Religion isn’t worshiping what the prophets did,
but doing what the prophets worshiped
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D.*
New England Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action
March 12, 2005
I’m delighted to be here with you Methodists again after all these years. It was in 1973, as some of you recall, when the Southern New England Conference forcibly retired me after I performed the marriage of dear Harry Freeman and Bob Jones at Old West Church in Boston. Certain of my precious roots are here with you—roots that continue to affirm and nourish who I am as a human being and a minister. You remain an important part of my life.
As all of you know, key social justice and action issues are controversial, and, if really addressed, can lead to conflict in a congregation—and to complaints to a minister’s "superiors in office." The result can be a minister developing a reputation for being "controversial" or a "trouble-maker," and possibly being sentenced, I believe you still call it appointed, elsewhere—certainly not to an affluent and influential church.
I believe, for ministers, it is your hierarchical structure, with its power over your appointments and advancements, that helps to keep your conscience and determines your social action agenda—and I will address that in more detail later. A similar fate can befall an activist layperson, who may become disenchanted by a congregation’s need to "keep the peace at any price," and go where the social action is.
I’m fascinated by the power structures in local churches; how certain men and women are attracted to positions of authority in the local church, and use them to create their own little fiefdom. It often is not about caring but about control. Not about empowering people but about power.
This is not to overlook a minister or layperson using social action concerns to act out his or her own unresolved issues. We have to know where we are coming from, so that we don’t get in our own way in knowing where other people are at. We need to understand
our own inner reality if we are going to experience rather than interpret the reality of other persons. Here is the need to see people as we are not as they are.
Similarly, one may select safe non-threatening social justice issues to address. One may not rock the boat for fear one’s own ship won’t come in. It is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics—out of controversial political issues. We social justice persons appear to face a key reality: social action issues often create tension and controversy in a congregation, and in a community, and in a Conference and thus may be discouraged, or those involved advised to "tone it down."
The dynamic of "peace at any price," of keeping it "toned down" would appear to help explain why out of over 500 churches in the New England Conference only a ½ dozen or so have a social action committee; whereas I bet you need more than two hands and two feet to count the number of churches that have membership and evangelism committees. And it would seem that this emphasis is being reinforced by your new bishop.
An Oct. 9, 2004 Boston Globe profile of Bishop Peter Weaver states, "At a time when his and other mainline denominations are losing members and wrestling with tight finances, Weaver is banking on PDF’s, public displays of faith, through vibrant congregations and their service to communities to help him open more churches. . . . Weaver . . . believes that if the church excites its members by living its faith, the problem of declining membership, and its attendant financial squeeze, will right itself. The story doesn’t explain what "living its faith" means.
The profile’s story line is actually about membership and evangelism; it continues: the bishop’s "former assignment, the Philadelphia area conference, added 30 new congregations in recent years. . . . He also cited the Pittsburgh-area churches he served—one poor, one affluent—where membership and budget grew after the congregations joined together for prayer and fellowship. He is quoted as saying, "All the polls say there’s tremendous spiritual hunger in this society." The "spiritual hunger" appears to be about membership not morality, about evangelism not equality, about building Methodism not human community.
Earlier in the Boston Globe profile, Bishop Weaver "proudly cites" another poll: the Gallup poll, which found "George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton were the most admired man and woman in America last year. Both Methodists, they talk about how their religious faith molds their lives and politics." Bishop Weaver "proudly cites Gallup’s findings to honor the president and the former first lady for their testimony of faith. That faith, he says, can put people ‘in touch with the presence of God through Jesus Christ, which in my own personal experience is transforming.’" "Transforming" is not defined here.
was "transforming" Fallujah into rubble. Bush’s "testimony of faith" was putting the residents of Fallujah—women and children and other civilians—not in "touch with the presence of God through Jesus Christ," but in touch with the presence of death through American bombs and missiles and napalm—a violation of Geneva Conventions that is already judged by much of the world to be a war crime—as, I believe, will "the Methodist and the most admired man in America" be judged an international war criminal in time, for his administration’s falsely motivated, unnecessary, costly, preemptive war against Iraq.
I’m seeking to lay the groundwork for today’s focus: I believe that clarifying and claiming progressive values involve being aware of the forces that influence our selection of the values we develop clarity about and address. My aim is not to list specific social justice issues; though my own priorities are obvious. My aim is to help us think through why we choose certain issues to claim and proclaim, and why we avoid other issues. This process would seem to put the horse in front of the cart where she should be.
