Category Archives: U.S. Culture
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.
Zorba in Zorba the Greek , Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life, Zampano in Fellini’s La Strada – Anthony Quinn was Mexican-American. He was born to a Mexican mother and an Irish father in the Mexican State of Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution.
Working in East Los Angeles, I was surprised to learn Quinn grew up as a Mexican immigrant in the Eastmont Community Center neighborhood. The Anthony Quinn Public Library on East Third Street is located on the corner where Quinn’s childhood home stood. But Quinn paid little attention to his Mexican heritage in his life or his acting career. His 1952 Oscar-winning role as Emiliano Zapata’s brother in Viva Zapata was one of the very few he took playing a Mexican.
I also learned that children in the schools Quinn attended had been punished for speaking Spanish in the classroom. Anthony Rodolfo Quinn (paternal surname) Oaxaca (maternal surname) was taught that to get ahead in the U.S. you had to assimilate, leave behind your culture of origin and become “American”.
Having financed Roma with his own production company, Alfonso Cuaron left no doubt it was a Mexican film. “It doesn’t exist without Mexico” Cuaron emphasized on Oscar night. The same could be said of other enduring films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana , and The Wild Bunch. But Roma uniquely was made in Mexico with a Mexican cast and crew speaking Spanish and Mixtec.
The film also was made first and foremost for Mexican audiences. Alfonso Cuaron implied as much when in the post-awards press conference, he stated that he was most gratified by how the film had generated a national conversation about the rights of domestic workers and racism in his Mexican homeland. He also mentioned that he was proud to have strengthened the organizing and outreach of two groups, one in the U.S. and the other in Mexico, who are working on behalf of domestic workers like the protagonist of his film.
All the heralded immigrant Hollywood filmmakers – Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock – helped U.S. audiences understand the U.S. better and, in some cases, revealed for us what others don’t want us to see, as Cuaron put it on Oscar night. But the director of Roma is the first immigrant filmmaker to focus on his childhood homeland for his setting, his themes and inspiration and for the audience he wanted to reach above all. There is no doubt that Roma belonged in the Oscars’ Foreign Film category.
Roma has now raised the question of when the top award at the Oscars will go to a foreign film. Hollywood insiders have said Cuaron’s film came very close this year. With movies making more money overseas and some even premiering outside the U.S., this Mexican film signals an important, new advance in the globalization of the U.S. film and television industry. When a foreign film finally wins the Best Picture award, Oscar voters will be highlighting and celebrating movies’ potential to communicate with audiences all over the world as well as the domestic U.S. audience.
For those of us who have experienced a film’s potential to deepen our understanding and appreciation of other cultures, Roma’s success isvery good news. But it could also be said that the Netflix’s huge investment in distributing and promoting Cuaron’s film is not the first instance of Hollywood money scoring a hit financially and among critics with a “foreign” made film. The first major star of Hollywood movies was the English immigrant Charles Chaplin whose character The Tramp was recognized and loved worldwide. U.S. film historian Andrew Sarris called Chaplin’s character “cinema’s most universal icon”. There is a street in Belgrade named for Charlie Chaplin and no other film star has had as many commemorative postal stamps issued in their honor by countries on six continents.
During the era of silent movies, Chaplin’s Tramp succeeded in communicating powerfully with audiences around the world. It is worth mentioning here that the first couple of minutes of Cuaron’s motion picture is silent. By filming the chores of a domestic worker, Cuaron was able to touch audiences in a way that even surprised the filmmaker. “I least expected it (Oscar recognition) for this movie” Cuaron said in the post-awards press room. We all can attest that a kind of mysterious magic is at work in the best films. At the 1972 Oscars when Chaplin made his first U.S. appearance after a 25 year exile abroad the audience stood and applauded for eleven minutes. They stood in awe of Chaplin and in awe of movies’ potential to move us and remind us of what makes us all human.
“For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” Ps 39:12b
We in the United States today are battling over what it means to be an American. The battle and the divide is taking place in many settings: in Congress, in the nation’s courts, at the airports, in the streets and most heatedly at our national borders. The conflict has been going on for many years but today with a President insisting on a narrow, exclusionary understanding of “American” the battle has intensified.
