One more reminder that the first ever in the known history of civilized human kind Progressive Faith Blog Con is taking place in Montclair, New Jersey starting tomorrow and running through Sunday. We’ll be live-blogging from the event on Faith in Public Life, as will a number of our partners and fellow-attendees. Make the trip! Can’t make it? Check out these easy instructions for how to take part online as the event takes place.
One of the saddest things about living in what Gore Vidal aptly calls the United States of Amnesia is that we cannot seem to recall the point of issues we struggled to resolve 30 years ago, let alone 100 or 200 years ago.
I was reminded of this after reading Sean Wilentz’s monumental history, The Rise of American Democracy, over the July 4 weekend. Wilentz emphasizes how anti-slavery forces in this country, building on the British anti-slavery agitation led by evangelicals like Wilberforce, were able to persuade a critical mass of Americans with the argument that slavery should be abolished not only because of the awful suffering of the slaves themselves but also because control by violence over the bodies of others degrades the characters and endangers the souls of those who exercise such control.
The anti-slavery movement made good propaganda use of the image of a kneeling, heavily-shackled African crying out with the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” This appealed to a religious sensibility that ran deeper the random Bible verses cited by pro-slavery preachers; it reminded people of Genesis 4, in which God says to the murderous Cain, “Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Preoccupied by the threat from without, the drafters of the Bush Administration’s various torture memos seem never to have considered the threat from within–the threat to the souls of those who would be expected to torture in our name. David Addington, John Yoo, and the others never seem to have considered what allowing U.S. personnel to abuse, torment, and even kill other human beings in the name of freedom would do to the characters of the abusers, and by extension, to the character of the nation. For we cannot pretend that we who permit or condone such acts to be done in our behalf are exempt from their corrosive effects.
Now, belatedly, we are beginning to get some sense of the incalculable damage that has been done, and not just at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Baghram Air Base but in the streets and alleyways of Ramadi, Haditha, and now Mahmudiya, where U.S. soldiers are alleged to have raped a 15 year old, shot her several times, killed her parents and her 7-year-old sister, and then tried to set the rape victim’s body on fire. There will be many more such incidents uncovered, and many more that are not uncovered but that will haunt the dreams and torment the spirits of the perpetrators, who may return from Operation Defend Iraqi Freedom but who will never fully return to civil society.
The lesson the Abolitionists and their successors tried to teach us was simple: we cannot brutalize others without brutalizing ourselves. Because we seem to have forgotten it, we can boast all we wish about our vaunted freedom and democracy, but in the eyes of the civilized world we wear the mark of Cain. We who were victims in September 2001 have forfeited all of the moral high ground by becoming conscienceless brute victimizers.
This is where the mindless–and bipartisan–”war on terrorism” has taken us. Unless we can recover our moral center, and soon, we, like Cain, will be left to wander in the wilderness, seeking but not finding a space of grace.
Post written for Faith in Public Life by Rev. Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting.
There’s an interesting piece from Adele Stan on the American Prospect’s website right now. With Beckett’s centenary upon us, the Godot reference is appreciated and most appropriate. She’s not particularly sanguine (to say the least) about the prospects of a cohesive ‘Religious Left’ emerging to vanquish the Religious Right on a religio-political field of battle. Thank goodness. The best part about her argument isn’t that she thinks it won’t happen, but that she thinks it shouldn’t. As she puts it:
In seeking to create a counterpart to the religious right, we tried to force our values through a narrow hole. In essence, we bought into the religious authoritarianism of the right, inferring that moral authority proceeds only from religion. In this, we have sold ourselves short.
It’s a tricky project that many of us are working on right now: asserting clearly and confidently the moral and ethical values that motivate our political positions for the common good, without slipping into the sanctimonious self-righteous sermonizing that characterizes so many leaders of the Religious Right. The fear of making such mistakes is no doubt why some progressives (both secular and religious) have been very nervous about things like Sen. Obama’s recent address.
The next step in the argument, which her piece only begins to tackle, is to talk about what that positive engagement between faith communities and the political process around common good values might look like. While no one wants to turn into the Religious Right, there may be room for more substantive contributions from progressive faith leaders than Stan realizes. If she really means that recent events “kill off the dream of a religious left in America,” I’d have to differ strongly. They only point more clearly to what that community ought to look like to embody its own dreams and aspirations.
