Category Archives: Theology and Mission
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.”
In the 1930’s, theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote of A.J. Muste, “Muste was interested in redressing all balances of justice, of championing the interests of workers against employers, of Negroes against the white majority, of India against the British empire.” Having abandoned his own pacifist position Neibuhr maintained a grudging respect for the leading U.S. radical pacifist writing after Muste’s death in 1967, “Perhaps an estimate of rigorous, inconsistent, idealists is beyond the capacity of mere academic critics (himself included here, ed.), who are obsessed with logical consistency, but who also never dared an interview with Ho Chi Minh.” Unlike Neibuhr, for Muste “the term ‘religion’ and the term ‘revolution’ were totally synonymous” in the words of Sidney Lens, his co-editor with Liberation magazine.
Muste’s biographer JoAnn Robinson, herself a leader in the Montgomery bus boycott, gives precedence to his Christian faith as the grounding for his radical politics. “A. J. Muste became “Number One U.S. Pacifist” by virtue of his keen insight into the nature of violence and his unquenchable faith in the power of love. His reputation for political acuity and non-conformist activism revolved around his insight. But the prime and sustaining factor was his faith.” This faith he once described this way, “The true God is the God of love who can and does redeem men. This God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The true church is the ‘ecclesia of those redeemed by infinite love. It must seek to redeem the world without which there is no salvation and that to it are entrusted the ‘keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
A French intelligence agent in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov could have been thinking of the radical pacifist and socialist when he said, “We are not, in fact, afraid of all these socialists, anarchists, atheists, and revolutionaries.” The agent then goes on to say, “But there are some special people among them, although not many: these are believers in God and Christians, and at the same time socialists. They are the ones we are most afraid of; they are terrible people! A socialist Christian is more dangerous than a socialist atheist.”
In the mid-twentieth century, Muste did threaten the U.S. political system and the economic system that feeds as well as depends on its militarism, racism and support for exploitation of oppressed peoples. But he also threatened and “afflicted the comfortable” among the Church’s leaders, most of whom had adopted some variant of the “neo-orthodox” realism Neibuhr developed in his theological writing.
It is curious that Neibuhr would imply criticism of Muste being “inconsistent” in his thought when it is precisely the inconsistency of Christian “realism” that must perplex thoughtful truth seekers in the U.S. and the world. How account for even the most progressive American Christian denominations’ support for the Vietnam War in the early years of the fighting? How explain the relative silence of the followers of the “Prince of Peace” in the face of the grotesque spiraling of U.S. arms buildup by the military and now by individuals in the country?
Once Muste left the Trotskyite party he helped found in the mid-30’s to lead the opposition to an armed response to Naziism, he was committed to strengthening the pacifist roots of the Church as the holders of the keys to the “kingdom of heaven”. The struggle for peace, however, was not narrow and single-minded but encompassed early support for the cause of African-American civil rights and the right to self rule of Third World peoples. Post WW II Muste helped found and/or led several pacifist or anti-war organizations but he also devoted himself to many causes that represented “the things that make for peace”.
Shortly Before assuming his transformative leadership of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste wrote in 1939 that the “True International” was not to be found in any anti-capitalist political party but in the Church. “Since all are one in Christ” he professed there is “neither Aryan, Negro, Slav. Japanese, or Malay.” In the same article he lamented that to that date “all of its branches including those called ‘catholic’ have been in effect national, state-worshipping or picayune provincial sects”.
Muste’s pacifism grew from his grounding in Jesus Christ’s boundless and border-less love for all people and the belief and hope in the Church as universal, the “true International”. His application of pacifism and development of strategies of civil disobedience for the American struggle relied on Gandhi and insights into the interaction of “means and ends”. When human beings resort to means that undermine the ends they hope to achieve they are bound to fail. War begets more war. Violence begets more violence is the practical distillation of Muste’s thought. Only the love that seeks to find reconciliation with the “enemy” will fulfill and liberate both those who suffer the attacks and the perpetrators.
