Category Archives: Theology and Mission
Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas. The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison. A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..
There are signs of a Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North. The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to these signs of racial separation and conflict. Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.
When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street. Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications. I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school. In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed. As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors.
By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American. Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place suddenly and quickly. I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city. My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the school’s first black junior prom queen.
Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body. At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school. For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.
In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South. In response to Republican legislation in a majority of states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote . Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.
Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down. Inoffensive Republican gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the party’s political strategy for the next elections. There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this year in the Congress. African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But how many white U.S. citizens now celebrate the Juneteenth holiday?
The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of a leading shoe retailer. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women and I knew most saw King as a martyred leader. The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give anyone paid time off to watch and was promptly fired. How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth? It became a national holiday in 1983 but did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.
“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”
These are the words of the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal, a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam. The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.
“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be. Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air. Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something. Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”
Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali. While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity. Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life. As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education.
His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.” Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”. Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation.
Mali was a French colony and after the Catholic Director of the Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s rough transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,
“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.”
At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara. It was where Amadou Ba began his education. After years of study in the French schools of “French Soudan”, Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher. He took copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught.
Apart from his teachings of tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”
During the six month sabbatical from his post in the French colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions. The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,
“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith. Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up. Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”
Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time. As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”
With his emphasis on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:
“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”
Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”
It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .
Five years after our move from California to the Missouri side of Kansas City, I thought the culture shock was behind me. I did know and had told friends that the adjustment was felt here more than adapting to life in San Luis Potosi in central Mexico. Until now though I hadn’t really grappled with the vast differences of life in the State of Missouri after thirty plus years in California. The response of people in Missouri to the COVID pandemic, especially in the rural areas of the State, reflects a gulf in outlook and values much greater than I had heretofore realized.
According to a “WalletHub” study, there is now a greater risk of contracting the COVID -19 in Missouri than in any other state in the U.S. Health facilities in the southern part of the State are now overwhelmed by the number of COVID infected patients. The fire chief in Springfield, the largest town in southern Missouri, stated last week “This is a mass casualty event, happening in slow motion” and declared, “Our community is in crisis”. Low vaccination rates particularly in southwestern Missouri are the major factor in the high death rates from COVID. The CEO of the Springfield’s Greene County Health Department tweeted, “Likely all recent deaths were avoidable with vaccination, perhaps a few would have had cold like symptoms.”
Although health officials in the area continue to plead the case for vaccination, resistance is still high. Head of Cox Health Services, which manages several hospitals in southwest Missouri, declared, “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.” Taney County, with a Cox Hospital in Branson, ranked number 10 in the nation in new infections the week after the July 4 holiday. Only one in four persons in the County has been vaccinated.
Resistance to vaccination accompanies resistance to mask wearing by many people in Missouri. The town of Nixa with 21,000 residents south of Springfield, will soon vote on whether to remove its mayor. Infuriated by the mayor’s imposition of a mask wearing ordinance last October, citizens petitioned for the recall vote. Missouri’s Governor Mike Parson who hails from southern Missouri has customarily made public appearances maskless and contends it is a “personal matter”. But the alarming climb of the rate of COVID infections in his State has now led him to request federal assistance in combatting the virus. His official bio still claims that “Missouri has outperformed projections for both COVID-19 and the economy and continues to meet each challenge head on”.
Surpassing the Governor’s influence on COVID response in southern Missouri has been the former President’s laissez-faire attitude on citizen protection. There was no challenging of the 2020 presidential election results after Trump was backed by 57 % of Missouri voters. His support in the southern part of the State was overwhelming. Three counties in the south which are expected to see a tripling of COVID cases in coming weeks voted for the defeated incumbent by a 76%, 78% and 82% margin.
With multiple health care officials at the State and local levels emphasizing the spread of COVID in Missouri, the Governor has urged a calm response. “I don’t think we need to be out there trying to scare people into taking a vaccine” Parson told reporters after a Kansas City press conference. That statement followed his warning that the federal aid in Missouri’s anti-virus efforts should not include a door to door information campaign. A White House official called the Governor’s description of the federal three-pronged plans a “mischaracterization”.