What then influences the values we choose and how we claim and address them? I believe a number of influences may help to determine our social action. Some influences we may be oblivious to, and some we may be aware of but the risk involved could lead to settling for "peace at any price" or for "toning it down." I want to share three influences that, I believe, help to determine the nature and extent of our social action.
The social justice issues we choose to address are determined partly by our personal religious beliefs. I would like us first to examine our own beliefs and how they help to influence the social justice issues we embrace and don’t embrace. To help in our thinking through here I am going to share some of my analysis and findings contained in my Jan. 1/2 CounterPunch article, "On Moral Values: Code Words for Emerging Authoritarian Tendencies in Americans." This article evidently helped lead your MFSA planning committee to invite me here today. As you know, the Biblically-based, so-called "moral values" of Evangelical Christians helped to elect President Bush to a second term, and have provoked much thinking about the meaning and importance of "moral values."
Suddenly, everybody wants a piece of the "moral values" action—as if they were "moral." For example, the belief that President Bush’s "moral values" helped him to win re-election has led certain political and theological pundits to conclude that the Democrats must "get religion" and bridge the "God gap" if they are to regain the
presidency. The Democrats have been told to get a grip on God and morality and, like the Republicans, let their light of faith shine for all religiously-motivated voters to see if
they are ever to achieve a political resurrection. Those who interpret the presidential election in these terms appear to miss a critical point: we may not be witnessing the ascendancy of "moral values" in America but the rise of authoritarian tendencies in Americans.
An e-mail from a man in New Hampshire in response to my CounterPunch article gets at the point: "I’m petrified," he writes, "that our country is being unduly influenced by evangelical Christian dogma as exemplified by George W. Bush. As you point out, it is readily apparent that much of organized religion is determined to disenfranchise large numbers of our citizens that belong to so-called ‘out-groups.’ I wish that the Democratic Party in this country would not be so afraid of being labeled liberal. In my opinion, they need to move farther to the left and re-establish themselves as a counter-option to the Republicans, not republican light . . . It is counter-productive for Democrats to try to project the image of out warring the war party. They need to get back to being the party of helping other people. A party of compassion. I truly believe that there are still a lot of Americans who would welcome a move away from a perpetual war footing."
I want us to examine our personal religious beliefs because of how they influence our perception of and response to other persons and related social action or inaction.
--"Desire for a strong leader" [italics added] resulting in "submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the in-group" (Ibid,. pp 231, 228);
--"Cultural narrowness" [italics added] seen in rigid acceptance of the conventional middle-class values of "the culturally ‘alike’" and the tendency to
reject and punish "the culturally ‘unlike’ . . . who violate conventional values. Ibid, pp 102, 228);
--Unreflective ethnocentric patriotic conformity, rooted in the belief that one’s own nation is superior and should rightly dominate and that other nations are inferior and threatening out-groups (Ibid, pp 107-109);
--Negative stereotyped perceptions of the members of the "unlike" out-groups (Ibid, pp 228, 235, 236) rather than seeing them as individuals who also laugh and cry and love and hate; or the Holocaust victims, who, in the words of Joseph Berger, "lived, laughed, cursed, fought, who did the things human beings do." ("At Holocaust Museum, Turning a Number into a Name," The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2004);
--Aggression, involving "the ethnocentric need for an out-group" who represents "the intrinsic evil (aggressiveness, laziness, power-seeking, etc.) of human nature . . . [that] is unchangeable [and] must be attacked, stamped out, or segregated, wherever it is found, lest I contaminate the good." (Ibid, pages 232-234, 148).
If these characteristics of the individual with authoritarian personality tendencies sound familiar, there is more.
Fast forward to a nationwide study of attitudes toward Muslim Americans conducted by Cornell University and publicized last December. The study revealed that "nearly half of all Americans surveyed said they think the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans." The survey "also found that Republicans and people
who describe themselves as highly religious were more apt to support curtailing liberties than Democrats or people who are less religious" [italics added]—similar to the finding of the authoritarian personality study over 50 years ago.
communications professor and organizer of the survey, "We need to explore why these two important channels of discourse may nurture fear rather than understanding." ("44% in poll OK limits on rights of Muslims," by William Kates, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Dec. 18, 2004)
These studies reveal the very opposite findings of what one would expect, and would seem to have challenging implications for social action. They may help explain why out of 500 Conference churches only 1/2 dozen or so have social action committees. Here social action is heavy on "services to humanity" and light on addressing the causes of problems that create the need for "services to humanity."
