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Projecting Power or Promoting Peace

The Prophetic Call for Justice, Kindness, Humility
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A version of this essay was delivered at the “People’s Response to the George W. Bush Library and Policy Institute” event at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, on November 14, 2010.

 


I want to speak tonight in the language of spirit, but about subjects that transcend religion. I want to discuss politics, but in a way that transcends parties. I want to struggle with crises we have created out of ignorance and inattention; face up to problems that have no simple solutions; deal with the depths of human destructiveness and despair.

This will lead us, of course, to George W. Bush and his administration’s contribution to this mess.

But first I want to talk about sin and redemption. I want to confess, to testify, and to prophesy. I want to speak in this manner not just because we are at Southern Methodist University, but because it is appropriate for end times.

By end times, I don’t mean the fantasies of a rapture that will take us to a heavenly place but the realities of a rupture in the fabric of our living world. These are the times in which we must end the unjust and unsustainable systems that govern our world — the end times for U.S. imperialism, for a predatory corporate capitalism, and for the fantasy of endless abundance. If we cannot end those systems in our time, then the end times surely are coming.

There is no place better to face our obligation to end those times than the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a monument to these failed systems.

In the shadow of that center, let’s begin by posing a spiritual question: Are we going to settle for piety (in both theology and politics) and sink into the profane? Or can we strive for humility and seek the holy (in spiritual and secular terms)?

This evening I am speaking in the language of the Christian tradition in which I was raised and to which I have returned, though the values I speak of are common to all the theological and philosophical traditions that people hold dear in this world. We speak through the stories of our culture and our time, but I believe those of us here tonight speak a common language of love. More on that later.

Tonight we are focused on one specific period of time, one administration, one set of lies and obfuscations, and their terrible consequences. But our task is to face a larger reality in regard to empire, economics, and ecology. The problem is not that the policies of George W. Bush’s administration put us on a new road, but instead that they took us faster and further toward the inevitable destination of the road on which we’ve been on. This road on which we have been traveling leads to a cliff, and we are perilously close to the edge.

So, I want to speak theologically but in the service of a political question: Do we imagine our future will be secured through the projection of power or through the promotion of peace? If we dare to answer “peace,” are we willing to take the risks necessary to challenge that power?

 

Confession and testimony

First, my confession. Although I am arguing that we should focus on the big picture — on the systems and institutions that structure power in society — I have sometimes succumbed to the temptation to mock political opponents. During the eight years of the Bush administration, I sometimes made fun of our president, suggesting he was intellectually and/or emotionally and/or morally unsuited for high office. I sometimes repeated his most comical verbal missteps, using phrases such as “make the pie higher” as cheap laugh lines, even though I knew that played into the hands of Bush’s handlers, who loved presenting him as an ordinary guy, clearing brush on his ranch and clear-cutting the English language.

For these sins, I ask forgiveness. It’s easy to shore up one’s own sense of moral and intellectual superiority by mocking others. Even when others deserve to be mocked, it is almost always self-indulgent and counterproductive. Better than implying we are right because others are so obviously wrong, we should demonstrate we are right through righteousness.

Second, my testimony. In a funny way, George W. Bush is responsible for me returning to membership in a Christian church, a tradition that I had abandoned as a young person. I joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin in 2005, in part because of the welcoming atmosphere of that progressive congregation and the political courage of its pastor, the Rev. Jim Rigby. I was pleasantly surprised to find a church that welcomed my radical politics and didn’t demand that I accept supernatural theological claims (the belief in god as a force, entity, or being that has the capacity to direct the world; or the belief in the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event). St. Andrew’s was a hospitable place for me to land, where religion was understood as the struggle for deeper wisdom through historical experience, mythology, and poetry, rather than the imposition of rigid rules through delusion, dogma, and doctrine.

But I might not have been looking for a place to land if not for Bush’s skillful use of religion politically, which forced me to think more about the Christian character of the United States. By that I don’t mean we are a “Christian nation” in the sense that Glenn Beck suggests, but only that Christianity provides the dominant spiritual narrative of the culture. Bush helped me realize that I could deride the forces that are most prominent in that tradition today (which vary, depending on the denomination, from the mushy centrist to the harsh reactionary) or I could fight for a progressive theology and a radical politics rooted in the Gospels and the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For two decades I had assumed that the crude, ham-handed theology and politics of the Moral Majority and similar groups would run its course, but I finally realized that was based on wishful thinking, not evidence. So, I went back to church.