Political posturing in the Governor’s fulfilling his responsibilities is especially lamentable when so many poor nations are now pleading for access to the vaccine. Due to the recent assassination of the country’s President, we in the U.S. now are aware there have been no COVID vaccination programs in Haiti. As of mid May, the UN reported that less than 2% of the vaccinations in the world have been administered in Africa. Although widely available throughout the State of Missouri, less than 40% of the population has chosen to be vaccinated.
“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television” Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”. The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO. The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.
Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States. President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.” The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.
The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present. The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective. “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer. In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment. “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings. What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.
In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil. The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862. Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.
This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege. Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history. Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power. An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.
There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S. “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated. “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone. In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place. “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”
Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition. In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed. Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries. An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”. While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.
On this Good Friday in the U.S. we await the result of the most significant union organizing drive in decades. Workers in Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse have voted this month on creating the first collective bargaining unit in one of this country’s multiple Amazon “fulfillment centers”. A yes vote will mean the 6,000 Bessemer warehouse workers will negotiate on their wages, benefits and working conditions that now are determined solely by the corporation’s management and board with the aim of maximizing profits and the price of company stock.
With growth of the global economy in the late sixties and early seventies, the number and strength of union organized workers has fallen dramatically in the U.S. As manufacturing jobs in “heavy industries” like steel and automobile have grown overseas, they have been replaced by jobs in the retail sales, restaurants and fast food, transport and warehouses of the “service sector”. Global trade distributes products to consumers around the world products made outside their country’s borders. This applies as well to purchases made by U.S. manufacturing companies for assembly of their products.
The largest retail sales company in the U.S. and the world today did not exist before 1962. Wal Mart was founded and has grown on a business plan wholly dependent on the global economy and lower costs for labor. Advances in shipping and air transport permitted the company to rely on importing products made at much lower wages, from China in particular, and selling them in sprawling stores at prices below the competition. Low wage labor overseas was complemented by steadfast, and often fierce, opposition to unions being formed by their U.S. workers. The result is a dependence by many Wal Mart workers on meager U.S. government programs of food stamps, health care, and housing.
Little progress in union organizing has been made in the past five decades among the U.S. service industries’ workers. Prevailing anti-union media references, the dwindling power and funding of union organizing and state and federal governments’ failure to defend the right to organize have militated against the organizing of service sector workers. The “neo-liberal” economic policies proposed by politicians of both parties, ex-President Clinton being the leading example among Democrats, have left workers with little support from those in power.
Among President Biden’s programs and positions representing reform of U.S. capitalism the most significant among them could be the administration’s outspoken support for unions and organized labor. A former union leader has been named to the Cabinet position of Secretary of Labor for the first time in fifty years. More vigilant oversight of company malpractice in opposing organizing and the holding of elections is promised. And President Biden himself has urged Amazon workers to vote yes on a union at the Alabama warehouse. These gestures could signal growing recognition of the role of organized labor in creating a stronger economy and healthier social climate in this country.
The organizing campaign among the Alabama Amazon workers has been aided by an international effort to “Make Amazon Pay” higher taxes in all countries where the company operates and by Amazon’s shoddy treatment of its workers during the pandemic. At the outset its white collar staff were told to work from home while the warehouse workers were offered unlimited unpaid leave. As consumer orders immediately increased in March 2020, the company raised the hourly wage $2 an hour and doubled overtime pay to further motivate workers. For workers proving a positive COVID test result for themselves or a family member, two weeks of paid leave was offered.
Once Amazon had hired more workers for its 500 U.S. warehouses, the unpaid unlimited sick leave was rescinded in May 2020 and the wage increases revoked the next month. By July the total shareholder value of Amazon had increased $500 million to $1.4 trillion confirming founder Jeff Bezos’ status as the richest person in the world. Company growth did not lead to favorable responses by unionized workers in the European countries where Amazon operates and the workers in Germany announced a strike prior to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Amazon then trumpeted the awarding of Thanksgiving worker bonuses amounting to $300 for full time workers and $150 for its part-time workers.
