Saturday, January 30, 2010

Howard Zinn: A Legacy of a Journey Unfinished

Howard Zinn died this week. While his death did not generate headline status, his legacy - that of telling the stories of common people who changed a nation - daily pulses on the front pages of American newspapers large and small, digital and print, that chronicle the struggles of a country in cultural upheaval. It is a legacy yet straining toward a distant finish line, halting and paradoxical, inching forward despite hurricane-force corporate headwinds generated by powerful and wealthy elites.

While Zinn's rise from a modest background to World War II bomber pilot to Civil Rights activist to world-acclaimed historian spanned most of the 20th century, his contribution to the American narrative found expression with the 1980 publication of A People's History of the United States, a volume that changed the telling of history. Prior to Zinn's People's History, the story of America as told in the nation's classrooms was from the perspective of political and wealthy white elites, past and present.

Departing from the status quo of sanitized public history, Zinn offered a bold - and radical - new look at the American story through the eyes and lives of working people, the disenfranchised, and overlooked minorities. Controversial to this day due to its examination of the long-ignored dark underside of American heroes (Thomas Jefferson the salveholder, or Andrew Jackson's harsh campaign to remove Native Americans, for example), A People's History (undergoing numerous editions since 1980) nonetheless transformed history classrooms by summoning the voices of minorities and common folk to tell their version of U.S. history.

Ironically, Zinn's public call to remember history from a common-folk and minority perspective began even as American politics entered into what became a three-decade effort to position history more firmly into the domain of powerful elites at the expense of everyone else. With a wink at working families and religious conservatives, the affable Ronald Reagan and his Republican allies began to systematically redistribute wealth from the pocketbooks of the poor to the already-bulging bank accounts of the richest of the rich. Remarkably, the victims of Reaganomics smiled and praised the "great communicator" as he talked of tax cuts for the poor and middle class (while in reality cutting the taxes of the richest of Americans and enacting the largest tax increase in American history in order to finance his redistribution of wealth) and restoration of America's moral, "Christian" heritage (while his promises of "restoring prayer" in public schools and anti-abortion rhetoric prompted the formation of the Religious Right and brought about the marriage of religious conservatives and the Republican Party, he never delivered on his words).

Thirty years later, the ideological warfare between elites and common folk rages unabated. Under George W. Bush, the redistribution of wealth to the rich reached historical proportions, with the 400 richest Americans worth more than the 150,000,000 million poorest (that's almost half the U.S. population, and here is a perspective on the numbers). The disparity is now so great that the United States is the equivalent of a Third World (undeveloped) nation in regards to the nation's wealth gap. Yet many poor and middle class religious conservatives continue defending wealth redistribution to the rich, convinced that the Republican Party is their friend, and that their freedom is somehow tied to tax cuts for the rich and a government subservient to big corporations (further evidenced in the recent Supreme Court campaign finance decision revoking a century of precedents in allowing corporations to usurp the voice of American citizens in matters of politics).

Thus, Zinn's unfinished legacy is more critical than ever as America of the 21st century is in ever-greater danger of succumbing to a religiously-yoked devotion to rule by the rich through capitalism unfettered. The irony of Zinn's legacy at this moment is that many members of the poor and middle class whom the historian long championed yet remain prostrated before the narrative of the powerful and wealthy elites (and their big corporations) that Zinn spent his life battling. The final chapter of Zinn's legacy, however, will not fully unfold until mid-century, at which time today's ethnic minorities will be the national majority.

While few Baptists have noticed the passing of Howard Zinn, we of all people would do well to remember the lessons of our own past as a persecuted and hated religious minority during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although white fundamentalists demonize the diversity that characterizes Baptists today, our diversity - theological, ethnic, political, cultural, social, global - is our strength and the key to our future. The public voices of Baptists in America in 2050 will not be white, male, Republican, capitalistic-demagoguing, fundamentalists like Al Mohler and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather, they will be the voices of ethnic, gender, political, economic and theological diversity already present in today's Baptist World Alliance. And somewhere buried within will be the still-pulsating legacy of Howard Zinn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Theology Amidst the Rubble (of Earthquakes and Human Minds)

The New York Times on Monday ran a feature story about the devastation on one particular street, Avenue Poupelard, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. The documentary provides a snapshot of life in Haiti's largest city following the earthquake, a narrative of human suffering, survival, perseverance, creativity, and halting attempts to re-image the future.

