Posts tagged Jesus

Wednesday Lazy Linking

Official national hero types

(Via Gene Expression 2008-04-04.)

Here’s the Danny Bonaduce of the Blogosphere, marking the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., to reflect on the comforting lies about Dr. King, which the New Class political-intellectual complex has spent the last 40 years manufacturing and promoting:

Kai Wright has an excellent piece on the forgotten radicalism of Martin Luther King, Jr. — always a point worth making in a day and age when conservatives would like you to think they would have been standing right beside King when he marched on Washington.

That said, to some extent I think the creation of the King Myth and the displacement of the more authentic radical King is a good thing. A country doesn’t get official national hero types without mythologizing and sanitizing them to a large extent, and it’s a good thing, at the end of the day, that King has moved into national hero status.

— Matt Yglesias, The Atlantic (2008-04-04): MLK’s Radicalism

Really.

It seems to me that if the only way you can get official national hero types is by oversimplifying, lying, and thus eviscerating the substance of a world-changing life of work and body of thought, then official national hero types are worth less than nothing. What interest do they serve, and what are we supposed to need them for?

Certainly not the interest of honesty, or truth, and it seems to me that in these times those are coins far rarer — and therefore far more dear — than the pompous deliveries of the cosseted clique of power-tripping politicians and professional blowhards, who have convinced themselves that their collective in-jokes, shibboleths and taboos constitute the public life of a nation. I don’t give much of a damn, in the end, whether or not King gets ritualistically name-checked by men and women who were or would have been his mortal enemies to make stentorian speeches supposedly on his behalf. What I give a damn about is what the man, for all his many faults, actually cared about, fought for, and died for: the struggle of ordinary men and women for their own freedom, which meant their struggle to defy, resist, or simply bypass the consolidated violence of the belligerent power-mongers and the worse-than-useless moderate hand-wringers who made their living peddling excuses, apologetics, and the endless counsel of wait, wait.

This, not public-school pageants and official national hero types, is what the vast majority of us, who get no profit from the fortunes of the political-intellectual complex and its pantheon, need:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that 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.

… All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.

… These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

… A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.

— Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967-04-04): Beyond Vietnam

And also this:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was well timed, according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words Wait! It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This Wait has almost always meant Never. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that justice too long delayed is justice denied.

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, Wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading white and colored; when your first name becomes nigger, your middle name becomes boy (however old you are) and your last name becomes John, and your wife and mother are never given the respected title Mrs.; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that An unjust law is no law at all. … So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. …

… You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. … But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist for love — Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. Was not Amos an extremist for justice — Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ — I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. Was not Martin Luther an extremist — Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God. Was not John Bunyan an extremist — I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience. Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist — This nation cannot survive half slave and half free. Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist — We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

For anybody other than a self-appointed public intellectual, honest appraisal and serious engagement with the real life, virtues, foibles, questions, and struggles of a creative extremist like King are things more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful than all the combined hagiographies and bed-time stories of the canonized saints of American theo-nationalism.

Further reading:

It’s made of people.

Zack Exley’s Preaching Revolution, which recently appeared in In These Times, is fascinating, and frustrating. The article’s about a diffuse set of Evangelical Christian mega-churches, which have begun to preach nonviolence, opposition to war and imperialism, solidarity with and aid to the poor, the need for radical societal change, and opposition to the theocratic power-grabs of the Religious Right. The leaders of these churches consider themselves revolutionaries, and aim to restore the radicalism that they see in Jesus’s mission and primitive Christianity. The churches, like the conservative mega-churches, are large, well-organized, well-heeled, and technologically sophisticated. Exley thinks that they are an emergent movement that could have a dramatic effect on both Evangelical Christianity and American politics; he also suggests that the secular Left has a lot to learn from them.

In his book Irresistible Revolution, 30-year-old author Shane Claiborne, who is currently living in Iraq to stand in the way of war, asks evangelicals why their literal reading of the Bible doesn’t lead them to do what Jesus so clearly told wealthy and middle-class people to do in his day: give up everything to help others.

The popular evangelical Christian magazine Relevant, launched in 2003 by Cameron Strang, the son of a Christian publishing magnate, contains a Revolution section complete with a raised red fist for a logo. They’ve also released The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, a compilation by radical, Christian social-justice campaigners from around the world.

Bell and Claiborne are two of the better-known young voices of a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity. I first saw this movement at a local, conservative, nondenominational church in North Carolina where the pastor preached a sermon called Two Fists in the Face of Empire. Looking further, I found a movement whose book sales tower over their secular progressive counterparts in Amazon rankings; whose sermon podcasts reach thousands of listeners each week; and whose messages, in one form or another, reach millions of churchgoers. Bell alone preaches to more than 10,000 people every Sunday, with more than 50,000 listening in online.