The Amazon worker bonuses received an unanticipated reaction from the global coalition which organized Black Friday protests in 15 countries. UNI Global Union, Amazon Workers International and other participating groups in a statement noted Bezos could give $105,000 bonuses to every Amazon employee and not have lost in net wealth during the spread of the COVID virus. The coalition statement on Black Friday last year faulted the company’s impact on the environment asserting that its “growing delivery and cloud computing businesses are accelerating climate breakdown”. Amazon’s “carbon footprint” is “larger than two thirds of all countries in the world” the multiple coalition groups, including OXFAM, the Sunrise Movement and Public Citizen, stated. A coalition leader, Global Union’s Christy Hoffman, responded to the Thanksgiving worker bonuses, “To show it values its workforce, Amazon should collectively bargain wages and conditions with workers throughout its operations, rather than make one time unilateral gestures”.
Unlike the U.S. employees, Amazon workers in most of the countries where Black Friday protests took place have been able to organize unions to negotiate with the company and/or appeal to the courts to address their needs. Activist workers in this country are vulnerable to being fired with no defense by a union. Support for Amazon organizing from the Biden administration could also foretell increased pressure to pay higher taxes in this country. Tax avoidance through the use of profit shifting, tax havens and loopholes enabled the company to pay just under 2 per cent of its profits in 2019 tax reporting and no taxes in the previous two years. In the country where it was founded and still has its headquarters, Amazon pays little to nothing to uphold the public infrastructure and the “common good”.
There is now growing recognition in this country that major corporations devote little attention, let alone concern, to the “common good” or the well being of their rank and file workers. Executive compensation and performance of the company stock are given priority through their public relations campaigns, tax dodges, hire of anti-union consultants and dismissal of workers with complaints. The grotesque preoccupation with profit taking by executives and company boards dehumanizes all participants in an economy which threatens world survival. On this Good Friday, the U.S. worker hangs on a cross of corporate greed. There is more at stake in the Amazon worker vote than just forming a union in one “fulfillment center”, as the company calls its warehouses. Amazon’s fear is justified that a worker victory in Alabama will lead to organizing campaigns among its warehouse employees nationwide. We can only hope that is the outcome.
“Today, empires are striking back in new forms, with their own dictatorial requirements of allegiance to mammon, market, consumerism, militarism, sexism, racism, fascism, and fundamentalism.” Summarizing the context for global mission in our time with these words, 1000 plus delegates from churches around the world issued the 2018 Arusha Call to Discipleship . Inspired by the theme of “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship,” the Conference adopted the Arusha Call challenging the world’s 2.4 billion Christians to live in “transforming Discipleship”. Unfortunately, most Christians, clergy and lay, in the world’s largest “Christian” nation, the United States, have never heard of the Call much less studied any part of it.
Organized by the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Mission and Evangelism the Conference represented the largest international gathering focused on Christian mission since 1910. The World Council is “a fellowship” of 350 plus churches in 110 countries representing over 500 million Christians. Nearly all formerly “mainline” U.S. Protestant denominations are active, and multi-national Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders participate in some of the meetings as “observers”. Church bodies based in the global South, now out number the Council members from the North thus mirroring the profound change in world Christianity over the last hundred years.
The Arusha Call bears the stamp of church leaders in Africa, where the number of Christians and churches is growing fastest, and in other poor nations of the southern hemisphere. The Call departs significantly from the historic 1910 Edinburgh “World Missionary Conference” emphasis on conversion in the context of colonial rule. Chaired by U.S. Methodist John R. Mott, the Edinburgh 1910 Conference was guided by the theme “Evangelization of the World in This Generation”. The charge it made to Protestants, especially in the U.S. and Europe, led to significant increases in recruitment of missionaries and the funding of mission conceived by most as a project of conversion of people and nations to Christianity.
With a new conception of evangelism, the Arusha Call urges all Christians to see themselves as “missionaries”: “If we wish evangelism to be convincing today, the first thing we must do is to be disciples”. Its section on “Disciples Committed to Evangelism” concludes with the clear statement, “The more we are true disciples of Christ, the more effective our evangelism will be.” In the introduction to the Call, it is described as issuing a warning against the attitude of some former missionaries and mission agencies, “Humility and sacrifice are urgently needed to liberate the gospel from captivity to projects of self-aggrandizement”.
