Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gaza's Spiritual Renaissance Man

On May 21, the Israeli daily Haaretz published an Associated Press (AP) article about the aftermath of the killing of four Palestinian chldren by Israeli forces during the IDF's genocidal attack on Gaza in January. AP often, some observers say typically, self-censors news about Palestinian children killed by the IDF. The story excerpted below is the kind of news article that AP writers and editors know Israeli censors will let pass because of its tacit, uncritical acceptance of Israel's genocidal policies and actions in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories. Even so, it is also a true story about a Gaza doctor's remarkable triumph over the most demoralizing and destructive passions known to man.

This frankly astonishing story of forgiveness has not received the attention it deserves in Western mainstream media, which aren't much interested in forgiveness and love, especially when the hero is a selfless Palestinian Muslim physician. After all, why confuse Western audiences with a news story that momentarily draws back the curtains of disinformation, ignorance, and cognitive dissonance to reveal an all too rare glimpse of spiritual reality?

"Hate and revenge is a disease, and I don't want to be diseased or sick." --Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish
Gaza doctor whose family were killed by IDF fundraises for Israeli hospital by The Associated Press

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza infertility specialist, is a familiar figure to Israelis - a Palestinian who crossed the lines of enmity years ago to work in Israeli hospitals and become a frequent guest on Israeli TV and radio.

But the interview he did on Jan. 16, as Israeli forces waged war on Gaza's Hamas rulers, was horrifyingly different: Israeli tank shells had just killed three of his daughters, and he was phoning an Israeli journalist-friend, live on the air, to plead for help in evacuating the wounded, including another daughter and a niece.

Four months later, far from voicing bitterness over his loss, Abuelaish is trying to turn his tragedy into hope, raising money for a scholarship fund for Gaza girls and an Israeli hospital, and preaching reconciliation.

"We need to open our eyes, our minds and to have big hearts, to smash the mental and physical barriers and borders, to build the broken trust," said the Harvard-trained son of a Gaza laborer, sitting in the apartment where 14-year-old Aya, 15-year-old Mayar and 21-year-old Bissan were killed two days before the war ended.

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has begun a round of meetings with Middle East leaders on how to end the Middle East conflict, Abuelaish's story illuminates the reality at ground level. With Israelis and Palestinians increasingly separated by fences and fear, it has offered a rare example of suffering on one side drawing empathy from the other.

Born in Gaza's largest refugee camp, the eldest of nine children, the 54-year-old doctor navigates easily between worlds. One day, he's bowing in Muslim prayer in Gaza. The next, he's chatting with fellow physicians at Tel Hashomer, a leading Tel Aviv-area hospital.

During the Gaza war, launched to end Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns, Israeli journalists often turned to him for a Gaza perspective, delivered in his fluent Hebrew.

Abuelaish, a widower, and his children, ages 6 to 21, spent the war in their apartment on the second floor of the five-story family building he shares with his brothers and their families in the town of Jebaliya, close to the border with Israel.

On Jan. 3, after a week of air attacks, Israeli tanks and ground forces moved into the Gaza Strip, including the doctor's neighborhood, and over the next two weeks would fire heavily, demolishing homes they said were thought to serve as Hamas positions.

On Jan. 16, Abuelaish was due to be interviewed by phone by Channel 10, a commercial Israeli TV station.

Four of his older daughters - Aya, Mayar, Bissan and 17-year-old Shada - were in their room that day, along with his niece Noor, 17. Shortly after 4:30 p.m., the first shell crashed into the home.

Abuelaish ran to the girls' room. "Aya, Mayar, Bissan and Noor were dead, their bodies torn, pools of blood on the floor," he said. "Shada was badly wounded in the right eye and hand."

"I don't want anyone to witness what I witnessed," Abuelaish said quietly.

He scooped up Shada. A second shell struck, critically wounding 12-year-old niece Ghaida and two of the doctor's brothers.

The doctor quickly took charge.

Fearing that Ghaida would die and Shada go blind, he called his friend, Shlomi Eldar, Palestinian affairs reporter for Israel's Channel 10 TV.

Eldar aired their conversation live ... [and] fought back tears as he urged anyone from the Israeli military who was watching the program to help the doctor. Then he worked the phones to get someone to rescue the family, said Ofer Shelah, a Channel 10 anchorman.

"Everybody was flabbergasted," he recalled. "It was a very shocking, human moment for everyone involved."

Palestinian ambulances couldn't reach the house for fear of coming under Israeli fire, so the family left on foot for the nearest Palestinian hospital, with teenagers carrying the wounded on makeshift stretchers. After many phone calls, Gaza ambulances drove the wounded to the border for a transfer to Tel Hashomer that was covered live by Channel 10 during evening prime time.

Shelah said he believes the doctor's tragedy changed attitudes. Israeli public support for the offensive remained strong, as a justified response to years of rocket fire, but Abuelaish made them empathize for the first time with Gaza civilians, he said. "He is such a winning person and his response was so noble that you couldn't sweep it under the rug as Palestinian propaganda, Shelah said."

The army says ... it had repeatedly urged the doctor and others in the building to leave for their own safety.

Abuelaish denies getting warnings and insists there were no militants in his building or any shooting in the area until the tank shells struck. ...

But Abuelaish says time is too precious to be wasted on arguments. "Hate and revenge is a disease, he says, and I don't want to be diseased or sick."

He is now walking a path others have traveled before him, among them several hundred bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who come together in what they call The Parents' Circle.

"In both societies, people are willing to listen to the bereaved," said an Israeli leader of the group, Roni Hirshenson, who has lost two sons to the conflict, one of them in a Palestinian suicide bombing.

"The message is that if the families of victims on both sides speak out together, we can overcome the hatred and act with reason," said Hirshenson, 67, who visited Abuelaish at Tel Hashomer after the war to try to comfort him. ...

The doctor is taking up a teaching position at the University of Toronto in the fall and will probably leave with his surviving children, Abdullah, 6; Ghafa, 9, Mohammed, 13; Dalal, 20; and Shada. Shada's eyesight was saved, and last week she was at home sitting in front of a pile of books, cramming for her high school finals.

Abuelaish will also spend part of each year teaching at Haifa University in Israel, and plans to return to Gaza in five years.

He plans to write a book about his life to make the case for coexistence. In partnership with Tel Hashomer, he is helping to raise money for a conference center there, to be named after his daughters.

"I lost three precious daughters, but I have another five [children]" he said. "I have a future, I have my people, and hatred and revenge can be driven out by love and wisdom."

Below are some passages from a modern classic that may help Western audiences put Dr. Abuelaish's truly remarkable ability to co-exist and work with Israelis despite Israel's brutal policies in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories, and his inspirational efforts to rise above the tragic loss of three daughters and a niece, into perspective.

100:4.1 Religious living is devoted living, and devoted living is creative living, original and spontaneous. New religious insights arise out of conflicts which initiate the choosing of new and better reaction habits in the place of older and inferior reaction patterns. New meanings only emerge amid conflict; and conflict persists only in the face of refusal to espouse the higher values connoted in superior meanings.