But this movement is still barely aware of its own existence, and has not chosen a label for itself. George Barna, who studies trends among Christians for clients such as the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Focus on the Family, calls it simply The Revolution and its adherents Revolutionaries.

The article does contain a couple of gaffes that seem to come from the ignorance that all too many people on the secular Left still have about the varieties of Christianity. For example, Exley claims that Where Revolutionaries most part ways with many mainstream evangelical churches’ interpretation of the Bible is in their embrace of women as leaders, elders and preachers. This is actually nothing new in American Protestantism, or even in evangelical mega-churches. Southern Baptists, say, have been and mostly still are hostile to women preaching or leading within the church; but the Pentecostal churches have had women participating in ministry and leadership for over a century now. But there’s a lot here to like. Some of the most interesting things in the article have to do with the participatory culture within some of these revolutionary churches:

If you compare the Mars Hill complex to progressive community centers or union halls, it has no rival. The entire mall has been converted. Most of the stores are now classrooms for the different grades of its enormous Sunday school. One of the large department stores has been converted into an events and youth meeting space with a stage, and ping pong and pool tables. The broad, carpeted concourse is now filled with comfy sofas and chairs for sitting and talking. Though the complex is perfectly clean and attractive, you get the feeling that the church, in renovating the facilities, has spent the minimum possible resources to meet functional needs.

More striking than the size of Mars Hill is the intensity of participation among the membership. The Mars Hill house church program — where small numbers of people come together in a home for Bible study, fellowship, mutual support and as a launching point for outreach into the community — involves more than 2,000 members in hundreds of groups, each with its own leaders. Several hundred volunteer as childcare providers and Sunday school teachers. And hundreds more serve each Sunday as ushers, parking helpers and medics. (With 3,500 people in a room, you never know what can happen.)

Yet Mars Hill is not atypical. According to the Barna Group, nine percent of Americans attend house churches (up from one percent 10 years ago). And tens of thousands of churches are de facto community centers, serving and supporting virtually all aspects of their members’ lives, usually with a significant percentage of members acting as volunteers. In this way, churches have left progressives in the dust in terms of serving and engaging people directly. The union hall is the left’s nearest equivalent, but not only is it dying, it rarely attempts to serve anywhere near as many of the needs — spiritual and practical — as churches do.

At the Isn’t She Beautiful conference, the non-theological sessions were devoted to one of the secrets of this movement’s success: leaders — identifying them, recruiting them, loving them and letting them lead. The pastors at the conference all seemed to view their church memberships as seas of under-utilized leaders, and spent as much time as they could learning from each other and the Mars Hill staff how to be the best fishers of men they believe Jesus called them to be.

This high-density leadership organizing model stands in stark contrast to anything I’ve ever seen working in unions, progressive organizations and Democratic political campaigns. On the left, recruiting and mobilizing leaders has become devalued work that is typically left to inexperienced recent college graduates. The pastors at this conference, however, saw recruiting and inspiring leaders as one of their central callings. Too often, the left pays lip service to the grassroots, but lacks faith in grassroots leaders. The result is that too many of our organizations are one person deep and stretched impossibly thin. At the conference, I tried to imagine what Kerry campaign field offices (where I spent a lot of time in 2004) would have looked like if we had recruited leaders instead of bodies and expected them to be faithful, committed members of a team (words included in Mars Hill volunteer job descriptions). Some organizations on the left do include leadership development in their organizing models. But churches seem to assume that there are already plenty of developed leaders in their midst and go straight to giving them as much responsibility as they can.

We could use a bit more history here. The union hall is dying, now; but that’s only one of the visible remnants of what used to be a much larger, and much more vibrant, labor culture. Before the New Deal, when political patronage, political control, and professionalized bureaucracy combined to create a long, slow managerial stranglehold on rank-and-file unionism, the labor movement was much more than meetings at the union hall and negotiations in the board room. The radical wing of the labor movement, in particular—and these were, for what it’s worth, mostly anarchists—created and sustained a flourishing counterculture, which included not only the union hall, but also reading groups, schools for children, mutual aid societies, banquets, dances, newspapers, songs, stories, cartoons, posters, murals, and more, all organized by workers who unionized with the slogan We are all leaders here. If the radical labor culture can’t hold a candle to what these radical churches now offer, that is because of what the labor movement has become in the era of state-capitalist unionism, and indeed precisely because of the vacuums created by the collapse of labor radicalism in American culture.