Why is it that churchgoing believers are found to be more prejudiced that nonbelievers? Less accepting? Less democratic than nonreligious people? I think it is in the nature of the belief of many Christian churchgoers. I believe that the central belief of many Christians is inherently authoritarian: the belief that Jesus Christ is the only Son and highest revelation of God and the one and only saviour of the world. "I am the way , and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me." (John 14:6) "The true light that enlightens every man . . ." (John 1:19) etc., etc., etc.—which I call "Christocentrism." "The mission of the Church . . . to make disciples of Jesus Christ" with the affirmation "that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world and the Lord of all," so states The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church-- which seems to want it both ways in then stating, "As we make disciples, we respect persons of all religious faiths and we defend religious freedom for all persons." (p. 87) Code words to cushion the "Christocentrism."
sets the psychic stage for evangelizing and domination "in Jesus name," or in the name of "freedom." A super religion displaying tendencies similar to Hitler’s super race with its fascist ideology of superiority.
A faith-based President Bush says "Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world"—a new "crusade" except disguised by acceptable words. Substitute "Christ" for "freedom" and you see the underlying missionary zeal and evangelizing dynamic of domination at work—you see John 3:16:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Scott Campbell refers to a bigger, more unconditionally loving God in his March/April 2005 Zion’s Herald piece on the tsunami relief work of Christians:
This is not a time to seek the conversion of victims. This is simply a time to respond from the depths of our hearts to those whose lives have been devastated. The God we worship will be far better served by those who minister in love and integrity than by attempts to win converts in an hour of desperate need. Sometimes God calls us to simple Christian decency.
Ironically, the "moral values" that helped to re-elect President Bush were directed against people’s rights not for them. They deny the constitutional right of "the pursuit of happiness" to gay and lesbian persons. They intend also to impose their pro-life will on other people that would deny their freedom to determine their own reproductive health. They are not really pro-life, but pro-heterosexual life. Or pro-heterosexual-American- life. Or pro-heterosexual-white-American life.
it because it guarantees not only their freedom of belief and practice, but presupposes the legitimacy of the independent thought and belief and values others live by. So they seek
to use the freedom guaranteed by democracy to deny freedom to members of a perceived morally unfit out-group. The political process provides them with a "democratic" way to gain power over gay and pro-choice persons, and not to respect their beliefs and equal right to access and empowerment.
"Moral Values," therefore, did not propel President Bush to victory but hatred of other human beings—"the culturally unlike" gay and lesbian persons especially who defy conventional values. The Republicans made sure constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage were on the ballot in 11 states; and all easily passed, with Bush winning 9 of the 11 states. Afterwards, Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, reportedly said "that opposition to gay marriage was one of the most powerful forces in American politics today and that politicians ignored it at their peril." (" ‘Moral Values’ Carried Bush, Rove Says," by Adam Najourney, The New York Times, Nov. 16, 2004).
I believe the social action issue here is not about the protection of traditional marriage and "the preservation of the family" but about the inclusion and honoring of all members of the family born in those traditional marriages. It is not an issue involving a majority’s right to be heard and to vote but a minority’s full right to be seen: the "self-evident truth" of a minority’s constitutional and divinely "endowed right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Reacting with dismay to the flurry of amendments banning same-sex marriage, an Episcopal mother of a married lesbian daughter emphasized matter-of-factly, "It’s (same-sex marriage) about love!" When a minister or politician or another person with "moral values" discovers his or her son or daughter is gay or lesbian, there is often the painful
but deepening discovery that "it’s about love." It would seem that more personalizing and less theologizing about homosexuality is needed.
What would certain Christians do without their code words to cover their anti-democratic tendencies? The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church offers some classic code words: "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment [italics added], as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self." And without a but, the passage continues, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." (p. 101)
"All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment"?—tell that to Rev. Irene Stroud and all the people who love her. How many United Methodist ministers and members are finding their own denomination the biggest obstacle in "their struggles for human fulfillment"?
The Book of Discipline continues: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. . . . We implore families and churches not to reject [italics added] or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends" (p. 197). However "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." (p.241) How rejecting can you be? Don’t do as we do; do as we say. Any religion worth its salt should not be about maintaining closets but opening doors and creating equal space.