The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian faith and recent world history both confirm the truth that those who seek to live out a radical love for other people will be considered “dangerous”. U.S. military solutions to conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere confirm the truth that, in Martin Luther King’s words, “we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live”. It is the “dangerous” people like A.J. Muste who shepherd humanity in the preservation of the ends of life and the preservation of life itself in these perilous times.
He introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the theory and practice of non violent civil disobedience.
In 1947 he organized the “Journey of Reconciliation” during which blacks and whites sat together on Greyhound buses traveling through the South. That “Journey” served as the model for the civil rights movement’s “Freedom Rides” in 1961.
He was lead organizer of the first mass protest against the Vietnam War. The march from Central Park to the United Nations on Tax Day, April 15, 1967 was at the time the largest demonstration in U.S. history.
He served as spokesperson for the mostly immigrant workers during the historic Lawrence, MS textile mill strike of 1919.
Following the gains made by the Lawrence workers, he served as the first head of the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union until 1921. In the position, he supported organizing nearly weekly strikes at mills across the U.S.
He trained union organizers as education director of the Brookwood Labor College from 1921 to 1933.
When he died in 1967, obituaries referred to him as the “American Gandhi”.
If you haven’t named who “he” is you are not alone. Few people in churches, or outside them, in the U.S. know about the contributions of Abraham Johannes Muste to the labor and peacemaking movements in the U.S. Yet Muste would be a candidate for sainthood if there were saints in Protestant Christianity. He served the Church as a clergy member in four different U.S. Protestant denominations but his call eventually led him to leadership in the labor and peace movements of his adopted country. Until his death in 1967, Muste remained a radical practitioner of the theology of the “Social Gospel”.
In the first congregation he served, he opposed U.S. entry into the First World War and, against the wishes of many in the congregation, resigned. From the crucible of the WW I era to the end of his life, he helped organize mass actions of civil disobedience in resistance to U.S. warfare and militarism. Muste was the first to declare, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way”. Another Muste saying, often attributed to others, he coined as an early protestor of the Vietnam War. During a White House vigil in a rain storm, someone asked him if he really thought he was going to change U.S. policy that way, he responded, “I’m not out here to change U.S. policies. I’m here to make sure they don’t change me.”
Like no other American Christian of the 20th Century AJ Muste lived out his faith in the nation’s public sphere. In his work and writing, he adhered to the values of the Sermon on the Mount and chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. His radical pacifism grew out of his devotion to living by the roots of the Christian faith. Muste believed that as Christians we are all called to be “Saints for This Age”. While he based this conviction on the lives of the first Christians as reported in The New Testament, his passion for social change was also fired by the horrors of 20th Century militarism and by the example of radical leftists in the labor movement.
In the 1962 essay titled “Saints for This Age”, Muste wrote “It was on the Left – and here the ‘Communists of the period cannot be excluded – that one found people who were truly ‘religious’ in the sense that they were completely committed, they were betting their lives on the cause they embraced. Often they gave up ordinary comforts, security, life itself, with a burning devotion which few Christians display toward the Christ whom they profess as Lord and incarnation of God.” In the next paragraph, he contrasts the “liberal” Christians who professed the “Social Gospel” with these non-Christian radical leftists.
“The Left had the vision, the dream, of a classless and warless world, as the hackneyed phrase goes…..Here was the fellowship drawn together and drawn forward by the Judeo-Christian prophetic vision of a ‘new earth in which righteousness dwelleth’. The now generally despised Christian liberals had had this vision. The liberal Christians were never, in my opinion, wrong in cherishing the vision. Their mistake, and in a sense, their crime, was not to see that it was revolutionary in character and demanded revolutionary living and action of those who claimed to be its votaries.”
