Author Archives: erasingborders
It’s been a miserable week. Monday morning at 6 am it began at the Poor People’s Campaign rally with someone reminding me that the Trump administration would that day confirm the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In protest of the provocative change in U.S. policy and the conditions of their virtual incarceration in Gaza, over sixty Palestinians were shot and killed and 2700 wounded by Israeli troops on the border. Official U.S. response was to condemn the Palestinian support for Hamas as their true representatives followed by opposition to any U.N. investigation of Palestinian unarmed civilians being shot down by the Israeli Defense Force.
As the week ends, the first death from the ebola virus is confirmed in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo where I lived more than two years and have many friends. Monday a friend had posted on Facebook that in the town of Boyeka where he pastors 14 persons, 11 from the same family, had died from ebola back in January and February. Rev. Prosper Elombe’s reports of the deaths to Congolese government health officials had gone unheeded.
Another friend, Dieudonné Boleko, who works in the Disciples of Christ headquarters in Mbandaka wrote on Facebook of Rev. Elombe’s efforts, “No one paid attention to your cries of distress. Finally (with the deaths in the more populated Bikoro area) the national government has awakened and declared the cause to be an ebola outbreak.” On Monday Boleko commented further, “I remember well your warnings and you should now be considered a hero. It’s a disgrace that the health services of the State did nothing.”
Alarmed by the disease’s potential to spread in the city of one million people, international health agencies have now sent equipment to protect those treating the ebola victims in Mbandaka’s Equateur Province. The Disciples Church administers 6 hospitals, 9 maternity centers and 42 health clinics in the Province and its first hospital, established in Bolenge over one hundred years ago, is located only fifteen kilometers from Mbandaka. To educate the populace on ebola’s symptoms, precautions they need to take, and to avoid the overwhelming of the health services by those wanting to be tested for the disease, Dieudonné Boleko is coordinating a team to present information at churches, schools and markets in the Mbandaka area.
The week concluded with the news from Texas that 10 more children had been shot and killed – by a classmate this time – and 10 wounded. As I sat down to write this, I was distracted by thoughts of how the epidemic of mass shootings had become our ebola crisis in this country. As I compared the response to the scourges challenging our two countries, there was little doubt that Congo was far ahead in stemming the spread of ebola. In this country, those favoring the absurdly dangerous proliferation of sophisticated weapons have halted any progress on diagnosing the cause of the U.S. epidemic of mass killing. As a result we lag far behind in agreeing on and implementing measures of prevention or cure.
One diagnosis and cure for the illness afflicting the U.S. has been offered through the leadership of Rev. William Barber and others organizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. I celebrate their reminding us all of Martin Luther King’s diagnosis in 1967: “A nation spending more on weaponry and armaments than on services for the poor and disadvantaged is approaching spiritual death” King declared. As for the cure, King called for, and Barber emphasizes today, the need for “a revolution in values” in this country.
A story told of Dorothy Day casts light on a life dedicated to the “revolution” King envisioned. On inquiring where she might be found in the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan, a journalist was told she was in the kitchen. As the writer approached the small gray headed woman helping wash oversized pots, Dorothy Day asked if he wanted to speak with her or the shabbily dressed, homeless man next to her. On recalling the story this time I realized it is not about Day’s humility. In the context of mourning and concern for the devaluing of human lives on display in our international interventions and current U.S. domestic policies, Day’s respect and love for the worn down man with her stood out. Her love for all human beings, all children of her Creator, that drove and shaped her whole life shines forth as the cure we all need.
Respecting the privacy of my Congolese friends, I have changed their names for this blog posting.
“It is not too late to restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation. Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.”
– Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and Chair of the 2009 U.N. Commission of Reform of the International Monetary and Financial System
It was my last time to read with second grader Jalen at his School at 24th and Prospect in Kansas City. It was my last opportunity to praise an eight year old whose energy and hunger to learn had inspired in me great expectations. The week before, during his spring break, Jalen had visited his five month old brother’s grave. This week, tears streamed down his cheek as he assured me his brother was in heaven. Before I could leave him with some words of encouragement, some troubling questions came to mind.
How often does he find a rat in his bedroom as he searches before sleeping every night? Why has he been so tired recently? Would there be someone to read with him this summer? Would eviction or domestic strife force a move away from the neighborhood before school resumes? Would this second grader reading at a much higher level get the financial help he likely will need to continue his education beyond high school?
