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The U.S. Heresy of “Christian Nationalism”
Christian pastors pray before the President signs the declaration of a national day of prayer in the White House September 2017. Note that no leader of any other faith community appears to be present.
“When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith’.” Mt 8:10
Fifty days from an election that has been called the most important in our nation’s history I’ve been thinking of Christians around the world who pray with us now about the outcome. I’ve been thinking of Christians who have survived years of political instability, coups d’etat, civil war and dictatorial rule. Thinking of how at this time they are praying for us, because they are aware how fragile is a political system of democratic rule by the people.
I’ve been thinking of Christians in Mexico and Congo where I’ve served with them for five years and how as they pray for us and the fate of our nation, we are threatened by the kind of civil unrest and rigging of the election that they have experienced in their own countries in an electoral season. “It’s not my brother, not my sister …..in Mexico, in Congo, in India, in the Philippines and China O Lord ….it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer!”
When they pray for us, I imagine they are praying that the Jesus who served among the poor and the scorned of his world will guide U.S. Christians in their political action now. I imagine they are praying that our nation’s values of “liberty and justice for all” will be upheld and strengthened by this year’s political process. I imagine they pray that “the heresy of religious nationalism” (in the phrase of Rev. William Barber of the U.S. Poor People’s Campaign) will be rejected by the citizens of the nation with the largest Christian population in the world.
“Islamaphobia” and the denigration of the faithful of other religions that characterizes U.S. Christians infected by “religious nationalism” is not an option in minority Christian nations like Egypt or India. At this time it is worth remembering that the Bishop of the Coptic Church in Egypt (the oldest Christian community in the world) declined to meet with Vice President Pence in January, 2018. Responding to the Vice President’s defense of the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Bishop said the decision had been made “at an unsuitable time and without consideration for the feelings of millions of people.” The Bishop’s dismay over the U.S. decision was shared by Pope Francis and the World Council of Churches.
“Religious nationalism” is on the U.S. election ballot this year. A belief that our nation’s policies and actions represent the will of God has inspired the current administration to spurn international treaties and agreements. As a result, we have been opposed by our allies and friends for rejecting collaborative global solutions to threats of pandemics, climate crisis, economic collapse and nuclear warfare. Our boundless “religious nationalism” has excluded us from participation in solutions agreed on by the overwhelming majority of nations. Can we doubt that the majority of the world’s Christians are praying we abandon our current position and rejoin the world’s nations as a responsible leader? Can we doubt they are praying we rejoin the majority of the world’s Christians in solidarity with the cause of of the poor and peace in our world.
The life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have become more relevant since his execution 75 years ago by the Nazis. As the guards took the young German theologian to the gallows, Bonhoeffer asked a British fellow prisoner to give a message to his closest British friend. His final words, for the Bishop of Chichester, might have been addressed to us today, “Tell him, that with him I still believe in the reality of our Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests and conflicts, and that our victory is certain.” May our actions as Christian citizens of the U.S. be guided by a love that “rises above all national interests and conflicts”. And may that love of God, of Jesus and of all humankind be the soil for growth of a faith which knows “our victory is certain”.
I am convinced that the future victory Bonhoeffer referred to depends on the recognition that the “our” who share in that victory does not exclude any nationality, class, or racial construct. The victory is certain only when and if it is claimed and enjoyed by all of humanity. When our own actions as individuals and those of leaders of all nations can be judged as contributing to the well being of us all, then and only then are we moving toward the “victory”.
The Economic Argument for Increased Immigration
Contrary to what we often hear and read, the U.S. problem isn’t that “too many immigrants want to come here. It’s going to be that too few might want to”. So argues Seketu Mehta, U.S. immigrant from India, in his important new book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto . The author’s position on immigration, well supported by multiple facts and stories, is so seldom heard in the current debate as to be shocking. Although the 2016 average income of the Indian immigrant to the U.S., at $110,026 annually, far exceeds that of the average “White” resident’s income, $61,349, the anti-immigrant policies and language today have already deterred some from coming to this country. Today, Mehta points out, Canada accepts three times as many immigrants per capita than the U.S. And Mexico in recent years is seeing more of its nationals return from the U.S. than cross the border for the “promised land”.
It is the demographic statistics Mehta cites that best bolster his argument for “Why They Should Be Welcomed” as the book’s final section puts it. As the “white nationalist” emphasizes in often hysterical fashion, the U.S. white population is declining and becoming increasingly older. By contrast, 80 per cent of the immigrants to the U.S. are under age 40 while half the U.S. population, white and persons of color, are over 40. We are now familiar with the Social Security statistics indicating that in 1960 there were 5 workers for every retired and disabled person enjoying benefits compared to fewer than 3 workers in 2013 supporting the system. In 2018 Social Security paid more in benefits than it received in payments. Important to consider also is the Social Security payments of $13 billion by undocumented immigrants in 2010 while seniors and the disabled without documents received only $1 billion in benefits.