Christian faith, and the first Christians who modeled faith for AJ Muste, was profoundly counter-cultural. “I spoke of the early Christians as having ‘broken loose’. They understood that for all its size, seeming stability and power, the ‘world’, the ‘age’ in which they lived was ephemeral, weak, doomed…..They had therefore turned their backs on it, did not give it their ultimate allegiance, were not intimidated by what it could do to them, and did not seek satisfaction and security within its structure, under its standards. They were loose – not tied to ‘business as usual’.” Muste himself was not “tied to ‘business as usual’” and will serve Christianity and humanity as a “saint” for this and for ages to come.
“We represent a growing number of evangelical Christians who are unwilling to support mission events led by American evangelist Franklin Graham. We find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.”
These words began a February 7 letter to The Guardian newspaper written by seventeen “evangelical Christian” pastors who oppose Franklin Graham’s upcoming tour of the U.K. The leaders serving parishes across England and Wales wrote in support of the action of eight commercial venues which recently cancelled the Graham team’s booking of their space. The Guardian reported that in justifying the cancellation, many of the venues had indicated that statements by Graham “were incompatible with their values, and that his appearance would be “divisive, could be disruptive or lead to a breach of the peace.”
Opposition to the Graham tour has come from a variety of civil society groups and jurisdictions. The newspaper referred to “protests by LGBTQ+ activists, petitions and requests from local councils”. Contributing to the ardent opposition is widespread dismay among some of the most prominent Christians in the U.K. over Graham’s outspoken support for Donald Trump’s policies. Liverpool’s Bishop Paul Bayes has said ‘If people want to support rightwing populism anywhere in the world they are free to do so. The question is how are they going to relate that to their Christian faith?”
Without naming Franklin Graham, Bishop Bayes singled out “self-styled evangelicals” in the U.S. for criticism, “Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.” Bayes’ statements at the end of 2017 coincided with implied rebuke of Trump in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day message the same year. In a remark widely interpreted as aimed at Trump, Archbishop Justin Welby denounced “populist leaders that deceive”.
Franklin Graham’s endorsement of Trump came as no surprise to those who knew of the Southern Baptist preacher’s fervent support for the War in Iraq,
blanket condemnation of the Muslim religion, and his ongoing denunciation of homosexuals. His characterization of Islam as an “evil and wicked religion” soon after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq two years later. He is a leading advocate of “conversion therapy” and has compared the conversion of individuals from ‘gay’ to ‘straight’ with the experience of conversion to the Christian faith.
For U.S. citizens in a presidential election year, the perception of U.K. Christians that Graham’s positions sow discord and division within the culture should be especially troubling. If a leader and spokesperson for “evangelical Christians” in the U.S. is deemed capable of “disturbing the peace” in U.K. communities, we are led to question what has been the high profile pastor’s effect on communities in his own country. Some of us find it disturbing that notice of the cancellations and opposition to the tour in the U.K. appeared in a British-based newspaper and in none of the leading U.S. news outlets. In contrast to non-coverage of the British Christians’ response to Graham, an Oct. 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times reported on Graham lauding Trump during a tour of several U.S. cities in the midst of the House impeachment inquiry.
When the columnist covering Religion for the left-leaning Atlantic magazine in the U.S. chooses to describe Franklin Graham as representing “the best impulses of Christianity” (Emma Green in The Atlantic May 21, 2017), one has to wonder if journalists in the U.S. have opted for “kid glove” coverage of Billy Graham’s son’s public pronouncements and actions. One also has to wonder if the high profile Christian leader’s ill-informed, thoughtless positions on present day social issues make it much harder for U.S. young adults to feel they belong in a Christian community or claim the Christian faith as their own.
Honest, true to oneself interpretation of life in another culture is a calling in our day and age. It is also for us Americans counter cultural. The U.S. culture has not customarily celebrated what we learn and how we grow through cross-cultural encounters. As a child in the 1950’s I was assured that the U.S. was the best country to be born in as well as the most generous, best intentioned democracy on the planet. Following our leadership in defeating the fascist armies in WW II, we had seemingly become that “city on the hill” that the pilgrim envisioned in migrating to our shore.