If the trend continues of cutting taxes on the wealthy while underfunding our public education system, Jalen may well be one of thousands of American children left behind. More questions come forward. Why has our political discourse now seemingly abandoned progress in bringing about the American ideal of equal opportunity for all children? Why are we as a society more concerned about the effects of tax cuts on our crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges than we are about the effects on the lives of American children and their parents.
The fact is we haven’t heard much about the poor in recent years. In our latest presidential campaign the major party candidates focused our concern on the shrinking incomes of “the middle class”. How often did you hear a candidate mention the twenty per cent of the population (and some say nearly twenty five per cent of the children) living below the poverty line? Programs in education, health care, housing, and job training providing more opportunity for the poor have been reduced or eliminated in the drive to cut taxes, shrink government, and privatize services.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, reports on the living conditions of the poor in the U.S. during an era of unprecedented wealth and economic growth resulted in new political and policy priorities. The book by Michael Harrington The Other America: Poverty in the United States was widely read in the Kennedy Administration and helped to lay the ground work for the legislation focused on creating “the good society” through a “war on poverty”.
Today we are all suffering the effects of what Rev. William Barber and others have called the shift from a “war on poverty” to “a war on the poor” since the days of Reagan Administration policies. The focus on our individual self interest and a bogus definition of freedom as represented by a deregulated economy in which every person is out for themselves now prevails over the view that my freedom is bound up with your freedom and your liberation is tied to my own.
In choosing to participate in this spring’s revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign I am not just demonstrating concern for those left behind by the rampant individualism, racism, militarism and economic exploitation of these times. I am marching also with those crying out for sane gun control measures, humane prison conditions and judicial sentencing reform , immigration policy reform, and curtailment of the misguided war on drugs. Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of Union Seminary, the lead organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign wrote recently, “There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.”
In the disastrous grip of big money’s influence on our American political and economic life, we must make our concerns and values known in between elections. When the top one per cent of the population receives 52 % of the country’s growth in income, and use their bloated wealth to rig the political process, the only way we save democratic rule by the people and make our system more fair is public protest.
Fifty years ago in leading the organizing of the first Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King called for a revolution in the nation’s values pointing out that “a civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy”. He would certainly agree with those religious leaders today whose recent joint statement lamented the nation’s “political crisis” and declared “if our gospel is not ‘good news for the poor’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ”.
Before leaving Jalen this past week, I told him I had high hopes for his future. I also told him the twin of the baby who died is lucky to have him for his big brother. Jalen will do his best to help care for that baby brother who survived. But he will need my help and yours too.
For Further Reading:
Article on the “moral agenda” of the Poor People’s Campaign by Rev. Barber and Rev. Theoharis:
U.S. religious leaders’, including Fr. Richard Rohr’s, statement “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” go to: reclaimingjesus.org
Excellent article by Dr. Joseph Stiglitz “Inequality is not Inevitable” in the NY Times:
Organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign in Missouri are planning demonstrations every Monday from May 14 through June 11 both in Kansas City and at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. For info of what the Poor People’s Campaign is planning in other areas of the U.S. go to:
The following post departs from the direction taken when the blog began its focus on our experience of living in San Luis Potosí México and serving with the joint Roundtable of the Disciples of Christ and Congregational Churches of México. Since our return to the States in 2015, harsh cariacatures of Mexican immigrants and immigrants from other countries have helped elect a U.S. President with a history of bigotry and racism. Building the wall along the U.S.- Mexican border has become a major theme as well as a continuing aim of the Trump Administration.
While the wall is now for many in the U.S. the most blatant example of the anti-human, nonsensical policies of this Administration, the real threat may lie ahead. The blog article below is published on the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. More than 400 old men, women and children, in a South Vietnamese peasant village lost their lives that day. Since then, there have been civilian massacres perpetrated by U.S. troops or U.S. trainees, war planes and now drones in Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Some are asking how much farther astray must our nation go before we seriously pursue the things that make for peace.
Like many adults in the U.S. today, I am deeply troubled by how my tax dollars are spent for war and an already massive military U.S. footprint around the world. How could a nation with a long, rich history of religious belief and practice, the nation with more Christians than any other, have become the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in the words of Rev. Martin Luther King? This blog will in the future be more theological in purpose, tone and subject matter if one embraces as I do the definition of theology as “faith in search of understanding”.
The COURAGE of WEAKNESS
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage these days. Courage in the face of health challenges, rejection, scorn, and death. I’ve been thinking of how my views on courage have changed during my lifetime.