For this revelation, I am grateful to the former president. Not everyone has to work within a religious tradition, of course, but progressive/radical movements cannot afford to abandon that turf to the reactionary right. For most of my life I had felt smug and comfortable in my secular worldview, which reduced my political effectiveness and limited my vision. Bush changed my heart, in a roundabout sort of way.

 

The prophetic voice

Confession of sin and testimony about faith are important, but more crucial for the future is our willingness to prophesy. I don’t use that term to suggest I can see the future or have special status. Rather, I believe we all should strive to tap into the prophetic voice within us. To speak in that voice is not to claim exclusive insight or definitive knowledge, nor is it to speak arrogantly. We speak in the prophetic voice when we are true to the best of our traditions and the best in ourselves. The prophets of the Hebrew tradition, for example, typically did not see themselves as special. When the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label:

[14] Then Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,

[15] and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

[Amos 7:14-15]

 

You may be saying to yourself, I seek no such calling, but neither did the prophets. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, but God didn’t buy the excuse:

[7] But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.

[8] Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

[9] Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.

[10] See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

[Jer. 1:7-10]

 

Nor was it typically much fun to fill the role of a prophet. On this, Jeremiah was clear:

[9] Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.

[Jer. 23:9]

 

My heart is broken within me as well. This room is no doubt filled with broken hearts tonight. I speak not just of the heartbreaks that come, inevitably, with being human — the heartbreaks of disappointment, distress, disease, and death. The heartbreak that I refer to is not the unavoidable suffering of being human, but the suffering produced by imperialism, a predatory corporate capitalism, and a fantasy of endless abundance. That avoidable suffering demands that we speak prophetically in opposition to the systems out of which that suffering arises. We know we must reject religious fundamentalism, but we also must reject the national fundamentalism at the heart of imperial wars of domination; the economic fundamentalism at the heart of capitalism’s cult of greed; and the technological fundamentalism that spins the story of infinite consumption on a finite planet.

To speak prophetically we must strip away the delusional trappings of the culture and remember the core of our humanity. The world is complex, but the command is simple. Another of the Old Testament prophets, Micah, captured this:

[8] He has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

[Mic. 6:8]

 

Of those virtues, I want to focus on the importance of humility. When we speak in the prophetic voice, we necessarily speak with passion and conviction. But we all know that passion and conviction can lead any of us to arrogance and self-righteousness. The counterbalance to that is humility, which brings us back to George W. Bush.

 

False humility

In Bush’s first presidential campaign, during the second debate, he used the word “humble” five times when discussing his approach to foreign policy:

“It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

“We’re a freedom-loving nation. And if we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.

“I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.”[1]

 

That’s the Bush rhetoric on humility, but we know what the reality was like. Humility was not the strong suit of the Bush administration, especially in foreign policy. The Bush administration didn’t really do humility, unless we define humility as the instinct to use massive violence to achieve the goals of elites, while expressing contempt for international law, international institutions, the views of a vocal group within the United States, and the views of a majority of the people of the world.

That’s a fair description of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration. I use the term “unilateralist thugs” to describe the Bush gang. “Thugs” in the sense of the willingness to use violence, and “unilateralist” in the approach to international law and organizations, and domestic and world opinion. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration didn’t even bother going to the U.N. Security Council for authorization, preferring to ignore international law. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it attempted to secure a resolution but went forward anyway when that attempt failed.

The humility Bush promised evaporated quickly, but that shouldn’t surprise us, for humility hasn’t been the stance of any U.S. administration. We might recall the Clinton administration’s Iraq policy. During Clinton’s eight years, economic sanctions starved the Iraqi people by the tens of thousands each year, and although most of the world opposed that policy the Clinton administration kept the U.N. Security Council in line to maintain the embargo. When that strategy — described as genocidal by a U.N. official who resigned in protest — wasn’t working well enough, Clinton authorized the bombing of Iraq in December 1998 in “Operation Desert Fox.” The Clinton gang argued that existing Security Council resolutions gave them the right to kill, a position the rest of the world rejected, and Clinton bombed away without concern.

