More quotes

This time from Robert Brimlow’s What About Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World.

“The main difficulty in accepting the implications of our call to be peacemakers is our fear of death and dying, born of a weakness of faith.”

and:

“The gospel is clear and simple, and I know what the response to the Hitler question must be. And I desperately want to avoid this conclusion. … We must repay evil with good; and we must be peacemakers. This may also mean as a result that the evildoers will kill us. Then, we shall also die. That’s it. There is nothing else…. We are called to live the kingdom as he proclaimed it and be his disciples, come what may.”

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Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky…

As you’re probably aware, on this day 40 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Fewer people are aware of this speech he gave 41 years ago, today.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

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Support our troops?

This morning, my grandfather sent me an email “action alert” from the American Family Association urging protest of the recent Berkeley, California City Council resolution that declared the downtown Marine recruiting office “unwanted” and urged the recruiters to leave town. This article does not respond to that issue, but rather to the subject line of the email he forwarded from the AFA, which was “Support our troops”.

I have to admit being somewhat perplexed by the exhortation to “support our troops”. Whose troops are they? They certainly aren’t mine – I’m not sending them anywhere, and they don’t represent me or my thoughts. It seems to me that the designation “our troops” implies a kind of kinship between us and the troops that does not really exist. Certainly it is true that my (step)brother is among those who are being sent over there, but it is not on my behalf that he is being sent, just as it is not on my behalf that any of them has been sent.

This entire enterprise of war in foreign lands has very little to do with the protection and preservation of American values, but it has everything to do with protecting and preserving business interests that profit heavily from maintaining a forced subordinate status in certain nations around the world. The United States has done the same thing for over a century now in Latin America, and has long maintained an official policy that essentially says “if you have something we want, a resource we ‘need’, then as far as we’re concerned it belongs rightfully to us, not to you”. This is the only rational explanation for the military interventions in Hawai’i for pineapples; in Guatemala for bananas; in Iran for oil (with the deposition of a popular government in order to reinstate the Shah, a move on our part whose eventual consequence was the Islamic Revolution of 1979); in Iraq not only for oil but also to create a living experiment in extreme neoliberal free trade as an example (and warning) to the rest of the world that consumer corporate “democracies” will have what they want from the “developing nations”, and we can get it the easy way or the hard way.

This critique stands regardless of one’s religious persuasion, but it is much more pertinent for me as a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace and king of all creation who urged his followers not to retaliate when evil was done to them, but rather to turn the other cheek. The unanimous response of the early church to persecution was not to respond by fighting back for their own gain, even in defense of their own personal liberties, but rather to witness to those who tormented them by showing the same attitude of Christ – loving and forgiving their attackers in the hope that they would be transformed. They believed the cross of Christ is the hope for the transformation of all doers of violence and opponents of God. To suggest that the idea of premeditated war for the economic gain of certain sectors of society (the corporate management classes first, and then to a lesser extent the consuming classes – which is to say that yes, you and I likely are beneficiaries of the violence), which was sold as a preemptive (or preventative, depending on who you ask) war to ostensibly “protect our way of life against the terrorists” would never have even occurred to them as a valid option for Christians.

Even three centuries after Christ when the church went from being a persecuted minority to the triumphant majority with the imperial sanction they did not develop a theology of warfare that went so far – instead, Augustine’s formulation of Just War doctrine carried the day. It is important to note that even Just War doctrine does not actually justify war for self-defense, to say nothing of preemptive warfare. Therefore, even on the less-strict Christian stance on war than that of Jesus himself, the type of activities in which the U.S. military has engaged in Iraq cannot in any way be construed as representative either of me or of my Lord.