As an eight year old and for most years of my childhood, courage took on the contours of heroism in battles. Battles of the cowboys against the Indians, of young men defending the homeland against whatever forces might menace us. As I entered college in 1964 courage was represented by the life of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy who had commanded a PT Boat during WW II combat in the Pacific.
Then came Vietnam and wrestling with the “truth” of that War, the “truth” that is always “the first casualty in war” as the playwright Aeschylus wrote. I opposed the War and wrote a fourteen page single spaced statement for my draft board in filing for conscientious objector status. I was determined to oppose not just what the U.S. war machine was doing in Vietnam to the Vietnamese people but for what it would do in the present and the future to our nation.
Since Vietnam I have experienced the constant armed combat and arms buildup as our nation’s response to perceived threats off our shores and far away. There was no scaling down of our defense budget after Vietnam and there has been no “peace dividend” after the fall of our “Communist” adversary as represented by the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant we could stand alone as the great “Superpower” in the world so we continued an unprecedented defense buildup to maintain our status as a “superpower” and further our “national interest”.
It is as though our victories in war from the American Revolution through WW II had given us sole possession of Aladdin’s lamp and the right to ask for one wish from the genie within. Vietnam might have taught our foreign policy strategists and our military that no weight of military buildup and deployment can subdue a people organized for resistance and liberation from foreign control and prepared to make great sacrifices to get it. The genie granted our wish for ultimate, unmatched military weaponry and killing power. As a result, we continue to suffer the consequences of “truth” being the “first casualty in war” in our civic dialog and the loss of tens of thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in our history as a “superpower”.
The death of my “Uncle Jim”, the last family member of my parents’ generation, last week took my thoughts on courage in another direction. I began thinking of my elders who displayed courage in their lives and none of the examples involved heroism on the battlefield of armed warfare.
The first story that came to mind was of the young seminary graduate Rev. Thomas J. Liggett in his first pastorate out of seminary. The Sunday following Pearl Harbor, on December 14, 1941 members of his small town church in Kentucky were greeted in the narthex by a photo mounted on a makeshift altar. Everyone entering the sanctuary passed by the portrait of a Japanese Christian T.J. Liggett had met, seated with his family.
Rev. Liggett served as a missionary in Argentina and Puerto Rico before becoming President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. On accepting that position he told the trustees he couldn’t accept their salary package. It was too much he told them, even for a family with two children, and his wife, Virginia, confronted by fragile health. So the trustees eventually persuaded “TJ” to accept a package that included a larger pension from the seminary. My father had told me that story as a form of encouragement in my first years out of seminary.
My Uncle Jim Craddock earned a degree in aeronautical engineering as a member of the ROTC at Virginia Tech during WW II. He trained pilots after the War ended but never experienced combat himself. I associated “Uncle Jim” with courage after his retirement from a long lasting pastorate in the suburbs of Indianapolis. His last years at the church saw a dramatic demographic change in the area as African American families found relatively inexpensive housing there away from the inner city. That congregation is now a thriving African American faith community. Uncle Jim remained an active member, worshipping every Sunday and focusing his giving there. In the eyes of our American culture he had become a distinct minority in a majority black church. In my eyes he is a man of real courage.
There are many models of courage in the Bible stories. Some quickly come to mind like Daniel, Samson, Esther, the prophet Nathan and the powerful man Nathan warned, David. But the profile in courage I’ve come to focus on in recent years is the woman who anoints Jesus as told about in two of the Gospels. Her behavior, and perhaps her reputation, makes her an object of scorn but Jesus praises her passionate devotion to Him and leaves us with the assurance that her story will be told as long as His Gospel is preached.
Her story leads me to close this meditation on courage with Paul’s words which come as close as any for me to summing up the “good news” of Jesus: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” I CO 1:26-29
Prayer: Loving, merciful God, lead us to the faith and to the “love that casts out fear” in our living now and in the future. Amen.
In my conversation with a Trump supporter recently, he tried to defend construction of the wall on the Mexican border by claiming that Mexico was in the process of building a wall of its own at the border with Guatemala. While there is absolutely no evidence to support the man’s claim, like much of the “fake news” generated to prop up the Trump presidency, it reflects what many in his “base” would like to believe and see come true.
In fact, as the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) continues to report, the U.S. IS arming and training immigration authorities and security personnel in discouraging and stemming the flow of Central American migrants through Mexico. Nicholas Greven in the Winter 2017 issue of NACLA’s Report tells us, “Increased security and militarization has exacerbated dangers for Central American asylum-seekers traveling through Mexico- and it’s about to get worse” under the Trump administration.