We lament the suffering of individuals and families caused by the current Administration’s aggressive pursuit of the “undocumented” while deploring his Republican Party’s standing in the way of comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws for over 30 years. In effect, their stonewalling has made millions living and working in the country for many years “illegal” by their definition of “American”. Immigrants living in this country for twenty years and more have been barred from a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
In a time of unprecedented migration of refugees worldwide, some politicians may reap short term gains from their position on immigration; the anti-immigrant sentiment has swept Europe and undoubtedly contributed to the Trump electoral victory. His party blocks the path to citizenship for immigrants while engaged in a nationwide campaign to restrict and suppress the right to vote of persons of color who are U.S. citizens. This is a short sighted political strategy doomed to fail because it ignores, disrespects and ultimately devalues the nation’s highest ideals.
There is no denying that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Except for the natives the immigrants displaced, all citizens of this country are descendants of people bringing to this land hopes and dreams forged on the anvil of oppression elsewhere. Whether one lives in the Middle East, Central America or West Africa, yearning to breathe free of violent oppression is not just the story of persons immigrating to the U.S. It is the human story and is a component of the DNA of the human species.
We citizens today of these United States are descendants of Jews fleeing persecution and death in Germany, Irish survivors of spreading famine, Mexicans and Central Americans escaping violence and feudalistic exploitation, English, Scots and Irish seeking religious freedom. So for two hundred forty two years the U.S. has been living a national experiment to remain true to its identity, its self image as a refuge for those storm tossed and “yearning to be free”. As a result of earth’s inhabitants finding safe harbor over decades in this country, the name “America” took on sacred levels of meaning for the country’s citizenry. The origins of the name, however, remains another cause for dispute.
Whether or not the name “America” derives from the name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, it is indisputable that the name originally applied to both North and South America. Vespucci himself never set foot on North American soil. A recent writer on the origins of the name “America” notes that the name came to apply solely to the United States after so many nationalities settled in the country and referred to the country in their language as their homeland. Jonathan Cohen writes, “to hear the African in the Mayan iq’ amaq’el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic; to hear Armorica, the ancient Gaulish name meaning place by the sea; and to hear the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear ourselves”.
To hear the name one also hears echoes of the leaders who have shaped the values and self-image of this nation. Ted Widmer in a 2012 opinion piece titled “Last Best Hope” tells us it was Thomas Jefferson, drafter of our Declaration of Independence, who described America as the “world’s best hope”. Widmer then notes that “Like Jefferson (as Western as he was Southern), Lincoln believed that America’s ample interior spaces would invite millions of immigrants from around the world.”
For Lincoln, according to Widmer, the fact that immigrants continued to pour into the country during our Civil War, with many enlisting in the Federal Army, served as validation for Lincoln’s belief “that America, for all her problems, was still worth fighting for”. Lincoln concluded his first State of the Union message with words that link the freedom of the slave to the freedom sought by U.S. refugees and also speak to what is at stake for the country in his times – and in our own: “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”
So in our national debate over immigration in these times we are not involved in just a policy discussion. For many of us seeking to defend the right of persons fleeing oppression by extreme economic exploitation and autocratic rulers we seek to defend the best of what this country has offered. We seek to preserve the essence of what enables its description as “a great nation”. We seek to preserve the country’s soul.
Extreme economic inequality, attacks on Muslims, imprisoning and deporting refugees, suppressing the right to vote of U.S. citizens, I could go on but we all recognize multiple ways the “American dream” is fading away in our time. For many of our citizens, there is doubt the dream for them and most others will ever be restored. In acting on behalf of refugees’ rights today, we are reminded and bolstered by the realization that it is not just an “American” dream to live free of persecution and exploitation. It is a human dream. And it is a dream that makes the U.S.A. – and any other people struggling for human freedom – “the last best hope on earth”.
Thanks to Facebook I celebrate the birth of another child in the family of Dr. Jorge and wife Cristina in San Luis Potosí. I know M. Celestin Engelemba has returned to Mbandaka and helps organize community development efforts of the Disciples of Christ Church in Congo. Through messaging on Facebook, Rev. Bolembo in a remote area of the Congolese equatorial rainforest knows I am praying for those threatened by the latest outbreak of the ebola virus. I am grateful for the assurance through Facebook posts that the remarkable literacy advocate and organizer Ms. Magdalena Gathoni in Kenya remains active.