This book should help convince anyone that immigration has contributed and will support even more in the future the economic stability and health of the U.S. Stemming from their younger age and their relatively recent arrival, immigrants today make up 40 % of the home buyers in the country while representing 13 % of the U.S. population. Dramatic revivals of U.S. towns have occurred due to the welcoming of immigrant settlers. Mehta describes how 10,000 Guyanese transformed the abandoned downtown of Schenectady, New York as they restored decrepit houses “with little or no government assistance”. Most of the Guyanese immigrants, now 12 % of the entire town population, had been renting housing in the New York City borough of Queens when the Mayor of Schenectady in 2002 invited them to settle in the northern New York town. Other New York upstate urban areas have experienced similar improvements thanks to welcoming over 40,000 immigrants to their towns.
U.S. immigration policies fall far short of recognizing and supporting the vital contributions of the newly arrived workers. Restricting the flow of younger workers into the country now holds sway in our policies. Since 2000 the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled to the current total of 20,000 and the budget for “border security” has grown four times as large as two decades ago. In 2017, of the 1.1 million permanent resident permits, “green cards”, issued by the U.S. authorities, only 12 % were employment related.
Seketu Mehta’s book issues a wake up call to Europe and the U.S. that the racism and white nationalist fervor of the colonial era are proving difficult to overcome in accepting and implementing the policy changes called for now. Statistics tell us that the population growth of Europe is below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman, and only 27 % of Europeans are under 25 while 60 % of Africans are in that age group. At current growth rates the population of Europe and Russia will decline from 740 million to around 700 million in 2050 while Africa’s will double to an estimated 2.4 billion persons.
Due to even more dire consequences of the climate crisis expected in the global South, the flight of migrants to Europe and North America will keep immigration issues in the forefront of our civic dialog and politics. This “Immigrant Manifesto” as the author subtitles This Land Is Our Land challenges us in the North to view the immigrant “invasion” as an opportunity to strengthen the economies and ideals of our nations. Failure to change our attitudes and policies will, this book argues convincingly, seriously undermine our economic strength and our quality of life.
Why She Left Honduras
Wendy Garcia, a Honduran mother of seven, joined others in her rural community to protest pollution of their primary source of water. While many U.S. immigrants fear reprisals for their political protest, we need to remember that there are many other Honduran immigrants who silently resist by fleeing from the desperate poverty and violence resulting from what the U.S. has claimed is “foreign aid” in their country.
Policies of aid that favor dictatorships either led by or beholden to the country’s military have sown seeds of violence and civil war throughout Central and South America for many years. Our policies consistently have been guided by the interests of U.S. based international corporations and call for limiting government social services and support for foreign investors who export most of the profits to off shore bank accounts.
These policies need to be taken into account in any discussion of U.S. immigration policies. They have created the conditions of deprivation and desperation that lead so many to leave home in order to sustain their families’ health and well being. The following account of Wendy Garcia’s resistance to pollution of her community’s water source establishes her application for asylum status as a political refugee. We must however remember those other immigrants from the south who have silently resisted their governments’ brutal repression and corporate exploitation of their communities’ resources by marching north.
Mrs. Garcia’s story below has been shortened. For the full account, go to:
“I am seeking asylum in the US because of a hydroelectric dam. I fled Honduras fearing for my life after being tear gassed by police and arrested when our community resisted a dam which contaminated the water we rely on for drinking, cooking and washing.
I come from a small community where our water flows from the mountains into the River Mezapa. The communities who rely on the river organised many years ago to install a water system which stores and distributes water to people’s houses.
Every household paid a monthly contribution to ensure the riverbanks stayed clean, and the system functioned well. We had enough water, and it was crystal clear – clean enough to drink.
The problems started as soon as construction began: the dam company chopped down lots of trees on the river bank. The water turned browny yellow and tasted like iron, so we couldn’t use it any more.
In early 2017, a roadblock was set up in the Pajuiles community to stop the heavy machinery getting past. At first I didn’t want to get involved: I was scared because there are powerful people behind the dam.
But as our clean water turned to mud, I realised that if we didn’t stop the dam we could all die from thirst.
Early in the morning of 15 August 2017, we were coming to the end of the night shift at the roadblock when we heard that the police were on their way. It was only my third or fourth time at the roadblock.
