Category Archives: U.S. Culture
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.
“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”.
Amazon employees are joining internationally to oppose the mega corporation’s squeezing of its workers for huge gains in profits and stock price. While the loss of the Alabama vote to form a union disappointed, the company is facing a swelling tide of indignation over the heartless treatment of its workers. One of them who helped lead the organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse pointed to the international impact of their movement. 58 year old Perry Connelly told In These Times that the organizing team realized that if a union could be formed in the most anti-union region of the U.S. “we’ll be making a huge difference not only in Alabama, but globally”.
Coinciding with the end of voting in Alabama, workers went on strike at six Amazon warehouses in Germany on the Monday of Easter week. The German strike was planned with the traditional Easter buying surge as well as the customary Polish workers’ holiday in mind. This prevented the company from relying on its Polish Amazon warehouses to fill the season’s orders. A worker at one of the German Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the company’s term for its warehouses, led in organizing Amazon Workers International (AWI) that has enlisted workers at 175 Amazon facilities worldwide.
Another German Amazon worker described coordinated international strikes as Amazon’s “biggest fear”. He went on to summarize the importance of the Alabama struggle to form a union, “If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” he said and further emphasized, “If one fulfilment center falls, everything will go.” His assessment is supported by the magnitude and variety of Amazon tactics to defeat the union in Alabama.
The company initially counted 1500 workers as the warehouse labor force but at the National Labor Relations Board hearing two months later (after the U.S. presidential election) submitted 5,800 as the total. The union organizers had no trouble garnering the threshold of 30% of the work force’s signatures to hold the election, but they could not counter the intimidation tactics that led many card-signing workers to vote no.
The company had Bessemer change the location of traffic lights to force organizers to contact workers directly in front of the warehouse entrance. A postal service mailbox was installed in the facility parking lot and employees were encouraged to use it for their election ballots. Outspoken union supporters were removed from and/or not allowed in the mandatory anti-union one hour “training sessions” the company repeatedly held in the pre-election period. A few days after its defeat, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Not included in the list of charges is the fact that Amazon hired a consultant with the Center for Independent Employees to advise on how to defeat the union. The Center receives substantial funding from the ultra-conservative billionaire Charles Koch and its President also heads RWP Labor which declares its mission is to maintain union-free workplaces across the U.S.
Amazon’s intimidation of individual employees and threats to cut pay and benefits, if not close the warehouse, are standard tactics in U.S. companies’ response to union organizing. Widespread media coverage of the Alabama vote along with support by the Biden administration have helped call attention to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass the House bill to Protect the Right to Organize or PRO Act. Nearly all the anti-union practices deployed by Amazon during the Bessemer campaign would be illegal under the PRO legislation.
In his summary of how U.S. labor law currently favors companies in their defeat of union organizing one union official drew a comparison. “Imagine the 2020 elections but only [former President Donald] Trump was allowed to talk to voters” Ryan Kekeris told journalist Rebekah Entralgo. “Biden had to stay in Canada and shout over the border, and Trump and his supporters had unfettered access to corral U.S. voters into a room, forbid you from leaving, and tell you that you had to vote for Trump,” Kekeris continued. He concluded by noting, “Now imagine that under the eyes of the law this is considered completely fair and legal. That is how U.S. labor law works right now.”
Senate passage of the PRO Act appears unlikely but the U.S. Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may well call for another vote in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse. And the Alabama workers’ dramatic and bold example has fired organizing at warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California. Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign stated following the announcement of the defeat in Alabama, “This is just the first round.” He emphasized that “Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote”. The North Carolina-based leader praised the Alabama workers as having “set a fresh trend in the South”.