As former head of the U.S. Southern Command (for Central and South America) Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly has long advocated greater militarization of border security and the drug war in Mexico. In his 2017 Senate confirmation hearing prior to becoming head of U.S. Homeland Security, Kelly denounced “fears related to militarizing the counter-illicit trafficking effort” despite the widely acknowledged figure of more than 160,000 people killed in the U.S. financed Mexican “drug war” since 2006.
As for border security, from the U.S. government’s perspective, the child migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border during the summer of 2014 increased the urgency of stopping Central America migrants before they could reach the United States. While no wall is in the works, funding and implementation of the Southern Border Plan by Congress in 2014 has made passage of migrants through the Mexican states bordering Guatemala much more difficult and dangerous. NACLA writer Greven interviewed migrants in shelters near the border who “had been assaulted, extorted, robbed, or all three, as they have been forced to embark on less-traveled, more dangerous migration trails in regions often controlled by organized crime”.
The director of one of the migrant shelters near the Guatemalan border told Greven that “the first enforcement operations deployed under the rubric of the SBP were a series of raids on ‘the Beast,’ the famous cargo train that was the principal mode of transportation for migrants crossing Mexico until 2014”. Another source reported that “starting in 2014 the speed of the train was increased, and metal bars added to of it in order to make it more difficult and dangerous to climb aboard while in transit”. Other results of the U.S. push to reduce the crossing of migrants at the southern Mexican border are increased deportation and a steady increase in Central Americans applying for refugee asylum in Mexico.
By 2016 immigration officers in Mexico had deported twice as many migrants as just three years before. Since the SBP brought about tighter enforcement of the Mexican immigration laws, by 2016 three times as many Central Americans had applied to remain in Mexico. In 2017 the UN Refugee Commission estimated Mexico would receive up to 20,000 asylum applications.
Alongside the predictable U.S. emphasis on more gadgetry, weapons and training for Mexican immigration authorities, it is important to take account of what the U.S. policy makers have opted not to do. In sum, they have not defended democratic rule and basic human rights in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, especially in Honduras recently.
Shelters in Mexico and deportation statistics of U.S. immigration officials confirm that the vast majority of Central Americans fleeing their country are from Honduras. The U.S. supported the Honduran military’s ouster of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The Obama administration later backed another term for a President who violated the country’s constitution by running in the 2014 election and then turned a blind eye to widespread reports of fraud in that candidate’s election which has resulted in the current turmoil and political instability. To gauge the wisdom and outcomes of U.S. policy in Central America it suffices to consider how many migrants to the U.S. you know or have heard about who hail from Costa Rica.
N.B.: The above draws on the research of NACLA writers John Lindsay-Poland and Laura Weiss for “Re-arming the Drug War in Mexico and Central America” in the Summer 2017 issue and Nicholas Greven “The Southern Border Plan on the Ground in the Trump Era” in the Winter 2017 issue.
In the face of Trump administration efforts to roll back or repeal U.S. legislation and government actions to reduce economic inequality, further civil rights and protect the environment, the words and courageous life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have taken on added weight and importance. Here in Kansas City, this January’s King holiday celebrations of his life and message have been especially well attended. The public gatherings also served this year as an opportunity to call on people to resume the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. King the year of his assassination fifty years ago.
That Poor People’s Campaign mobilized people of many races against the scourges of racism, militarism and materialism and marked King’s expansion of his organizing from the civil rights of African Americans to the human rights of oppressed people world wide. The civil rights leader had long been inspired by the progress of persons overseas in claiming their rights, having early in his ministry made the connection between the struggle of U.S. blacks and those in Africa in opposing colonial rule.
Soon after the 1957 integration of public transportation in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King attended the festivities celebrating the independence of Ghana in West Africa. Ghana was the first English speaking African nation to achieve independence from European colonial rule and Dr. King drew inspiration and strength from this historic advance. One month after Ghana’s Independence Day, on April 7, 1957, he preached at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery on the new nation’s, and our own, march toward freedom and liberation.
“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.”
Dr. King briefly summarizes in the sermon the five hundred years of slave trading and colonial rule by Britain and the European powers across the continent of Africa. He then describes the struggle of the new nation’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and the Ghanaian people against colonial rule. Ghana’s opposition to colonial rule and its similarity to the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the U.S. made a deep impact on Martin Luther King. He shared his reaction with his congregation:
“When Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, ‘We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,’ all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.”