100:4.2 Religious perplexities are inevitable; there can be no growth without psychic conflict and spiritual agitation. The organization of a philosophic standard of living entails considerable commotion in the philosophic realms of the mind. Loyalties are not exercised in behalf of the great, the good, the true, and the noble without a struggle. Effort is attendant upon clarification of spiritual vision and enhancement of cosmic insight. And the human intellect protests against being weaned from subsisting upon the nonspiritual energies of temporal existence. The slothful animal mind rebels at the effort required to wrestle with cosmic problem solving.

100:4.3 But the great problem of religious living consists in the task of unifying the soul powers of the personality by the dominance of LOVE. Health, mental efficiency, and happiness arise from the unification of physical systems, mind systems, and spirit systems. Of health and sanity man understands much, but of happiness he has truly realized very little. The highest happiness is indissolubly linked with spiritual progress. Spiritual growth yields lasting joy, peace which passes all understanding.

When we better understand the necessity of focusing on our common goals, our common interests, and the values that we hold in common, we will find better ways to live together, in peace.

After all, "Ones man's collateral damage is another man's child."


And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. — Jesus, Luke 6:31, King James Version.

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself. — The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Hadith

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. — Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gillespie: Senator Tom Harkin Calls for Release of Torture Photos

Senator Tom Harkin deserves a lot of credit for taking the stand he has on the torture photos, in my opinion. The senator is Catholic, and I have come to realize that Catholics, perhaps more than some other denominations, seem to understand that torture is

simply not an issue on which we can be silent.

Perhaps the finest book about the military and war that I've read over the years is Soldier, a memoir by Lt. Col. Anthony B. Herbert, a career U.S. Army officer who served in Korea and in Vietnam. Herbert, too, is Catholic, and his is a remarkable book about an equally remarkable life. Entering the Army before he was legally old enough, Herbert saw action as an enlisted man in Korea. After Korea, he left the Army to earn a BA in English and later a Masters in Psychology. He returned to the Army as an officer and during the Vietnam war commanded a line battalion of the 173rd Infantry Brigade, the outfit my childhood friend Philip Reeder (1949-1968) served and died in, too, too young. Herbert turned his battalion into one of the highest rated combat units of the war. But he witnessed torture in Vietnam, and he steadfastly refused to turn a blind eye to those crimes. Speaking out against the war and against torture while still in uniform, Herbert paid a high price for his efforts, sacrificing his very promising military career and a great deal more.

Herbert's story left me wondering what would cause a man who was so deeply dedicated to the U.S. military to make that kind of sacrifice. It was several years before I found an answer to that question one day while reading something about Mary Karr, author of the blockbuster best-selling memoir The Liar's Club. Though I can't recall ever having met Karr, we both grew up in Southeast Texas, in towns not 15 miles apart, as contemporaries, and later left the South and studied writing in various places including Cambridge, MA. Our experiences are similar in other ways, too. After a "lifetime of undiluted agnosticism," Karr converted to Catholicism in 1996. She has talked of the experiences that led her to a place to practice her faith. As I read an interview in which Karr spoke about those experiences, I came across this short, memorable paragraph: "A lot of things appeal to me about a lot of religions. I would have thought I was going to end up Episcopalian, but the fact that there wasn't a body on the cross was too subtle for me. And the carnality of the [Catholic] Church really drew me--that there is a body on the cross, that we are hunks of meat."

As I read those words, I suddenly understood why Anthony Herbert had sacrificed his military career and why Catholics, perhaps more often than those of some other Christian faith traditions, seem to understand, at great depth, the issue of torture.

"There is a body on the cross."

As it happens I'm not Catholic, but I think we all need to support Sen. Harkin on this issue.

Sen. Tom Harkin Calls for Release of Torture Photos

by Michael Gillespie
for The Independent Monitor
5/15/2009 – 1,766 words

Speaking to Iowa Public Radio (IPR) audiences on Thursday, May 14, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) called for President Obama to release to the public photos depicting the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is one time I think I’ll have to disagree with the president. I think the photos should be released,” said Harkin in response to a question put to him by Ben Kieffer, host of IPR’s popular daily public affairs program, The Exchange.

Kieffer had asked Harkin, “Yesterday President Obama declared that he would try to block the court ordered release of photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners. He said this abrupt reversal of his position came out of concern that the pictures would further inflame anti-American opinion and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is your view of the president’s reversal?”

“I think the public has a right to know what was done by government officials. That’s the very basis of our democracy. That’s especially true when it concerns official government policy that was in direct conflict with our most basic values and where laws were broken,” said Harkin. The experienced and influential lawmaker and former Navy pilot served 10 years in the House of Representatives before his election to the Senate in 1984.

“This is one where a lot of the blame has been put on lower ranking military people … I think we need to know, more and more, who authorized this at the highest levels. So, I think these pictures should be put out. We have to tell the world again that one of the good things about America is our transparency, and we will look at things and we will investigate things to find out who did these deeds. So, I disagree with the president on this one,” said Harkin.

Harkin serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee on the Defense Subcommittee and on the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee.

Harkin’s call for President Obama to allow the Department of Justice to release at least 44 additional prisoner abuse photos, as ordered by Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2005, came on the same day that the Appropriations Committee released the "Highlights of FY 2009 Supplemental". The bill totals $91.3 billion. It includes "$73 billion in new non-emergency, discretionary spending authority for the Department of Defense under the Defense Subcommittee’s jurisdiction." The Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee title of the supplemental totals "$6.878 billion to address urgent diplomatic, humanitarian, development and security requirements in countries and regions where U.S. security interests are facing major challenges."

“Do you worry that [Obama] is buckling on this under pressure on this from people like Dick Cheney?” Kieffer asked Harkin.

“I can’t imagine that Dick Cheney could make him buckle ... I just think that he’s probably getting a lot of input from the military and all the others. I don’t know whether [CIA Director] Leon Panetta’s been involved in this or not, I just don’t know, but whatever advice he’s gotten has been wrong, and I dare say the pictures are going to come out. … You can’t keep these under wraps forever. One way or the other, they’re gonna get out. I think the president ought to be forthright and say, ‘You know, what we did was wrong, and those who authorized this ought to be held accountable,’” said Harkin.

Kieffer reminded his listeners of Harkin’s military service and his involvement in an abuse and torture controversy during the Vietnam era, pressing the senator again on the issue of potential risks associated with the release of the photos.

“Senator, you were in the military as a Navy pilot. You flew battle damaged planes from Vietnam and the Philippines to Japan for repair. Later, as an aide on a Congressional visit to a South Vietnamese island, prison island of Con Son in 1970, you photographed so-called ‘tiger cages’ in which political prisoners were being kept, and these pictures you took, some made it to Life magazine. So you certainly know the power of images. Don’t you worry that this will further inflame anti-American opinion around the world as the president argues, that this will endanger our troops when we are, perhaps, on the road to gaining greater goodwill?” asked Kieffer.

Harkin turned the tough question to his advantage, using it as an opportunity to tell his constituents that his position on the controversial issue is one informed by personal experience, thoughtful reflection, and deep conviction.

