Category Archives: Theology and Mission
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in the U.S. As manufacturing jobs in “heavy industries” like steel and automobile have grown overseas, they have been replaced by jobs in the retail sales, restaurants and fast food, transport and warehouses of the “service sector”.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.
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.