Likely to be of even greater concern to Amazon in the long run is the progress made among labor organizers in creating ties with workers in the U.S. and internationally. There are currently an estimated 1,538 Amazon facilities in the world: 290 in Europe, 294 in India and 887 in North America. When workers went on strike at 15 of the company’s warehouses in Italy, some carried banners that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama – One Big Union”. A Dutch Amazon worker involved in the international organization Make Amazon Pay told The Intercept last year, “Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition”. Concluding his case for support of its work force uniting across borders, he noted, “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”
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
A.J. Muste’s theology and beliefs were shaped by the “agonizing reappraisal of my beliefs” forced on him by U.S. entry into WW I. His unwavering commitment to living out a Christianity as a “prophetic religion” emerged from his immersion in the imagery and testimony of the prophet Isaiah’s “suffering servant” and the “Way of the Cross” of Jesus. Contrary to most persons’ grim reaction to these passages and the life journey extolled in them, Muste lived with a joy few could fathom. At age 81, on the way to a Saigon jail during the Ky dictatorship, he smiled and said to a companion in the paddy wagon, “It’s a great life, isn’t it?”
Muste on Theology and Religion:
“My religion is Jewish-Christian Prophetism….From this point of view there is no such thing as a Jewish religion and then another Christian religion. There is just one basic prophetic outlook on life and history.”
“We must become revolutionary out of a religious philosophy.”
“Though the religious dimension of life is not the same as the political dimension it is nonetheless true that God created both dimensions and place us in a world where we need to build community that interweaves these two together.”
“Pacifism, the rejection of violence, the emphasis upon the method of suffering love is integral to…..prophetic religion.”
“A dead man on a cross against the atomic bomb….there is no other way.”
“There is no one who has experienced the miracle of grace ….who can believe there is any limit to what the divine power and grace can accomplish.”
“Personally, I always have a certain suspicion of alleged saintliness which lacks the tone of buoyancy and effervescence.”
In an introduction to a 1965 essay titled “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” Muste concluded with the words, “Long ago I heard someone – I cannot remember whom – say: ‘A man may be right in a situation, but that does not make him more righteous.’ I was deeply impressed. I do not consider myself more righteous than those with whom I am in disagreement on the matters dealt with in this essay.”
On Pacifism and Non-Violent Civil Disobedience
Unlike Gandhi, Muste wrote very little on the theory and practice of non violent civil disobedience. Although he was deemed a brilliant tactician in the application of civil disobedience to oppose growing militarization of the U.S. foreign policy and economy, he largely devoted his writing to exposing the roots and likely results of particular U.S. policies. What is consistent in Muste’s tactical response is his radical, absolutist position. From advocacy of non-cooperation and disobedience of Selective Service requirements to tax resistance, from arguing for unilateral disarmament of nuclear weaponry by the U.S. to immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam he saw compromise as perpetuating the murder of innocents wherever armed force was the policy.
From Muste’s “Sketches for an Autobiography” 1957
“Spiritual forces are as real as physical or military….the trouble is mainly that we want to have both. We want to trust God and have plenty of H-bombs too, just in case. The fact is, we can’t have it both ways. We have to choose on what level, with what weapons, we shall wage the battle, and accept the risks and consequences involved. There are risks either way.”
“Nonviolence in a broader sense is not our weakness. It is our strength. Violence in a profound sense is the evil, the temptation of our time. Nonviolence –‘gentleness’ as a leader of the French resistance put it in a meeting which I attended in 1947 – is what the victims of war and all makind cry out for now. Nonviolence is in fact ‘weak’ partly because we waver in our own allegiance to it. It is ‘weak’ in practice because our practice of it is sentimental, dogmatic, abstract, and not imaginative, creative and revolutionary. But for nonviolent revolutionaries, it is equally imperative to be nonviolent and revolutionary, to be revolutionary and nonviolent.”
Political and Social Analysis Of the U.S. Context
Following the burning of their draft cards in 1965 by five young men in New York City, as a speaker at the protest Muste was summoned to testify at a Grand Jury investigation. A portion of his statement there follows:
“I am unable to cooperate in the Grand Jury inquisition into my belief and actions because it is an element, though perhaps a minor one, in the prosecution of the Vietnamese war and in the militarization of this country.” He went on in his statement to the Grand Jury, “Demanding conformity and penalizing dissent is a pattern on which all governments tend to operate in wartime…..To have dissent and opposition in wartime may create a problem for a democratic government, but if it does not have citizens who refuse to be coerced and regimented, it is no longer democratic.”
