored. For anyone following the news casually, regardless of the news source in this country, we are aware of the U.S. emphasis on national defense and security. From the Defense Department budget, to television ads selling insurance for veterans, to conversations with those whose loved one is serving in the military, to statistics on the U.S. military’s footprint in over 80 other countries, we know this country is exceptional in equating military might with power and security.
What we don’t know and seldom talk about in our public forums is the effects on our loftiest ideals of our emphasis on preparation for war and conflict. What we also don’t think or talk about much in our civil dialog is the interaction between production of weaponry and the health of our economy.
Histories of California’s economy all point to the manufacture of aircraft as leading the way in the State’s growth. Its long Pacific sea shore has seen the rise of some of the largest and most important military bases during and following WW II. When a few bases were closed in the 90’s, and major aircraft production sites shut down, there was deep concern about what would replace them in the economies of the local communities and the State as a whole. Today the strength of California’s economy should assure us that a transition from an economy relying on defense expenditures can benefit a state’s population
Following the “Great War”, as many in the U.S. now term WW II, the late Prof. Seymour Melman devoted his research and writing to bringing to light the potential boost of the national economy with a conversion from defense production to production of “things that make for peace”. Despite his sterling credentials as a Columbia PhD in economics and his teaching at the same university until 2003, there has been little support for Melman’s views except among left wing intellectuals and peace organizations. He continues to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” in the political and economic discussion in this country.
Yet Melman’s case for such a conversion of the U.S. economy is more relevant today than ever. In a 1990 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Melman noted “there’s no mystery in the shabby railroads, the broken bridges, the unpaved streets, the wrecked buildings, the absence of adequate housing, the aging character of the industrial equipment.” There is today more decline in U.S. manufacture of goods used by or benefiting individual consumers. With 46 per cent of U.S. production equipment devoted to manufacture of weaponry in the mid-1980’s, Melman urged us to consider the impact on employment in manufacturing, on industrial research and development, on worker productivity and on wages among other measures of a healthy economy.
In highlighting the economic effects of this country’s production of goods individuals do not consume, Melman’s views also raise questions about the effect of arms production and sales on U.S. policies as a superpower. How do arms sales abroad, we accounted for 37 % of the world total sales in 2020, affect our foreign policy? What about the influence of the arms industries (the Lockheeds, Raytheons, General Dynamics, etc.) on the military establishment strategies and our perpetual wars? What are the costs to the nation’s ideals and self image of selling vastly more weaponry than any other nation in the world? Finally and most urgently in our time, how does our focus on defense and arms production handicap our capacity to lead in renewable energy production and innovation?
While controversy rages in our politics over what to do about the climate crisis worldwide, the response to a global pandemic, and how to move toward a healthy multi-racial society there is little conflict in our politics on defense and security issues. Consensus of the two parties on expanding our military and waging war for international conflict resolution seems guaranteed.
A few years ago a Cherokee Indian fable was widely shared. A wise grandfather advises his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is characterized by anger and fear and the other wolf is accepting and loving. The two wolves fight within each of us. So the grandson asks which wolf finally wins and the grandfather replies, “The one you feed will win”. Despite its lofty ideals and grand achievement in the past, does anyone doubt which wolf the U.S. continues to feed today? What will be the consequences for the nation if the wrong wolf wins the battle within us? What will be the consequences for the world?