There is an evangelical church on Avenue Poupelard - at least, there was a church. Prior to the earthquake, Pastor Enso Sylvert preached to hundreds of worshipers, crowds so large that many stood on the sidewalk outside the church doors, straining to hear his sermons. Now, according to the Times, Sylvert preaches outdoors within a makeshift camp of homeless neighborhood residents adjacent to the church grounds, and he is as zealous as ever, preaching that "our only hope lies with God."

Yet not all the homeless on Avenue Poupeland apparently share that sentiment. Within the camp, according to one resident, "We are trying to stay on friendly terms, but sometimes there are disputes." And what are those disputes? Food, water, clothing, or perhaps shelter? No. Rather, as the Times writer summarizes, "a theological debate about exactly what God was trying to say when he shook Haiti to its core."

At the time of one of the greatest natural disasters and human sufferings of recent decades, in the midst of a lack of the basic necessities required to sustain human life - theology divides the victims.

Some preachers, whether it be Sylvert standing atop the rubble of the Haiti earthquake or Pat Robertson speaking from atop the throne of his television empire, know and declare the mind of God, passing it along to lesser mortals. Meanwhile, among persons in the pews and streets, and even amidst calamitous ruins, God's mind is much less certain.

"Why can't we all just get along?"
said Rodney King, an African-American beaten by white police offers in Los Angeles in 1991. It's as good a question as any that gets to the heart of an unresolvable human problem: theology.

Ultimately, God is what humans say God is. Despite religious fundamentalists' claims to the textual perfection of their respective holy books (whether it be imaginary original autographs of a particular Christian canon, the preserved text of the 7th century Islamic scriptures penned from Mohammad's visions, the translated text of Joseph Smith's visions in the early 19th century, etc.) that forever settle questions about God, all religious expressions - from the most conservative to the most liberal - in reality place their respective faiths in a mental vision of who God is and an interpretation of what God does and says.

In short, apart from the human mind, there is no theology ("God-talk"). Absent theology, there is no God. God exists because we talk about God (or, if you wish, since we talk about God, God exists). If this sounds outrageous, consider that if no one in human history had ever thought or said anything about God (whether singular or plural), religion would not exist. Majestic mountains, fertile valleys and teeming wildlife on planet earth (not to mention the incomprehensible breadth and scope and diversity of the universe) may reflect the imaginative and unsurpassed power of a Creator who exists beyond time and space, but the frail and fickle human mind is the prism through which the Creator is imaged as God.

And so we return to the ruins of Avenue Poupelard in Haiti. Amidst the rubble, theology divides. Minds grasp for God, shaping and re-shaping God as personal circumstances, desires and environment warrant. God is who we say God is. And we too often choose a God who reflects the rumbling discontent of our own minds. Therein lies the danger of crusaders - preachers, priests, prophets, politicians, pundits and even pew-sitters - who devote their energies to conquering all Gods who exist apart from their own respective minds.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

From Iraq to Haiti: Jesus the Terminator

Jesus must no longer recognize himself.

By now the world knows that the Bush administration turned to a militant Christian fundamentalist -- Erik Prince, the son of a major bank-roller of the right-wing Family Research Council and Focus on the Family -- for private security operations in Iraq. Prince viewed his private military firm, Blackwater, as doing the work of Christ in killing Iraqies. These modern Christian crusades must be understood in the context of the fundamentalist belief that Christ will very soon return in military triumph in the Middle East, an Armageddon for which Prince seemingly understood himself as blazing the way.

But there is more. This week another story of militant crusading Christians broke into the mainstream news: a military contractor claims that their mission is "spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ." A Michigan-based company, Trijicon, has long supplied high-powered rifle sights to the U.S. military, sights inscribed with Bible verses. Although Trijicon's actions have been known for years, until now the government has ignored this violation of church and state. The verses about Jesus, describing him as the light of the world and extolling his love, encourage U.S. service members to kill the enemy, transforming warfare into a "spiritual" mission.