They are not “our” troops, they are troops under the command of people in the thrall of the American political/business system which “make[s] unjust laws. . . deprive[s] the poor of their rights, withhold[s] justice from the oppressed. . . [makes] widows their prey, and [robs] the fatherless” (see Isaiah 10:1-2 in the NIV). They are being asked to die for a cause that, in the words of Alisdair McIntyre, is rather like being asked to die for the telephone company. They are not my troops, they are my fellow-human-beings being manipulated and exploited in more ways than they realize, and rather than praying for success in their mission I simply pray for an end to war and for the desire of men and women to make war. I pray that guns would jam and bombs would fail to explode, and that soldiers on all sides would simply lay down their weapons and refuse to engage any longer in this silly business of war. I support people, not troops, and I support them as potential brothers and sisters in the new world that God is creating even in the midst of this world of bloodshed and hatred, a new world of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation who walk in the ways of God’s shalom.

Subverting the rhetoric of American empire

Brandon Rhodes has written an EXCELLENT article at Jesus Manifesto called “Severing the Rhetorical Roots of the Empire“. In it he lists some quotes, inviting followers of Jesus to creatively rewrite them to displace idolatry and blasphemy with subversive truth, just as Paul and other early Christian authors rhetorically usurped Caesar’s place of privilege and subordinated him to the risen Christ.

I’ll start with a few contemporary quotes that ought to be easier to start with, and then work back in history.

George W. Bush:

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

Bush #2:

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Bush #3:

“In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

Bush #4:

“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Thomas Paine:

“We have it within our power to begin the world over again.”

The U.S. Constitution:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I believe that if we are to speak prophetically to the political realities of our time we have to produce language that echoes and engages the foundational statements that form the core of the American’s political self-understanding. These blasphemous claims, rooted in the idolatry of the flag and national spirit, must be challenged with the truth that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the one who defeats evil and brings peace and justice, that Christ alone makes atonement and hallows the earth, and that Christ alone has recreated, is recreating, and will recreate the world.

I end this post with one of my own – the antecedent should be obvious.

I pledge allegiance to the cross, to the one who carried it and died upon it,
and to the reign of true peace and justice, the kingdom of God in the world,
one church under God, holy, catholic, and apostolic,
in the unbreakable bond of divine life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
with true freedom and perfect justice for all.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

This is one of King’s most important speeches and yet one of his most little-known. Delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, this speech provides a scathing denunciation of the practices of the American government on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam. King extends his methodology of nonviolent action to the nation-state, famously saying “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

We have institutionalized King, making him into an icon of the supposedly American ideals of freedom and justice and neglected to remember his enormously potent critique of America’s very failure to live up to those ideals. He has been turned into some kind of fuzzy saint and placed high in the pantheon of “America’s greatsTM,” a would-be tool for those whose violence he denounced. It is imperative that we drink deeply from King’s critique of the violence of American society and extend it to the present-day situation, to the actions and even very nature of corporations as well as nation-states and revolutionaries, exploring the ways violence breeds violence and a violent reaction destroys our humanity just as surely as does oppression. We must inhabit his vision for reconciliation through loving our enemies. The following story, taken from Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, demonstrates the depth and revolutionary power of King’s vision through the action of his comrades in the SCLC:

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the American South, a large crowd of black and white activists was standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing to pass the time. Suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and afterward he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. . . “Do you you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” The sheriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me, Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

And Jim Clark did change. Realizing he could not be reelected without the black vote, he began courting black voters and later confessed that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the vision had to include more than just improving the status of oppressed people – that it includes loving the oppressors and consistently applying the critique of violence to areas beyond our immediate sphere. As globalization increasingly brings us into the living rooms of people in Sri Lanka, China, and Bangladesh (and vice versa), we must become aware of our relationships with them, with the ways our affluent lifestyles do violence to them, and ways we can oppose violence and purveyors of violence while yet showing the love of Christ which transforms the most wretched sinners into beautiful saints.

May we, like Dr. King prays, know the world in which we live and how to be ministers of reconciliation, agents of the Kingdom of God within it.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

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An actual conversation I had the other day

Me: (sitting at a picnic table in the sun reading Dale Brown’s Biblical Pacifism)

He: Pacifist? You’re a pacifist? At a Christian music festival? (we were at Cornerstone)

Me: Yes, for the first 300 years of the church’s existence they were very nearly universally committed to nonviolence and opposed to Christians participating in the military.