Still United Methodism’s "Social Creed" contains much of value for social action, like: "We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom to all people in the world." (p. 127) This is heavy social action stuff; so watch out for the code words.
Code words are the way by which leaders in religion and government camouflage the contradiction between what they profess and what they practice. Code words provide an important service for all concerned: they allow people to rationalize the contradictions between belief and practice—and thereby avoid dealing with the issues that allow the contradictions to exist and continue. Code words may be called forked tongue theology.
Such spiritual rejection, masquerading as "Christ’s ministry of outreaching love" (Book of Discipline, p.89) contributes to society’s continuing rejection of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender persons. A month ago I received an e-mail regarding the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notifying the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) that the Administration’s director, "Charles
Curie, would not be allowed to attend a Suicide Prevention Resource Center conference on suicide prevention if conference organizers went forward with a workshop title that included the words ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ and ‘transgender.’ The conference [was] scheduled to take place in Portland, Oregon, Feb. 28-March 2."
The original title of the workshop was "Suicide Prevention Among Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender Individuals." Those planning the workshop were required to come up with "alternative wording for" it "so that the words ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘transgender’ did not appear in the workshop title or descriptor." The planners created "alternative wording so that the workshop could continue to be offered" but they expressed deep concern about government intrusion to remove any reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the workshop title and descriptor. They came up with a title that was agreeable to the Bush Administration’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: "Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations".
The title changed but the workshop went on as planned; as the planners refused to allow the Bush Administration’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to render gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender people invisible. They said, "The action of our government in this regard is the very reason a workshop on suicide prevention with gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender individuals is needed. . . . These discriminatory and intimidation actions . . . should . . . be of concern to all Americans."
That’s my daughter. A chip off the old block. She takes after me too.
What would Jesus do? When it comes to social action? I believe that what Jesus actually believed in—and died for—is effectively, if not intentionally, obscured by the passion of the "Christocentric" Christ-makers. He did not die for a theological abstraction, i.e. for "the sins of the world," but because of the sins being committed against his Jewish world. He died to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire, which had violated their national sovereignty, occupied their country, and crucified thousands of Jewish "insurgents" and bystanders—for whom belief in a Messiah was grounded in the political realities of Jewish nationalism, freedom, justice and peace. The interpretation of history
The New Testament has been used not only to justify anti-Semitism, but also the enslavement of Black people (Ephesians 6:5ff), patriarchy’s subjugation of women (Ephesians 5:22ff), physical and spiritual violence against gay and lesbian persons (Romans 1:26,27), and world domination in Jesus’ name. Enter President Bush and "Christocentrism"!
It is here that the dynamic of "Christocentric" belief may come into play. It is much easier to worship what Jesus did than to do what he worshipped. It is safer to believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world than to join in seeking to rid the world of political, corporate and military sins that deny neighbors their birthright of freedom and fulfillment.
Institutionalized religion often immortalizes its saints in order to immobilize them. A way to neutralize the threat posed by the example of prophets and patriots is to turn their liberation movement into a monument and worship it. Vicarious identification with their struggles may be substituted for involvement in similar ethical struggles today. The
Belief in Christ as one’s personal saviour can also invite a narcissism that encourages self-centeredness rather than identification with one’s neighbors. Such narcissism may
even reinforce obliviousness to the neglect or unjust treatment of neighbors by the government, for example, in our name.
The aim of belief is certainly to affirm, comfort and empower. I am a partner in that, a witness to that every day as a hospital chaplain. People’s beliefs in Jesus and in God are
so important in affirming and sustaining and empowering them in the midst of illness and injury and death. Our beliefs are precious, and I do not want to minimize their importance to our lives. But their affirmation should not negate our neighbor’s life. My belief should not diminish whoever my neighbor is, but rather affirm my neighbor as well. If having the right belief means that my neighbor has the wrong belief, the seeds of authoritarianism are being planted—and can be harvested by a faith-based evangelical-professing preacher or president.
Why is it that certain Christians take to their heart Jesus’ commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:25-37), and other Christians take to their head his saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)? I believe that love of one’s neighbor depends on love of oneself: one’s ability to experience one’s own humanness and to embrace one’s own worth and rights. I also believe that the need for one’s "way" and "truth" and "life" to be authoritatively spelled out for everyone reveals a personal insecurity born not of self-love but of self-doubt—rendering one vulnerable to the "moral clarity" of "Christocentric" evangelistic preachers.