“Well, interesting you mention that whole ‘tiger cage’ episode. As you know, I was working in the House at the time as a staff member. I was also told not to release those pictures. I was told it was going to damage our troops in Vietnam, it was going to harm our people, our prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Basically, I was really excoriated and told that I shouldn’t release them, but I felt that I had a higher obligation. I had an obligation to those people who were in those prison camps, who were there unjustly, being tortured, put to death. And I felt the United States should not be involved, and I knew, at that point in time, I knew that this was being condoned and actually over—there was oversight by some of our government agencies. And by putting those pictures out, I think that it—all these people released from these prison cells, some of them went on to lead very distinguished lives in Vietnam and here in America. It put an end, at least at that time, to some of the really, I think, illegal things that we were doing in those ‘tiger cages’. So, I’m very sensitive to this. If there are pictures out there, they ought to be made public. These things have to be made public. I feel very strongly about that,” said Harkin.

Harkin’s official web site notes that he “went to Washington in 1969 to join the staff of Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. As a staff member accompanying a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous ‘tiger cage’ cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners—many of them students—were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Despite pressure to suppress his findings, Tom’s photos and eyewitness account were published in Life magazine. As a result, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.

“In 1972, Tom and [his wife] Ruth graduated in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in Washington, D.C. They returned to Iowa, and settled in Ames. Tom worked with Polk County Legal Aid, assisting low-income Iowans who could not afford legal help. Ruth won election as Story County Attorney, becoming the first female elected to this position.”

Kieffer asked again about the political implications of former Vice-President Cheney’s high-profile role in the torture controversy.

“How do you view the ‘front and center’ role of former Vice-President Dick Cheney as the foremost defender of the Bush administration within recent days?” asked Kieffer.

“I just don’t think Dick Cheney has any credibility at all left. Here’s someone who consistently lied, and I use that word in all of its meaning, lied to the American people about Iraq, about Saddam Hussein, about weapons of mass destruction. He is the only vice-president in history who went down to the CIA and inserted himself in CIA operations as the vice-president. So, Cheney, to me, is someone who had a world view, he had a belief in what the world was like, and what our enemies were like, and the real world did not comport with his belief system. Now he wants to continue to say that his belief system trumps everything, whereas the facts and reality are completely different,” said Harkin.

“From a purely partisan perspective as a Democrat you must be happy to see someone like Cheney with such low approval ratings be the public face of the opposition,” said Kieffer.

“Well, when Dick Cheney gets up and denigrates Colin Powell and holds up as the epitome of what a Republican is Rush Limbaugh, I can understand why more and more moderate Republicans are becoming Democrats,” replied Harkin.

Powell, Secretary of State during former President George W. Bush’s first term, endorsed Obama during the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign. Powell’s former Chief-of-Staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, testified on June 18, 2008 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights hearing on torture that well over 100 detainees had died in U.S. custody and that 27 of those deaths had officially been declared to be homicides.

Cheney’s office is widely reported to have been at the center of the Bush administration’s “enhanced” or “harsh interrogation technique” policy. On December 15, 2008, Cheney told ABC News that, “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the [CIA] in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.”

After WWII, the U.S. government tried and convicted Japanese military officers of war crimes for waterboarding prisoners.

On May 10, Cheney told CBS’s Face the Nation that President Obama’s decision to dismantle the Bush administration’s interrogation programs had made the USA more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

In an article published on May 14, Wilkerson, a Republican, wrote, “My investigations have revealed to me--vividly and clearly--that once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the Spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering 'the Cheney methods of interrogation', simply shut down. Nada. Nothing. No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.

"What I am saying is that no torture or harsh interrogation techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator for the entire second term of Cheney-Bush, 2005-2009. So, if we are to believe the protestations of Dick Cheney, that Obama's having shut down the 'Cheney interrogation methods' will endanger the nation, what are we to say to Dick Cheney for having endangered the nation for the last four years of his vice presidency?

"Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida. So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee ‘was compliant’ (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, ‘revealed’ such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop. There in fact were no such contacts.”

Funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as the “Global War on Terror” during the Bush administration but re-branded in late March as “Overseas Contingency Operations” by the Obama administration, is dependent upon Appropriations Committee approval.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Gillespie: Corporate News Outlets Ignore Interfaith Appeal for Peace

Corporate News Outlets Ignore Interfaith Appeal for Peace

by Michael Gillespie

12/26/07

Des Moines, IA – The Iowa Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and The Shalom Center, headquartered in Philadelphia, teamed up recently to promote the Interfaith Peace Committee (IPC)’s call for peace in the Middle East and campaign against a U.S. attack on Iran. The IPC’s statement, "A Pax on Both Our Houses" (pax is Latin for peace), calls on the government of the United States to “end all actions, threats, plans, or support for war against Iran,” and for the religious authorities of Iran to “end all threats against the existence of Israel and all denials of the historical truth of the Nazi Holocaust, and to make clear that Iran will not support violence against civilians by its own or other forces, and to reaffirm for the future their prohibition of any effort to seek nuclear weapons for Iran.”

The statement also calls for “the governments of both nations at once to open direct talks on all issues of mutual concern, looking toward a mutual peace” and for “the American government to move forward in the spirit of humility and generosity, rather than arrogance and domination, toward a broad peace settlement in the entire Middle East, including an end to the occupation of Iraq, peace between Israel and Palestine and all the other states in the region, and a major international effort to protect human rights and promote grass-roots economic development in the region.”

That the statement makes no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, nor of any plans for a nuclear-free Middle East, nor of an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory no doubt made endorsement easier for many of the American Jewish signatories, the list of which includes at least 25 Rabbis. Despite its glaring omissions and lack of specificity, this statement by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders constitutes an important and timely appeal to civil rulers to step away from the brink of a catastrophic wider war and choose peace. It proposes real and immediate if somewhat vaguely defined alternatives to neoconservative militarism, and it proves that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can reason together, compromise, and agree to move forward together toward common goals.

“A Pax on Both Our Houses” has been endorsed by more than 60 nationally and internationally recognized Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders including Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, USA; Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ; Rev. James Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; Rabbi Or N. Rose, Associate Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College; Rabbi Shelia Peltz Weinberg, Institute for Jewish Spirituality; Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun; Imam Madhi Bray, Executive Director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation; Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; and Sheila Musaji, Editor of The American Muslim. Many of the leaders who signed the statement, including both Bray and Mattson, did so in their capacities as leaders of the organizations they serve.

The Shalom Center, which describes itself as “a network of American Jews who draw on Jewish tradition and spirituality to seek peace, pursue justice, heal the earth, and build community,” was founded in 1983 “to address the raging nuclear arms race from a Jewish perspective.” Hoping to gain the attention of mainstream media news organizations and presidential candidates, the Shalom Center’s director, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, partnered with the Iowa Chapter of the MFSA, which purchased a full page advertisement in the December 20 edition of the Des Moines Register. Waskow traveled to Des Moines for a press conference on December 19 to put the call for peace before the public and the 2008 presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa.