“After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:
Free at last! Free at last!
Great God Almighty, I’m free at last! ..……”
When Dr. King wrote his last book in 1967 that experience was still fresh in his mind. In the book’s final chapter, which he titled “The World House”, he wrote, “What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…..All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands……For several centuries the direction of history flowed from the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in ‘conquests’ of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism is at an end.”
Like no one else, King knew that there were many people in the U.S. who are unaware of or who are opposed to the “freedom explosion” he celebrated in Ghana in 1957. In words as relevant today as when he wrote them in 1967, he declares, “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.”
The leaders of the current administration in power in the U.S. not only goad and abuse people of color worldwide; they are trying to turn back the clock on the “freedom explosion”. Like Rip Van Winkles they have slept through “the widest liberation movement in history”. They may never wake up but we, in opposing, resisting and helping set a different course for our nation, we join the “great masses of people (who) are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands”. And as Dr. King, our scriptures and world history continue to remind us, “the freedom explosion” ultimately will prevail.
Note: “The World House” chapter concludes Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr., first published in 1968
I’ve been a follower of the World Council of Churches’ web site http://www.oikoumene.org/en and received messages from them in my Inbox for a decade or more. Ever since I began thinking more seriously about what it means to be a called and to take action as a “global citizen” in the world today I’ve learned, been encouraged by and been grateful for the work of 350 plus Orthodox and Protestant Church bodies worldwide, united for reflection and action by the World Council of Churches.
To cite one example of the value and importance of the Council’s voice, the U.S. would never have invaded Iraq in 2003 had Christians in this country heeded the warnings issued by the Mideast Council of Churches and published worldwide by the World Council. It is stunning how many of the dire effects of the Iraq invasion, the spread of the war to other nations being just one example, were all foreseen by the Statement issued by the World Council on behalf of the Mideast Council of Churches.
You will easily find the Spanish, French and German versions of the Council web site at the above address along with translations into thirteen other languages, Arabic among them. Here below is the Christmas 2017 greeting of the Council, like the work and mission of this movement truly a “hug for the world”. Consider it a wish for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all those active in “erasing borders” in their own communities this year and in coming years. First though is a beautiful Africa-themed video in celebration of the solidarity dreamed, advocated and made possible by the activities of the World Council of Churches.
28 November 2017
A greeting from the World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches has as its basis that “we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.” This refers directly to the words of the Gospel, the good news that we read and hear at every celebration of Christmas. These words of a heavenly messenger are for all the people. The Gospel writer, Luke, continued telling the story of Lord and Saviour, who was “anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19). He is the one who chose his apostles and “gave them instructions through the Holy Spirit … to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 2, 8).
This year the churches in the world have commemorated 500 years since the Reformation, an event that had an effect on all churches in the world ever since. The best way to commemorate this landmark was to manifest and celebrate that we share the same Gospel, the same good news about our Lord and Saviour. The best way to show that we are serious about this is to continue the sending and the mission by sharing the faith in the one who liberates, heals, and proclaims the time of God’s undeserved grace to come. A year of hope and new beginning is always the message of the Gospel.
In 2018 the World Council of Churches will celebrate our first 70 years in common service and witness to the triune God who creates us, saves us, and sends us to serve and witness. We cannot wait till we have found agreement in everything. Our ecumenical service, our diakonia, is needed every day. We are called to be moved by the Spirit, which is the theme of the WCC World Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, in March 2018. We are called to liberate, to heal the broken, to raise up the oppressed, to share the salvation from sin that we can receive only in Jesus Christ.
Be not afraid! We are called to offer hope, but not in a superficial way. This is not the time to say that sin is an obsolete word in the world. Every day we see the opposite, everywhere. This is the time to receive salvation from sin and to go out fighting against all the negative effects of our misbehaviour and sins. We see them in climate change, in violent conflicts, in economic injustices, in abuse, even of religion. It is time to continue confessing our shared faith in our Lord and Saviour. We do that by continuing our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace together and sharing the good news with all the people. Be not afraid!
May you have a blessed Christmas and a grace-filled new year in 2018!