What I want to focus on right now, though, is how Exley has missed out on one of the most important lessons that Mars Hill and other revolutionary churches have incorporated into both their preaching and their works. The failure comes out when he turns to speculate on where the revolutionaries’ strategy for social change might lead in the near future:

Andrew Richards is the local outreach pastor at Mars Hill, charged with driving the Mars Hill house church program to reach people in need in the greater Grand Rapids community. We’re not only taking care of the needs of our own community, but we want to respond to the needs that are in the greater community, he said before a recent Sunday service while trying to recruit more leaders. He laid out five areas of focus: urban at-risk youth, refugees, poverty, community development and HIV/AIDS.

Rob Bell and other church leaders seem to be building up to a big challenge. It is unclear exactly what is in the works. (Bell does not give interviews.) But he has been preaching more and more about systemic oppression, poverty, debt and disease — not just locally but globally. And other leaders have indicated to the membership that the current level of sacrifice for others in the community and the world is not in line with Jesus’ teachings.

On Dec. 10, 2006, Bell kicked off a series of sermons, titled Calling all Peacemakers, during which he said:

Never before in history have there been a group of people as resourced as us. … Never before has there been a group of people who could look at the most pressing needs of the world and think: well, we could do it … History is like sitting right there, in the middle of war, and great expenditure, and violence, and the world torn apart in a thousand directions — [waiting for] a whole ground swell of people to say, Well, we could, we could, we could do this. We could do what Jesus said to do.

But, as of now, the Revolutionaries seem to be embracing person-to-person, be the alternative solutions to the exclusion of advocating for social policy that is more in line with their vision of the kingdom. Boyd says, I never see Jesus trying to resolve any of Caesar’s problems.

Wallis believes this reluctance comes from the recent experience of being dragged into the mess of partisan politics on the terms of the Republican party.

… But where will their prayers lead them? Will they forever restrict themselves to person-to-person, relational solutions? Or will they choose to influence political leaders on issues they share with the left — poverty, war, environmental destruction — with the same force that the Christian Right exerted around abortion, gay marriage and other areas?

There is something important here that Exley does not seem to grasp, but his subjects do. Social policy, i.e., government making and executing laws, is not something that happens over and above person-to-person, relational solutions like direct action and person-to-person mutual aid. Governments are made of people, no less than churches are. When governments make laws, there’s no magical zap or mystical assumption that elevates the policy beyond the limited, work-a-day efforts with which ordinary people muddle through. There is only one group of mortal human beings writing down general orders, another much larger group choosing whether to follow those orders or ignore them, and a third group that tries to make the second group follow the orders from the first, by force if necessary. The demands might be just or unjust; the enforcement may be appropriate or inappropriate. But whatever they are, they are just human words and human deeds like any others.

So the question isn’t, actually, whether Christian revolutionaries should aim at person-to-person solutions or else advocating for social policy. Person-to-person solutions are the only solutions there are, and government-enforced social policy is just one more form of relational solution amongst many. The right question to ask is: what sort of personal relationships we should cultivate, between whom, with what structures and in what roles? Should our solutions to outstanding social problems come from person-to-person relationships between equals, based on spontaneous human concern and practiced with mutual consent? Or should they come from person-to-person relationships between government authorities and ordinary civilians, based on political lobbying and backed up by legal force? Should the people working to make a social change carry sandwiches and soup, or guns and handcuffs? Caesar has one answer; the revolutionary Christians have another. And I happen to think that Caesar is wrong and they are right. Whatever short-run gains you might be able to extract by getting into governmental politics and enlisting State power on your behalf, it comes at the strategic cost of making your movement dependent on the good graces of a privileged political elite, and at the moral cost of staining a just cause with coercive means.

But that answer will remain incomprehensible until we have first asked the right question, and Exley and Wallis—like all too many people in the so-called Progressive wing of the Left—have failed to understand it, and so failed to understand those (like the Christian revolutionaries that Exley intends to profile) who put it at the center of their concerns. It’s not about timidity or skittishness or the machinations of the Moral Majority; it’s about having a set of ideals about how you should deal with your fellow creatures and build a community with them. Judging from the views they express in the article, there are a lot of things I’d agree with the revolutionary Christians on; and a lot of other things I’d disagree with them on. But this is definitely something that they see correctly, even if only through a glass darkly, and I can only hope that Leftists like Exley will one day learn the same lesson.

Further reading:

Tidings of comfort and joy

I am not a Christian in anything but an aesthetic sense; but I have to confess that I’m a real sap for Christmas. Not the sentimentalized, garishly lit Santa Claus Christmas; I’m a real Grinch when it comes to Rankin-Bass animation or Frank Capra movies. And not the johnny-come-lately sanctimonious and politicized Happy Birthday, Jesus! fundamentalist Christmas, either; the holiday is not an opportunity for public display of your piety. I mean the simple, quiet, peaceful, earnestly and humbly Christian Christmas. As Linus would say:

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

— Luke, Chapter 2

That’s what it’s all about. May we all have peace, joy, and light in the coming year. Merry Christmas, everyone.