But there is another face of Facebook in the world today, especially in those countries like Kenya and Congo where access to the internet is limited and where Facebook use does not count against an individual’s data cap. As of the beginning of this year, according to the new book “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”, there are 2.2 billion users of Facebook in the world today. The new book’s author Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan added in a recent interview on DemocracyNow!, “There are also places in the world where Facebook is the entire media system, or at least the entire internet.”
And more perniciously, Dr. Vaidhyhanathan notes, this rapidly growing use of the software has been used by authoritarian nationalists to gain power in India, the Philippines, the U.K. (through the Brexit campaign) and the United States. “In all of these cases, forces, often from other countries, interfered in the democratic process, distributed propaganda, distributed misinformation, created chaos, often funneled campaign support outside of normal channels, and it’s largely because Facebook is so easy to hijack” the media scholar explained in the interview on DemocracyNow! . He went on to say, “the Trump campaign, the Ted Cruz campaign, and, before that, the Duterte campaign in the Philippines, the Modi campaign in India, they all used Facebook itself to target voters, either to persuade them to vote or dissuade them from voting”.
The media analyst went on to say that the President of India Narendra Modi has more Facebook followers than any other politician in the world. This “master of Facebook” used the software as the primary tool of a “three part strategy”, the “authoritarian playbook”, as he describes it.
“What they do is they use Facebook and WhatsApp to distribute propaganda about themselves, flooding out all other discussion about what’s going on in politics and government. Secondly, they use the same sort of propaganda machines, very accurately targeted, to undermine their opponents and critics publicly. And then, thirdly, they use WhatsApp and Facebook to generate harassment, the sort of harassment that can put any nongovernment
organization, human rights organization, journalist, scholar or political party off its game, because you’re constantly being accused of pedophilia, you’re being accused of rape, or you’re being threatened with rape, threatened with kidnapping, threatened with murder, which makes it impossible to actually perform publicly in a democratic space. This is exactly what Modi mastered in his campaign in 2014, and, in fact, a bit before. And that same playbook was picked up by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and it’s being used all over the world by authoritarian and nationalist leaders, to greater or lesser degrees.”
Facebook’s reach and power in the political realm derives from its capacity to generate strong emotions in its users. Posts poking the hornets’ nest always yield more responses than thoughtful commentary. It is the author’s insights on humanity’s rule by our emotions and the vulnerability of our capacity to think that, in the author’s view, are the real source of Facebook’s power over us and the threat it poses to our social order.
Dr. Vaidhyanathan analyzed the symbiosis of Facebook’s growing use and its encouragement of human emotion over reason in his DemocracyNow! interview, “What it promotes mostly are items that generate strong emotions. What generates strong emotions? Well, content that is cute or lovely, like puppies and baby goats, but also content that is extreme, content that is angry, content that is hateful, content that feeds conspiracy theories. And this hateful, angry conspiracy theory collection doesn’t just spread because people like it. In fact, it, more often than not, spreads because people have problems with it. If I were to post some wacky conspiracy theory on my Facebook page today, nine out of 10 of the comments that would follow it would be friends of mine arguing against me, telling me how stupid I was for posting this. The very act of commenting on that post amplifies its reach, puts it on more people’s news feeds, makes it last longer, sit higher. Right? So the very act of arguing against the crazy amplifies the crazy.”
Should we get off the Facebook habit then? Its brilliant critic says this is not the answer. Only the state with our backing and direction has the capacity and the authority to oversee and shape the Facebook technology to protect its users from being exploited and preserve democratic rule by the people. In its review of the book, The Guardian newspaper reported, “Vaidhyanathan argues that the key places to start are privacy, data protection, antitrust and competition law. Facebook is now too big and should be broken up: there’s no reason why it should be allowed to own Instagram and WhatsApp, for example.” The question then emerges of when the people of the U.S. will elect a President and a Congress with the backbone, the courage and the integrity to safeguard the public and U.S. democracy, and democratic rule elsewhere, against the threat of this new technology.