In Muste’s view, the “neo-orthodox” theology of Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth with its emphasis on human sinfulness helped enable the State in the West to become the “operative religion” for most Christians, especially in the U.S.. He feared that the ultimate result would be greater repression of dissent and enforced loyalty of its citizens by the State. Again, it was his experience during the prelude and after U.S. entry into WWI that shaped his analysis of the “crisis” and his response as a Christian.
It was during WW I, Muste noted, that customs were introduced “of having people rise to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’”, the organizing of “military parades” and “salutes and pledges to the flag were introduced in schools.” WW I was also the time when churches began to place the U.S. flag near the altar or the pulpit. This was accompanied by many professed Christians calling those who opposed the War “pro-German” as well as participating in persecuting U.S. citizens of German descent. The sacralization of the State continues today and has contributed mightily to public support for decades of warfare on the Middle East led by this nation’s colossal war machine.
At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and China in 1957, Muste wrote in his “Sketches for an Autobiography”, “All but the smallest wars today are fought for global objectives and for ‘causes’ or ideologies regarded as absolute – ‘better no world than a Communist world,’ etc. – and therefore take on the character of crusades. The instruments with which war is waged have a similar, ‘ultimate-weapons’ character.”
Muste’s prophecies regarding the corrosive effects on democracy of our spiraling militarism remain pertinent and will be until the American public demands a change in our policy making and expenditures. The 1965 essay “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” warns “The American tendency to self-satisfaction, to be convinced that it is always the other people who are violent and make trouble, is indeed very powerful and in my opinion is one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the world today. The worst sin, according to a great scripture, is that of the Pharisee who dared to stand in the presence of God and say: ‘God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, or even as this publican.’
And what is the “spiritual atom bomb” Muste refers to in the 1965 essay of that title? The key paragraph reads, “Now if a power like the United States voluntarily withdraws from the arms race and makes the changes in its own social structure which this entails, this would constitute ‘intervention’ of historic dimensions. It would be a revolutionary development comparable in one sense to the Russian and Chinese revolutions themselves. It would, to use Marshal Lin’s phrase, be ‘a spiritual atom bomb….far more powerful and useful than the physical atom bomb.’ The United States would be able to address itself and to devote its vast resources, human and technological, to aiding the impoverished and exploited masses to lift themselves to independence, to human dignity and to a life where the simple human needs of food, clothing, shelter and beauty would be met. Moreover, the spell of conflict might then be broken, as somehow it has to be before long if the human race is to survive.”
As A.J. Muste’s most widely quoted saying put it, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
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.
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.
The House of Broken Angels is a novel that seems destined to further build Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s international reputation and readership. Published in 2018, Urrea’s novel was glowingly reviewed by the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in the New York Times and is the Times-PBS “Now Read This” July Book of the Month selection.
Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother and went to college in San Diego. Though identified as a “border writer” his website quotes him saying, “I am more interested in bridges than borders”. Like the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón with the Academy Award winning “Roma”, Urrea’s work represents a clear window through which Mexican culture and family life can be viewed and a “bridge” is built between the U.S. and Mexico. It was inspired by the death of his older brother from cancer. He says on the Times book review podcast that his family threw a 70th birthday party for his brother, “his last birthday party on earth”, as the de la Cruz family does for the family patriarch in the book.
Another strong motivation in writing the book was political – particularly the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump 2016 campaign. “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” the author told an interviewer. He went on to say, “I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda or the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.” It is the author’s humor and love for all kinds of people that stand out and stay with Urrea’s readers. He says that after his public readings from the book, “I’m hugging a lot of people. Every night, my jacket smells like 14 perfumes and seven after-shaves. People want hugs.”
New York Times review in March 2018 of The House of Broken Angels :
“Now Read This” NYTimes-PBS Facebook group discussion of The House of Broken Angels :
Urrea talks about why he wrote the book with Pamela Paul on the New York Times Book Review podcast:
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.