Author Archives: erasingborders
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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”.
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”.
Louis Agassiz was, at his death in 1873, the most famous scientist in North America. Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he was the founder and Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The Museum’s web site calls him “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history”. Agassiz was also a white surpremacist widely known for defending slavery in the U.S. and what he considered to be the “natural” status of slaves of African origin.
Throughout his scientific career, the Swiss immigrant Agassiz lent his weight to the pro slavery theory of “polygenism”. This theory hypothesizes that different races of humankind have different origins. Most advocates would further view the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation as solely describing the origin of the white race. A summary of his views on the U.C. Berkeley web site reads, “Agassiz could not accept that all groups of humans belonged to the same species, and he argued vehemently for the inferiority of non-white human groups”. Several researchers have noted the influence of Agassiz and other polygenists on the Nazi racial theories and policies.
Darwin’s findings and development of the theory of evolution contributed significantly to the theory’s rejection. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould’s “devastating” account of the Agassiz position in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man consigns polygenism to the dustbin of other discredited scientific theories. A historian in Agassiz’s Swiss homeland began in 2007 a “Bring Down Agassiz Campaign” to shed light on the repugnant aspects of their famous compatriot’s legacy.
In 2002, a public elementary school in Cambridge just north of Harvard’s campus took off the Agassiz name from the school to honor an African-American principal instead. Other schools and institutions have removed or are in the process of considering the removal of the scientist’s name. Stanford’s Department of Psychology has requested the University remove his statue from their building’s façade. In a recent court case, however, Harvard has taken a position that seems intent on protecting the Agassiz legacy.
In the case, a descendant of slaves has demanded the University return to her family photos taken on a South Carolina plantation that were commissioned by Louis Agassiz. The photos depict “Papa Renty” Taylor at about age 65 and his daughter Delia as evidence in an Agassiz collection to support his racist theories. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Harvard, Tamara Lanier heard many tales of Papa Renty from her mother and is motivated by a two fold aim in bringing the suit. She explained, “I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images.” She continued, “Beyond that, it’s a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty.”
This year, 43 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed a letter to Harvard in support of Ms. Lanier’s lawsuit. The family members note in the letter, “For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused”. They then appeal to the University’s humane principles, “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos.”
I consider the legacy of Agassiz as important to us for two reasons. First, he is an outstanding example of how the social, economic and political context for doing science can affect the practitioner’s supposed “value-free” work and findings. We have ample evidence of this in our own age when a world economy built on fossil fuel consumption has influenced a coterie of dissident scientists to dispute the effect of the looming climate catastrophe. Second, the support for white supremacy brought by Louis Agassiz reminds us of the pervasive reach of such views, their public respectability until recently and of the vaunted origin of such views in this country. Harvard’s determination to hold on to the photos of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, protecting the Agassiz collection in effect, is another indication of the scope and array of challenges U.S. “anti-racists” must grapple with.
For some people in the U.S. it is cause for anxiety and even fear, but we all seem to agree on one fact about the pandemic. This nation will not return to what was “normal” before the world virus crossed our borders. For many of us the “normal” set the stage for the division and social conflict that have attended our virus response. Rather than solidarity and mutual support joined by radically different people as during recent hurricane recoveries, in the pandemic response we’ve experienced highly visible signs of disagreement, resistance to mask wearing being the most common.
Aside from the toxic, inhumane immigration policies and grotesque economic inequality that have plagued the country and represent the “normal” we lived with prior to this crisis, we all have suffered for years from a lack of courage on the part of our political leaders and representatives. This lack of courage is manifest in the sycophantic response to an inept and self centered chief executive but also in our failure to address what in our system has enabled, even called for, the rampant greed and selfishness.
While veteran spokespersons for President Trump’s Republican party have all failed to counter the administration’s blunders, with the tepid exception of Mitt Romney, the opposition Democrats have little grounds for boasting. A majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate approved President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, including Sen. Hilary Clinton. The 2016 Democratic Party candidate for President seemed to take her election for granted, with a campaign notably lacking in proposals for substantive change. Notably lacking were programs to deal with the rising economic inequality and stagnant working and middle class wages relative to the gains by the wealthy.
It will take courage on the part of citizens and politicians for substantive change to a more humane “normal”. We all feel discomfort and even fear when the levees break, the waters rise, homes are lost and health imperiled. Like those launching their rowboats for rescue operations in a flood or the one who enters the burning house, courage will be demanded for a robust pandemic recovery and the repair of our democracy. So during the social distancing and isolation I’ve been led to think again about a person who helped me deal with change in my own life.