He: How can you be a Christian and believe in peace?

I was so stunned I didn’t even really know how to reply. I mumbled something about being not of this world, owing allegiance to a higher kingdom than the nations of this world, but I was in such disbelief over the statement of this person who claims to be (and surely is in his own way) a follower of Jesus that my coherent thought process was quite interrupted.

I’ve seen a shift in the fest over the past few years, in the seminars especially but also in the attitudes of a number of festival-goers, away from individualism and into a longing for community; away from blind adherence to the principle of “whatever works for the Republican Party” to a more critical engagement of politics (or at least disillusionment with the Party); away from a mainstream “youth group” attitude into a deeper searching for the mystery of God and the intersection of the spiritual and our this-worldly existence. This conversation reminded me that, even though some paradigm shifts are occurring, we still have a long way to go in communicating the fact that the Gospel of Christ is the proclamation of shalom and freedom from the cycle of chaoskampf politics by which one group is constantly struggling for power over another, even as others resist that power – the fact that our faith is rooted in Genesis, where God creates the world out of primal goodness, not violence (as in Enuma Elish), and the restoration of God’s goodness through the resurrection power of Christ, and not only in Exodus which, while a powerful story of God’s liberation that is highly relevant in this time for those who are oppressed, is only a part of the story and not the whole.

I don’t have a lengthy argument here; I’m just going to let it rest at that for now. I’m going to be away from the Internet for about a month probably, I may or may not have access at times while I’m away but it’s unlikely. That won’t really change much for this blog since I’ve only posted a few times a month lately (and not at all in June), but now at least you know I have a reason for not posting much in July. I keep up the hope that at some point I’ll be able to commit more thoughts to writing here, but for now I bid you charis and shalom and pray that the God of peace will be with you over the coming weeks, especially as so many USAmericans celebrate what they misguidedly call “freedom” on Thursday.

Don’t forget, if you haven’t done it yet, to register for the Jesus Radicals conference in August! Nekeisha Alexis-Baker and I will be presenting the “Anarchism and Christianity: A Primer” session.

Shalom to you.

a summary of Christian anarchy

I posted this on an anarchist discussion group a short while ago, and thought it was worth sharing here.

I may be a bit of an oddball, because I actually came to my anarchist views through my religious studies.

I have written somewhat more about my views on my blog, https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com (though I’ve neglected it as of late – I need to do some writing), but here are some thoughts.

It is impossible to deny that the dominant function of religion in the history of human culture has been to maintain an oppressive status quo, whether that was through ancient Mesopotamian myths re-enacted in festivals that placed the king in the guise of the creator god, through the abuses of the Jewish Temples that led to the critiques of prophets like Amos and Isaiah and then later of Jesus, in the Roman imperial cult that solidified the Emperor’s status as god-king who maintained order through the use of his Legions, through Islamic conquests, through the conquests of people like Charlemagne, through the alliance of pope and kings in the Medieval period to entrench the feudal system, Luther and Calvin’s use of civic authority to crush their religious opponents, the Protestant work ethic in America that justified poverty as the fault of the poor, religion as criticized by Marx and many of the classical anarchists, and the Religious Right today.

But is this the necessary function of religion? While the common modern perception of Christianity is that it’s a “pie in the sky when you die” arrangement, that leaves this life to the oppressors and sterilizes resistance from the faithful ranks, this picture of Christianity is neither congruent with its origins in the context of the Roman empire nor with the practices of a number of people throughout history who have claimed Christian inspiration for their subversive practices – often meeting with wrath from the state and, as Christianity as a whole became more aligned with the powers, from within the ranks of the church.

While I could cite a number of radicals such as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Oscar Romero, Dom Helder Camara, David Lipscomb, numerous Anabaptists, and others, instead perhaps it will be more illustrative to talk about the Bible itself, which if taken in context might be among the most politically subversive anthologies of literature ever collected.

