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Robbery Requires Violence: The Role of Race, Religion and Money in Political Violence Today
Prepared text of a presentation by Ed Knudson at a conference on religion and violence in Solvang, California.
By Ed Knudson
Saturday, February 23, 2008 10:45am - 12:00 noon, Bethania Lutheran Church, Solvang, California
I am happy to be here to discuss with you the difficult topic of religion and violence. You are to be commended for choosing such a topic because it means you want to actually think about violence. Violence is often the kind of thing we find ourselves caught up in, it just happens to us, even when we don't expect it, as happened to us in the United States on September 11, 2001, and we are left confused, wondering how to think about it. Or we may experience violence within our families or our communities, or even within ourselves. We may find ourselves with violent feelings against someone with whom we disagree, or someone we may believe is threatening us in some way. We watch television and movies full of violence; the movie makers know how to manipulate the chemistry of our brains, get the adrenalin rushing; local news programs tell us about violence every night. Violence is close to all of us, and to us as a country; therefore it is well to take some time to think about it. So, good for you to want to think about violence. If we think more about it we may be able to avoid or reduce the violence in the world. But for that to happen we have to be careful about associating religion with the cause of violence. We have to think about religion too, about the different forms of religion, and the relation of religion and secular society.
My own purpose for being here is to talk about my involvement with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King in the South, in Chicago, and Washington D.C. where I served churches in black communities. We will see how race, money, and religion were inter-related in the non-violent movement in the 1960s. And we will see that there has been a great political backlash to the success of that movement. Backlash politics has been the strongest force in the public context of the United States over the past four decades. Remarkably, we may just now be seeing the end of the political power of this backlash.
Forty years ago this April Martin Luther King was shot down and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. This violent act can be viewed as the beginning of backlash politics. King had come to support striking garbage workers in Memphis. Two of the workers earlier had been killed when they climbed into the back of an old garbage truck to get out of the rain to eat their lunch. The truck malfunctioned and the crushing arm inside the truck caught them and crushed them to death. The city of Memphis not only failed to provide workers with adequate and safe equipment, but black garbage workers were also regularly treated badly by their white superiors, had no job security, and were paid a pitifully small wage. In their protests the striking workers carried signs that said "I am a Man." The signs exhibited that they had been treated like animals. King came to lead a demonstration against these unjust economic conditions in the city of Memphis. On April 4, 1968, he was shot by a white man who was not acting alone. In his mind I am sure that James Earl Ray believed he was carrying out the will of the majority of white people in the South who wanted to get rid of Martin Luther King by any means possible. This is because King had successfully led the non-violent movement to change the power and status relations between blacks and whites all across the South. The killing of King was a major act of political violence to oppose the full participation of black people in the life of the community.
The story of the Memphis garbage workers is important for my presentation today because it portrays what I believe is a key factor in the whole question of what causes political violence, economic injustice. The people of Memphis didn't want to pay the taxes to provide garbage workers with safe equipment, these were only black people, they didn't deserve or require any better garbage trucks. The people of Memphis didn't want to pay the taxes to provide black workers with a living wage by which these men could provide for their families and hold their head up in the community. The people of Memphis didn't want to pay the taxes to provide for pensions and health care for these black workers. And the people of Memphis were outraged by the fact that black workers were now raising a storm over their working conditions, and by the fact that Martin Luther King, who had become a powerful national leader, was coming to demand economic justice for black workers. James Earl Ray accomplished exactly what most white folks wanted to see happen, do violence, end the life and career of Martin Luther King, stop this movement for justice, black people do not deserve to be paid the same as white people, black people do not have the same rights as white people, it is just fine for white people to rob black people of their dignity and livelihood, they don't deserve any better, they are the descendents of slaves.
What is going on here is reflected in the title of my presentation today, "Robbery Requires Violence." The garbage collection process in Memphis was based on systematic, regular oppression of one group of people by another group, one group exercising power over another group, one group systematically robbing the other group, one group systematically doing violence to the other group, justified by denying the full humanity of the powerless group, in this case by racial prejudice. If someone comes along who might change this process, kill him, get rid of him, he threatens the system of robbery which gives the advantage to white people.