“A Pax on Both Our Houses,” a very significant interfaith call for peace in the Middle East, quickly and easily garnered support among leading progressive political, social, and religious organizations in Iowa. Vernon Naffier, President of the Progressive Coalition of Central Iowa, endorsed “A Pax on Both Our Houses.” So did the Catholic Peace Ministry; the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Iowa; and the Board of Church and Society, Iowa Annual Conference, United Methodist Church.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) sent an aide, Margaret Vernon, to the press conference to read a statement favoring diplomatic engagement with Iran. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie attended the press conference and by all accounts delivered a moving statement of support for peace in the Middle East. In addition to Waskow, Cownie, Vernon, and Naffier, also speaking at the press conference were Dr. David Drake, former Clerk of the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting and a member of the Iowa Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility who recently returned from a two week visit to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship for Reconciliation; Inez Ireland, on behalf of UMC Bishop of Iowa Gregory Palmer; Jeffrey Weiss, representing AFSC Iowa; and Eloise Cranke, representing MFSA Iowa.

The only people invited who didn’t bother to show up for the press conference were the reporters.

Given that this interfaith effort to prevent an attack on Iran comes at what may be a crucial moment during a war in which religion plays a far more complex role than in the past, during a time when religion and theology are finding dramatically increased expression in public life and in the political arena and in ways that directly impact political decision-making at the highest levels of government, the evident indifference of so many mainstream media organizations to the Shalom Center/MFSA Iowa press conference in support of “A Pax on Both Our Houses” seems almost inexplicably counterintuitive.

Rev. Chester Guinn of the MFSA said he personally delivered the group’s press release about “A Pax on Both Our Houses” and invitation to the press conference to the Des Moines Register, to local television and radio stations, to the Associated Press (AP) including a personal e-mail to Mike Glover, Iowa Statehouse Correspondent and Chief Political Writer for the Des Moines bureau of the AP, and to CNN. Yet not even one representative of the local mainstream media news organizations, print or broadcast, showed up for the press conference. Only one national mainstream media news organization showed any interest whatsoever; a New York Times reporter listened to the news conference via telephone.

Guinn said he feels that mainstream media have decided to divert the public’s attention from the war/peace issue to domestic concerns.

“If a sentence or two appears in a New York Times article reflecting that Iowans still regard the Middle East war issue more important that domestic issues, we will be very pleased,” said Guinn.

And despite their concerted efforts that’s about all these would-be peacemakers got from corporate media. On December 20, the New York Times published a four-sentence article headlined "Religious Leaders Call for Talks with Iran" in the National Briefing section. The article did not name any of the organizations involved nor any of the organizers or signatories. The nation’s self-described newspaper of record buried its dismissive note, less than 100 words about an important interfaith initiative in behalf of peace, on page 24.

Guinn’s and others’ concerns about efforts by mainstream news media organizations to downplay public interest in the crises in the Middle East and the war in Iraq in particular are well founded according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the nation’s most prominent media watchdog group. A FAIR Media Advisory dated 12/19/07 is titled “War Is Over--Say the Pundits: But it’s media, not voters, who seem to have lost interest in Iraq.” FAIR reports that, “To hear many in the mainstream media tell it, the Iraq War is of diminishing importance to American voters. But the evidence for such a shift in the electorate is thin at best--suggesting that journalists and pundits are really the ones who would rather not talk about Iraq as we head into an election year.”

Mainstream media news organizations’ apparent disinterest in and indifference to interfaith or multireligious efforts in support of peace come into sharper focus when considered against the backdrop of the cacophony of Jewish and Christian Zionist voices who enjoy ready access the nation’s largest and most widely-read, -viewed, and -listened to print and broadcast news organizations while promoting war.

John Hagee, pastor of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, is the author of a book titled Jerusalem Countdown in which “he argues that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ,” according to Sara Posner’s August 2006 article for Alternet. “In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which, as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said would cause ‘a political earthquake,’” wrote Posner. An on-line archive search reveals that Hagee has been featured or quoted in at least ten articles (totaling more than 8,500 words) published in the New York Times since 1996. Other Christian Zionist leaders and supporters of Israel, including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, have enjoyed similar access to the nation’s newspapers and broadcast news outlets. An article by Elizabeth White appearing in the Houston Chronicle and others newspapers on December 23 reported that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister whose meteoric rise in the polls has made him a serious contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, had that Sunday preached to more than 5,000 worshipers at Hagee’s church in San Antonio. Huckabee’s candidacy has been endorsed by Hagee and by Tim LaHaye, author of the best-selling Left Behind series, Christian Zionist propaganda disguised as poorly-crafted fiction. LaHaye has been accused of promoting theocracy by Theocracy Watch, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP), located at Cornell University. Both Hagee and LaHaye have been criticized for overtly anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Leading Jewish neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz also enjoys ready access to mainstream media news outlets. His advocacy of U.S. military action against Iran has received wide attention in the mainstream media. On May 30, the Wall Street Journal published a commentary by Podhoretz titled, “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” Podhoretz, a foreign policy advisor to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination, is one of the signatories of the “Statement of Principles” of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Podhoretz was awarded the President Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a U.S. president can bestow on a civilian, by George W. Bush in 2004.

The difference in mainstream media news organizations’ treatment of religious voices promoting peace, compared to the coverage accorded those promoting uncritical support of Israel, vilifying Islam and predominately Arab and Muslim nations, and promoting U.S. military action against Iran, could hardly be more stark or more obviously a threat to a society that values social stability, racial harmony, and its long tradition of religious pluralism.

An article by Allan C. Brownfeld in the January 2008 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs calls attention to the dangerously hyperbolic rhetoric of the Jewish far-Right. “In certain Jewish circles,” writes Brownfeld, “today’s world is being compared to 1938, just before the Nazi assault on Poland began World War II. An April conference in New York entitled ‘Is it 1938 Again’ featured such speakers as Norman Podhoretz, Alan Dershowitz, Hillel Halkin and Malcolm Hoenlein.”

Brownfeld notes that, “In a recent Commentary essay [Podhoretz] depicted President Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary, ‘like Hitler … whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it … with a new world order dominated by Iran.’”

“‘I pray with all my heart,’ Podhoretz concluded, that President Bush, ‘will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions toward both us and Israel,’” writes Brownfeld.

“Not only are these individuals and groups promoting a pre-emptive war against Iran completely unrepresentative of American Jewish opinion, but they are advocating a policy which would be harmful to the interests of Israel, the U.S., and the larger world. Hopefully, sanity will prevail and these wolf-criers with an agenda will be isolated as the extremists they are,” writes Brownfeld.

Many mainstream media news organizations were duped by falsified intelligence reports and overawed by the jingoistic excess that characterized the Bush administration’s slick public relations campaign designed to incite Americans’ patriotic fervor in support of the rush to war in and occupation of Iraq.

During a Q & A session after his presentation at a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School in February 2007, this reporter asked Richard Doak, a then-recently retired senior member of the Des Moines Register editorial board, why press coverage of the Bush administration’s case the invasion of Iraq proved to be such a fiasco. Doak’s reply included his frank admission that, “We were intimidated. Reporters didn't question the administration's claims.”