The costly and courageous witness against the Vietnam War of David Batzka has been a profile in courage for me for over fifty years. David was a seminary student in New York City with a coveted 4-D deferment from his draft board. It was a safe bet that so long as he stayed in seminary and proceeded to become a minister he would never lose his deferment. But David informed his Indiana draft board that he refused his classification and opposed their right to draft anyone to fight the unjust, immoral War. In a demonstration on the steps of the Indiana State Capitol building, the neatly groomed seminarian burned his draft card.
As a result, David’s home church in Indiana rejected sponsoring him for ordination as a pastor. Only the stalwart support of his denomination’s Church and Society office kept him from being arrested and sent to prison. Although he was eventually approved for ordination, in spite of his home church’s opposition, David never served as a church’s pastor.
His resistance to the Vietnam draft was not the first time he had demonstrated great courage. Prior to graduation from college, David’s courage and his faith had been tested by involvement in the struggle for Black civil rights. Between his junior and senior years, he spent 6 weeks registering African-Americans to vote. Before he left home that summer of 1964 two white civil rights volunteers had disappeared in the same State of Mississippi. Before their maimed bodies were found, David was quoted in The Indianapolis Star, “I’m more determined to go ahead. This proves something must be done.” Asked what motivated him, he replied, “Christians should be involved in civil rights work.”
David remained steadfast in his faith as a Christian. His resistance of the draft and subsequent organizing helped lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to take an anti-War position at its national conventions. Invited to speak on the War at churches he always wore the attire and short hair customary for a minister in that time. “His somewhat formal appearance disarmed lots of people” his wife Vickie Batzka wrote about David’s public speaking.
David Batzka laid the path for my own opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent resistance of the draft. As a white American male today, contemplating my response to the multiple crises plaguing my community and nation, David’s work for love and justice represents a primary resource. In my July 4 Independence Day celebration, as I thought about the change required for our post-pandemic “normal” to be a better world for all, I wrote the following poem. It’s my belated tribute to David, who died after a surgery in 2002, and his place in the life of someone who never met him.
Call it Courage
July 4, 2020
We know truth by the cost
Or to those we love
Without knowing what
The real price will be.
Life’s heroes weave our days
The thread always
We call it courage
Binds up the love
Splendid in a dreamed time.
They did not choose;
Gripped then chose them:
To cherish life,
Its dignity, its sanctity in crisis.
Of this comes change and its cost
Known more now
Than its outcome so opaque:
Always more love,
More life, more courage, more thanks
It is remarkable how the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of officers of law and order in the U.S. have sparked massive protests worldwide. Responding to the intensity and number of protests across their country, the Belgian Parliament just formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to revisit their country’s colonial history. And sixty years after their vast colony of Congo achieved self rule, the Belgian King Phillippe has expressed “deepest regrets for these wounds” suffered by the Congolese people. The time has come to embark on the path of “research, truth and memory” focusing on their colonial legacy in the words of the current Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Willems.
Many Parliament members and Belgian citizens will feel obligated to defend and whitewash their rule in Africa. King Philippe’s younger brother Prince Laurent soon disputed his brother’s words of contrition. In defense of the source of much of his royal family’s wealth, the system of resource extraction costing an estimated ten million Congolese lives, Prince Laurent pointed out that King Leopold II had never set foot in Africa.
Ten years before Leopold II was forced to cede his Congo Free State personal rule and create the colonial administration, Conrad’s narrator in the 1898 novella The Heart of Darkness condemned colonialism in general. He emphasized features characterizing other European colonies in Africa:
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Anti-racist protestors have succeeded in removing statues honoring King Leopold in Belgium but their call for reparations for the Congo will meet stout opposition. As in the United States, there is profound discomfort and sensitivity among whites of all political leanings when faced with the truth of their complicity with and benefit from racism in their society.
Thanks to the continued protests there is however serious scrutiny for the first time of how even avowedly anti-racist whites participate in preserving their country’s structures of racism in the U.S. and in Europe. Responding to the protests, movies, books, podcasts, etc. are challenging whites to consider previously neglected personal traits of “white fragility” and “white privilege”. Widespread recognition of deeply rooted injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system promises significant change.
Whether continued calls for reparations to address the vast gulf between black and white families’ wealth and income will lead to a U.S. “truth and reconciliation commission” is more open to question. Progressive U.S. religious leaders, notably Dr. King among them, have for years declared the nation faces a moral and spiritual crisis, a struggle to heal the soul of America. Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explores the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, agrees with Dr. King’s analysis:
“I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved through rational policy discussions….I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings. These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.”
My Old Testament professor in seminary was drafted into the German army in the closing days of World War II. At age 15 following an abbreviated training he found himself on the front line of the forces defending his homeland. As he hunkered down, terrified in his trench, the ground shook with Allied bombs falling all around him.
By the time he told us this story, in the second semester of the year long course, his fierce passion for the ancient text had already been displayed. Woe to the students seated in the front row of the class. He leaned into their faces, eyes blazed and the words thundered down in a thick German accent. Until the day he relived for us his survival as a teen ager of the Allied bombings, we had little idea of the origin of that fire within the man.
His life-shattering story was his way of introducing us to the prophecies of Amos. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible revealed to him the only way he could make sense of his experience of war and how it could fit into crafting a fruitful life. And the prophet Amos stood out for him among their ranks. There, in the 8th century BC prophecies of a herder and tree trimmer, he had found the words essential to making sense of the terrors of the Nazi humiliation and defeat.
“Is not the day of the Lord
darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?” Am 5:20 (NRSV)
Rolf Knierim’s message to us could not have been clearer. Would-be ministers should never treat the prophets casually; handle with caution or use at your own risk remained for me his teaching of the prophets, and his lesson for us on Amos especially. Not just you yourself but your congregation had to be prepared to really hear the prophets’ word for our day.
So when I heard Rev. Dr. William Barber choose Amos 5 as the text to preach from Washington’s National Cathedral Sunday June 14, my first thought was of Rolf Knierim. God’s fury that Rolf had lived and taught about for thirty years helped me take the measure of the anguish that grips this nation at this time.
Barber’s sermon surprised me by its tone. He seemed restrained in his denunciations and soft in his anger. Now as I write this it occurs to me that the fierce prophecy had already been accomplished with the suffering of George Floyd, the cruel pursuit of Ahmaud Arberry, the death of so many other men and women of color at the hands of a system built on white supremacy while professing that all human beings are created equal. The comfortable had already been afflicted and the afflicted already comforted by the truth telling of the brutal videos followed by massive protests in solidarity worldwide.
What remained to be done, Rev. Barber had decided, was to proclaim that God is at work in making us uncomfortable, disturbed, distraught by the recent events. And that the words of the prophet Amos spoken long ago would help guide us in finding our way as persons and as a nation in helping create a world more like our Creator intended. The prophet’s words would help us grow into the image we were created to be as they had helped grow Rolf Knierim and so many others devoted to the truth and beauty of life as a human being.
“Take away from me the noise of your songs:
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:23-24, NRSV trans.)
To listen to Rev. Barber’s sermon go to: https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-the-rev-dr-william-j-barber-ii-2/
The murders of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd in a southern rural town and a major urban center in the North have awakened us to how the American dream has excluded many U.S. residents for a long time. We knew that Article I of the U.S. Constitution counted black slaves as only three fifths of a person. We knew that the freeing of slaves in 1863 was followed by discrimination, degradation and lynching of black citizens in the country. We might have been awakened by the reversal of provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Shelby v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court in 2013. We might have known how systematic exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from the American dream drove the campaign that elected Donald Trump as President of the country.
As a student in an integrated, half African-American high school in Indianapolis, I should have learned that the nation’s founding principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” still has not been embraced by all our citizens. Since I didn’t learn it in high school, I should have learned it from what occurred at the 50th Reunion of my Class in 2014. Our class had seen the School make significant strides toward racial harmony and cooperation in the school and city.
When my brother graduated from Shortridge High School in 1959, fewer than five per cent of the students were black. Five years later when I graduated, there had been significant integration of black students at the School. Our class was at least half African-American. We had elected a black girl as Junior Prom Queen for the first time. A black group was finally selected to participate in the school’s Junior Vaudeville fund raiser. As Shortridge’s 100th class to study where writer Kurt Vonnegut, former Sen. Richard Lugar and other community leaders had also studied we could take pride in helping prepare the School for continuing its role in the city’s growth.
But whatever contributions we had made to the School’s healthy transition in racial composition and racial harmony was ignored at the 50th reunion. No mention was made of our struggle with racial issues and the outbreaks of conflict. I had gone to the reunion to celebrate how we had contributed some signs of progress in the easing of tensions. That none of the speakers nor any part of the program made reference to the example in race relations our class had set disappointed and finally baffled me.
The murders by police of the past month and the post-Obama era retreat from pursuit of racial justice and healing highlights that the vision of this country as championing “all men are created equal” has again been countered by political developments of recent years. One of the two major political parties has developed strategies of gaining and maintaining power by restricting the right to vote, restricting the path to citizenship, and packing the judicial system with appointees devoted to preserving rule by the minority of whites that continues to wield economic power.