Clinton followed that up with the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. That also lacked U.N. authorization, though in that endeavor the Clinton administration marshaled NATO to provide the appearance of legitimacy. That operation was not only morally bankrupt but also a “crime against peace” in international law, but effort was put into garnering some level of international cooperation. We might think of the Clinton gang as “multilateralist thugs,” willing to use violence but providing the appearance of concern for international opinion when it suited them.

Obama continues the trend, making it clear that U.S. foreign policy remains based on the only trump card the United States has left in its hand — a decisive superiority in the capacity to kill and destroy, the result of the fact that we spend as much on war as the rest of the world combined. So, the occupation of Iraq continues; the occupation of Afghanistan surges forward; we conduct drone attacks in Pakistani territory; we continue to threaten Iran.

If we look at economics, we see the same pattern. The Republicans favor a reactionary capitalist program that would drive a stake in the heart of the New Deal, while the Democrats prefer a conservative capitalist approach that would keep the New Deal breathing, barely. For the energy needed to run an irrational consumption-based economy, the Republicans offer fantasies of more intensive penetration of the Earth to keep the machine running, while the Democrats prefer fantasies of endless invention.

Given a choice between those two sets of approaches, I’ll take the less violent, the less harsh, the less ugly. But being forced to choose between these options is a classic case of false alternatives, an attempt to constrain our imaginations at the time we need them most. We are not forever doomed to live in a monstrous imperial world system or a predatory capitalist economic system or an unsustainable high-energy/high-technology system. There are other options, other models, other visions.

We need to shout that truth, in the prophetic voice. We need to tap into our conviction and passion, speaking prophetically about the evil of these systems and our refusal to capitulate to them.

We also need humility, recognizing none of us has a perfect system to take down off the shelf and implement tomorrow. When we critique evil and are challenged — “Well, if you are so smart tell us how you would run the world” — we need not pretend to have all the answers. We need only to be confident in our critique and committed to constructing alternatives.

 

Harsh humility

We try to balance passion and humility. We recognize our limits but don’t hesitate to speak harshly w
en necessary. Let’s return to Micah, the source of that call for justice, kindness, and humility. Micah also called out the injustice around him, never softening what he knew to be the truth:

[12] Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

[13] Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins.

[14] You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger in your inward parts; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save I will give to the sword.

[15] You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.

[Mic. 6:12-15]

And:

[2] The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net.

[3] Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together.

[4] The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand.

[Mic. 7:2-4]

 

If we were to tap into our prophetic voice, what would we say about George W. Bush? He is guilty of crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Opening a presidential center in his name is an abomination. I empathize with the students, staff, and faculty of SMU, who must now walk a campus with a monument to a war criminal. That empathy comes easy, for it is my own fate as well. Less than a mile from my office at the University of Texas is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, another monument to a war criminal. Just as the cries of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan will float over SMU, the cries of the dead in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ring in my ears at UT.

Let’s review the presidents of my lifetime: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama. Republicans and Democrats; liberals, moderates, and conservatives; from the west, east, Midwest, south, north; dull- and quick-witted, or just plain witless. All of them different, yet all of them thugs, all of them criminals.

The cries of the dead echo not just at SMU and UT, but across the United States, across an imperial society in which we citizens have failed to force our government to respect even minimal conceptions of human dignity and equality, the hallmarks of a decent society.

What would Amos and Jeremiah and Micah say? What will we say?  More importantly, what will we do?

 

Love in action

I promised I would come back to the topic of love. Whether we are secular or religious, or what religious tradition we might come from, we all recognize not only the power of love in our individual lives but the necessity of love in our political lives. As so many great political figures have noted — from a revolutionary such as Che Guevara to a proponent of non-violence such as Martin Luther King, Jr. — love must be at the center of radical politics.

Another of the prophets made this crystal clear in one sentence, from the Book of Osheroff, chapter 1, verse 1: “Solidarity is love in action.”