For those who wish to understand why some followers of Christ believe they are called to kill and even murder fellow human beings in the name of Christ, the backstory leads (at least in part) to the Council for National Policy, a politically-influential behind-the-scenes organization comprised of well-known and powerful social conservatives, who for years have been trying to maneuver the United States down the road to Armageddon. Members of the CNP are convinced the end of the world is predestined, with a theocratic-America playing a special role in ushering in the world war to end all wars. Founded by Baptist pastor Tim LaHaye (author of the apocalyptic Left Behind book series based on a particular interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation) and bankrolled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon (founder of the Unification Church and self-declared second incarnation of Christ), members include/have included virtually all of the elite of the far right-wing movement in America, such as: James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich, Edwin J. Feulner Jr (Heritage Foundation), Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Senator Trent Lott, Senator Don Nickles, former United States Attornies General Ed Meese and John Ashcroft, gun-rights activist Larry Pratt, Col. Oliver North, and philanthropist Else Prince (mother of the afore-mentioned Erik Prince).

Place these militant, crusading fundamentalist agendas against the backdrop of the current tragedy in Haiti. Council for National Policy member Pat Robertson blamed the earthquake-produced humanitarian disaster on Haiti being allied with Satan (a remark that refers to the historical presence of voodoo practices within Haiti, and that is merely the latest in a string of such Jesus-hates-you statements from Robertson and, before his death, Jerry Falwell). This week another Baptist pastor chimed in to echo Robertson.

Despite Robertson's dismissal of Haiti as a land of Satan-worshipers, many Haitians are Christians, and many earthquake survivors are relying on their faith (and here) to sustain them at a time of death, destruction and chaos. Yet amidst the narratives of Robertson's God of hate; the Terminator Jesus of military contractor Trijicon and Erik Prince's Blackwater; the easily-manipulated God of the Council For National Policy; and (conversely) the never-say-die faith of some Haitians on the scale of an Old Testament saga -- is a gaping, haunting, horrendous reminder that we live in a broken world that at any moment is only seconds away from unimaginable human death and suffering on a vast scale, and ever in need of a love and hope that transcends the brokenness.

While a camouflaged, militant 21st century Jesus may roam in the minds, hearts, corporate boardrooms, churches, and foxholes of many Christian fundamentalists who project their Christ's anger and hatred upon their present (ethnic, national, doctrinal, etc.) enemy, the biblical Jesus quietly offers his presence of love, hope and grace to all who suffer and hurt.

NOTE: Donations to the Haiti relief and recovery efforts can be made through the Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, among other organizations.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Scope of God: Boxed Up, Armed to the Teeth, or Far Out?

Theology is by definition deity-talk, and lots of deity believers (Christians or otherwise) are pretty well convinced they have a lock on who God/god/gods is/are. Not surprisingly, however, God/god/gods identity(s) is/are quite confusing in religious circles, much less from the perspective of outsiders.

Within the Christian world, myth-maker David Barton has reconstructed history and God to make the Creator an American deity who crafted America as his very own special nation. Barton and his followers are now intent on forcing Texas to teach their version of God in Texas public schools, a step along the way to creating a theocracy in America.

Among monotheists alone, many religious versions of God are quite bloody. In an earlier era, colonial theocracies in America persecuted and killed secularists and Christian dissenters (including Baptists). Later, many American white Christians worshiped a God who had chosen white people over black people - and they were willing to kill fellow Christians and others who refused to accept their racially-divisive God and his divinely sanctioned racially-structured society; the killings continued into the 1960s as some white Christians turned to terrorism to prevent racial integration. Today, some American Christians believe the war in Iraq was mandated by God. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics have long waged deadly warfare against one another. In the Islamic world, some Muslims worship a God who demands that his followers kill "infidels." And the bloody warfare between Jews and Arabs may never end, as each side claims the will of God in killing the other. Other examples could be offered from the world of polytheists/etc., but the listing above is representative of theologies that incorporate holy killing.