We now know better that such youthful exuberance can lead to hubris, a sense of entitlement vis a vis other countries, and arrogance. How do we as individuals and a nation pursue relationships of equality and mutual respect with other nations when we at some level believe we know how to fix everything and can deploy the resources to do it? How do we relate to other cultures and other nations as individuals and as a nation?
Whether we embrace cross cultural encounters or view other cultures with suspicion and fear is a vital question in all eras. But it assumes greater importance in a time when the U.K. has voted to abandon its membership in the European Common Market and the U.S. foreign policy protects its “national interests” by repudiating former agreements and treaties. Since the 2016 U.S. election, the U.S. has rejected participation in the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. We have also ceased funding of the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, and withdrawn from the Global Pact on Migration and the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
I believe we as individuals do have models to follow for mutually beneficial relationships with other cultures and nations. Consider the testimonials of U.S. citizens serving in other countries. The Global Ministries’ Division of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC) in the U.S. calls them “Mission Co-Workers” to emphasize how they work in a partnership of mutuality with citizens of the countries they serve in. One of the more than 100 “Mission Co Workers” now working in such a partnership has written about her life in Morocco, a majority Muslim country with very few Christians. Born in Haiti, Emmanuela L’occident wrote the following in her first year of service in North Africa:
“My biggest challenge here is to go beyond what I know of the world and grasp whatever this new country has to offer. Daily, we face some things we’ve never seen and we are sometimes prone to reject or to impose our way of thinking. Having a position of power here is a really complex dynamic where I constantly have to analyze and make sure to give my brothers and sisters, who are also my colleagues here, the opportunity to decide freely while benefiting of my input. I am forever grateful for all the things I have learned so far and how transformed I am by what I’ve seen, heard and lived.”
In a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times David Brooks urged Democrats to counter the current U.S. administration’s anti-immigrant policies and language “with the pluralist mind-set (which) acknowledges that God’s truth is radically dispersed”. In the column titled “How to Beat Trump on Immigration” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/trump-immigration.html?searchResultPosition=2) Brooks suggests “Pluralism offers us the chance, and the civic duty, to be a daring social explorer, venturing across subcultures, sometimes having the exciting experience of being the only one of you in the room, harvesting the wisdom embedded in other people’s lifeways”. What Brooks calls the “pluralist mind-set” is beautifully described by another Global Ministries “Mission Co-Worker” living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.
Now in her twenties, Abigail Fate writes, “My coworkers thoroughly address all my concerns and go out of their way to make sure that I have fresh coffee and that I understand what I’m doing. The children we work with in markets around the city have begun to recognize me, and eagerly tell me about their lives. They listen carefully as I explain the games we’re playing, while still giggling and correcting my Spanish.” Summing up her experience to date, she writes, “I have been met with unwavering patience and kindness in every aspect of my life here. Though there are many challenges, and it’s often difficult, I can already see this city and these people becoming home. And I can’t wait to see how my story will continue to unfold.”
Abi and Emmanuela are committed to value, respect and learn from the cultural traditions and lifestyle in their new homes. Like all “Mission Co-Workers”, they find that the mutuality approach of our international Church partnerships greatly assist in meeting the challenges of life in a very different culture. As representatives of two U.S.-based Christian denominations (U.C.C. and D.O.C.) working for mutuality and equality among cultures, they would agree with Brooks that “Only people who are securely rooted in their own particularity are confident enough to enjoy the encounter with difference.”
I am convinced that in this time of unprecedented devaluation of other cultures and of our nation’s agreements with other countries, we may discover new, larger dimensions of our “particularity” as Christians, and as human beings, in a multi-cultural world. That Jesus proclaimed God’s love is universal there can be no doubt. That it has always been challenging for followers of Jesus to reflect that love in relationships with persons of other faiths and other cultures there can also be no doubt.