Another influence on our social action behavior is the structure we are in. According to The United Methodist Book of Discipline, "Elders in Full Connection" are to "offer themselves without reserve [italics added] to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authorities may determine." (p. 230) The "appointive authorities" are your District Superintendents and Bishop. It is here that controversial
social action could run into resistance, if there is an outcry of protest from local church members or other ministers.
I remember when Bill Ziegler and I hosted an anti-Vietnam war service at Old West Church in 1967; and young men burned their draft cards inside the sanctuary and a mini riot ensued outside. The trustees of Old West Church threatened to resign en masse, and a contingent of conference ministers were outraged as well—all of which led Bill and me to write a carefully written response that appeared in Zion’s Herald.
My assumption is that the hierarchy keeps a lot of consciences because ministers get ahead by getting along; and those most effective in getting along in the structure and maintaining it as it is become superintendents and bishops—with important exceptions. This is my perception of your reality, because it was my reality as an active
Methodist minister. But it’s been 32 years, so if I’m globalizing my experience, then I’m the one in error and stand to be corrected. I do believe that "offer[ing]" oneself "without reserve to be appointed and to serve . . . as the appointive authorities may determine" helps to influence the social action behavior of ministers especially. Others may be kept in line by punishing those who get out of line. Promotion depends on not making a "commotion".
The aim of those who want "peace at any price" is to silence, make invisible, those who create controversy by their social action involvements. The issue is our prophetic role, the enemy of which is sometimes the structure itself. Our freedom of conscience to speak and act is at issue here.
None of what I’m saying here excuses social action propelled by arrogance and judgementalism and a refusal to prepare people and bring them along. Not that the importance of bringing people along be used to hold social action back.
For example, Professor M. Shahid Alam, a well-respected teacher at Northeastern University for 16 years, is a most recent target. In late December, he and the University began receiving numerous e-mails calling for his firing, threatening to withhold donations, and some containing death threats against him and his family. Why? Because Professor Alam exercised his right of free speech. In December and January, CounterPunch published two articles written by Professor Alam: "America and Islam: Seeking Parallels" (Dec. 29, 2004) and ‘Testing Free Speech in America" (Jan. 1/2, 2005). His evidently unpardonable critique of America’s rhetoric of "freedom" in the air and reality of oppression on the ground included this penetrating statement: "Americans have been trained to see only their greatness, not the human costs that others have been made to pay, and continue to pay for their successes." (Jan. 1/2, 2005)
Sadly, the 9/11 atrocities committed against America elicited knee-jerk patriotism rather than national soul searching. Instead of self-examination about our country’s foreign policy and whether it contributed to such violent aggression, our president, who himself cannot admit mistakes, declared a global "war on terrorism," and in a September 22, 2001 radio address said, "I want to remind the people of America, we’re still the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, and no terrorist will ever be able to decide our fate."
Professor Alam reveals something of the reality on the ground in saying "For three years now, ever since I entered public discourse, various organized right-wing groups have been trying to silence me with threats. Unless more Americans become aware of the growing erosion of free speech, I am afraid that our voices may be silenced." One way to continue hearing Professor Alam’s voice is to write a letter supporting his academic freedom to Northeastern University President, Richard Freeland. (email@example.com)
Another professor under attack is Ward Churchill, Professor of Ethnic Studies and Coordinator of American Indian Studies at the University of Colorado, outspoken critic of US foreign policy and a leading analyst and critic of indigenous issues. His books
Professor Churchill’s tenured position and academic freedom are threatened because he wrote that certain people killed in the World Trade Center Towers were not "innocent civilians" but "formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire—the ‘mighty empire of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly." (" ‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens")
Churchill contends that certain employees in the towers ran organizations that kept the US military running smoothly in the work of global domination—often using military force and in violation of international law. Churchill called these people "little Eichmanns"—after Adolf Eichmann who, Churchill says, "was this nondescript little man, a bureaucrat, a technocrat, a guy who arranged train schedules, who, as it turned out, ultimately didn’t even agree with the policy that he was implementing, but performed the technical functions that made the holocaust possible, at least in the efficient manner that it occurred, in a totally amoral and soulless way, purely on the basis of excelling at the function and getting ahead within the system that he found himself . . . A good family man . . . Loved by his children. . . In essence the good German. . . The actuality of Eichmann was that anyone in this sort of mindless, faceless, bureaucratic
capacity could be the Nazi" (Democracy Now! "The Justice of Roosting Chickens: Ward Churchill Speaks," interview with Amy Goodman, Feb. 18, 2005)
"The piece circulating on the internet was developed into a book, ‘On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.’ Most of the book is a detailed chronology of U.S. military interventions since 1776 and U.S. violations of international law since World War II. My point is that we cannot allow the U.S. government, acting in our name, to engage in massive violations of international law and fundamental human rights and not expect to reap the consequences.