Suddenly, there were armed police and Swat teams everywhere, throwing teargas into people’s houses. There was so much smoke we could barely see, and I’ve suffered from blurry vision ever since.
I ran into a house but went back out to look for my son – and that’s when they arrested me. Ten of us were arrested, including several elderly neighbours and a pregnant woman. We were held from 10am to 1am the next day.
Our camp was destroyed, and the police escorted the company’s machinery to the river. We were charged with trespass for blocking a public road. The police took our photos – and this really frightened me because in Honduras the police kill ordinary people.
I became even more scared when a few months later in January 2018, a colleague in the community struggle, Geovanni , was murdered by police who dragged him into the street and shot him dead.
If they did that to him, they could kill me too, and then who would support my children? In Honduras, money is power, and we, the poor people, don’t have access to justice.
That’s why I left Honduras. That’s why I’m seeking asylum in the US.”
For Love of “Roma” and Mexico
In 1951 when I began elementary school less than 100 miles from the California border with Mexico most of the migrant farmworker children – the “second language learners”- occupied trailers next to the back fence. The only contact with the Mexican children I now recall was with a boy whose English proficiency gained him a seat in my class. His family had found year end employment and settled in the town’s barrio, a step up from the migrant families whose children were assigned to the school trailers.
A declining number of children in the United States raised in lower middle class and middle class families have much contact with children or adults who are poor. Our communities, our schools, our cities are designed to prevent interaction with the poor. The “security” industry sells us on a lifestyle and an outlook that disdains, when it does not fear, a relationship with someone of the “lower class”. In Mexico, as the middle class has grown with industrialization and urban growth, it has become customary for families to contract with the poor for domestic help who live with the family.
Having fled to the city, poor women, often of Indian heritage, work in these homes to help their families survive the harsh conditions typical of rural Mexico today. Forty years ago, in a middle-class Guadalajara neighborhood, I rented a two bedroom house with a room on the roof just large enough for doing laundry and housing a maid/housekeeper if we chose to hire one. We managed quite well without that luxury but we didn’t have four children and our mother living with us like the family in the new film “Roma”.
Alfonso Cuaron dedicates “Roma” to “Libo”, the Mixtec Indian woman Liboria Rodriguez, who served his family throughout his childhood in the Mexico City neighborhood still known as Roma. One reviewer has pointed out that Roma is “amor” – love in Spanish – spelled backwards. The film was conceived and shaped by the filmmaker’s gratitude for the heroic role of “Libo” (Cleo in the film) in caring for, watching after and ultimately saving Cuaron’s family members. By telling the story of his childhood from Cleo’s perspective the film’s script writer/director/cinematographer Cuaron enriches and deepens the viewer’s experience while revealing Mexico’s barriers and boundaries of class, ethnic origin, and language.
According to an extensive article by Marcela Valdes in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/magazine/alfonso-cuaron-roma-mexico-netflix.html) Cuaron spent long hours speaking with Liboria Rodriguez about her life serving as nanny/housekeeper in his childhood home. He wanted to depict her life of domestic labor accurately, but he also wanted to understand better the conditions in her village that drive so many to seek work in the city. In the article Cuaron is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy, she would tell me about her pueblo, and she told me about the terrible cold they suffered and the hunger they suffered. But for me as a boy, it’s the cold equivalent to ‘Shoot, I forgot my sweater to the movie,’ and the hunger is ‘[Expletive], they’re running two hours late with dinner,’ you know? I had no awareness.” Apart from the wizardry and beauty of Cuaron’s black and white imaging of his past, the triumph of the movie is the filmmaker’s coming to terms with his empathy for the humble woman who served as a second mother to him.
Having gained international recognition as a leading Hollywood film director, with “Roma” Cuaron has also come to terms with his identity as a Mexican film maker. He told the writer of the NYT article, “The film confronted me with the mystery of what I no longer am yet still am at the same time,” In his embrace of his Mexican homeland, Cuaron enthralls us with his love of the clever children’s toys, the cries of street vendors, the unrestrained lunacy and melodrama of Mexican television, the country’s fiesta traditions and much more. Applying the empathy encouraged by his relationship with Libo, the filmmaker also explores the forces which continue to divide and suppress people in Mexico – and elsewhere.
Cleo’s boyfriend in the film is seen in training and later as a member of the paramilitary mercenaries who beat and killed students and workers in the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971 in Mexico City. Cuaron notes in his interviews with Valdes that the young man, like so many worldwide, find their adult identity as members of an undercover force who repress the aspirations of their own class. He comments, “They’re invisible, and they’re given a visibility. They’re given training. They’re given discipline, a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being needed. And what is this used for? Not to improve society, to improve social services. No.” The film also portrays members of the U.S. CIA who organize and oversee the training of the poor youth.