Today as citizens of the U.S., the nation with the largest Christian population, we need not leave the country to respond to the calling to demonstrate love and respect for persons of other faiths and cultures. In the U.S. of our time, we are offered opportunities on a daily basis to live with “a pluralist mind-set”. In our “particularity” as U.S. citizens, Christian and non-Christian, we can progress towards a more “pluralist mind set” by learning and growing through our encounters with people of other cultures. Living today in the U.S., we all can be transformed by what we’ve “seen, heard and lived” among people of other cultures.
U.S. poet Carolyn Forché has written the book of her lifetime and that of many other young U.S. citizens who left their homeland in the sixties and seventies and returned as changed persons to their homeland like “strangers in a strange land”. In Forche’s life, it was El Salvador in the late 1970’s that left the indelible marks on her consciousness that she has since interpreted with her poetry and the poetry of other witnesses to resistance and courage. It took her forty years but we can now celebrate her devotion to the truth and her craft that compelled her to write the story of her expanding awareness of what it was like to be a Salvadoran shortly before the 12 years of Civil War in the country.
Before the poet’s first visit to El Salvador in 1978, she might have read that the life expectancy of a Salvadoran male was 47, that of a female slightly longer. Eighty per cent of the population lived without running water, sanitation or electricity and one out of five children died before age five. Forché might also have read the 1931 dispatch of a U.S. military attaché that still held true after fifty years of dictatorship backed by the military: “30 or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. They live in almost regal style……The rest of the population has practically nothing.” Her empathy and her heart compelled her to learn the truth behind the facts and communicate what she learned with this book.
Explaining why she went, she wrote, “Although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world.” Her translation of a revolutionary Salvadoran female poet had brought her to the attention of the man who drove hundreds of miles to issue the invitation to learn about his country and the world. In many ways the main character and driving force of the book, Leonel Gómez Vides, describes her task during her first experience of rural El Salvador, “You could use your time here to learn what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at 13 and who spends all her days sorting tobacco leaves according to their size.”
Her host, guide, protector, mentor Leonel is a well connected, highly accomplished member of the Salvadoran elite whose coffee plantation and wealth allow him access to all sides in the country’s looming conflict. The movement to break “the silence of misery endured” is growing and Leonel tells her, “The Civil War is three years ahead, five at the most”. In persuading her to accept his invitation he avers it will be “like visiting Vietnam before the War there”.
There are indeed many disturbing parallels with the horror Americans became accustomed to hearing about during the prolonged U.S. War in Southeast Asia. On her 7 “extended” stays in El Salvador between her first visit in January 1978 and the outbreak of the guerrilla fighting in mid 1980, Forché is a witness to the torture, intimidation and dismembering of the poor and those who side with them. She meets with leaders of those carrying out the gruesome repression, the Salvadoran intelligence and military men who are “trained by U.S. advisors”, the unsettling refrain we have become accustomed to reading and hearing since the early 1960’s. Before she reaches age 30, Forche is taken inside a prison on the Guatemalan border where captives are held in wooden boxes the size of washing machines, reminiscent of the “tiger cages” used for political prisoners in Vietnam.
Three times Forché is herself pursued by “death squads” responsible for “disappearing” suspected opponents of the ruling elite. That she continues to return to a country threatening terror and death is powerful testimony to the conviction and courage of those serving the Salvadoran poor and to the impact of what the poet is learning from them. Describing herself as a “fallen Catholic”, she finds herself interacting with priests and church servants as the leading defenders of the poor. She meets a priest in a rural “Christian base community” who tells her, “To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept. We are already in the grave.”
Without polemic or any socio economic analysis of the historical background or U.S. economic interests in El Salvador, Forché simply and directly relates the nature of U.S. involvement in the country. It is apparent that the involvement prioritizes a heightened military repression of the people and organizations dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Salvadoran poor. The official at the U.S. Embassy responsible for U.S. health aid to the country explains she doesn’t have time to visit the clinics and hospitals the U.S. aid intends to support. “I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk” she responds pointing to a pile of papers. In spite of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, the new U.S. Ambassador tells Forché that the truth about the U.S. citizen dropped from a Salvadoran army helicopter during the previous Ambassador’s term will not be pursued. Forché later learns that most of the plastic latrines distributed in the health official’s “latrinization program” were dismantled for housing construction.