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
World Council of Churches
GIANT director George Stevens leaves no doubt where his political sympathies lie early on in the film. At the Thanksgiving dinner table at their grandparents’ home in Maryland, the three children under age five are wearing self made feathered head bands and commence bawling inconsolably when they learn the turkey is their beloved friend “Pedro”. The children identify with the Indians at the Thanksgiving meal but the film’s director identifies with the many Mexican workers at their ranch home back in Texas. The brutal living conditions of the Mexican-Americans along with the racist attitudes of the Texas ranchers are depicted glaringly and powerfully in the film. “It (GIANT), more than any other Hollywood film of its time …… directly addresses the great American dilemma, race, and its implications, and not from the familiar racist, white supremacist point of view” according to the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) biography of Stevens.
While watching the film for the first time this past week, I was stunned by the eerie relevance of the film’s graphic portrayal of the Texas ranchers’ views and behaviors, the grotesque lies and the dehumanization of both the perpetrators of racism and their Mexican-American targets. Throughout our viewing I became convinced that in throwing the covers off this racism and the ensuing conflicts within the life of one ranching dynasty family this film helps explain a lot about Texas politics today. In one example of its contemporary commentary, on her first visit to the workers’ village, the Maryland bred newlywed (Elizabeth Taylor) learns the fevered baby she holds in her arms would not be able to see a doctor. Sixty years after the movie was shot in South Texas, the State has the highest number of medically uninsured people in the U.S.
When the movie was shot in 1955, California was not a lot better than Texas in its treatment of Mexican American laborers and their families. That the State of the world’s movie making capital now can boast of recent progress toward medical care for the poor, protection of the environment, ethnic inclusiveness and welcome of the stranger can be in part attributed to the impact of Hollywood, its films and its fortunes, on the State’s and the Nation’s politics. The movie gives a happy ending to the story of what had been a lock step conservative dynasty’s grip on the future. It’s a thoroughly plausible ending that is yet to be seen reflected in Texas politics.
While verging on melodrama in its treatment of the James Dean character (the icon died before his Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role), GIANT is spot-on with its depiction of some of the characteristics of Mexican-American culture – its piety and close family ties, its love of country and willingness to sacrifice life and limb for it, its warmth and openness to all people, including the racist oppressors. The beauty and simplicity of the villagers’ little church brought tears to my eyes as an image chosen by someone with a deep love and appreciation of the character of its builders.
In summary, GIANT is a movie worthy of Jean Luc Godard’s statement that “cinema is truth shown twenty four times per second” (formerly the number of frames passing across the projector’s lens each second). There are some scenes in the film so true to the movie’s characters and to the life of human beings (the rancher family’s conversation in the hotel suite toward the end is one) we know this is film art that people will grow up with in the future. It’s the kind of movie that makes me, thankful to be retired and have the freedom to discover the courageous work of a great film maker, a true artist, who was devoted to realizing the potential of movies to bring people of all kinds and cultures together. George Stevens, like Charlie Chaplin and a few others, knew movies could play an important role in making this a more loving, peaceful world. This movie made me believe he succeeded.
POST SCRIPT: In the U.S. Army at the end of WW II, George Stevens filmed the Army’s liberation of Dachau and another German concentration camp. The film footage was entered as evidence at the Nuremburg trials of German war criminals and used in de-nazification trainings. Stevens’ bio on the IMDB web site notes that his War experiences “engendered in him the belief that motion pictures had to be socially meaningful to be of value”.
View a four minute sample of Stevens’ film record of the liberation of Dachau here:
The election of Donald Trump as President of the U.S. has resulted in a flood of commentary in all types of media on the topic of “American identity”. Discussions of “American exceptionalism” (referred to in the last Erasing Borders posting) are just one direction the national soul-searching has taken in response to Trump’s election. Taking a different path, the New York Times columnist David Brooks preferred to discuss the varied “American narratives” in a May 26 column.
What all commentators have in common is the sense that this nation is more fragmented today than anyone has experienced in their lifetime. The consensus prevails that the U.S. is a divided nation and that the Trump election has deepened the lines of division and, it is widely agreed, made those divisions more volatile and dangerous.
In describing four disparate narratives of how the U.S. is seen by its citizens, Brooks comments on how varied they are, “we’re suffering through a national identity crisis. Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.” Brooks, however, ignores the deepest division with a history longer than the founding of our nation.
The division between those in this country who, unconsciously or consciously, still cling to racial views and fears which originated during the era of slavery and those who defend equality and the equal rights of all is being addressed at this time like never before. How the white supremacist views used to justify slavery relate to the anti immigrant, “make America great again”, “America first” policies that helped elect Trump is also being addressed. We recall that it was not much more than one hundred years ago that there were Harvard professors, with mainstream followings, who argued that some races were intellectually inferior to whites. We all are more aware now that the coddling of southern States to induce them to join the 1776 union, through the electoral college and other provisions of the Constitution, has compromised our nation’s moral and political recovery following the horrors of the Civil War and the depravity and eventual decline of an economy built on slavery.