Groups like Sojourners and the Network of Spiritual Progressives are reaching increasingly impressive numbers for their national conferences. Others like Faithful America and the Interfaith Alliance are using cutting edge technologies to increase the impact of their advocacy. Collaborative efforts between secular and sacred around the budget, immigration, and the Voting Rights Act are showing leaders that their impact is increased through cooperation.
Stan is right that these religious voices can only be a part of the broader ethical foundation in which progressives ground their dream of a diverse, just, and free America. Each of these examples demonstrates the potential for progressive faith leaders to strike the balance between strength and humility and do justice to our proud legacy of social action in this country.
At the recent National Conference and Revival for Social Justice in the Black Church, longtime political activist Rev. Al Sharpton identified how sexually-based issues divide the black church and challenged black clergy members to follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace a religious agenda more in tune with social justice. Sharpton admonished clergy not to forget those who struggled to “break us out of the shackles of racism, rallied to end the heinous war in Vietnam and battled for blacks to be treated like others” under the banner of Christianity.
This seemed off pitch to Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, TX, a church that boasts more than 28,000 members and sponsors MegaFest, a conference that attracts over 500,000 attendees annually through messages of self-empowerment through spiritual transformation and economic development. Responding to Rev. Sharpton, he stated, “I do not believe that African-American ministers should allow their political views to dictate the subjects and tone of their sermons.”
At least one comment agrees with Jakes, stating that “Sharpton has lost all touch with the greatest part of the Christian community he claims to represent,” and “his views on same sex marriage, black voting problems and lack of equality for blacks in America are not mainstream with black Americans.” It’s hard to deny that there is some divide between African-Americans of the Civil Rights generation and the current “megachurch” generation.
Despite the rift, some black ministers are reclaiming the tradition of focusing on social justices issues, while avoiding the pitfall of being partisan political pastors. The Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, advocates for the poor and focuses on social action from his megachurch pulpit. Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale offers a ministry for social action, and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL addresses political and social justice issues that adversely effect on the lives and rights of people of African descent in the U.S. and abroad.
The kinds of ministries taken up by Rev. Haynes, Rev. Hale, and Rev. Wright find a middle ground between Revs. Sharpton and Jakes. Advocating for social justice and the common good doesn’t have to mean playing pure partisan politics. Hopefully as these groups raise awareness about the relevance of social justice issues, not partisan politics, to the African-American church community, other clergy will soon follow.
One more word (promises, promises) on Sen. Obama’s speech last week. Or, rather, a word on what has come since. The blogosphere has seen a number of spirited exchanges on the virtues or failings of the Senator’s remarks. There have been reasoned and intelligent statements both for and against the Senator’s general argument. There have also been a number of harsh, unfairminded attacks from blog commentors. There’s no doubt that passions run high around issues of faith in politics, but precisely because the stakes are so high it’s important that the tone of these disagreements be on pitch.
It wasn’t an accident that Sen. Obama ended his address with a call for ‘fair-minded words.’ Surely he knew that his words would spark controversy on both the left and right. It may be a potential weakness of the blogosphere that the relative anonymity of the space allows for ad hominem attacks without the practical risks of doing so in person or the mainstream media (ie personal retribution, or a good ole’ fashioned knuckle sandwich). Because the task of honest, fair engagement is so difficult, and because part of our mission at Faith in Public Life is to broker those sorts of discussions both in the blogosphere and in the more concrete world, it seems appropriate to give hat tips to those who have done well with their criticism.
So in the spirit of encouraging those who know how to strongly disagree with each other, but in the right way, check out a few of these exchanges. Mik Moore over at Jspot, Pastor Dan at Street Prophets, Chuck Currie, and the Talk2Action crowd all have different takes on the matter at hand. But things don’t get personal, and you know that all involved (and I think Sen. Obama is included in this group) are seeking, to borrow Dan’s words, ‘the line from doubt to the need to humility to the need to come together.’ Bruce Wilson also left a strong but fair comment over on Alex’s last post. Those who fail to meet these standards of discourse get no particular calling out, because they don’t deserve any more attention.
I honestly believe that there’s something very out of touch with how the American people view religion in the divisive rhetoric of the Religious Right. A robust internal debate about the place of religion in progressive politics can be a great sign of strength rather than division, if that debate takes place within a context of shared common good goals, fairminded words, and the American democracy that we all treasure. I’d love to see some of these voices that know how to argue the right way model that for the blogosphere. What fertile ground to be tilling the week before so many of us are getting together for the Blog Con.