Doak gets points for honesty and candor in responding to that question, but some still recall that in 2003, in the months after Rachel Corrie was run over and crushed in Rafah, Gaza, by a 60-ton armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Force (IDF), the editorial board that Doak headed reneged, without notification or explanation, on a promise that the Corrie family’s op-ed piece about Rachel’s death would appear in the Des Moines Register. Such callous disregard for the grieving Iowa family shocked most who learned of it. In any case, Doak’s answer doesn’t begin to adequately address the enormously damaging and still widening credibility gap at the heart of Americans’ well-documented distrust of and lack of respect for professional or, more accurately, corporate journalism and mainstream media news organizations today.

That the Bush administration’s effort to turn the nation’s major news organizations into cheerleading squads for an ill-conceived, illegal, unjust, unnecessary, unwinnable, disastrously counterproductive, and cripplingly expensive preventive war of choice in Iraq was so largely successful is arguably one result of a more general collapse of ethical standards and norms in professional journalism associated with decades of consolidation in corporate media and the consequent exclusion of independent voices from the public discussion. Almost five years after the invasion of Iraq, most mainstream media news organizations seem to be as studiously disinterested in interfaith initiatives as ever and equally indifferent to the concerns of citizens, community leaders, and community organizations involved in various peacemaking initiatives. In Iowa, a well-established pattern reflects that disinterest and indifference.

The Iowa Dialog Center (IDC) hosted its Annual Friendship and Dialog Dinner, an interfaith event, on October 10 at the Embassy Suites on the River in Des Moines. About 75 people attended. The IDC had sponsored a trip to Turkey for 11 Americans, mostly Iowans, mostly people with some connection to churches and other Christian religious organizations. One of those who went on the trip, Rev. Karen Parker, a recently retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor and former assistant to the Bishop of the Pacifica Synod, presented the keynote address at the dinner. Later, another of the travelers talked about his experiences during the two-week visit to Turkey, and there was a sad, funny, and instructive moment during the Q & A that followed. Apparently unaware who had provided the meal he had just finished, one of the dinner guests bestirred himself to ask, “Where are the voices of the moderate Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11?” The speaker, one of the clerics who had traveled to Turkey with the IDC, looked mildly embarrassed. He paused, smiled, and replied saying that the question was “very similar to one some of our Turkish hosts asked of us.” Many in the audience politely attempted to stifle their laughter.

Mainstream media news organizations all too often traffic in stereotypes and ignorance. The unthinking guest at the IDC dinner who asked about moderate Muslims was parroting a question--a misleading complaint, really--that he, like all of us, has heard again and again because it has rolled off the mainstream media conveyor belt for years: “Where are the moderate Muslim voices?” Far better questions would be: “Where is mainstream media news coverage of moderate Muslim voices?” “Where is mainstream media news coverage of local activities in support of tolerance, interfaith conversation and cooperation, peace, and social justice?” And, “Where is mainstream media news coverage of the many voices, organizations, and activities at local, state, regional, and national levels representing the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans, the 70 percent who want the war in Iraq brought to an end?”

It's no wonder some of our country’s allies and would-be allies, aghast at the arrogance and exclusivist zealotry that has characterized our U.S. Middle East foreign policy since 9/11--though the serious imbalance in U.S. Middle East foreign policy was evident long before that tragic day--are now investing in non-profit organizations at the local, state, and regional levels in cities across America in a desperate attempt to engage and educate Americans outside the Washington beltway through interfaith conversation and intercultural interaction. This is necessary because, in addition to ignoring interfaith and peace and social justice community events happening right under their noses here at home, mainstream media corporations also persistently fail to provide Americans with unbiased, accurate, substantive, and useful information about the world beyond our borders and the impact of our government’s policies and actions there.

This reporter has covered dozens of local dinners, conferences, fairs, meetings, celebrations, and speeches with a focus on interfaith dialog and intercultural relations here in Iowa over the past several years, far more often than not as the only journalist in attendance, and that was the case at the IDC's annual Friendship and Dialog Dinner. As he so often does, Mayor Frank Cownie found time in his busy schedule to put in an appearance, but, just as at the more recent press conference announcing “A Pax on Both Our Houses,” reporters from the Des Moines Register and other local mainstream media news outlets who had been invited failed to appear.

Is it asking too much to expect the Gannett Co., Inc., the largest newspaper publisher in the nation and a leading international news and information corporation that publishes the Des Moines Register and 84 other daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA Today, with a combined daily paid circulation of more than 7 million (not to mention the 23 television stations Gannett operates in the U.S., its nearly 1,000 non-daily publications, or its international assets), to devote the resources necessary to report on these kinds of events? Surely, if the newspaper’s editors valued such activities or their professional responsibility to report the news, the Des Moines Register, with 1,000 employees, would find a way to assign one or two reporters to devote a few hours a week to local interfaith, intercultural, peace, and social justice organizations’ events and activities. Publisher Laura Hollingsworth has written that, “The Register’s job is to connect, lead and inspire. And that means delivering information to our community when and how they want it.” But perhaps she and Editor Carolyn Washburn view reportage that might encourage interfaith cooperation and promote peace as inconsistent with Gannett’s ownership of Army Times Publishing Co., publishers of Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, and Marine Corps Times, which Gannett’s web site describes as “the ‘bibles’ of the military market”? Or, perhaps they fear the wrath of Jewish and Christian Zionist business owners who advertise in the newspaper?

While the Des Moines Register generally fails to report on interfaith activities and peace and social justice community events happening on its doorstep, some of the newspaper’s columnists deserve credit for their efforts, as does the newspaper’s editorial page for publishing letters that address these events and issues.

Millions of Americans voted against war in 2006. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have marched against war and taken part in other activities in support of justice and peace in the Middle East. Many thousands of Americans from a variety of backgrounds have worked diligently for years to improve community relations, build and strengthen community-based interfaith and intercultural organizations, and promote peace. There is still much work to be done.

“I doubt if waging a direct attack on any segment of the media is worth the effort when our energy is already overtaxed,” said Guinn, already looking to the future and the next major event on the community calendar.

“Plans for the production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in Des Moines and possibly Ames are moving ahead,” said Guinn, “Time: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2 pm matinee and 7:30 pm evening performance. Place: Grace United Methodist Church. Suggested admission donation: Adults $20, students $10.”

This reporter would like to cordially invite Laura Hollingsworth and Carolyn Washburn to attend the Des Moines production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, in the hope that they might find inspiration in a truly courageous young woman’s words and actions.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jensen: We Are All Prophets Now

We Are All Prophets Now: Responsibilities and Risks in the Prophetic Voice
by Robert Jensen

It may be the fate of humans always to believe that we live at the most important time in history, that our moment is the decisive moment. But even factoring in this tendency toward collective self-centeredness, it is difficult to ignore that today we face multiple crises -- economic, political, cultural, and, most crucially, ecological -- which have the potential to make ongoing life on the scale we know it impossible. Predictions about the specifics of the trajectory are beyond our capabilities, but we can know -- if we choose to know -- that we must solve problems for which there are no apparent solutions and face “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow Wes Jackson’s phrase.[1] These threats have been building for the past 10,000 years, intensifying in the past two centuries to levels that only the foolhardy would ignore. The bills for the two most destructive revolutions in human history -- the agricultural and industrial revolutions -- are coming due, sooner than we think.[2]

Never before in this world have we had such a need for strong, principled, charismatic leadership. In the United States, where such leadership is most desperately needed at this crucial moment, we can look around the national scene -- whether in politics, business, religion, or intellectual life -- and see that no one is up to the task.