If you are scrambling to figure out why you don’t remember the Book of Osheroff, don’t worry — I made it up. My late friend Abe Osheroff was real and he spoke in as prophetic a voice as I have ever heard, but he’s not in the biblical canon — he was a thoroughly secular 20th century radical activist. Starting as a teenager in Depression-era New York helping evicted tenants, Abe was involved in progressive politics at every level — from fighting in the 1930s for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War to community work in the civil rights movement in the United States, from neighborhood organizing against developers at home to the seemingly endless struggle to end U.S. wars around the world. Abe so impressed me that I produced a documentary film about his life,[2] and the film’s final frame carries that point he made so often: “Solidarity is love in action.”

Abe knew that if solidarity is to be lived, it requires both love and action. Abe knew that love without action is empty, and that action without love is dangerous. We all know people who profess to love the world but who retreat into the passivity made possible by affluence and privilege. We should ask of them, what do they truly love? We also all know people who act out of what they claim to be a commitment to justice but through their actions hurt others without thought. We should ask of them, to what are they truly committed?

We know these people exist because, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we all can remember moments when that person was us, when we fell short. That’s because radical love in a political context is not easy. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian activist and educator, always talked of love in this way:

As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love. Only by abolishing the situation of oppression, is it possible to restore the love which that situation made impossible. If I do not love the world — if I do not love life — if I do not love people — I cannot enter into dialogue.

On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. The naming of the world, through which people constantly re-create that world, cannot be an act of arrogance.[3]

To speak in the prophetic voice is not to proclaim the truth self-righteously but to claim our rightful place in dialogue, the collective struggle to understand the truth, which requires love and through which we seek to deepen our capacity to love. We seek the prophetic voice within us to allow us to love more fully, something that Paul the Apostle understood. When we call out injustice, when we find the courage to speak truths in a fallen world, it can be easy to be consumed by our anger and our grief, to lose track of that love. As we go forward to find the courage to speak prophetically, we should hold onto these words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

[2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

[1Cor. 13:2]

We all struggle with this. For me, being angry is easy. After 20 years of political activism, I can easily launch into angry condemnations of the craven and the corrupt in power. But I struggle to hold onto my capacity to love, always more, and always more authentically. That may be the defining quality of the prophetic; it is our authentic voice in which we speak the truth with love, preparing to act on that truth.

Authenticity is a tricky concept. It is a state or quality we often invoke, though we are not always clear about its meaning. Abe gave me the best definition of authenticity I’ve ever heard:

Authenticity comes when your thoughts, your words, and your deeds have some relation to each other. It comes when there’s a real organic relationship between the way you think, the way you talk, and the way you act. You have to fight for authenticity all the time in this world, and if you don’t fight for it you will get derailed. But when you have it, when you feel that surge of recognition — that I’m saying exactly what I’m thinking, and I’m ready to do something about it — well, that’s an intellectual and emotional orgasm that makes sex look like nothing.[4]

Abe made that point in an interview with me, the transcript of which I titled “On the Joys and Risks of Living in the Empire.” In his political life, Abe took far more risks than I have to date. And, as a result, I think Abe experienced a deeper joy than I. The prophetic voice of Abe, who died on April 6, 2008, inspires me, but more importantly his memory haunts me. He encouraged me in my political activities, but what I remember most is not the supportive words he spoke but the unspoken challenge: What are you willing to risk?

 

Risk and joy

Think back to February 15, 2003. Many of us on that Saturday participated in actions in opposition to the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was an exhilarating day, the largest coordinated political protest in the history of the world. At least 10 million people participated worldwide, with a clear message for the Bush administration: The invasion being planned is illegal and immoral, and we reject not only this war but your right to use violence to achieve your political and economic goals. I was the emcee of the event in Austin, and I remember being amazed at the thousands who gathered at the Capitol, stretching back so far that our loudspeakers couldn’t reach the entire crowd.

We had a compelling message, rooted in international law, political principles, and moral values. We had huge numbers of people. We had an international presence. And none of it mattered; the war came. Why could the Bush administration ignore us without consequence? I have pondered that question for the past seven years, and I keep coming back to one thing: What level of risk were we willing to take?