So just who is/are God/god/gods and what is/are God/god/gods really about? While the Bartons of the world carry God around in a box of their own making, and many God/god/gods believers express their faith through machine guns, grenades and bombs (of the home-made or industrial variety), many others find peace and harmony within the same religious traditions that too often breed violence and murder. Religious insiders turn to various formulas to try and explain the hate vs. peace elements of their own religion, and some contemporary outside observers have offered detached answers, including Robert Wright in his fascinating volume, The Evolution of God.

And yet all of this divergent God/god/gods talk and too-often-deadly God/god/gods action tends to focus on the human level of existence. But is there a more universal (literally) scope to the God/god/gods equation?

In very recent years, astronomers have come to realize that there are large numbers of planets in the universe. Today's planet count is 424, but within a decade it may well be in the tens of thousands (or more), as our scientific planet-hunting technologies mushroom. It is a matter of years, maybe even months, until astronomers identify an "earthlike" planet. Scientists have already determined that the conditions for life exist in other places in the universe; the question for 2010 is, "when (not if) will other intelligent life be found" on an earthlike planet? That is, more and more scientists are convinced that in an infinite universe inhabited by many planets, other intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So what will happen to God/god/gods talk when other intelligent life is discovered? What theologies will be able to accommodate such a discovery, and what theologies will be most threatened? How will God/god/gods be redefined and reshaped? How will our religious history be rewritten?

And perhaps even more interestingly: how will religious beings (if there are any) existing among other intelligent life be forced to rethink their images and definitions of God/god/gods? Or are they already aware of us, and wonder why we do the things we do in the name of our God/god/gods? For that matter, do they kill one another in pursuit of and devotion to their God/god/gods?

While the discovery of other intelligent life will change the thinking and course of humanity on a vast scale broad and deep, to religious thinkers will fall the debate over whether to craft a narrative of an earth-centric God/god/gods or a more universal deity or deities and a somewhat-displaced earth. Although this task may seem distant and far-fetched to many, the Catholic Church is already addressing it. In addition, the David Barton's of today's planet earth may offer some insight into how religious earthlings will one day be forced to reshape earthly religious foundations. And one might dare hope that discovery of other intelligent life will nudge humankind to abandon violent expressions of religious faith.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tea Parties and Obama Effigy in Jimmy Carter's Hometown of Plains, GA

Early Saturday morning an effigy of President Obama was found hanging on a storefront, in front of a large Jimmy Carter sign, in Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia. Watch this video: the store owner says it is "not a story" and refuses to talk; only black citizens seem willing to talk.

That this cowardly event took place in Carter's hometown is evidence that racism in America, and politics, is far from over.

On July 4, 2009, some 400 persons attended an anti-government, anti-Obama Tea Party rally held in Plains (photos). Among the sponsors was FreedomWorks, a conservative political organization devoted to small government and unfettered capitalism, and who promotes the Tea Party movement on racist online forums (whether this is done by FreedomWorks members or paid staffers is unclear; be aware that the forums link contains some graphic language, but also note the enthusiasm of racists for the Tea Party). The money trail reveals that FreedomWorks is the joint intertwining of radical Republicans, anti-government forces, racists, and certain big corporations.

Speakers at the Tea Party rally in Plains included an attorney speaking against separation of church and state, and Baptist pastor James Brown from Barnesville who spoke on behalf of states-right, Baptist, candidate-for-governor Ray McBerry. McBerry is the Georgia Chapter Chairman of the League of the South, a racist, southern nationalist organization. Brown (who in October started a small, strict Calvinist church comprised of two families with lots of kids) is also a member of the League of the South, as well as the racist-affiliated neo-confederate organization Sons of Confederate Veterans, and is the author of the Southern Resurgence blog and the Baptist Vision Web site.

In other words, back in July, the good - probably mostly church-going - white folks who turned out for the Plains Tea Party (note that while Plains is 60% African-American, the Plains Tea Party photos above are only of whites) got a good dose of southern racism (inferred or spoken, or perhaps both) from preacher and politician alike. In addition, here's the kind of anti-Obama posters that have appeared at Georgia Tea Parties such as the one in Plains.

Consider the July event in the context of this statement from Dr. Anthony Samad, an associate professor of African American studies at East Los Angeles College: "I think there's this notion that we're in a post-racial period in America because of the election of the first African American president. However, this president has received more death threats than any other president in the history of America."