Thank goodness for that.

It would be seductive, as we stand at the edge of these cascading crises, to look for leaders. But where would they lead us? How would they answer the unanswerable questions and solve the unsolvable problems? Better to recognize that we are at a moment when leaders cannot help us, because we need to go deeper than leadership can take us. Perhaps there are no inspiring figures on the scene because authentic leaders know that we are heading into new territory for which old models of movements and politics are insufficient, and rather than trying to claim a place at the front of the parade they are struggling to understand the direction we should be moving, just like the rest of us.

So, let us stop looking for leaders, stop praying for prophets. Instead, let us recognize that we all must strive to be prophets now. We are all prophets now. It is time for each of us to take responsibility for speaking in the prophetic voice.

I don’t mean this in the shallow sense of the term prophecy, claiming to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claims to predict the details of what lies ahead utterly absurd. All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world immediately, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though I think the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than ever before, certainly people at other crucial times in history have understood that they had to face crises without definitive understanding or clear paths. The barriers to that understanding are not only in the world but in ourselves, and facing our collective failures is most important. A 25-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in 1843:

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of “Whence,” all the greater confusion prevails on the question of “Whither.” Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it.[3]

We should instead understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness to confront not only the abuses of the powerful but our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly -- both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:

But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of Creation as the most profound human crime in our time on this planet. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.

The basics of the prophetic

What can we say about this task of speaking in the prophetic voice? The prophets of the Old Testament offer some guidance.

First, let us remember that the prophets did not see themselves as having special status, but rather were ordinary people. 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]

Nor did the prophets seek out their calling. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, claiming to be only a youth. 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 blunt:

[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]

And, finally, the Old Testament reminds us that to speak prophetically involves more than just articulating abstract principles which are relatively easy to proclaim. For example, these inspiring words from Micah are quoted often:

[8] He has showed you, O man, 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]

That is an eloquent way to summarize our core obligations, but at that level of generality it is one that virtually all would endorse. Cite that verse and everyone will nod approvingly. But remember that Micah also was calling out the injustice around him, often in harsh terms:

[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]

To speak with such passion requires a clarity in our own hearts, minds, and souls. To speak with that clarity to others requires that we have first examined our own lives. When we call out others, they typically ask us -- and rightfully so -- whether we have asked the same questions of ourselves. When we have asked and answered for ourselves, then we can find the courage to speak in that prophetic voice, knowing that we have confronted those questions and are willing to struggle with our own failures.

Our task is not to shine the light on others, but to shine the light through ourselves onto that which is unjust in the world. When we have been honest with ourselves, that light gains intensity and focus as it passes through us. If we have turned away from a ruthless criticism of ourselves, that light will never reach the world and will illuminate nothing but our own limitations and fears.

Risk assessment

That process is not easy, especially in a culture that offers those of us who are privileged a steady stream of rewards for suppressing these thoughts and not facing these struggles. It is easy to turn away from injustice and turn to supermarkets with endless shelves of food, to glasses overflowing with wine, to television’s stories that lull us to sleep on those nights when food and drink have not erased completely our troubling thoughts of the world.

It’s also not easy to speak prophetically because in unjust systems the people who carry out the system’s orders usually don’t seem to be bad people. The corporate CEO who throws workers out of their jobs to increase profits also is a great softball coach on the weekends. The colonel who orders cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas, ensuring that children will die for years to come, also is a caring parent. The real estate developer who destroys habitat to put up McMansions also keeps a lovely garden at home. And all of them, no doubt, contribute generously to their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Many of us, in fact, do jobs that we know contribute to the unjust distribution of resources and the steady erosion of the planet’s ability to sustain life. I don’t exempt myself from this; I work at the University of Texas at Austin, where -- no matter how much critical material I teach in my courses -- I help legitimate an ideological factory system that certifies students to go off in the world and fire those workers, drop those bombs, and destroy that habitat.

So how are we to find the strength to speak in the prophetic voice? The answer is in the collective. Unless one is truly a saint, it is difficult to resist all the temptations and confront self and others without support. We think of prophets as lonely figures who have stepped out, or been cast out, of a society for speaking the truth bluntly. But even if an occasional idiosyncratic figure can speak from such a solitary place, most of us cannot endure that kind of isolation. So, we must speak prophetically together, not in unison or in lockstep -- speaking prophetically means speaking from one’s own heart, which will mean our voices are always distinctive -- but in solidarity.

But even when we are surrounded by those who share our concerns for the world and for each other, there are always risks if we are to take up this role. To claim the prophetic voice that is in each of us, we have to assess those risks so that we can deal with them sensibly. Here I want to borrow from an exercise developed by Allan G. Johnson.[4] At a conference for activists working on issues around racial justice, Johnson posed three questions about risk. My slightly modified version of his list is:

1. What are the risks you would have to take (or have taken) if you actively work for social justice 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)

When people with relatively high levels of privilege do not make a conscious attempt to assess accurately these things, we tend to overestimate the risks of acting and underestimate the risks of not acting. In other words, privilege makes it easy to avoid our responsibilities. So, it’s important for us to consider these questions carefully, not just for what we learn about ourselves but to help us in reaching out to others. We need support, and others need us to support them, to understand the risks they face. We need each other to encourage us to take risks.

The prophetic path to love

We live in a society that appears to be awash in political talk and religious activity. But, in fact, we live in a deeply depoliticized society, full of political chatter on cable TV but lacking spaces in which we can have meaningful discussions about how to address problems that politicians often ignore. We live in a largely soulless culture in which megachurches flourish, but many of us search for something beyond doctrine and dogma to help us answer questions that preachers often ignore. We live in a world in which politics is too often little more than public spectacle and religion is too easily cordoned off as a private matter.

In such a society, we don’t need more politicians who avoid the pressing problems that have no apparent solutions. We don’t need more preachers afraid of the questions that go beyond the available answers. And we don’t need a prophet. We need prophets, ordinary people like us who are willing to tap into the prophetic voice that I believe is within us all.

To speak in that voice is not to claim exclusive insight or definitive knowledge; it is not to speak arrogantly. To speak in the prophetic voice is not to proclaim the truth self-righteously but to claim our rightful place in the collective struggle to understand the truth, which we do in order to deepen our capacity to love. This we should never forget: We seek the prophetic voice within us to allow us to love more fully, something that Paul 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. I know this, painfully, from experience.

So, 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]

Let us seek knowledge. Pray that we stay strong in our faith in each other, that we help each other find the courage to speak prophetically. But, more than anything, let us remember to keep our hearts open so that we do not lose the capacity to love, always more. Let us leave here today taking seriously -- as if our lives depended on it -- a question posed in song by one among us who regularly dares to speak in the prophetic voice, Michael Franti:

“Is your love enough, or can you love some more?”[5]

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.

[1] Wes Jackson, “Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview,” The Land Report, Spring 2005, pp. 14-16.

[2] For more on this, see my 2003 interview with Wes Jackson, http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/wesjackson.htm.