We are also more aware that there are white persons in the northern and southern U.S. who in one form or another
still cling to the Confederacy’s propaganda for the Civil War. So it is both hopeful and timely that the Mayor of New Orleans firmly denounced sympathy for the South’s lost, bygone cause in a recent speech. If the U.S. finds itself in an identity crisis today, as Brooks says, this speech is the most hopeful sign in these times that we as a nation are maturing and emerging into responsible adulthood.
After the New Orleans City Council voted in 2015 to remove all the city’s statues honoring southern heroes of the Civil War, Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered the speech last month following the displacement of the renowned General Robert E. Lee’s statue. “The Confederacy”, the Mayor declared, “was on the wrong side of humanity”. The Mayor summed up what the removal of the statues meant for the City, the South, and the Nation with these words,
“This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.”
The speech included reminders of two facts of the city’s history for the audience and for the nation. First was a reminder of the founding principle of the Southern Confederacy.
“…..the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Secondly, he celebrated the variety of cultures represented by those who have built the city and called New Orleans “home”.
“You see — New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.”
And then, like in a great sermon, the Mayor moves and convicts us by recounting a personal experience:
“Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us.”
As citizens of the nation founded on the “truth” that “all men are created equal”, we know in this era of Trump that we each of us are responsible for making real and living out this lofty founding vision of the nation. We remember that the man who wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence was himself a Virginia owner of slaves who also wrote these words,
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” – Thomas Jefferson
Is it possible that the country will in this time of political crisis finally address some of the ugly and brutal truths of our history and move on to “form a more perfect Union”? Is it possible that in this time we in the U.S. will join in efforts to “more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation” and move toward the “justice” Thomas Jefferson only dreamed about? The unity and future health of the United States depends on it.
When the “baby boomers” were being educated in the U.S. public schools in the 1950’s, we were encouraged to take pride in our country’s dedication to the peace and prosperity of all nations. And there were expenditures and overseas initiatives to back up the image portrayed of a generous, open handed benefactor nation. Following the vital support of the Marshall Plan in helping rebuild Europe post WW II, there was the Food for Peace exports to relieve hunger, federal backing for the Green Revolution’s implementation in countries like India, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America and other regionally focused development aid initiatives. When I hear politicians describe the U.S. today as “exceptional”, the generosity of our foreign aid programs is not mentioned.
In the year 2015, this country dedicated 0.8 % of its federal budget in development aid for poor nations. The UN passed a resolution a few years ago that challenged the industrialized nations to devote a minimum of 0.7 % of the Gross National Income (GNI) to economic development aid. The U.S. development aid has stood at around 0.18 % of GNI in recent years. That puts the world’s leading economy in 22nd place among advanced countries in the percentage of GNI spent on helping poor nations with agricultural development, entrepreneurship, health and education. Economic development aid to Mexico this year was budgeted at $49 million while “security assistance” for the Mexican army and police forces was set at $85.6 million.
The U.S. lags far behind other nations in its commitment to development aid and the ranking is not likely to change any time soon. When the current President ran on a platform of “Make America Great Again!” he did not have in mind that the UK gives nearly four times more in foreign development aid than the U.S. as a percentage of GNI. It was not a surprise that in his first 100 days Trump proposed a series of huge increases in military spending beginning with a pledge of an additional $50 billlion for next year. With a military budget already amounting to more than the defense spending of the next seven nations ranking below us, how much more does the military industrial complex of the U.S. need in order to make the U.S. “great again”?
In recent years visitors returning from Africa to the U.S. and Europe comment on the highly visible presence of the Chinese aid workers in countries across the continent. In the 1960’s the U.S. was considered as the best friend of the new nations of Africa, the friend which would enable countries like the Congo to share in the enormous wealth generated by its natural resources. China has now replaced the U.S. as the leading foreign presence in Congo repairing roads, building a rail road and planning upgrades to the Inga hydroelectric plant originally conceived, with the encouragement of the U.S., to provide power for much of Central Africa.
Those of us who were persuaded in the 1950’s and early 60’s that our nation was great or “exceptional” in its generous sharing of its abundant resources now question whether we as a nation have sacrificed the ethical, moral content of our nation’s self image on an altar of militarism. The Puritan vision of our nation as a “city on the hill” has become a city fortified today by walls, defended by the largest nuclear weapons infrastructure in the world, and paid for with federal expenditures dedicated to “national security” that dwarf the military spending of other nations.