Few films aim to depict the social and political context operating behind the story but “Roma’s” creator paints a huge canvas. As the camera follows Cleo through a year and a half of her life we are immersed in Mexican life as lived by middle class professionals like Cuaron’s parents, hacienda owners, soldier and para military trainees, health workers, street vendors, television personalities and more. They are depicted responding to divorce, pregnancy, earthquake, forest fire, a mass political protest, death, near drowning and a lot of dog poop. By the end, I felt as though the soul of a person and a culture had been laid bare before me.
In the course of their long conversations recalling their life together nearly fifty years before, Cuaron asked his nanny Liboria if she would like to be paid for her help on the film. Her response, as reported to Valdes, was “How barbaric. I did it because he’s my child. It’s something done for love.” That also describes the filmmaker’s incentive for making this film: “something done for love”. The film tells the story of a life and a love that for many viewers will be easy to remember and hard to forget.
“The World House” of Martin Luther King
In the face of Trump administration efforts to roll back or repeal U.S. legislation and government actions to reduce economic inequality, further civil rights and protect the environment, the words and courageous life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have taken on added weight and importance. Here in Kansas City, this January’s King holiday celebrations of his life and message have been especially well attended. The public gatherings also served this year as an opportunity to call on people to resume the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. King the year of his assassination fifty years ago.
That Poor People’s Campaign mobilized people of many races against the scourges of racism, militarism and materialism and marked King’s expansion of his organizing from the civil rights of African Americans to the human rights of oppressed people world wide. The civil rights leader had long been inspired by the progress of persons overseas in claiming their rights, having early in his ministry made the connection between the struggle of U.S. blacks and those in Africa in opposing colonial rule.
Soon after the 1957 integration of public transportation in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King attended the festivities celebrating the independence of Ghana in West Africa. Ghana was the first English speaking African nation to achieve independence from European colonial rule and Dr. King drew inspiration and strength from this historic advance. One month after Ghana’s Independence Day, on April 7, 1957, he preached at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery on the new nation’s, and our own, march toward freedom and liberation.
“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.”
Dr. King briefly summarizes in the sermon the five hundred years of slave trading and colonial rule by Britain and the European powers across the continent of Africa. He then describes the struggle of the new nation’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and the Ghanaian people against colonial rule. Ghana’s opposition to colonial rule and its similarity to the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the U.S. made a deep impact on Martin Luther King. He shared his reaction with his congregation:
“When Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, ‘We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,’ all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.”
“After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:
Free at last! Free at last!
Great God Almighty, I’m free at last! ..……”
When Dr. King wrote his last book in 1967 that experience was still fresh in his mind. In the book’s final chapter, which he titled “The World House”, he wrote, “What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…..All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands……For several centuries the direction of history flowed from the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in ‘conquests’ of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism is at an end.”
Like no one else, King knew that there were many people in the U.S. who are unaware of or who are opposed to the “freedom explosion” he celebrated in Ghana in 1957. In words as relevant today as when he wrote them in 1967, he declares, “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.”
The leaders of the current administration in power in the U.S. not only goad and abuse people of color worldwide; they are trying to turn back the clock on the “freedom explosion”. Like Rip Van Winkles they have slept through “the widest liberation movement in history”. They may never wake up but we, in opposing, resisting and helping set a different course for our nation, we join the “great masses of people (who) are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands”. And as Dr. King, our scriptures and world history continue to remind us, “the freedom explosion” ultimately will prevail.
Note: “The World House” chapter concludes Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr., first published in 1968
A Hug for the World
I’ve been a follower of the World Council of Churches’ web site http://www.oikoumene.org/en and received messages from them in my Inbox for a decade or more. Ever since I began thinking more seriously about what it means to be a called and to take action as a “global citizen” in the world today I’ve learned, been encouraged by and been grateful for the work of 350 plus Orthodox and Protestant Church bodies worldwide, united for reflection and action by the World Council of Churches.
To cite one example of the value and importance of the Council’s voice, the U.S. would never have invaded Iraq in 2003 had Christians in this country heeded the warnings issued by the Mideast Council of Churches and published worldwide by the World Council. It is stunning how many of the dire effects of the Iraq invasion, the spread of the war to other nations being just one example, were all foreseen by the Statement issued by the World Council on behalf of the Mideast Council of Churches.
You will easily find the Spanish, French and German versions of the Council web site at the above address along with translations into thirteen other languages, Arabic among them. Here below is the Christmas 2017 greeting of the Council, like the work and mission of this movement truly a “hug for the world”. Consider it a wish for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all those active in “erasing borders” in their own communities this year and in coming years. First though is a beautiful Africa-themed video in celebration of the solidarity dreamed, advocated and made possible by the activities of the World Council of Churches.
28 November 2017
A greeting from the World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches has as its basis that “we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.” This refers directly to the words of the Gospel, the good news that we read and hear at every celebration of Christmas. These words of a heavenly messenger are for all the people. The Gospel writer, Luke, continued telling the story of Lord and Saviour, who was “anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19). He is the one who chose his apostles and “gave them instructions through the Holy Spirit … to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 2, 8).
This year the churches in the world have commemorated 500 years since the Reformation, an event that had an effect on all churches in the world ever since. The best way to commemorate this landmark was to manifest and celebrate that we share the same Gospel, the same good news about our Lord and Saviour. The best way to show that we are serious about this is to continue the sending and the mission by sharing the faith in the one who liberates, heals, and proclaims the time of God’s undeserved grace to come. A year of hope and new beginning is always the message of the Gospel.
In 2018 the World Council of Churches will celebrate our first 70 years in common service and witness to the triune God who creates us, saves us, and sends us to serve and witness. We cannot wait till we have found agreement in everything. Our ecumenical service, our diakonia, is needed every day. We are called to be moved by the Spirit, which is the theme of the WCC World Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, in March 2018. We are called to liberate, to heal the broken, to raise up the oppressed, to share the salvation from sin that we can receive only in Jesus Christ.
Be not afraid! We are called to offer hope, but not in a superficial way. This is not the time to say that sin is an obsolete word in the world. Every day we see the opposite, everywhere. This is the time to receive salvation from sin and to go out fighting against all the negative effects of our misbehaviour and sins. We see them in climate change, in violent conflicts, in economic injustices, in abuse, even of religion. It is time to continue confessing our shared faith in our Lord and Saviour. We do that by continuing our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace together and sharing the good news with all the people. Be not afraid!
May you have a blessed Christmas and a grace-filled new year in 2018!
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
World Council of Churches
Is the U.S. Ready to Grow Up?
The election of Donald Trump as President of the U.S. has resulted in a flood of commentary in all types of media on the topic of “American identity”. Discussions of “American exceptionalism” (referred to in the last Erasing Borders posting) are just one direction the national soul-searching has taken in response to Trump’s election. Taking a different path, the New York Times columnist David Brooks preferred to discuss the varied “American narratives” in a May 26 column.
What all commentators have in common is the sense that this nation is more fragmented today than anyone has experienced in their lifetime. The consensus prevails that the U.S. is a divided nation and that the Trump election has deepened the lines of division and, it is widely agreed, made those divisions more volatile and dangerous.
In describing four disparate narratives of how the U.S. is seen by its citizens, Brooks comments on how varied they are, “we’re suffering through a national identity crisis. Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.” Brooks, however, ignores the deepest division with a history longer than the founding of our nation.
The division between those in this country who, unconsciously or consciously, still cling to racial views and fears which originated during the era of slavery and those who defend equality and the equal rights of all is being addressed at this time like never before. How the white supremacist views used to justify slavery relate to the anti immigrant, “make America great again”, “America first” policies that helped elect Trump is also being addressed. We recall that it was not much more than one hundred years ago that there were Harvard professors, with mainstream followings, who argued that some races were intellectually inferior to whites. We all are more aware now that the coddling of southern States to induce them to join the 1776 union, through the electoral college and other provisions of the Constitution, has compromised our nation’s moral and political recovery following the horrors of the Civil War and the depravity and eventual decline of an economy built on slavery.
We are also more aware that there are white persons in the northern and southern U.S. who in one form or another
still cling to the Confederacy’s propaganda for the Civil War. So it is both hopeful and timely that the Mayor of New Orleans firmly denounced sympathy for the South’s lost, bygone cause in a recent speech. If the U.S. finds itself in an identity crisis today, as Brooks says, this speech is the most hopeful sign in these times that we as a nation are maturing and emerging into responsible adulthood.
After the New Orleans City Council voted in 2015 to remove all the city’s statues honoring southern heroes of the Civil War, Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered the speech last month following the displacement of the renowned General Robert E. Lee’s statue. “The Confederacy”, the Mayor declared, “was on the wrong side of humanity”. The Mayor summed up what the removal of the statues meant for the City, the South, and the Nation with these words,
“This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.”
The speech included reminders of two facts of the city’s history for the audience and for the nation. First was a reminder of the founding principle of the Southern Confederacy.
“…..the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Secondly, he celebrated the variety of cultures represented by those who have built the city and called New Orleans “home”.
“You see — New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures. There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.”
And then, like in a great sermon, the Mayor moves and convicts us by recounting a personal experience:
“Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us.”
As citizens of the nation founded on the “truth” that “all men are created equal”, we know in this era of Trump that we each of us are responsible for making real and living out this lofty founding vision of the nation. We remember that the man who wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence was himself a Virginia owner of slaves who also wrote these words,
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” – Thomas Jefferson
Is it possible that the country will in this time of political crisis finally address some of the ugly and brutal truths of our history and move on to “form a more perfect Union”? Is it possible that in this time we in the U.S. will join in efforts to “more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation” and move toward the “justice” Thomas Jefferson only dreamed about? The unity and future health of the United States depends on it.
Debating “American Exceptionalism”
When the “baby boomers” were being educated in the U.S. public schools in the 1950’s, we were encouraged to take pride in our country’s dedication to the peace and prosperity of all nations. And there were expenditures and overseas initiatives to back up the image portrayed of a generous, open handed benefactor nation. Following the vital support of the Marshall Plan in helping rebuild Europe post WW II, there was the Food for Peace exports to relieve hunger, federal backing for the Green Revolution’s implementation in countries like India, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America and other regionally focused development aid initiatives. When I hear politicians describe the U.S. today as “exceptional”, the generosity of our foreign aid programs is not mentioned.
In the year 2015, this country dedicated 0.8 % of its federal budget in development aid for poor nations. The UN passed a resolution a few years ago that challenged the industrialized nations to devote a minimum of 0.7 % of the Gross National Income (GNI) to economic development aid. The U.S. development aid has stood at around 0.18 % of GNI in recent years. That puts the world’s leading economy in 22nd place among advanced countries in the percentage of GNI spent on helping poor nations with agricultural development, entrepreneurship, health and education. Economic development aid to Mexico this year was budgeted at $49 million while “security assistance” for the Mexican army and police forces was set at $85.6 million.
The U.S. lags far behind other nations in its commitment to development aid and the ranking is not likely to change any time soon. When the current President ran on a platform of “Make America Great Again!” he did not have in mind that the UK gives nearly four times more in foreign development aid than the U.S. as a percentage of GNI. It was not a surprise that in his first 100 days Trump proposed a series of huge increases in military spending beginning with a pledge of an additional $50 billlion for next year. With a military budget already amounting to more than the defense spending of the next seven nations ranking below us, how much more does the military industrial complex of the U.S. need in order to make the U.S. “great again”?
In recent years visitors returning from Africa to the U.S. and Europe comment on the highly visible presence of the Chinese aid workers in countries across the continent. In the 1960’s the U.S. was considered as the best friend of the new nations of Africa, the friend which would enable countries like the Congo to share in the enormous wealth generated by its natural resources. China has now replaced the U.S. as the leading foreign presence in Congo repairing roads, building a rail road and planning upgrades to the Inga hydroelectric plant originally conceived, with the encouragement of the U.S., to provide power for much of Central Africa.
Those of us who were persuaded in the 1950’s and early 60’s that our nation was great or “exceptional” in its generous sharing of its abundant resources now question whether we as a nation have sacrificed the ethical, moral content of our nation’s self image on an altar of militarism. The Puritan vision of our nation as a “city on the hill” has become a city fortified today by walls, defended by the largest nuclear weapons infrastructure in the world, and paid for with federal expenditures dedicated to “national security” that dwarf the military spending of other nations.
There is little agreement now over what in fact makes the U.S. an “exceptional” or a “great nation”. Little agreement and some confusion it now appears. During his eight years in office President Obama put forward contrasting views on “American exceptionalism”. In a televised speech to the nation in September 2013 the President pronounced bombings of Syrian army positions as what makes the U.S. “exceptional”. He declared,”When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act… That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.” But in a 2015 speech, in the waning months of his presidency, President Obama declared, “Our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans. There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength.”
There can be little doubt that Trump’s idea of “making America great again” focuses on military buildup and deploying heavier weaponry like the “mother of all bombs” exploded in Afghanistan recently. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists moved the doomsday clock closer to midnight, to two and a half minutes to 12, following Trump’s inauguration. But both Democratic and Republican administrations have led in building up the U.S. military and differ only in the degree and the bluster they use to justify increases in “defense” spending.
So is this really what the U.S. population wants? Is the military might of the U.S. what we want to set us apart and make us “exceptional” in the eyes of other nations and our own eyes? I don’t think so but under the current Trump administration another unique characteristic of the U.S., mentioned by Obama in the 2013 reference to the U.S. Muslim population, is under severe challenge. That “exceptional” feature of the U.S. will be lifted up in the next Erasing Borders blog posting.
Globalizing Resistance in Mexico
The week of Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal as nominee for U.S. Secretary of Labor also marks the fourteenth anniversary of the largest world wide protest in the history of our species. On Feb. 15, 2003 anti Iraq War protests in nearly 800 cities across the globe brought into the streets, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, between 12 and 14 million people. British Member of Parliament and peace activist Tony Benn described it as “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq”. That day, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa met with then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and declared, “those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilization for peace.”
This February week of 2017, in the aftermath of the weak responses of the Mexican government to the current U.S. administration’s threats, thousands of people marched in protest in twenty Mexican cities. “We are all migrants. We are all one. This is a time to build bridges, not walls,” said 73-year-old protester Jose Antonio Sanchez, who was marching with his nine-year-old granddaughter. With neither the U.S. nor the Mexican administration inclined or able to “build bridges” now, it is the protests on both sides of the border that reveal the common ground that unites our peoples.
On the Mexican side, the end to government subsidized gasoline prices recently led to a twenty per cent increase at the pump. On the U.S. side of the border, big oil is riding high under the new administration with endorsement of the Dakota Access Pipeline and an EXXON executive as Secretary of State. In the recent auction of Mexican oil deposits, BP, who brought to the U.S. Gulf waters the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was one of the big winners. The major oil companies all claimed victory back in 2013 when the Peña Nieto administration announced as part of its Energy Reform the sale of the prized off shore Mexican oil fields. Ali Moshiri, president of Chevron Africa and Latin America Exploration and Production, told reporters shortly after the 2016 auction. “Everybody in the oil and gas sector is interested in Mexico, especially the deepwater.”
For Mexicans, in addition to the nearly $3.50 per gallon cost of gasoline, the privatization andloss of control of their formerly nationalized oil production has been seen by Mexicans as akin to pawning the family jewelry. For U.S. residents, raising tariffs on Mexican exports would mean an increase in our food prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture figures 71 % of tomatoes sold in the U.S. come from Mexico and 93 % of Haas avocadoes. Availability of Mexican produce has helped change U.S. diets in the last fifty years with Mexican mango, avocado, broccoli, and lime sales up well over 1000 % since 1970. Mexican industrial farming won’t be alone in paying for that border wall. So will we U.S. consumers.
Mainstream and moderate Mexican political commentators are calling on Peña Nieto to stop appeasing and stand up to the U.S. threats but given the Mexican President’s woeful approval ratings that’s not likely to happen without more mass demonstrations. For a more humane, peaceful and equitable world, we all need more manifestations of global resistance like the February 15, 2003 anti Iraq War mobilization. The day after that historic wave of protest and resistance, the New York Times referred to the people’s rising up as “the second superpower”.
One of the New York City movement organizers, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, summed up what the demonstrations achieved with these words: “Our movement changed history. While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality, demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. February 15 set the terms for what ‘global mobilizations’ could accomplish.” Such mobilizations remain the most powerful deterrent to the threats to world peace, health and sustainable development posed by the current U.S. administration.
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With gratitude for the Phyllis Bennis article on the Institute for Policy Studies web site at
God as a Refugee Appeals for Solidarity with the Poor
“It is not easy to put in practice such a solidarity when conflict abounds, and when a bewildering array of opposing projects spill forth from a divided national and regional culture. It becomes still more challenging in a context of apparently triumphant individualism and a combine of reigning forces that would compel us to see the other as a virtual enemy.”
Written and published over a month before the presidential election in the United States, these words from the following reflection on the meaning and aims of “solidarity” in the context of Nicaragua emphasize that our task as citizens of Nicaragua (or the U.S.!) has not been altered by the election results. Written by the Executive Director of Nicaragua’s Interchurch Center for Theological and Social Studies (CIEETS), the essay measures how far we humans have to go while proposing guidelines and tools for achieving “solidarity in community”. Its universal message should be hailed as a sign that while our national agendas vary in the details, there are means for progress that can, indeed must, unite us across national boundaries. It is, for example, enticing to contemplate what might be the effect on Central Americans’ migration to the U.S. of our government’s focusing its future foreign aid on the kind of community development projects in solidarity with the poor organized by Msc. Jairo Arce’s organization across Nicaragua. To learn about CIEETS’ work go to http://www.cieets.org.ni or write them at email@example.com
“The word ‘solidarity’ is intimately bound up with the concepts of unity and community. Its application calls for visible signs of love such as the struggle to identify with those who suffer pain and poverty and defy the apparent human incapacity for lasting solutions to the conditions and basic elements necessary for survival. In our time a call for solidarity has been issued by the thousands and millions of our brothers and sisters who have passed through the shadow of death on their journeys throughout the earth on a search similar to Abraham’s and by God who also has been a refugee among us.
A theology dedicated to unpacking solidarity must start with the conviction that God is concerned about poverty and is in solidarity with every human being alive today. God in human form, God incarnate, is the highest expression of a God who is in solidarity with humanity. Solidarity then gives us practice in those values and fundamental principles that unite us and strengthen the social fabric and the creative dynamic which are the foundation of community while constituting also an appeal to defend those values and principles and ensure that they are guidelines for daily living.
– Solidarity brings grace to our life in community and counters the violence that destroys the life of the planet and our ecosystem.
– Solidarity assures every man and woman that they are chosen now to present and strengthen the ethical foundation of community in a time of neoliberal obfuscation.
– Solidarity assures each of us that in our roles and with our personal histories we are responsible for the world and the nation that we live in. The awareness that issues from solidarity demands that we all work for comprehensive progress within our nations.
– Solidarity demands that we root out the logic and pattern of individualistic and egocentric interests lodged in our hearts and reject the use of aggression and force as easy ways to resolve conflicts while devaluing or ignoring those who are different.
It is not easy to put in practice such a solidarity when conflict abounds, and when a bewildering array of opposing projects spill forth from a divided national and regional culture. It becomes still more challenging in a context of apparently triumphant individualism and a combine of reigning forces that would compel us to see the other as a virtual enemy. In spite of all this, we have the gift and shared destiny that remind us that our nation’s future is in our hands, that its future belongs to us and that the humanity that we share with others is not an abstract concept: it is cause for our earnest suffering and for vibrant hope.
The true criteria for solidarity are all founded on the principle that the society in which we live must protect, cultivate and preserve values such as respect for life, liberty, justice, transformative tolerance, human rights, work with dignity, truth telling, and the protection of the weak, among others. Without such a foundation for solidarity, it will be hampered in enabling a life of joy for all and the peace and security of the nation’s citizens.
Solidarity calls for the personal ownership or, at least, a growing appropriation of a social personal ethic, be it publicly or privately expressed. We will all be affected in the process of ethical formation through the leadership of men and women who do take into account the social consequences of their actions. Our contribution to solidarity lies in ensuring that every individual and social institution will go beyond empty appeals to “unity” and will defend life in its diversity and will find through dialog and political action the constructive means to deal with personal and social conflicts. There is no doubt that to emerge from the grip of violence in which we live and make human, peaceful solidarity possible, a serious educational task at different levels is necessary to establish the ethical principles of human community and break the hold of forces that cloud the future.
Jesus invites us to accept differences. He tells us that “the Father makes the sun shine on the good and the bad and makes rain fall on the just and the sinner”. Nothing can justify in the 21st Century discrimination and exclusion or, in a word, racism which is the practice of exclusion in its many and varied forms. Jesus of Nazareth noted that wheat and weeds grow next to each other and by this reminds us that every human being has the right to life and the liberty to go his or her way. To guide us, the Apostle St. Paul invited us to conquer evil by means of the good. Jesus’ concern and care for the little ones, the sick, the weak and those whose life is threatened show us the importance of the values of uprightness, truthfulness and honesty as the basis for our participation in the civic dialog. Jesus’ embrace of his ministry makes clear our responsibility for the creation’s well being in preparing the way for solidarity in community.
Jesus’ call to live by the golden rule, “Do not do to others what we would not want them to do to us” becomes an indispensable ethic for life in solidarity and true community. Similarly, Jesus’ relationships with public authorities insist on an exercise of power free of arrogance and in service of others. Through the life and words of Jesus, with respect for the cristological context, we can find guidelines for a social ethic which forms the basis of a human solidarity lived out peacefully and committed to peaceful life in community.
The life of Jesus can always serve as instruction, as a fruitful path for humanity regardless of our individual religious affiliation. By means of the rich lessons disclosed by his life and his words, we are challenged to find additional means to heighten the ethical behavior of all in their daily lives. It is then on behalf of solidarity that we stand and declare “affirm life and oppose the forces of death”, the task that demands the best of ourselves. Through our work we can always participate in forming the ethical awareness of others and it is in this task that our spirituality is grounded and grows. Solidarity is the pathway by which we seek and find the hopeful message that celebrates the dream and bolsters our affirming and imagining a world for everyone, without barriers and borders, without the threat of death for those who would seek better conditions in a different setting.
God acted on behalf of the community of Israel in biblical times, on behalf of Abraham’s family and even to the extent of becoming a refugee among us. God loves, defends and gives life. And what about us? What about we Christians?”