[3] Karl Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm

[4] 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, see http://www.agjohnson.us/

[5] Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Is Love Enough?” from the 2006 CD “Yell Fire!” That question also runs throughout Franti’s video documenting his trip to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel, “I Know I’m Not Alone,” http://www.iknowimnotalone.com/

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Marsh: God and Country


God and Country:
What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush

By Charles Marsh
July 8, 2007

If God's on our side, He'll stop the next war. -- Bob Dylan

EARLY ONE SUNDAY morning in the spring of 2003, in the quiet hours before services would begin at the evangelical church where I worship in Charlottesville, Virginia, I opened files compiled by my research assistant and read the statements drafted by Christians around the world in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq.

The experience was profoundly moving and shaming: From Pentecostals in Brazil to the Christian Councils of Ghana, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, from Pope John Paul II to the The Waldensian Reformed Church of Italy and the Christian Conference of Asia, the voices of our brothers and sisters in the global ecumenical church spoke in unison.

Why did American evangelicals not pause for a moment in the rush to war to consider the near-unanimous disapproval of the global Christian community? The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president's decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war.

In their enthusiastic support of the White House's decision to invade Iraq, evangelicals in the United States practiced an ecumenical isolationism that mirrored the prevailing political trend. Rush Limbaugh may have pleased his "dittoheads" in mocking the dissenting pastors, archbishops, bishops, and church leaders who stuck their noses into our nation's foreign policy, but the people in the United States who call themselves Christian must organize their priorities and values on a different standard than partisan loyalty.

These past six years have been transformative in the religious history of the United States. It is arguably the passing of the evangelical moment -- if not the end of evangelicalism's cultural and political relevance, then certainly the loss of its theological credibility. Conservative evangelical elites, in exchange for political access and power, have ransacked the faith and trivialized its convictions. It is as though these Christians consider themselves to be recipients of a special revelation, as if God has whispered eternal secrets in their ears and summoned them to world-historic leadership in the present and future.

One thing, however, is clear: Any hope for renewal depends on the willingness to reach out to our brothers and sisters abroad. We must reshape the way we live in the global Christian community and form a deeper link to the human family and to life. To do this, we must begin by learning to be quieter, and by reaffirming the simple fact that our faith transcends political loyalty or nationhood.

. . .

In a German concentration camp in 1944, the theologian, pastor, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered the future of the church in Germany as it lay in the ruins of its fatal allegiance to Hitler.

"The time of words is over," he wrote. "Our being a Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action."

Bonhoeffer, who had actively opposed the Nazis since the passage of the Aryan Laws of 1933 and was executed in April 1945, believed that the church had so compromised its witness to Jesus Christ that it was now incapable of "taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world." The misuse of the language of faith had humiliated the Word; any hope for renewal would need to begin with the humble recognition that God was most certainly tired of all our talk.

It is time to give Bonhoeffer's meditations a new hearing. With many other Christians in the United States and many more abroad, I have watched with horror in recent years as the name of Jesus has been used to serve national ambitions and justify war. Forgetting the difference between discipleship and partisanship, and with complete indifference to the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition, we have recast the faith according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudices, along with our will-to-power, in the shallow waters of civic piety.

By the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003, the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president's decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God's will for the nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war, and offered God's blessings on the war.

Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.

But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories -- red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, "I support our troops" ribbons, "God Bless America" gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man's response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. "They're in the back with the other discounted items," he said, nodding in that direction.

I have thought of this visit to the local Christian bookstore many times in the past several years. I remember the outrage I felt when I saw a photograph in Time magazine during the 2004 presidential election of Christian Coalition activists in Ohio. Two men, both white, and both identified as Coalition members, are holding two crosses aloft. The crosses upon closer inspection appear to be made of balloons twisted together. Across the beam-section of one of the crosses was the "Bush-Cheney" logo, and alongside the president's name was the image of an American flag. In the second cross, the president's name appeared in full at the places where Jesus's hands were nailed.

. . .

Like Bonhoeffer, I fear that the gospel has been humiliated in our time. But if this has happened, it is not because the message -- the good news that God loves us unconditionally in Jesus Christ, that we are freed and forgiven in God's amazing grace -- has changed. Nor is it due to the machinations of secularists, or because the post-Enlightenment world has dispensed with the hypothesis of God. The Christian faith has not only endured modernity and post-modernity, but flourished in its new settings.

The gospel has been humiliated because too many American Christians have decided that there are more important things to talk about. We would rather talk about our country, our values, our troops, and our way of life; and although we might think we are paying tribute to God when we speak of these other things, we are only flattering ourselves.

If only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.

To a nation filled with intense religious fervor, the Hebrew prophet Amos said: You are not the holy people you imagine yourselves to be. Though the land is filled with festivals and assemblies, with songs and melodies, and with so much pious talk, these are not sounds and sights that are pleasing to the Lord. "Take away from me the noise of your congregations," Amos says, "you who have turned justice into poison."

Psalm 46 tells us, "Be still and know that I am God." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic work on Christian community, "Life Together," spoke of a silence "before the Word." He affirmed the wisdom of the Psalmist, and spoke of a listening silence that brings "clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing."

After all the talk and the noise, it is time for Christians in the United States to enter a season of quietness, being still, and learning to wait on God (perhaps for the first time).

Bonhoeffer wrote "Life Together" during the years he directed an illegal seminary in the North German village of Finkenwalde. The school's mission was training pastors in the Confessing Church, a reform movement that opposed the nazified German Evangelical Church. Bonhoeffer had served in the Abwehr, the Nazi counterintelligence agency, as a double agent -- helping Jewish families escape to Switzerland and organizing a coup attempt against the Nazi regime -- and he participated in several assassination attempts on Hitler. For Bonhoeffer, being still in a time of enormous historical and ecclesial crisis was no invitation to idleness or indifference; rather, it was a call to discernment and responsible action.

. . .

Indeed, there are times when silence is an admonition fraught with danger. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the "appalling silence of the good people" and those who turned their faces from suffering and oppression. But Dr. King also knew that careful and respectful speech was born of honest discernment of God's moral demands for the present age -- a discernment that begins in humility and quiet introspection.

I came of age in the American South in the 1960s, and the moral values shared by most families in the churches of my childhood were deeply interwoven with our culture's hold on white supremacy. The vigilant and quite often neurotic defense we made of the Southern Way of Life blinded us not only to the sufferings of African-Americans -- the victims of our collective self-righteousness -- but also to our spiritual arrogance and group pride. We believed that our conception of Christianity and our cherished family values were the most wholesome and pure the world had ever known. Inside this serene delusion, we presumed ourselves to be paragons of virtue, although we rarely lifted a finger to help anyone but our own.

It was unsettling to learn, sometime in my adolescence, that the moral values I inherited as a white Southerner were not the marks of true Christian piety.

When Jesus spoke of the family, he had in mind the new community of God. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he said one day upon hearing that his family was asking for him. "Here are my mother and my brothers!" Jesus said, pointing to the people gathered around him, who marveled at his words. "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Jesus knew that loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven would often require the renunciation of family traditions, habits, culture, and custom.