Charged with leading the way in interpreting and supporting implementation of the Arusha Call is the World Council’s Commission on Mission and Evangelism. One year after the Conference in Arusha, the Commission leadership noted that the “Call to Discipleship” has been seen as “exhilarating, transformative and challenging to the point of discomfort for some”. The Commission’s Moderator, director of the Student Christian Movement in India, Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos commented on one of the roots of the controversy over the Call, “It is a specific exhortation to ensure the purity of faith, to make sure that the faith was not corrupted.” Rev. Dr Janet Corlett, vice moderator for the commission and a former Director of the South London Mission, also commented, “The Arusha Call was the outcome, the consensus of the meeting, and I believe it was a very prophetic call.”
One month after the Call was published by the World Council and its Commission, the chief leaders of four North American churches – the Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the U.S. and their counterparts in Canada commended the “richness of the Arusha Call to Discipleship and invited their members to embrace the call”. To this date, there has been little to no attention to the Arusha Call among other North American denominations. A leading source of news on religion in the U.S., the Religion News Service, has ignored the Arusha Call.
The Arusha Call to Discipleship and accompanying commentaries by the Conference participants can be downloaded free from the World Council of Churches’ website:
The title “Every Single Other” comes from a kind of mantra we recite at the end of worship at Peace Christian Church which my partner and I, both retired ordained Christian ministers, attend. The congregation is affiliated with two theologically progressive denominations in the United States, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
“Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s spirit is in them – living and breathing God. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” Ro 8:5-6 (The Message Peterson translation)
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was on his customary shopping rounds in Louisville, waiting on a busy downtown street for the traffic light to change. The sidewalks were crowded with people and suddenly Merton experienced what he described as an epiphany. He saw each person as he imagined God saw them. All of them in search of meaning and joy. All in need of love. He wrote in his Confessions of a Guilty Bystander “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” Merton’s “epiphany” helped guide him for the rest of his life.
A former member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, Michael Harrington, wrote the small book that helped guide the policies and programs of the Kennedy and Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. The Other America detailed with current statistics the suffering of the poor from hunger, illnesses, violence and broken families. It helped lay the groundwork for the civil and human rights legislation that moved the nation closer to its founding vision of “liberty and justice for all”. It helped lay the groundwork for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and expanded aid for persons injured at work.
I’ve thought about that book while watching and supporting the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign over the last two and a half years. The Campaign now is active in organizing and partnering with other groups in calls for a living wage, for union representation of workers, for Medicare for All, for giving voice to the demands of low wage workers and the unemployed. The Campaign highlights current conditions of 140 million poor and low income persons in the U.S. Since the 60’s little has been done legislatively to improve housing, health care, and wage security for the “other America”. Many view state and federal policies after 1980 as constituting a “war on the poor” in contrast to the progress of the War on Poverty towards a more just society.
Years after his epiphany on the Louisville street corner, Merton wrote a sentence that for me beautifully captures the struggle we all, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, those with and without faith in a loving Creator, face in loving “every single other”. It returns to me again and again as a prayer to leave behind “obsession with the self” and be freed to lead a more “spacious life”. Merton wrote, “If today I hear God’s voice, may I not reject a softer, more compassionate heart.” With the spirit of this prayer in mind, I wrote a poem/prayer shortly before the U.S. presidential election that imagines the hardening of heart we must overcome to help bring about a government “of, by and for the people” (Lincoln’s description of our political system). The poem tries to direct our attention to those rendered voiceless and to some of the characteristics of a heart that has hardened.
Election Time in the Super Power
Hear our prayer, O Lord –
Of the silenced, unseen, unheard,
Of the devalued and degraded,
Of those known by their labels,
Of all considered disposable when they
are considered at all.
Let our cries come to You, O Lord –
By those who confuse ambition with conviction,
By neighbors who cede power
to one who boasts of his own.
By all brought up to doubt and never trust,
By all who seek to preserve their
dignity with falsehood,
Hear our prayer, O Lord –
For us whose ‘we’ keeps shrinking,
For the others known by their fangs,
For those who must prepare for a future in peril,
For us all whose freedom comes at a cost.
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.