For most people, attending an anti-war rally posed no risk. Immigrants and people in targeted groups (Arabs, South Asians, Muslims) had reason to feel threatened, but people who look like me — with only rare exceptions — don’t face serious repression in the United States today for engaging in peaceful political activity. What were most of us willing to do beyond attending a rally in opposition to a war being planned? A month later, when the war came, we got a partial answer. The crowd for the standing call to come to the Capitol when the bombs fell was at best one-fourth of the pre-war rally. Most of the people who came on February 15 weren’t willing to come out in public once the nation was at war; even that trivial a risk was too much.

I could be cocky and say that in 2003 I was willing to risk my job, my physical safety, even my life to stop the war. It might be true; I certainly felt the urgency of the moment. But the question is moot, because at that time there was no strategy for taking such risks. These decisions about risk are made by individuals but in the context of options developed collectively, and the movement I was part of had not discussed such options.

A political movement that wants to challenge entrenched power cannot succeed without substantial numbers of people willing to take risks. If those in power know we aren’t ready to take risks, they can ignore our voices, confident that our opposition will dissipate. To create that group of people, we need to talk seriously, not about juvenile fantasies of armed revolution but about long-term commitment to a radical political project that aims to end imperialism, capitalism, and the ecologically unsustainable living arrangements of the affluent world.

So, I want to leave you with three questions that I heard posed by the sociologist Allan Johnson[5] in a workshop for activists. In our political and social networks, Johnson suggested, we should ask:

1.      What are the risks you would have to take (or have taken) if you actively work for social justice and ecological sustainability in a way that is self-critical and challenges powerful   institutions and people?

2.      What are the risks if you don’t do that work?

3.      If you take the risks in #1, in order to survive and thrive what do you need from:
         *yourself
         *others
         *institutions and organizations (public and private)

The point of the exercise is, first, to force us not only to articulate the risks in acting but the risks in not acting. Rather than assume that the greater risk is in challenging power, we should ponder our fate if we let our fear rule us. Second, Johnson wants us to think about risk not in the abstract but concretely. If we can articulate what we need, we can start to imagine how to act.

Back to Abe: The phrase I used was the “joys and risks.” One of the most important lessons I learned from Abe was that the joy I will feel in this world is directly related to the risks I am willing to take. When I think of Abe, what I remember most is not his insightful analysis, his knowledge of history, or his stories about past political actions. Instead, I remember his laugh. I remember the way he embraced life, even at the end when he was in considerable pain and unable to move far from his chair in the living room. Abe took risks I have never taken, and I think he felt joy at a depth I’m still struggling to reach.

Abe would be the first to tell me not to spend too much time comparing myself to him, and not to assume that the choices made in a previous era can map the choices we face today. Nothing is so simple.

But this much is simple: We face cascading crises on all fronts — political and economic, cultural and ecological — crises that may well outstrip the human capacity to cope. As a species, we aren’t nearly as smart as we like to think, and as a result we have to come to terms with the likelihood that some of the problems we have created may be beyond solutions that we can imagine. The human capacity to love and create is up against not only our capacity to hate and destroy; we also struggle with our tendency to create solutions that bring into being even greater problems. It is not only our ignorance that is dangerous, but our inability to understand our ignorance.

This much is also simple: We live in dark and dangerous times, and we know we cannot be seduced by those urging us to revert to religious, national, economic, or technological fundamentalisms, all of which would only exacerbate the danger. To whom should we listen?

Listen to the cries of the dead from imperial wars.

Listen to the cries of those suffering in a predatory economic system.

Listen to the cries from the living world all around us.

And, perhaps mostly importantly, listen to the cry of your own heart.

 


[1] Second presidential debate, Winston-Salem, NC, October 11, 2000. Transcript available online at http://www.fas.org/news/usa/2000/usa-001011.htm.

[2] “Abe Osheroff: One foot in the grave, the other still dancing,” dir. Nadeem Uddin (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2009).

[3] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), pp. 89-90.

[4] Robert Jensen and Abe Osheroff, “On the Joys and Risks of Living in the Empire.” http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/osheroff.html

[5] Allan G. Johnson has written two widely used texts about power and privilege: The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005); and Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). For more information, click here.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.