Rene Girard argued that the Bible is unique in that, unlike the foundational texts from other ancient societies, the Biblical stories tend to tell the story from the position of those who are suffering and oppressed, rather than the oppressors and doers of violence (while the stories related to the conquest of Canaan provide prima facie difficulties for this reading, at most they seem to be exceptions, not the rule). God is a liberating figure who desires justice and requires the construction of a society much different than anything else that existed in the ancient near east, challenging the status quo more than upholding it. In particular throughout the Old Testament is a voice OT scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “the prophetic imagination” in a book of the same title.

The main point of the book is that the Biblical texts reflect the perspective of communities struggling from within the confines of an empire that sought to totalize the whole of life, to consume the reality of Israel (and later the church) within its dominant story of reality as it pertains to legitimating the power of the official kingly worldview. The texts reflect their efforts to capture among them a sense of a world fueled by an alternative imagination, that of Israel as the covenant people of God according to a worldview focused on the love and justice of that God embodied in their community practice. He also takes steps in some places to relate this analysis to our life today in Western society, discussing how the sense of this prophetic imagination can fuel our countercultural communal practice (which is, after all, what the church should be) in the face of this monolithic McWorld (Benjamin Barber’s term, not Brueggeman’s) empire of global technopolistic consumerist USAmerican culture.

Bruggemann states that the task of empire (what he terms the “royal consciousness”) is to eliminate a sense of past and future, encompassing all the reality that matters into an eternal now. No past is imaginable that did not contribute to the now, and no future can be envisioned that does not spring from it. The task of the prophetic community, then, is to present a radically different imagination, the imagination of God, rooted in symbols from the larger community’s past and animated by the hope of a future that is brought about not by the continuance of the oppressive machinations of the royal regime but rather by the decisive acts of God (such as the New Exodus themes found in Isaiah 40-66 where Isaiah uses Exodus imagery to describe the return from exile and coming of the Messiah) so that the people are freed from the imperial imagination into the vision of God – a vision of peace and justice based on liberation, not coercion (see also https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/prophetic )

Jesus embodied a countercultural existence with pretty much his every act and word. This is getting kinda long, so I won’t go into great detail, but the early church clearly portrayed him as the antithesis of Caesar and as victorious over Caesar – not through violence, but by “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). In fact, in the passage from which that statement is drawn, Paul makes a number of explicit parallels between Christ an Caesar’s propaganda, the purpose of which was to show that Caesar is at best a pretender to authority and that his violence has been defeated by the one over whom it appeared he had victory – Jesus the crucified one, executed as a rebel against the state. And just as Jesus is presented as the anticaesar, the church is in a very real way presented as the antirome. Instead of having relations based on exploitation and the collection of power through the heirarchy of society, the New Testament prescribes radical equality and sharing citing the words and deeds of Jesus as an example, and the Resurrection as proof that the way of peace ultimately defeats the violence of the authorities of the world.

Or, as I’ve written elsewhere (https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/anarchy ) perhaps one could frame the Resurrection in the light of God committing an act of civil disobedience: the governing powers said to Jesus, “Die!” but God said, “Live!” And the church exists to live out in this world the implications of that disobedience.

It is my belief that modern anarchist theories are potent ways to express a concern for radical equality and liberty that is congruent with the implications of the life of Jesus and the practices of the early church as recorded in the New Testament, congruous with the general trajectory of ideal social practice throughout the whole Bible. It seems to me that the violence of Rome, opposed by the early church, and the violence of today’s empire of global capitalism (and the relationship between nation-states and corporations) have much in common.

Now, the whole Bible is very complex and contains many diverse viewpoints expressed by various forms of narrative and poetry, so there is plenty of room for disagreement and discussion, but if the contrasting relationship between the peaceful Genesis creation story, which establishes humans as co-equals and as in relation with God and creation, and the violent Babylonian Enuma Elish, which legitimates the conquests of the king and the lowly status of peasants (and particularly women) within the Babylonian social order, sets the tone for the whole canon that follows then it seems that ideas of equality and justice are central to the overall Biblical story (for more on Genesis and Enuma Elish, as well as other thoughts on Genesis, equality, and anarchy, see https://propheticheretic.wordpress.com/tag/genesis/ ).