In taking the land and the suffering of the people to heart, the poet finds it hard to return home as the armed conflict nears. Among the book’s homages to Archbishop Oscar Romero is her account of how “the voice of the poor” encourages her to return home and tell the truth about the conflict in his country. When she expresses doubt she can do that “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” She last speaks with the saintly Archbishop days before his assassination in the capital’s cathedral, not long before the outbreak of Civil War.
During 12 years of armed conflict, 100,000 lives are taken, 8,000 “disappear”, 500,000 citizens are displaced and 500,000 flee the country, thereby beginning the tide of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. Concluding the book’s masterful portrayal of the elusive character of Leonel Gómes Vides, Forché describes his leading role in bringing about the peace accord. The mysterious stranger who appears on her San Diego doorstep at the book’s outset is revealed in the end as the heroic reconciler of the factions.
After the peace agreement is reached, Forché finally began to write her account of what she has seen and learned. Fifteen years later this important, lyrically written document was published not long after Leonel died in a hospital. Among his achievements was choosing Carolyn Forché to tell the truth about his country’s suffering. He told her early on, “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Most readers will agree that Forché has succeeded on all three counts with this book. She has overcome all the difficulties of immersing us in the agony of contemporary El Salvador and making us and the Salvadoran people, some of our neighbors today, more human.
My wife and I just returned from 18 days in Andalucia, southern Spain where Islam was the dominant religion from the mid eighth century to the middle of the 15th century. We were struck by the many traces of the Muslim legacy in the architecture, language, and diet of Andalucia today. Before our trip, it was our good fortune to have read the 2002 book The Ornament of the World in which Rosa Maria Menocal describes the debt which Spain, indeed Western civilization as a whole, owes to the medieval Muslim scholars, artists and several enlightened rulers who settled in Andalucia.
The book’s subtitle “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” highlights what Menocal considers one of theoutstanding aspects of Muslim rule in Spain, especially in the first three hundred years. The author puts it this way, “Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the “dhimmi” (the other peoples of the Book, the Bible in our language) were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries.” With respect to the first peoples of the Book, she writes of their advances under Islamic rule, “Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as a foreign minister”.
The latter fact is an eerie reminder for us in the U.S. that Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister was a Christian, one of the nearly 6 per cent of Iraqi Christians most of whom in our day have had to flee a country due to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Indeed, let us not ignore that the suspicion, resentment and revenge directed at most Muslim Arab states by the U.S. foreign policy establishment and U.S. public today compares quite unfavorably with the tolerant treatment and policies of Muslim rulers in Andalucia one thousand years ago.
But more importantly, let us not ignore the fundamental beliefs shared by the three peoples of the Book, characterized by and united in their devotion to one God, Creator of all people and things of the world. Too many of us have ignored, myself included, that “Allah” is the Arabic name for God. So Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians worshipped “Allah” for several centuries before Muhammed lived. The “shahada” testimony of faith, one of the five pillars of Islam, simply declares in Arabic, “There is no god but “Allah”. Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.”
Last Saturday, October 27, eleven Jewish worshippers were killed by a lone gunman wielding an AR -15 semi-automatic rifle in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We cannot measure but neither can we deny the influence of the anti-Muslim language and policies of the current U.S. administration in creating a culture of suspicion and intolerance which leads an unbalanced person to commit such a loathsome act. In this context of our country’s aggressive hostility towards Muslim states and peoples we can be grateful for the rich legacy of the Islamic religion and the Arabic language displayed still in every town of Andalucia, Spain. We return from Andalucia with increased respect and appreciation of that legacy and enhanced gratitude for the presence in our lives of Muslim neighbors in Kansas City.
I close with some words written by one of the most widely read poets of all time, the Christian-Muslim-Sufi-Baha’i Khalil Gibran:
“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”
From The Prophet
A gallery of Andalucia photos follows below:
“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.