Category Archives: U.S. Culture

The Rivers of Soul Music

Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the 2021 documentary film release “Summer of Soul”

“I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”

As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.   

This year’s release of the music documentary Summer  of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.

Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders.  Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized.  Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest.  “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”.  A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart.  In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.

Featuring a staggering assembly of musical  styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like  she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day.  Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up.  That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.

An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar.  With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.

Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable.  Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler.  It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen.  Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.

As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton.  Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.

Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent.  That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965. 

A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s.  After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony.  When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us.  No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it.  Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.     

As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”.  One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band.  Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul.  The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension.  Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”.  The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.

Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted

The Netflix produced 2015 documentary on the career of Nina Simone gained many awards and an Oscar nomination.

most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”.  It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan. 

“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”

Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:

“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”

The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.

It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.”  You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.

Feeding the Wolf

Since the end of WW II the U.S. has been the world’s leading arms dealer

In a blog dedicated to “erasing borders” I want to address what force or forces serve to defend and strengthen national borders and border enforcement in the world.  Now is the time because increased migration of threatened people across borders, “free trade” agreements, new technologies, and more travel (among other factors) all call for easing traffic across borders. 

It is a confounding paradox for citizens of the U.S., especially for those born in the country with a single cultural identity, to delight in being surrounded by persons of other cultures while the politics and political economy of the country fosters suspicion and enmity of other nations and cultures.  How could it be that a nation whose ideal self image, the ideal we grew accustomed to celebrating in our lives and in the life of the nation, has been that of a country leading in welcoming immigrants, how could it be that the same nation remains deadlocked on immigration reform for 35 years and focuses on combatting one enemy overseas after another?

Any attempt at a satisfactory answer to this question must consider some indisputable facts too long ignored.  For anyone following the news casually, regardless of the news source in this country, we are aware of the U.S. emphasis on national defense and security.  From the Defense Department budget, to television ads selling insurance for veterans, to conversations with those whose loved one is serving in the military, to statistics on the U.S. military’s footprint in over 80 other countries, we know this country is exceptional in equating military might with power and security.

What we don’t know and seldom talk about in our public forums is the effects on our loftiest ideals of our emphasis on preparation for war and conflict.  What we also don’t think or talk about much in our civil dialog is the interaction between production of weaponry and the health of our economy.

Histories of California’s economy all point to the manufacture of aircraft as leading the way in the State’s growth.  Its long Pacific sea shore has seen the rise of some of the largest and most important military bases during and following WW II.  When a few bases were closed in the 90’s, and major aircraft production sites shut down, there was deep concern about what would replace them in the  economies of the local communities and  the State as a whole. Today the strength of California’s economy should assure us that a transition from an economy relying on defense expenditures can benefit a state’s population             

Following the “Great War”, as many in the U.S. now term WW II, the late Prof. Seymour Melman devoted his research and writing to bringing to light the potential boost of the national economy with a conversion from defense production to production of “things that make for peace”.  Despite his sterling credentials as a Columbia PhD in economics and his teaching at the same university until 2003,  there has been little support for Melman’s views except among left wing intellectuals and peace organizations.  He continues to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” in the political and economic discussion in this country.

Missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin are displayed during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, October 13, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet Melman’s case for such a conversion of the U.S. economy is more relevant today than ever.  In a 1990 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Melman noted “there’s no mystery in the shabby railroads, the broken bridges, the unpaved streets, the wrecked buildings, the absence of adequate housing, the aging character of the industrial equipment.”  There is today more decline in U.S. manufacture of goods used by or benefiting individual consumers.  With 46 per cent of U.S. production equipment devoted to manufacture of weaponry in the mid-1980’s, Melman urged us to consider the impact on employment in manufacturing, on industrial research and development, on worker productivity and on wages among other measures of a healthy economy.