"I am not a ‘defender’ of the Sept. 11 attacks, but simply pointing out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned. I have never said that people ‘should’ engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable
"In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then ambassador to the UN and soon to be U.S. Secretary of State, did not dispute that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of economic sanctions, but stated on national television that ‘we’ had decided it was ‘worth the cost.’
. . . Finally, I have never characterized all the Sept. 11 victims as ‘Nazis.’ What I said was that the ‘technocrats of empire’ working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of ‘little Eichmanns.’ Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.
"It is not disputed that the Pentagon was a military target, or that a CIA office was situated in the World Trade Center. Following the logic by which U.S. Defense Department spokespersons have consistently sought to justify target selection in places like Baghdad, this placement of an element of the American ‘command and control infrastructure’ in an ostensibly civilian facility converted the Trade Center itself into a ‘legitimate’ target. Again following U.S. military doctrine, as announced in briefing after briefing, those who did not work for the CIA but were nonetheless killed in the attack amounted to no more than ‘collateral damage.’ If the U.S. public is prepared to accept these ‘standards’ when they are routinely applied to other people, they should not be surprised when the same standards are applied to them.
"It should be emphasized that I applied the ‘little Eichmanns’ characterization only to those described as ‘technicians.’ Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children,
janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9/11 attack. According to Pentagon logic, they were simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that’s my point. It’s no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians or anyone else. If we ourselves do not want to be treated in this fashion, we must refuse to allow others to be similarly devalued and dehumanized in our name.
Those wanting to support Ward Churchill and academic freedom in America may do so by signing an online petition of support for him
(http://www.coloradoaim.org/wardpetition.htm) sponsored by the Denver/Boulder Chapter of the American Indian Movement of Colorado.
But this is not just about Ward Churchill. The Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in Boston is under attack for giving an Honorable Mention award to Ward Churchill’s book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. Dr. Loretta Williams, director of the Myers Center, is also under attack. Our friend Horace Seldon, former director of Community Change, Inc. was one of the reviewers of Churchill’s book and recommended the award. Now Horace is asking people to contribute financially to the Myers Center and to provide spiritual support for Loretta Williams, who at one time was director of the Unitarian Universalist Association Social Justice Department.
Loretta has issued a statement, in which she says, "The Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights confirms its honorable mention award, December 2004, to On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, AK Press 2003, written by Ward Churchill, for its documented chronology and its challenge to readers to deconstruct for themselves the myth of the United States as a ‘peace-loving nation.’
"If you do a Google search on ‘Ward Churchill’ you will quickly see the tactics being used. As Chip Berlet, Political Research Associates (www.publiceye.org), has written:
Today, there are still political and social networks that seek to undermine full equality for all Americans. Their messages are spread using the standard tools: prejudice, fear, disdain, misinformation, trivialization, patronizing stereotypes, demonization and even scare-mongering conspiracy theories. While many of the
groups within these networks describe themselves as mainstream—and many disagree with one another—they all have helped spread bigoted ideas into American life. (See www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp).
"We stand by the honorable mention given to the book, and by the right of people to freely dissent from the ‘mainstream’. For that the Myers Center is under attack: ad hominem attacks in incoming e-mails, articles on the web full of distortions, and outright lies passed on as if they were factual."
Loretta writes regularly for Response Magazine, published by the Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church. The Women’s Division also has been a supporter of the Myers Center. Those desiring to aid the Myers Center may contact Dr. Loretta Williams at myerscenter.org.