This is what we need to call official violence, or even, official terrorism, the use of the power of the state to oppress a particular people, to rob them of their dignity and livelihood. There is some evidence for the fact that the Memphis police aided the killing of Martin Luther King. Many, including Andrew Young, an associate of King, believe the FBI was involved in King's murder, since the CIA was doing that sort of thing all around the world, and the FBI had been tracking King's movements for years with wire taps and infiltration of agents in the movement. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was convinced King was a Communist and spent millions of tax payer money trying to discredit him. Of course, the Memphis police, and law enforcement agencies all across the South, were used systematically all during the civil rights movement to enforce the unfair laws established by whites for the economic and political oppression of black people. That's why I say, robbery requires violence.
I was in Washington D.C. serving as pastor of my first congregation that April of 1968. I was driving my car through a black neighborhood when I saw a large crowd of people filling the street ahead. I turned on the radio in my car and heard that King had been killed. I turned around and went back to my church. I walked down to the commercial street, H Street, near my church and saw crowds of mostly young men swarming around, looting businesses and setting buildings on fire. I stood at a shoe store owned by a black businessman I knew and watched the riot take place that afternoon. Similar riots occurred in major metropolitan areas all across the country. It was an explosion of violent rage. One third of the businesses owned by white people on H Street were burned down.
Let me try to explain why this violence occurred. Later I was walking back to my church when on the other side of the street I saw a teenager bolt out of the front door of his house. His mother followed him out on the porch and hollered at him to come back, to not go down to where the riot was taking place. But the teenager ran on down the street ignoring his mother. Then I saw a strange change in the face of the mother as she watched her son run away. A smile came over her face, a knowing smile, a smile that said that she understood why her son wanted to take part in the riot. With one part of her self she wanted her son to obey the law, to not engage in this violence. But with another part of her self she knew there was something legitimate about this violence, she could understand the rage of her son. She had the same rage within herself over the systematic oppression that blacks experience in white society, a rage for justice. She had the same rage over the fact that the man who was trying to change things, a courageous black hero, had been shot down and killed by white society. In order for us here today to understand this violence we have to be able to get inside the hearts and minds of black people, to let ourselves feel what they feel, to see the world as they see it.
One of my jobs as a pastor was to visit people in the neighborhood and invite them to church. I remember visiting a young mother with a low paying job. Sitting on the couch I realized it was very shaky and worn out, though everything in the room was neat and clean. The young woman told me she had bought the couch just a few months earlier at a cheap furniture store down on H Street. She was still making payments on it even though it was worn out. She expressed anger at the people who would sell her such an inferior product. Here was a young working woman, trying to make do for her family, but she was paid so little that she didn't have the money to buy a decent couch from a decent business. She lived in a neighborhood where the businesses exploited the people. Imagine living with the anger this generates day after day, year after year. Imagine all the people living in the neighborhood experiencing such injustice again and again. No wonder this furniture store was burned down in the riots. It is the experience of living within an unjust economic system that generates the anger and hostility that erupted in cities across the nation with the killing of Martin Luther King. That's why I want to emphasize the relation between money and violence, lots of white people have made lots of money robbing black people.
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement as a whole were very successful in changing the South but not the North. Most of us are aware of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the confrontations between demonstrators and police in Birmingham and Selma. The stories and images of dogs attacking children created moral shocks to the conscience of people across the country. Non-violent methods worked along with the media to dramatize the injustice and immorality of the segregated South. The civil rights act of 1964 destroyed the patterns of segregation in public facilities. The voting rights act of 1965 gave black people the opportunity to vote in southern jurisdictions. This meant that the power of the federal government was used to force white people in the South to change their ways. But when King went north to Chicago he faced an entirely different situation.
Non-violence should be understood as a political strategy that depends on violence. That is, non-violent demonstrators are willing to put themselves into situations where official violence is done to them in such a way that it is shocking to the surrounding moral community. To prepare for this talk I read the history of the King movement in the three volumes by Taylor Branch. When you read about people who were willing to suffer physical attacks again and again, some of whom were killed, you develop a great deal of respect for them. But it is important to realize these were, indeed, strategically planned events, events designed to encourage violent responses from legal authorities, authorities who in their blatant use of official violence then lose their legitimacy as authorities. This could work in a place where the daily practices of segregation were so outrageously and visibly unjust. But it didn't work in the north where the patterns of prejudice were more hidden, where segregation was even more associated with economic injustice, where the authorities had learned not to use obviously illegitimate violence.