Today, in the national debate on faith and politics, there are signs of hope as an emerging generation of Christian leaders holds out the promise of a more comprehensively just and moral account of faith than the narrow agendas of the Christian right. In particular, the success of Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis's 2005 book, "God's Politics," introduced many Americans to a vibrant culture of progressive Christianity ready to exert its growing influence over national politics and mobilize the churches around global poverty and AIDS relief.

And there are other encouraging signs: Criticisms of torture and detention practices of the US military by prominent Christian conservatives have been symbolically powerful moments. The emerging environmental consciousness among an increasing number of evangelical leaders and laity signals a more holistic social mission.

Even so, as welcome as these developments are, no explicitly partisan movement -- left or right -- to reclaim the soul of politics can reckon successfully with the grave effects of the Christian saturation of the American public square. Unless conditioned by clear and public confession of our support of the immoral and catastrophic war in Iraq, and our complicity in the humiliation of the Word, these efforts will lack coherence and a vital center.

Franklin Graham, the evangelist (and son of Billy Graham), boasted that the American invasion of Iraq opens up exciting new opportunities for missions to non-Christian Arabs. This is not what the Hebrew or Christian prophets meant by righteousness and discipleship. In fact, the grotesque notion that preemptive war and the destruction of innocent life pave the way for the preaching of the Christian message strikes me as a mockery and a betrayal.

But if Franklin Graham speaks truthfully of the Christian faith and its mission in the world -- as many evangelicals seem to believe -- then we should have none of it. Rather, we should join the ranks of righteous unbelievers and big-hearted humanists who rage against cruelty and oppression with the intensity of people who live fully in this world. I am certain that it would be better for Christians to stand in solidarity with compassionate atheists and agnostics, firmly resolved against injustice and cruelty, than to sing "Amazing Grace" with the heroic masses who cannot tell the difference between the cross and the flag.

Charles Marsh is professor of religion and director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his new book, "Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity" (Oxford).

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Cummings: Presidential Scholar Confronts President


Published on Saturday, June 30, 2007 by the Boston Globe Presidential Scholar Confronts the President; Gives Bush Letter Decrying Torture"

by Claire Cummings

WELLESLEY — Usually, the high school seniors who win the federal government’s highest honor just go to the White House, pick up their Presidential Scholars medal, and get their picture taken for posterity with the president.

Mari Oye had other ideas.

In the Georgetown University dormitory the night before the big moment, the newly minted Wellesley High graduate persuaded 49 of her 140 fellow scholars to sign a letter she and a dozen others had drafted and she had just written longhand on notebook paper, calling on President Bush to reject torture and treat terrorism suspects humanely.

Text of the letter handed to President Bush by Mari Oye

Mr. President.

As members of the presidential scholars class of 2007, we have been told that we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants.

Signed

Before the scholars posed for a photo with Bush on Monday, she handed him the letter. He put it in his pocket and took it out after the photo shoot. Reading silently to himself, the president looked up quizzically at Oye and said, according to her, “We agree. America doesn’t torture people.”

The minute-long confrontation earned the Yale-bound student a mention in The New York Times and other national media outlets. Dana Perino , White House deputy press secretary, also responded later Monday. “The president enjoyed a visit with the students, accepted the letter and upon reading it let the student know that the United States does not torture and that we value human rights,” Perino said.

Some other presidential scholars were not happy, saying that the letter’s presentation spoiled their moment.

“I’m sure we can all agree torture is not a good thing. It was just the means of how they were going about it,” said Amanda Berbert , 18, of Centerville, Utah.

Oye is not backing down.

“I really felt l could not just go down and smile for the camera and not say anything,” she said in an interview yesterday at her home. “There are some things that are more important than the decorum of protocol.”

A US Department of Education spokeswoman said yesterday the students who signed the letter would not be stripped of their scholar titles. “Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and we’re glad American students are exercising a right that so many others around the world aren’t able to enjoy,” Katherine McLane said.

Oye, 18 , said her Quaker background has greatly influenced her activism, teaching her “to follow the course of what is right.” At Wellesley High, she helped an Afghan soap-making cooperative, founded by women under threat from the Taliban, find a market in the United States. She also found time to be on the school’s track and cross-country teams.

As a child, her mother said, Oye didn’t take naps because she said she “didn’t want to miss anything.” Oye was encouraged to speak up at the White House by her mother, Willa Michener , who regrets that when she was a presidential scholar in 1968, she did not tell President Lyndon B. Johnson about her opposition to the Vietnam War. Michener took the advice of her favorite teacher, who said there were other ways to protest.

“I would have defied my president, but I didn’t want to defy my beloved English teacher,” she said.

Michener, 55, a former lawyer for the US Treasury, said her daughter called her by cellphone to tell her what she had done while Michener was touring the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “When she had the opportunity to make a statement, she took it so I was as pleased as could be,” she said yesterday.

Oye’s father, Kenneth, 57, an MIT professor who was on business in Switzerland, was proud when he was told, Michener said.

Oye said her activism was also influenced by her grandparents on her father’s side, who were in internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her grandfather, George Oye , died this spring and she mentioned his experiences in the brief conversation with the president about the letter, she said.

“My grandfather was not angry or bitter after the internment, but he came out with a strong sense of wanting to help people,” she said.

Oye wasn’t trying to draw attention to herself, she said, but respectfully expressing a view that many Americans share.

“I don’t think there are enough opportunities for people to do that, whether they’re a general or Cabinet member or the American public,” she said. “With all the pain and suffering that happens around the world right now, it would have been extremely inappropriate not to use the opportunity to make a difference.”

She plans to study English or international relations in the fall. She said she has no idea what she wants to do, but insists politics is not in her future.

“I hope to never run for political office in my life.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Bacevich: A Memorial Day Message

I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness, inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss. When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.

Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two bore directly on this question. Both held me personally culpable, insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comfort to the enemy. Each said that my son's death came as a direct result of my antiwar writings.

This may seem a vile accusation to lay against a grieving father. But in fact, it has become a staple of American political discourse, repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand in waging his war. By encouraging "the terrorists," opponents of the Iraq conflict increase the risk to U.S. troops. Although the First Amendment protects antiwar critics from being tried for treason, it provides no protection for the hardly less serious charge of failing to support the troops -- today's civic equivalent of dereliction of duty.

What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way?

Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.

As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of good will find much to admire in Bush's response to that awful day. They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be won. Some -- the members of the "the-surge-is-already-working" school of thought -- even profess to see victory just over the horizon.

I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and small, I have said as much. "The long war is an unwinnable one," I wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. "The United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do."

Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."

To be fair, responsibility for the war's continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son's death, my state's senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son's wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don't blame me.

To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.

Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.

Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.'s life is priceless. Don't believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier's life: I've been handed the check. It's roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation's call to "global leadership." It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

This is not some great conspiracy. It's the way our system works.

In joining the Army, my son was following in his father's footsteps: Before he was born, I had served in Vietnam. As military officers, we shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet he was the better soldier -- brave and steadfast and irrepressible.

I know that my son did his best to serve our country. Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing. In this way, I failed him.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His son died May 13 after a suicide bomb explosion in Salah al-Din province.