A third influence on our social action is mainstream media. I have conducted three research reports on mainstream media published by the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. They are: The Role of Mainstream Media in Discrediting Black Candidates: The Boston Mayoral Campaigns of 1983 and 1993; Mainstream Media as Guardian of Racial Hierarchy: A Study of the Threat Posed by Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March; and Taking the "ism" Out of Racism in the 21st Century: A Study of the Print Media’s Coverage of President Clinton’s National Dialogue on Race. For information regarding obtaining them (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There continues to be in America an historic, institutionalized White-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power, and mainstream media is its guardian. The word "racism" seems to be disappearing from mainstream media’s printed page, and its continuing use is selective. The subject is often "race," "Black-White relations," "this whole subject," "the racial climate," "questions of race". The problem has become "the country’s racial dilemma," "the race issue," "the racial struggle," "highly contentious issues that surround race," "the explosive issue of race." Thus the solution in the 21st century is individual and interpersonal rather than institutional and governmental: and the code words are "racial reconciliation," "foster[ing] better understanding among the nation’s various racial and ethnic groups," "bring[ing] the races together," "bring[ing] about better race relations," "improving race relations." The emphasis is on "bringing the races together" rather than on bringing equal access to political and economic power to the races.
Not that the word "racism" has disappeared from the printed page. It is still found in headlines, news stories, columns and editorials. When it does appear, however, it is more
likely to be used by an African-American writer like Derrick Jackson of The Boston Globe or by a guest columnist who is Black, or, even more often, by a person of color being quoted. The racism that permeates America’s White-founded, institutionalized and perpetuated hierarchy of access and power is stated far more often and clearly by African Americans and other people of color than by mainstream print media’s own staff reporters, columnists and editorial writers.
Mainstream print media have no difficulty identifying obvious racist behavior: flagrant behavior that is difficult to deny, individual in nature, easy to condemn and from which to be readily dissociated.
The term "racism" also is generalized by print media: while it may be applied generally to Black as well as White individuals, it often remains undefined, lacking reference to origin, history, structure, context, dynamics or cause and effect. Here, then, are ways mainstream media help to take the ism out of "race" in the 21st century.
President Clinton’s 15-month-long "national dialogue on race," from June of 1997 to September of 1998, was about redefining the nation’s "lingering racial divide" as an individual and interpersonal matter rather than institutional and policy issue. The introduction and stressing of an "honest dialogue" on "race" automatically assumes an equality between White and Black persons and other people of color that does not exist—an equality of responsibility for "the nation’s lingering racial divide" and of the power to resolve it. This dynamic may be called the racism of equality.
There is another dynamic here to be addressed because I think it also helps us to see mainstream media as guardian of the racial hierarchy. Black leaders who accommodate the racial hierarchy are rewarded with acceptance, recognition, advancement and support for their causes. Mainstream media usually features them. They are White-approved Black leaders. This dynamic may be called "Black Gloves/White Hands". Those Black leaders—and organizations—who "get out of hand" and challenge the inequities of the racial order are ignored, portrayed as controversial and, if they become too powerful, run the risk of being discredited and marginalized—even editorially lynched—like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jessie Jackson, Mel King, Minister Louis Farrakhan.
White-approved Black leaders make excellent spokespersons—and camouflage—for the racial hierarchy—even when they are not speaking. They allow the hierarchy to give the appearance of equality while continuing to maintain itself—its inequities. Thus we have former and current Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice, giving the Bush administration the appearance of being committed to equality, while continuing to push anti-affirmative action policies and individual responsibility for opportunity and poverty that deny and perpetuate a White-favored hierarchy of access to political and economic power in America.
A current example of "Black Gloves/White Hands" involves President Bush: he began his second term in office promising healing but exploiting division. His Inaugural Address rhetoric was lofty: "And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time." Bush himself carries both quite well.
Five days after the Inauguration, the reality on the ground saw the President open his "baggage of bigotry" at a meeting with a group of 24 African American religious and community leaders. Bush reportedly "told black leaders yesterday that his plan to add private accounts to Social Security would benefit blacks because they tend to have shorter lives than some other Americans and end up paying more than they get out." (The Boston Globe, Jan. 26, 2005)
Why Black people do not live as long as White people evidently was not discussed--an apparently glaring commentary on all who were present at that meeting.
Why do White persons live longer than Black persons? There remains in America an historic, institutionalized, White-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power, with George W. Bush as it CEO. This hierarchy has enabled White persons to sow far more educational and economic opportunities than people of color—and thus reap far greater health and healthcare—and longer life.