I happened to be an intern pastor at Community Lutheran Church on the west side of Chicago when Dr. King in 1966 had decided to bring his movement north. This was an all black church in a very depressed urban neighborhood. Chicago had very large black communities both on the west and south sides. Every Wednesday morning from six to nine A.M. Dr. King's staff held study and strategy sessions. I attended most of them. The over-all question was "what makes slums?" Speakers on all aspects of community life offered their expertise, on housing, business, schools, social services, churches, politics. As the weeks went by certain themes started to be apparent and finally somebody summarized the sessions with the phrase "slums are profitable." It was a Gestalt moment, a moment when everything started to make sense. That became one of the themes of the movement in Chicago; the goal was to "end slums."
Now if you ask most white people what makes slums they will answer that it is black people that make slums, they don't know how to do any better, they cause their own problems. The stereotype is, of course, that blacks are welfare recipients, lazy, don't know how to work hard, and don't clean up after themselves. This is the stereotype still carried in backlash politics. But the fact is that in Chicago a whole lot of white people made a whole lot of money in black areas; slums exist because white people make money from them. Whites own the businesses in black communities. I used to visit business people around my church and one of them told me he didn't paint the front of his store anymore because black people don't care what it looks like. One of the youth of my church was kicked out of school so I went to the school to see if I could help him get back in. I found the teachers were nearly all white and most had an antagonistic view toward their black students. The teachers didn't live in the community, they lived in the suburbs, so the money they made in the black community went with them to their white communities. Same with social workers, with all professionals, including the police and the judges and everyone who profited from crime. Even the political leaders in the Daly Democratic machine, the local leaders in the black community around my church, were white. Black people did not control their own community, they weren't allowed to, white people controlled everything.
There was only one institution that black people controlled themselves, their churches. That was true in the South, and it was true in Chicago. That's why it was ministers who were the key leaders of the civil rights movement in the north as well as the south. Religion was the only institution left for blacks to control on behalf of themselves, the regular political and economic systems were oppressive for black people, these systems served whites not blacks, even in black communities. This fact is important for my own thinking about religion and violence. Religion becomes violent, or non-violent, when the regular institutions of society fail to serve the people's needs.
It was especially in housing where white people made money through the economic oppression of black people. We all have heard about the white slum landlord. What we haven't faced squarely is the huge scale of the problem in black communities. Black people didn't create slums, white slum landlords created them and the results have been devastating for black people.
Let me tell you the truth about these matters. I was in those communities; I knocked on the doors and visited with people living in the midst of the oppression caused by white people. One day in Chicago I walked up to the third floor of a dilapidated tenement building and knocked on the door of a woman who had visited at my church. The door opened and there before me was a young girl of about ten years old, greeting me with a big smile. I looked at her bright and shining face and realized there was something terribly wrong. One side of her face was terribly scarred like she had been badly burned. Talking with the mother I learned that as a baby while sleeping in her crib the side of this girl's face had been eaten by rats.
Think about this, your child's face was eaten by rats. Think of the anger you would have against the white slum landlord. But this mother didn't make enough money at her job to be able to afford an apartment in a better part of town. In fact, as a black person she was not allowed to live anywhere but in areas designated for black people. She was stuck living in an apartment in a building so filled with rats that her child's face had been eaten alive.
I want to emphasize another factor here. White people are forever saying that black people are not adequately responsible for themselves, that they should exercise personal responsibility, one of the code phrases in backlash politics. But inside this apartment the mother had kept everything very neat and clean. This mother exercised personal responsibility for the part of the building she controlled, her own apartment. On the other hand, the owner of this building exercised no responsibility; he made much more money by not taking care of this slum building. The violence done by rats to this little girl's face was done by the white slum landlord. I saw this again and again and again in my visits to black people living in these oppressed conditions. Black people trying to live lives of dignity and responsibility despite the total irresponsibility of white slum landlords. Think about this across the whole of the black communities in Chicago and in cities across the nation. Think about how much money white people have made off of black people over all of these years and then blamed them for not being responsible. It is such a massive case of injustice that it is difficult to find words to express the outrage it should really cause in all of us. Dr. King tried to change things in Chicago, but he essentially failed and finally was killed by the forces of backlash against change.
During that summer of 1966 I received a grant from the Chicago Missionary Society to work first as staff within Dr. King's movement and then as a community organizer at the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization on the southside of Chicago. There I engaged in tenant organizing and did research on who owned what housing in the black community. I learned from reading the minutes of the Chicago Real Estate Board that explicit decesisions were made about where blacks would be allowed to live. Basically, the the market for black housing was carefully controlled so that the prices charged blacks for their housing would be as high as possible. When a new area was opened up white slum landords would buy up the buildings and convert them to smaller units. There were hundreds more black people living on each block than white people, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood. Black people were literally packed into these neighborhoods and they had no option; they were forced to live in higher priced housing, all designed and controlled by white people. White people, real estate agents, banks and financial institutions, and white slum landlords all made huge amounts of money from what should be called a legal and systematic process of robbery. And it is important to realize that this was not a free market, this was a managed housing market, a market managed by white people to take advantage of black people. So much money was flowing from the black slum to the white suburbs that people in power were not about to let anybody like Martin Luther King change these unjust practices.
I helped organize events at churches where Dr. King would preach. He had an amazing ability through his preaching to reach into the reality of people's lives, to articulate the pain and suffering that people experienced on a daily basis, and to turn them to believe in themselves and their ability to change things through non-violent demonstrations. Some demonstrations were held but the police had learned not to engage in violence against the demonstrators. There was no outpouring of moral shock as had happened in the South.
But that summer also a young black militant leader emerged, Stokely Carmichael, who preached a different message, a message calling for "Black Power." The idea was that black people should no longer allow white people to control their communities, they should take power over their lives and the institutions controlling black communities. When Carmichael used that phrase Black Power it was like electricity flowing through the black community. The black leader I worked for in the community organization became more militant and confrontational. Throughout the civil rights movement a division occurred between those who espoused non-violence and those who believed it necessary for black people to try to take power for themselves by any means necessary. I could see that Dr. King was not succeeding in Chicago, too much money was made by white people in the economic structure of the slum. I came to the belief myself that there would not be real change in black communities until black people themselves could control the structures of their own communities.
But that was never to be, of course. White people controlled the legal system and the law was stacked against black people; the law supported the property rights of the white slum landlords. And white people controlled the police. Any effort of blacks to seize control of their own communities could easily be put down by the official violence of the police. The police functioned in black communities not to protect black people but like a foreign military occupation force to protect white property. The last time I visited the Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood in the late 1990s it looked like a totally bombed out area; it was being completely neglected until it got so bad that the whole area could be bulldozed out and rebuilt for a different population. When white people could no longer make money, when slums were no longer profitable, these areas of our cities around the country have been simply ignored. The immense tragedy of what has happened in cities across this country over the past four decades can be explained only by one thing, political backlash based on continuing racism so deep in American culture that most white people have been unable to perceive it let alone understand it.
About three years ago I was asked by the editor of a journal of Lutheran ethics to reflect on my years of involvement in black communities and what has happened since then. It was the first time I really tried to more systematically look over this period and try to interpret the times of my life, so to speak. I read a bunch of books on the history of the period. What began to be clear to me was the degree to which we as a country have been in the power of what I am here calling a political backlash to the events of the 1960s. I was married in 1968 and my wife and I began a family and we got beyond the 60s right away; they were an important part of our life but in the past. I went on to serve congregations in Baltimore, Maryland, Minnesota, then back to Chicago and out to Portland, Oregon. But there were some folks who got fixated on the 60s and would never forget them, and these folks are what we now call "conservatives" in our political context.
There is such a thing as public consciousness, that is, the cumulative result of how people are talking about life and values and what is good and bad, what is proper to say in public and what is not and so forth, how candidates for public office express themselves and debate issues. It is a hard thing to put your finger on, but it is very, very real. For example, it was, in general, understood to be "liberal" to be in favor of civil rights for black people. Hubert Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis in 1948 when he spoke at the Democratic national convention that year in favor of a strong civil rights plank against Southern Democrats who opposed him; Humphrey was a liberal politician. He and John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were liberal in their politics and strongly supported civil rights. When the civil rights bills were passed in the 1960s, supported by many Republicans at the time who understood themselves as liberal or moderate Republicans, Lyndon Johnson prophesied that the Democratic Party would lose the South. That is exactly what happened, of course, as we now know. Richard Nixon won the election in 1968 based on a "Southern Strategy" of appealing to white people who were opposed to the idea of a strong federal government, the same federal government which had forced them to change their ways of segregation and oppression of black people. Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in cities across the nation was attacked by Nixon as merely "throwing money at problems." Nixon ran on a platform of "law and order" which referred to the riots after Dr. King's death; more police were needed to enforce law and order in the cities. The conservative backlash has been so successful that even today no politician wants to be known as one of those terrible "liberals."
Now, the public consciousness has been changed by the civil rights movement concerning how it is considered proper to speak of black people in public. A public figure cannot get by with explicit racist comments today. Trent Lot and Rush Limbaugh found that out, for example. We now have black people in television ads and playing in professional sports. There have been a variety of gains for blacks these past years. But at the same time the conservative movement has been based on a very strong backlash against the gains of blacks, a subtle racism expressed in code words. And it has been carried by political and religious leaders from the South.
What today is called the "religious right" or the "Christian right" has its origins as a movement against the integration of schools ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954. If you want to know why conservatives today are so opposed to the Supreme Court here is the beginning of their opposition. The notion of "activist judges" comes from this decision against segregated schools in the South. To avoid integration, southern white Christians established their own private schools all across the South. These schools created associations among themselves to fight against the federal Internal Revenue Service concerning tax exemptions. This was the beginning of the organizational structure of the religious right and this also explains why the so-called social conservatives are so opposed to public schools. The origin of the anti-public school movement comes out of a backlash politics emerging from the South.
The Southern states have never been willing to tax themselves for high-quality public schools, especially for black children. This Southern attitude toward schools has now been carried by conservative backlash politics to the rest of the nation. For the past four decades the Republican Party has opposed adequate funding for schools and now calls for school choice, which means support for private and exclusive schools rather than open and public schools. This is what explains the declining quality of our schools all across the country and in so many of our cities. Backlash politics has been against raising taxes for high-quality public education. I mention this because it is one of the most important ways that the racist attitudes of the white South have had terribly negative consequences for the rest of the nation. When conservatives today talk about declining public schools the rest of us should realize that they have themselves to blame for this decline.
To understand the power of the religious right in backlash politics we also need to consider two other developments coming out of the 1960s. One of them was the women's liberation movement and the other was the student protests of the Vietnam war. Women saw that the civil rights movement was effective in changing conditions for black people and in many and various ways began to exert their own independence in relation to men. This was perhaps even a more widespread change than civil rights for blacks since it potentially affected all relations between men and women and changed the internal dynamics of family life. Women have been successful in changing the whole public consciousness of what makes for justice and equality in relations between the sexes. This is symbolized by the Supreme Court decision in 1973 which made abortion legal. And, again, the religious right has fought against these changes, against freedom and equality for women and against abortion. The whole abortion debate should be seen within this context of backlash politics. Before the civil rights movement leaders in the Southern Baptist denomination held a variety of views on abortion; after 1973 these leaders found it to be a winning political issue to oppose the Supreme Court's decision on abortion. Abortion is less a moral issue than a political wedge issue in backlash politics.
Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the first presidential candidate to expressly welcome the support of the new religious right. By doing so he immensely helped create the legitimacy of these religious leaders, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who in the 1980s became media stars through their television programs. Reagan's support legitimized the whole movement. Reagan himself did not actually follow through on his promises, he did not strongly lead against abortion, for example, which led the religious leaders to find ways to become more influential in the Republican Party, culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush who was not only elected by religious right voters but they provided the base for his political organization and election turn out, as calculated by his political strategist, Karl Rove. In my state the religious conservatives control the Republican Party.
If you go back and read the political speeches of Ronald Reagan you will find repeated references to the horror of the 1960s. In fact, when you read any of the conservative commentators you will see constant references to the 60s. In a column a couple years ago George Will actually said he was so happy for the 60s; conservatives have been riding the political backlash ever since. One of the most important of these references is to the Vietnam War. It was quite shocking to political and religious leaders at the time to be confronted by students and other demonstrators against that war, young people who refused to be drafted, young people who refused to fight in a war, refused to lay down their lives for the country. Martin Luther King had spoken against the war in Vietnam. And the United States lost that war; John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson had led the nation to fight this war, and Richard Nixon continued it, but then Nixon had to quit the presidency due to Watergate and a Democratic congress finally withheld funding for the war and Vietnam fell to the Vietnam Communists. The war was part of the Cold War, the so-called battle against atheistic Communists. Ronald Reagan wanted to redeem the United States from its loss in Vietnam and called for a strong defense against the Soviet Union. The military budget was vastly increased. The religious right supported this movement as a kind of religious crusade against atheistic Communism. Billy Graham had earlier provided the model of this crusade against Communism when he preached in Los Angeles in the early 1950s that the United States must turn to Jesus Christ or the Russians would rain down nuclear missiles against both L.A. and New York city. The religious right turned Christian beliefs into an aggressive form of religious nationalism completely focused on eliminating the evil enemy. It turned out that Reagan himself was able to talk to the Russian leader, Gorbachev, whose policies led to a peaceful end to the Soviet Union.
After the destruction of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, I wondered what would take their place. That is, we in this country had become so fixated on the enemy, so motivated by the categories of the Cold War that the country would probably need to identify some new enemy to oppose. What would it be? The answers were given by the religious right, first the so-called liberal secular humanists in the public schools, then also the gay activists who wanted to legitimize their life style, and of course, feminists who wanted to change the traditional family. This is when the phrase "culture wars" came to characterize the public consciousness. What I want to emphasize here is that the politics of the country has been what I have been calling backlash politics, a politics based on what is perceived as a threatening enemy. It is as if the political and religious leaders of this time needed something or somebody to hate, to oppose, to fight against. It is the same pattern as emerged from the civil rights battles of the 60s. But now the enemies were the liberals who supported civil rights, the liberals who supported a positive role for the federal government to provide for justice and equality for all, the liberals who had learned that it is impossible to engage in military conquest of a nation such as Vietnam in the midst of a civil war. Politics became war in this country; the goal was to destroy those terrible liberals and secular humanists. These became the new enemy after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. In the meantime the country did nothing for black people and the cities across the nation. White people continued to leave the cities for the suburbs. The emphasis on law and order continued, more and more police were hired, more and more prisons were built containing a high percentage of black people. It is as if white people decided they would pay high taxes for police and prisons but not for schools and employment programs.
The role of religion in politics over these past four decades has thus been two fold. On the one hand, religion provided the motivation and organization for the civil rights movement led by black preachers and supported by various historic mainline denominations. On the other hand, a Southern form of religion provided the motivation and organization of the backlash politics against civil rights for blacks and women and gay people. The religion supporting civil rights was non-violent. The religion of backlash politics has taken a much more violent form, engaging in a kind of politics of war, cultural war, destroy the enemy at all costs and by any means necessary. The language of backlash politics has been a violent language even if the methods cannot be explicitly so. This was the context, then, when the United States experienced the shock of an attack on September 11, 2001. Now it seemed there was a very clear new enemy, Islamic religious extremists. The war on terror began.
In the Europe of the Middle Ages the highest building in a town was a church or cathedral. The church was a very dominant institution in society. The merchant class was not of high status, usury, lending money at interest, was looked down upon. In the cities of the modern world the highest buildings are those of the merchant class, banks and insurance companies, offices for trade and commerce. Since the separation of the church and state beginning with the thinking of Martin Luther in the 16th century and institutionalized in constitutional democracies the church has not played a very significant public role. The largest buildings in the modern United States are not churches, they are monuments of the power of money. When the terrorists decided to strike at the heart of American power they chose the two most important symbols of that power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These are not Christian symbols, they are not religious symbols, they are the symbols of the power of money and military violence. Terrorist acts are communication events. Terrorists are sending a message. When James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King he was sending a message to black people from white society, don't try to change segregation in the South. When the Romans crucified Jesus and thousands of others on crosses in public places they were sending a message to the peoples of occupied lands, don't try to resist the power of the Roman Empire. So, what is the message of the 9/11 terrorists? We don't like what the United States has been doing in the Middle East, we don't like the way the United States has been using its power of money and military violence in our neighborhoods. This was not a religious message; this was a political message, an effort to get the attention of the people of the United States, an effort to tell us that not all is good about how the United States uses its economic and military power around the world.
I think that we would be wise to try to hear this message, not to justify terrorist violence, but to at least try to understand it. But our political leaders have responded by calling the 9/11 terrorists crazy religious lunatics, Islamo- fascists, believers in an irrational religion. They tell us that religious terrorists represent the transcendent challenge of our time, just as the Communists were the enemy in the Cold War that justifies the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to pay for military equipment and operations to stamp out terrorism all across the globe. They use religious language like transcendence and evil. To call the terrorists evil is a particularly dangerous thing to do, theologically and spiritually, because it seeks to justify killing and all manner of violence to destroy the evil, and it means that we are not willing also to look at the reality of evil within ourselves, to question how we as a country have been doing things in the world.
There are religious institutions in this country that have been willing to question what the United States has been doing around the world for the past four decades. These are the mainline Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, as well as many Roman Catholics. The leaders of these churches have sought to meet with George W. Bush but he has not wanted to talk with them because he knows that they are critical of his economic and military policies. Very rarely are the views of these churches reflected in the public media. The views of religious right leaders are talked about all the time because they have basically adopted the Republican Party as their political expression. George Bush not only meets with these religious leaders but has established regular organizational links with them and speaks in an apocalyptic language which matches their religious views about the end of the world. The mainline denominations, while critical, have not sought to identify themselves with one political party. Members of these denominations have organized themselves into many different groups working for both peace and justice both in the United States and around the world today. These are the voices of religious sanity in our time. They do not conceive of Islam as a threat to civilization which would justify a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Rather they are working to find ways for religious bodies to further mutual understandings and common ways to work together for peace in the world.
There are scholars today who believe that the world is trapped in what Bernard Lewis and then Samuel Huntingdon call "clash of civilizations," a major conflict between the Christian civilized world and the Islamist backward world. Thinking this way is terribly dangerous because it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This way of thinking is a means of justifying by religious categories the use of military violence against the terrible threat of Islam. This way of thinking associates religion as the cause of political violence. I reject this way of thinking. I think it is fundamentally untrue.
As I have discussed throughout this presentation, the primary issues having to do with Martin Lutheran King and civil rights were issues of political and economic justice. Religion was a motivating factor for Dr. King but the underlying problems were not religious but economic and political. And as I have reviewed the past four decades one of the things that I have concluded is that the modern business corporation has grown vastly in its power over politics, government, and society. The backlash politics emerging out of the Southern United States concerning civil rights has opposed the idea of a strong federal government able to provide protection to black people and others who are victims of economic injustice. This opposition to strong federal government has combined with conservative economic philosophy promulgated by the modern business corporation. Business interests and foundations have over the past four decades funded a large number of think tanks to promote conservative ideas. And they have also funded the organizations of the religious right, which in many ways is actually a commercial form of organized religion. Finally the social and economic conservatives are joined by the so-called neoconservatives in foreign policy who believe that the United States should use its military power around the world to create basically a kind of American empire. Now there are those, such as neoconservatives, who indeed want to claim that the Christian faith should be used to support and encourage this kind of American empire, an empire, however, that has at its center not democracy but the power of the modern corporation on a global level.
Over the past decades the military of the United States has been used to protect the economic interests of the modern business corporation. This is especially true in the Middle East and especially related to the state of Israel. I have not had time here to demonstrate this but anyone reading books on this history would have to agree. It is not the Christian church that was concerned with oil in Iraq, it was modern business. It was not religious faith that motivated our dealings with Iran and Iraq, it was the desire for economic gain. We should not therefore begin to blame religion for the violence in that region. I myself believe that the situation is very similar to that of black people living in the United States; they have been economically oppressed, the official violence of the police has been used to maintain that oppression, and religion was the only institution left through which black people could organize resistance. In the same way, the United States, following the colonizing pattern of Great Britain, has so dominated the area of the Middle East that now the people of that area have only their religion to use as a means of resistance. Though religion is a factor, the real and most important factors are political and economic both in this country and abroad.
The backlash politics in this country appears now to be approaching the end of its power. The failure of the war in Iraq to be an easy victory has thoroughly discredited neoconservative beliefs. The leaders and issues of the religious right are changing. Jerry Falwell is dead. The South itself is changing. And the current presidential election has no candidate that appears to be electable in either party that represents the extremes of the social conservatives. Indeed, in one party a woman or a black man will be the presidential nominee. The American public has become tired of the hostile and angry nature of the backlash politics which is always looking for an enemy to hate and destroy. Maybe it is time to deal with the real issues, which are always the fundamental issues leading to violence, issues that were central to the biblical prophets, issues of political and economic justice.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to discuss these important matters with you today.
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