In highlighting the economic effects of this country’s production of goods individuals do not consume, Melman’s views also raise questions about the effect of arms production and sales on U.S. policies as a superpower.  How do arms sales abroad, we accounted for 37 % of the world total sales in 2020, affect our foreign policy? What about the influence of the arms industries (the Lockheeds, Raytheons, General Dynamics, etc.) on the military establishment strategies and our perpetual wars? What are the costs to the nation’s ideals and self image of selling vastly more weaponry than any other nation in the world? Finally and most urgently in our time, how does our focus on defense and arms production handicap our capacity to lead in renewable energy production and innovation?

While controversy rages in our politics over what to do about the climate crisis worldwide, the response to a global pandemic, and how to move toward a healthy multi-racial society there is little conflict in our politics on defense and security issues.  Consensus of the two parties on expanding our military and waging war for international conflict resolution seems guaranteed.

A few years ago a Cherokee Indian fable was widely shared.  A wise grandfather advises his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is characterized by anger and fear and the other wolf is accepting and loving.   The two wolves fight within each of us.  So the grandson asks which wolf finally wins and the grandfather replies, “The one you feed will win”.  Despite its lofty ideals and grand achievement in the past, does anyone doubt which wolf the U.S. continues to feed today? What will be the consequences for the nation if the wrong wolf wins the battle within us?  What will be the consequences for the world?

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Division Street in Every U.S. Town

At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white 

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.

 

A Powerful Tool to Uncover and Uproot the Origins of White Supremacy

“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.

HBO)

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”.

From Piacenza to Alabama – Amazon Workers Unite

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union on the eve of strikes at 15 Italian Amazon warehouses: “In Italy, Germany, Spain and in Bessemer, Alabama, and elsewhere, Amazon workers are demanding conditions that respect their dignity as human beings and jobs that do not put their safety at risk.” 

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.

Constant surveillance and inhumane pressures to produce on ten hour shifts have led Amazon workers internationally to declare, “We are not robots”.

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.”

Every Single Other

U.S. urban street scene. (Photo by Amel Disdarevic)

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.

Call It Courage

david-batzka-summer-1964

David Batzka (r.) with a co-volunteer during Freedom Summer 1964 in Clarksdale, Mississippi

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

To ourselves

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;

Their truth

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 Speaks

A.J. Muste argued for non-cooperation with Selective Service at the beginning of the draft for the Vietnam War.  In this photo five young men are burning their draft cards while Muste looks on.
November 1965, Union Square in New York City : Rev. A.J. Muste looks on as five young men burn their Selective Service “draft cards”. Read below a portion of Muste’s December 21, 1965 statement to the Grand Jury assigned to investigate the protest. Photo from A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, New York City.

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.”

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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.”

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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.” 

The Dangerous Rev. A.J. Muste

U.S. preparation for entry into WW I led Rev. A.J. Muste to develop an absolute pacifist response to all war as a member of the newly formed Fellowship of Reconciliation.
A.J. Muste leads a protest action in the mural on the War Resisters’ League building in New York City. Long time Executive of the League David McReynolds said that Muste’s Christian faith
“was so central to him that his life cannot be understood without realizing that he was, even at his most political moments, acting out his religious convictions.”

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”.       

A.J. Muste's radical Christian faith led him to ally himself with workers and the poor while U.S. preparation for entry into WW I led him to advocate for an absolute pacifist response in solidarity with workers and the poor worldwide.
Dorothy Day inspired the founding of over 200 Catholic Worker houses world wide while Muste introduced tactics of non-violent civil disobedience to the labor and peace movements in the U.S.

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. 

The Calling of “Open Borders”

Nine million U.S. citizens are living out of the country; in 1999 the figure was 4 million.  But Americans today do not have to leave the U.S. to encounter and learn from other cultures.

Not only are U.S. citizens traveling beyond the country’s borders for medications and surgeries. 9 million Americans live outside the country today compared to 4 million just 20 years ago. (Photo by NASA.gov)

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.