The most significant change in the nation’s recoil from the dream of equal rights for all is the fact that there is now a knee on the neck of many more people of color in the U.S. Blacks are now joined by increasing numbers of immigrants from south of the U.S. border who are dominated by a system that excludes them from acceptance as U.S. citizens while benefiting from their low cost labor. It has become clearer that the Party controlling most state legislatures, the Senate and the Presidency has deliberately prevented reform of immigration laws as essential to keeping their hold on political power. It is widely recognized that overwhelming Latinx support for the election of Barack Obama helped put the first African-American in the Presidency.
So now in 2020 it is not only white acceptance of African-Americans as full citizens of the U.S. with equal rights that will signal advance in making real the country’s best version of itself. It is white acceptance of the Spanish speaker, the Asian immigrant and their children, and Arab Americans that is demanded of us all, the whites who also immigrated here and the Africans forcibly brought to these shores. Our youth know this. Our youth who are now marching in protest far out number the young citizens whose minds and souls have been poisoned with the old myths of racial superiority. The protesting youth are bent on moving the country’s reality closer to its dream.
People of all ages are now marching and demonstrating in defiance of the global pandemic and in defiance of the pandemic that has afflicted the country since its founding. The language and the myths of white superiority have been our original sin and our greatest weakness since the nation’s founding. Efforts to counter the systemic racism are being led by persons with global roots. A young Latinx labor organizer friend summed up his work as helping save the nation from itself. The police, politicians and their supporters determined to keep their knees on the necks of people of color in the U.S. perpetuate the country’s death wish. I believe they are vastly outnumbered by the persons marching in the streets and their supporters who are crying out for the breath and long life of the dream that could make this nation a great one. I hope and pray that our democracy has survived the attacks, past and future, on the voting rights of its citizens and that the November election results will reflect the marchers’ demands for real change in this nation.
Former President of the U.S. Jimmy Carter called the U.S. “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”. In his Sunday School lesson at his home church in rural Georgia last spring Carter observed that his country had experienced only 16 years in its 242 year history when it was not at war. The country that spends more on its “defense” than the next ten nations in the world combined is also the world’s number one exporter of arms and military equipment. It comes as no great surprise then that the protests against police brutality sweeping this country in recent days have been met with police forces armed for intimidation and repression of dissent as we have never seen before.
More than thirty years ago the U.S. Congress approved the 1033 program which enables the Pentagon to transfer military hardware and equipment to local police forces in the country. Since it began, this program has seen 533 planes and helicopters and over 423 “Ambush-resistant” vehicles transferred to civilian forces assigned to protect and defend us. Two years after President Obama suspended the 1033 program following the Michael Brown killing by police in Ferguson, MO President Trump reinstated it.
There has been an escalation of violence in the urban streets of our world today beyond what we experienced in the turbulent 60’s. Protestors of the U.S. War on Vietnam sat down or kneeled in front of police on horseback wielding wooden batons; today, police with guns that can fire 10 bullets per second meet demonstrators in the streets of U.S. cities. The 1033 program favored by Trump has provided local police with 93,000 machine guns.
Militarization of the police in other nations is a feature of U.S. “security aid” to some of our closest allies. Over half of our foreign aid to El Salvador in 2017 supported improving security and law and order which followed many millions in direct military and police aid during that country’s Civil War in the 70’s and 80’s. The country with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras, in 2017 received 44 percent of its aid for security compared to 30 percent for antipoverty programs. U.S. security aid for Brazil reached a height during the period of military rule in the 60’s and 70’s. Now the authoritarian rule of Jair Bolsonaro counts on violent repression to quell protests and dissent of Brazil’s citizens.
The popular view of the U.S. image around the world in my lifetime has descended from champion of those struggling for independence from colonialism post WW II to the leading ally and supplier of dictatorships stifling dissent and democracy. In the view of the current U.S. administration, our best friends among the world’s nations today are the most authoritarian, anti-democratic rulers in the world today.
The economic inequality and exploitation of people alongside the degradation of the natural environment by the global economic order has led to unprecedented human migration and public protests in many nations. It seems evident that the leader of this economic order has chosen to respond to the protests and demands for change with violence and the force of advanced weaponry. As Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign observes, the War on Poverty of the 1960’s in the U.S. has become a war on the poor. But not just war on the poor in the U.S. We train and equip the police and military for brutal repression of the poor, Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”, around the world.