At the heart of America’s "lingering racial divide" is a job gap that creates a health gap. Black people especially continue to reap an unhealthy discriminatory, White-favored political and economic order sown for them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
stroke, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, implosive physical violence, and lower life expectancy. ("Patients With H.I.V. Seen as Separated by a Racial Divide," The New York Times, Aug. 7, 2004; "Disparities found in health care for blacks," The Boston Globe, Aug. 5, 2004; "Report finds minorities get poorer healthcare," by Ron Blakely, Mar. 20, 2002, www.cnn.com; "Mental Health Problems Among Minorities," by Richard Sherer, www.healthyplaces.com).
President Bush’s own "soft bigotry of low expectations" [italics added] is obviously at work here. At the moment, his administration’s "baggage of bigotry" is carrying over a $300 billion price tag and counting for his administration’s "wars on terrorism" at the expense of healthcare for some 43 million Black and White persons alike. Wars being fought by a disproportionate number of Black Americans because the Army is actually the only place they can "be all you can be."
The meeting between President Bush and these selective Black leaders evidently was not about an inequitable, life-shortening, White-favored hierarchical structure over which President Bush presides, but how to get from him a little piece of the pie. "Many people at the meeting with Bush yesterday were the president’s political supporters," it was reported. They stated, "Bush promised more trade with Africa and support for home and business ownership by blacks." And his supporters were said to have "praised Bush for opening federal dollars to churches and religious organizations and encouraged him to push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage." (The Boston Globe, Jan. 26, 2005) There is a similarity between paying off columnists to write stories favoring Bush administration policies and buying loyalty with faith-based initiatives.
Jasmyne Connick, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote that "Recently a group of Black pastors under the name of the Hi Impact Coalition, held a press conference and summit in Los Angeles to announce the kickoff for the ‘Black Contract with America on Moral Values.’ Led by Bishop Harry Jackson of Washington and white Christian evangelical Reverend Lou Sheldon and his Traditional Values Coalition," Connick says, "the press conference and summit gave new meaning to the phrase ‘Sleeping with the enemy.’ Topping the list of issues that Black Americans need to focus on is the protection of marriage. Never mind the war, access to healthcare, HIV/AIDS, education, housing and social security, the number one problem facing Black America is same sex marriage." Connick states, "Standing before the press in their Sunday best and eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame and achievable share of President Bush’s Faith Based Initiative, these Black pastors seemingly allowed their pulpits to be purchased by the GOP and Lou Sheldon, who is to gay people what Strom Thurmond was to Blacks." (The Black Communicator, Mar. 4, 2005)
Typical of Boston Globe editorials were: "In reality, Saddam already has large quantities of chemical and biological weapons" (Mar. 15, 2002); "mass murderers," like Saddam Hussein, "have many collaborators," such as Arab leaders if they "keep their shameful silence about Saddam’s genocidal regime" (Mar. 25, 2002); "if U.S. action in coming months leads to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there will be jubilation in Iraq that the monster who murdered and tortured so many people and ruined the life of entire generations is finally gone." (Oct. 21, 2002) Boston Globe editorials "kept their shameful silence" about the U.S. government being one of the "collaborators" of "Saddam’s genocidal regime."
Emerging authoritarian tendencies in Americans are being accommodated by mainstream media that provide much news that’s print to fit. That determine the limits of public debate with a weekly round of mostly "official Washington" guests on news programs. That engage their own network "experts" who usually validate rather than challenge administration assertions and policies. A media apparently influenced by government control of licensing and of access to key newsmakers and news stories, and by the threat of advertising and readership boycotts.
A media which need to fulfill their vital role of providing objective news coverage, a wide range of views on issues, and factually-based, rather than predisposed, programming and editorializing, so that an informed citizenry can participate in the democratic process. Here patriotism is nourished and tempered by truth so that accountability and justice may prevail.
A useful social action project might be developing and circulating a list of alternative newspaper, magazine and website publications on social action issues. And also developing and circulating a list of organizations and movements involved in social action itself. The intent here is not to discourage keeping up with mainstream media. That is imperative for obvious reasons.
What goes to the heart of clarifying and claiming progressive values? Jesus said it: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "It’s about love!"
* Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D. is Hospital Chaplain at Boston Medical Center, Newton Pavilion, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a retired United Methodist minister in the New England Conference. His current published articles and essays include: