Friday, March 21, 2008

The Role of Prophets

Barack Obama’s speech “A More Perfect Union” on Tuesday March 18 both addressed some concerns about his candidacy and raised some important questions regarding the place of race and ethnicity in the collective psyche of this country. In that speech he spoke extensively about his relationship with Rev Jeremiah Wright, Jr., his pastor and father figure, whose comments regarding the United States of America and its sad history of racism have been played and re-played (out of context) in the media and on the Internet. In addition to raising important issues around race, Rev. Wright’s comments raise some important questions about the role of religion, particularly Christian faith, in our public and cultural life. Because while many refer to Rev. Wright as a “firebrand” and “controversial,” in the Christian Biblical tradition Rev. Wright is called a prophet.

In the Biblical tradition, the prophet was often one who challenged the status quo and those who benefited from the oppression and deprivation of others. Prophets often said things that people didn’t want to hear but needed to hear, such as when the prophet Nathan confronted King David for his wanton abuse of power and position (II Samuel 12). For their remarks prophets were often imprisoned (Jeremiah), exiled (Amos), denigrated in public discourse (Hosea) or killed (John the Baptist). They were often considered eccentric (Ezekiel) and suffered physical and social isolation (Elijah). Thus, prophets tended to live unnaturally shortened lives. Jesus himself referred to the frequent persecutions experienced by the prophets, and commended his followers to take heart from their example when they too came under fire (Matthew 5.11-12).

Somehow in our Western Culture many have forgotten and neglected to appreciate the role of the prophet in our midst. In his book, The Devaluing of America, former Education Secretary William Bennett, a devout Roman Catholic, criticizes pastors and priests who opposed U.S. policies on Central America and the Persian Gulf War I for being “out of step” with their congregations, while at the same time arguing for a proper place for religion to be discussed in public schools. He states that “American culture and American greatness – perhaps more accurately American goodness – draw strength and direction from the Judeo-Christian tradition” (p. 208).Yet a few pages later he laments “the chasm that now separates the values of many church leaders from those of the American people (p. 223). The implication of these statements is that the role of religion is to support the actions and values of our culture and not to challenge them. It is this same underlying assumption that has led so many political leaders, media commentators, and regular citizens to consider Rev. Wright’s views “out of bounds.” Apparently, despite our Judeo-Christian heritage, we don’t tolerate our prophets any better than our Biblical forbears.

Bennett, like many others of his perspective, in his book refers to the legacy of Martin Luther King, and quotes his “I Have a Dream Speech,” focusing on the famous line that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Some contemporary commentators, like Bennett, use these words even to suggest that Dr. King would not support today’s affirmative action policies that make a race or gender a factor in hiring or admissions policies. Yet, what is conveniently forgotten is the fact that when Dr. King uttered those famous words, he was considered a far greater threat than Rev. Wright ever will be, to the point that he was constantly being shadowed by the FBI and numerous hate groups.

Moreover, when King’s 1963 speech is intoned, it is often done without remembering the later King, who criticized U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and challenged the basic assumptions underlying U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. On April 4, 1967 over the objections of friends and foes alike, King delivered a sermon entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York. In that sermon he came out forcefully against U.S. policy in Vietnam. He said that the war was poisoning American’s soul and that the violence in urban ghettoes was tied to the violence in Vietnam. He warned that if the nation did not reverse its policy in Vietnam, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

For these words King was vilified in the press and lost his access to Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Like Jeremiah Wright, Martin Luther King spoke words the nation neither felt willing nor ready to hear. Time has sanitized our view of King, so that now he is a national hero. How quickly we forget the angst he created in our national soul, so that we rejected his words and impugned his character. How quickly we forget that the truth of his words was not readily accepted and only much later was seen as justified.

In fact one could walk through the course of U.S. history and see numerous instances of prophets who said words that in retrospect we realize the nation needed to hear, but at the time were labeled as firebrands and malcontents: Samuel Adams, Frederick Douglass, Elijah Lovejoy, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B Dubois, Dorothy Day, Betty Freidan, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Myles Horton, Shirley Chisholm, and Ralph Nader. Many other names could be added to the list. The point is that often it is the prophets who challenge us to move beyond the complacency of the status quo to a higher purpose.

On this Easter weekend, we remember the death of Jesus on a Roman cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. He was not killed because people saw him as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He was killed because his words and his actions called attention to injustice, hypocrisy and immorality at all levels of society. Like those before and after him, Jesus was a prophet. Those of us who embrace Christian faith also consider him to be a savior, but that does not diminish his role as a prophet who paid an ultimate price. Prophets still rise from time to time (and not always Christian, by the way). That is at the heart and genius of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So when a preacher or some other outspoken person says things that cause our ears to burn and our stomachs to churn, perhaps we need to listen; we may be hearing the words of a prophet.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Was Right

I was troubled to learn that the Associated Press reported that Barack Obama had “denounced” remarks made by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and had removed Wright from his role as his spiritual advisor. According to the Associated Press, Rev. Wright made “inflammatory remarks” following the Sept 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks and was characterized as having “railed against the United States and accused the country of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism.”

The first thing that confused me was why was Obama being held accountable for things his pastor said. From my years as a pastor I know there were many times I said things that my parishioners disagreed with. Part of my pastoral role was to provoke thought, and sometimes we simply had an honest difference of opinion. I, not they, was responsible for my views. Second, “the “inflammatory remarks” made by Rev Wright were part of a larger sermon, but the rest of that sermon is not reported. So we don’t know the full context of his remarks. However, third, from what I can tell, Rev. Wright spoke the truth.

The statement in question (as reported by the AP), spoken on the Sunday following the 9/11 attacks, was as follows:

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," … "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

I suspect that in the rest of his sermon, Rev. Wright, whom I have heard speak and whose ministry is well known, expressed remorse for the families of the victims. However, what this statement highlights is that what happened on 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. U.S. foreign policy has placed the United States on the wrong side of many actions, and millions of innocent people have died at the hands of our bombs, and still are. While what happened on 9/11 was a heinous act of vengeance, it makes sense in the larger cycle of violence of which we are a part.

On the Sunday after 9/11 the pastor of the church that I was attending talked about a conversation she had with a Kenyan seminary student. The Kenyan told the American woman, “Now you have experienced and know what I and millions of other people around the world have suffered for decades.” We had become victims of the same violence that had so often been used against others, often with our consent and our weapons.

About six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Phyllis Cunningham, an adult educator, from Northern Illinois University spoke at a conference I attended in Austin, Texas. She noted that at that time American citizens were asking “Why would anyone want to attack the U.S. like they did on 9/11?” Dr. Cunningham told the gathered group of educators, “If people do not know the answer to that question, then we are not doing our job.” While thousands of U.S. citizens were directly or indirectly victimized by the 9/11 attacks, all of us were either unconscious or willing participants in a cycle of violence where often our weapons and our military were perpetrators rather than victims. While we denounce terrorist organizations like Hamas, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in the past our government has supported repressive regimes like South Africa, Israel, Guatemala, and throughout Latin America. This past week, the Congress failed to override a presidential veto on a bill that would have prevented the United States from using acts of torture we so freely condemn others for. In Rev. Wright’s colloquial expression “the chickens came home to roost.”

I am reminded of a line uttered by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men.” Nicholson plays Col. Nathan Jessup, commander of the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay base on the tip of Cuba. Lt. Daniel Kafee (played by Tom Cruise) investigates the suspicious death of one of Jessup’s men, and eventually Col. Jessup is brought before a military tribunal. At a climactic moment in the film Lt. Kafee demands that Col. Jessup tell the truth of what happened under his command. In anger and defiance Jessup/Nicholson screams: “The truth! You can’t handle the truth!”

The problem with many Americans is that we can not handle the truth in Rev. Wright’s words. We would rather continue in our self-deception that we are innocent victims rather than participants in a cycle of violence that shattered us on 9/11, and to which we continue to contribute in our current “surge” in Iraq and elsewhere. Violence that kills anyone anywhere, especially innocent civilians, is tragic and regrettable. However, let us not delude ourselves in to thinking that somehow the violence of the present is not linked to the violence of past, and that our continued participation in the violence in the present will not contribute to more innocent victims of violence in the future. We operate under the illusion that violence will end the violence, when in fact all it does is keep the cycle going.

Senator Obama, for political reasons I am sure, chose to distance himself from the obvious truth his pastor spoke. Perhaps it was because he truly disagreed with Rev. Wright’s statement, or maybe it was because he would rather continue in the cycle of violence, rather than grapple with the truth. In any case, his remarks are disappointing and regrettable because in my view Rev Wright was right.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why I hate to be called a “liberal”

Most people who hear my views on various issues (such as those expressed in this blog), refer to me as “liberal.” I have always bristled at being labeled with that term, just as I have refrained from using its opposite “conservative” when referring to those who disagree with me. While sometimes labels can serve to properly categorize people’s views, the words “liberal” and “conservative,” especially when applied to a person’s social or political (and even theological views), are often used as a way of dismissing a person’s perspective altogether because they are one of “them” and not one of “us.” I hate being considered one of “them,” and conversely, I am uncomfortable being allowed into the club of “us.”

This disdain for the conservative/liberal labeling was reinforced recently when I read William Bennett’s book, The Devaluing of America: The Fight for our Culture and Our Children. William Bennett was the drug czar in the Bush I administration and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Education Secretary under President Reagan. The blurb on the book’s back cover referred to him as “one of our leading conservatives.” I was interested in reading the book because since he was education secretary and even now, Bennett has been one of the leading opponents of multicultural education. I had read his Book of Virtues, and found it uplifting – a group of stories illustrating the basic human virtues necessary for civilized living - even so, I expected that Devaluing of America would stoke my ire.

However, what I found was surprising. I found that I agreed with William Bennett on many things, partially agreed on others, and vehemently disagreed on others. For instance, I was very impressed with the strong case he made for the idea that education does not simply impart knowledge, but also shapes character. His concern for the plight of the poor and impoverished was palpable, and his comprehensive approach to addressing the drug crisis in the U.S (law enforcement, interdiction of drugs, provision of treatment, education for prevention) was right on. On the issue of racism, I think he recognized the depth of the problem, but like many privileged, white Americans (of which I would also count myself), he failed to appreciate the social, psychological, and economic legacy of racism and the continuing effects centuries of slavery and institutional racism; his answer to racial problems was basically “get over it” and let’s be a color blind society. I don’t think it’s that simple. In education his concern that students learn and know the classics of Western Civilization is admirable, but in an increasingly diverse society a multicultural perspective is absolutely vital. His biggest blind spot in my view is the assumption that the culture of the US should not and can not change despite the fact that we are becoming increasingly diverse; he believes that all folks should assimilate to the basically European cultural framework and belief system bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, and that our culture should and can not expand to incorporate the views and beliefs of others.

However, “the culture wars,” as he calls this last issue, is the only thing William Bennett and I clearly and completely disagreed on. With the rest we were in varying degrees of agreement and disagreement, and he is a “conservative” and I am a “liberal.” Such labels become meaningless when you break it down. I believe William Bennett to be an intelligent, honorable and reasonable person, not the pariah that some folks might say he is. Had I accepted that characterization, I might not have read his book, and considered his views. It seems to me that this kind of meaningful dialogue has been largely lost in our social and political dialogue in part because of this tendency to label and therefore dismiss folks.

Unfortunately and paradoxically for me, Bennett does freely use the labels of “conservative” and “liberal" when referring to his friends and opponents. Now in part this is due to the fact that he served in government and wrote this book (1992) during the Reagan era when “liberal” and “conservative" bashing was rampant, as it is now. Furthermore, time has moderated some of his views; what seemed "conservative" 20 years ago is more mainstream today. Because of his labeling I almost didn’t get past the first chapter where he mercilessly criticizes the “liberal cultural elite” (particularly college professors) for their support of the Sandinistas in the mid 80’s, their opposition to Persian Gulf War I, and their criticism of his decisions to restrict funding on certain art projects when he was chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. He refers to this liberal cultural elite as “skeptical and mistrustful of American Society" …and “marked by alienation, suspicion and doubt.” He accuses them of rejecting “American ideals.” As one who opposed US policy in Nicaragua and who marched against the Persian Gulf War I, I would like to be given more credit than simply being skeptical and mistrustful. I would like to be thought of one who exercised the American ideal of free speech. I would like to have my ideas and concerns taken seriously. That is why I hate labels, and why continued to read Bill Bennett’s book despite those opening salvos, and I’m glad I did.

Depending on the issue I may be “conservative” (morals in education, family values, religion), “liberal” (immigration, gun control policy), moderate (drug policy) or downright radical (economic policy; the political system). If you can come up with a label for that, I’ll accept it. Otherwise, leave your labels at home, and let’s just talk and listen to each other.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Hope Vs. Realism

Today in church, the pastor was talking about hope, and I got to thinking about the current knock on Barack Obama’s message of hope. Hillary Clinton and John McCain attack Obama as simply having nice-sounding words with no substance. McCain and Clinton have a legitimate right to challenge Obama to speak specifically and concretely about his potential plans and policies. However, underneath their political jabs is the troubling and cynical assumption that there is no such think as hope, because one must be "realistic!" To the "realist," hope seems like a pipdream. Given this cynical attitude, it is no wonder Obama entitled his latest book The Audacity of Hope; to purveyors of American real politick Obama’s message is an affront.

Over the last couple of years I have been studying the life and work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who developed a method of literacy training that enabled thousands of illiterate campesinos to read in a matter of months. His methods were so successful that the Brazilian government imprisoned him for sedition, and eventually exiled him. The ruling elite didn’t trust someone who would teach folks how to read, because then those same folks were able figure out that their so-called leaders were working in ways that limited their opportunities and caused their suffering. Freire spent his 20 year exile traveling the globe sharing his message and educational philosophy. Late in life when the Brazilian government changed hands, he was allowed back into the country where he held a government post as Education Minister until his death in 1997.

Throughout much of his life Freire sought to raise the prospects of the poorest of the world’s poor by giving them one of the most valuable tools for advancing one’s station in life: the ability to read. His work came to light in the English speaking world with the English translation of his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970.Freire understood that what he was doing had political implications, and thus he taught his students to not only read the word, but also “read the world” and the forces that oppressed them. Through this process of consciouness raising, Freire's method empowered poor folks to challenge their oppressors and change their conditions.

Despite his personal struggles and the powerful opposition he faced, Paulo Freire was always known as a joyful man full of hope. Thus, it is fitting that one of his last writings was entitled Pedagogy of Hope, which was a retrospective on the working out of ideas expressed decades before in Pedagogy of Oppressed.

Denis Collins, one of Freire’s biographers, said of him,

“How is one to account for the optimism of Paulo Freire?… Freire’s life and work as an educator is optimistic in spite of poverty, imprisonment and exile…. On a planet where more than half the people go hungry every day because nations are incapable of feeding all their citizens, where we cannot agree that every being has a right to eat, Paulo Freire toils to help men and women overcome their sense of powerlessness to act on their own behalf” (Denis Collins, Paulo Freire: His Life, Works, and Thought).

Freire himself put it this way late in his life when he wrote: “Above all my difference lies in my critical, in no-way-na├»ve optimism and the hope that encourages me and that does not exist for the fatalistic” (Pedagogy of the Heart, p. 40). Fatalism and cynicism had no place in Freire’s life because he was too busy trying to be part of the solution to injustice rather than a cynical bystander.

Freire believed that the messenger of hope had a two fold purpose: denunciation and annunciation. The prophet denounces the systems, policies and persons that oppress and marginalize the poor and outcast, while announcing the possibility of a world where justice, freedom and opportunity are equally available to all. Like other messengers of hope such as ML King, Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, Freire's message was a threat to the folks in power because he not only challenged their place of privilege, but also the policies and actions that gave them that privilege. You see, cynicism always serves the purposes of those in power because it discourages people from seeking meaningful change.

Time will tell if Barack Obama is simply mouthing high sounding words or is a true messenger of hope. In no way do I place him in the same company as people like Freire, King, Gandhi or Chavez. At the same time I can not side with those who would regard hope as unrealistic. Perhaps I am a dreamer, but dreamers are ones who change the world from what it is to the world as it could and should be. Hope is not the opposite of “realism,” but rather the antidote to a fatalism that saps people of their drive and capacity to work for meaningful change.