There is little agreement now over what in fact makes the U.S. an “exceptional” or a “great nation”. Little agreement and some confusion it now appears. During his eight years in office President Obama put forward contrasting views on “American exceptionalism”. In a televised speech to the nation in September 2013 the President pronounced bombings of Syrian army positions as what makes the U.S. “exceptional”. He declared,”When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act… That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.” But in a 2015 speech, in the waning months of his presidency, President Obama declared, “Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength.”
There can be little doubt that Trump’s idea of “making America great again” focuses on military buildup and deploying heavier weaponry like the “mother of all bombs” exploded in Afghanistan recently. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists moved the doomsday clock closer to midnight, to two and a half minutes to 12, following Trump’s inauguration. But both Democratic and Republican administrations have led in building up the U.S. military and differ only in the degree and the bluster they use to justify increases in “defense” spending.
So is this really what the U.S. population wants? Is the military might of the U.S. what we want to set us apart and make us “exceptional” in the eyes of other nations and our own eyes? I don’t think so but under the current Trump administration another unique characteristic of the U.S., mentioned by Obama in the 2013 reference to the U.S. Muslim population, is under severe challenge. That “exceptional” feature of the U.S. will be lifted up in the next Erasing Borders blog posting.
The week of Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal as nominee for U.S. Secretary of Labor also marks the fourteenth anniversary of the largest world wide protest in the history of our species. On Feb. 15, 2003 anti Iraq War protests in nearly 800 cities across the globe brought into the streets, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, between 12 and 14 million people. British Member of Parliament and peace activist Tony Benn described it as “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq”. That day, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa met with then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and declared, “those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilization for peace.”
This February week of 2017, in the aftermath of the weak responses of the Mexican government to the current U.S. administration’s threats, thousands of people marched in protest in twenty Mexican cities. “We are all migrants. We are all one. This is a time to build bridges, not walls,” said 73-year-old protester Jose Antonio Sanchez, who was marching with his nine-year-old granddaughter. With neither the U.S. nor the Mexican administration inclined or able to “build bridges” now, it is the protests on both sides of the border that reveal the common ground that unites our peoples.
On the Mexican side, the end to government subsidized gasoline prices recently led to a twenty per cent increase at the pump. On the U.S. side of the border, big oil is riding high under the new administration with endorsement of the Dakota Access Pipeline and an EXXON executive as Secretary of State. In the recent auction of Mexican oil deposits, BP, who brought to the U.S. Gulf waters the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was one of the big winners. The major oil companies all claimed victory back in 2013 when the Peña Nieto administration announced as part of its Energy Reform the sale of the prized off shore Mexican oil fields. Ali Moshiri, president of Chevron Africa and Latin America Exploration and Production, told reporters shortly after the 2016 auction. “Everybody in the oil and gas sector is interested in Mexico, especially the deepwater.”
For Mexicans, in addition to the nearly $3.50 per gallon cost of gasoline, the privatization andloss of control of their formerly nationalized oil production has been seen by Mexicans as akin to pawning the family jewelry. For U.S. residents, raising tariffs on Mexican exports would mean an increase in our food prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture figures 71 % of tomatoes sold in the U.S. come from Mexico and 93 % of Haas avocadoes. Availability of Mexican produce has helped change U.S. diets in the last fifty years with Mexican mango, avocado, broccoli, and lime sales up well over 1000 % since 1970. Mexican industrial farming won’t be alone in paying for that border wall. So will we U.S. consumers.
Mainstream and moderate Mexican political commentators are calling on Peña Nieto to stop appeasing and stand up to the U.S. threats but given the Mexican President’s woeful approval ratings that’s not likely to happen without more mass demonstrations. For a more humane, peaceful and equitable world, we all need more manifestations of global resistance like the February 15, 2003 anti Iraq War mobilization. The day after that historic wave of protest and resistance, the New York Times referred to the people’s rising up as “the second superpower”.
One of the New York City movement organizers, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, summed up what the demonstrations achieved with these words: “Our movement changed history. While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality, demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. February 15 set the terms for what ‘global mobilizations’ could accomplish.” Such mobilizations remain the most powerful deterrent to the threats to world peace, health and sustainable development posed by the current U.S. administration.
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With gratitude for the Phyllis Bennis article on the Institute for Policy Studies web site at