Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Pentecost Sunday: Come Holy Spirit!

1On the day of Pentecost [a] all the Lord’s followers were together in one place.   2Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting.   3Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there.   4The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.   5Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem.   6And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages.   7They were excited and amazed, and said:

Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee?   8Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages?   9Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia,   10Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome,   11Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.

12Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other, “What does all this mean?”

13Others made fun of the Lord’s followers and said, “They are drunk.”

14Peter stood with the eleven apostles and spoke in a loud and clear voice to the crowd:

Friends and everyone else living in Jerusalem, listen carefully to what I have to say!   15You are wrong to think that these people are drunk. After all, it is only nine o’clock in the morning.   16But this is what God had the prophet Joel say,

17“When the last days come,

I will give my Spirit

to everyone.

Your sons and daughters

will prophesy.

Your young men

will see visions,

and your old men

will have dreams.

18In those days I will give

my Spirit to my servants,

both men and women,

and they will prophesy.

19I will work miracles

in the sky above

and wonders

on the earth below.

There will be blood and fire

and clouds of smoke.

20The sun will turn dark,

and the moon

will be as red as blood

before the great

and wonderful day

of the Lord appears.

21Then the Lord

will save everyone

who asks for his help.”

22Now, listen to what I have to say about Jesus from Nazareth. God proved that he sent Jesus to you by having him work miracles, wonders, and signs. All of you know this.   23God had already planned and decided that Jesus would be handed over to you. So you took him and had evil men put him to death on a cross.   24But God set him free from death and raised him to life. Death could not hold him in its power.   25What David said are really the words of Jesus,

“I always see the Lord

near me,

and I will not be afraid

with him at my right side.

26Because of this,

my heart will be glad,

my words will be joyful,

and I will live in hope.

27The Lord won’t leave me

in the grave.

I am his holy one,

and he won’t let

my body decay.

28He has shown me

the path to life,

and he makes me glad

by being near me.”

29My friends, it is right for me to speak to you about our ancestor David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is still here.   30But David was a prophet, and he knew that God had made a promise he would not break. He had told David that someone from his own family would someday be king.

31David knew this would happen, and so he told us that Christ would be raised to life. He said that God would not leave him in the grave or let his body decay.   32All of us can tell you that God has raised Jesus to life!

33Jesus was taken up to sit at the right side [b] of God, and he was given the Holy Spirit, just as the Father had promised. Jesus is also the one who has given the Spirit to us, and that is what you are now seeing and hearing.   34David didn’t go up to heaven. So he wasn’t talking about himself when he said, “The Lord told my Lord to sit at his right side,   35until he made my Lord’s enemies into a footstool for him.”   36Everyone in Israel should then know for certain that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, even though you put him to death on a cross.

37When the people heard this, they were very upset. They asked Peter and the other apostles, “Friends, what shall we do?”

38Peter said, “Turn back to God! Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will be given the Holy Spirit.   39This promise is for you and your children. It is for everyone our Lord God will choose, no matter where they live.”

40Peter told them many other things as well. Then he said, “I beg you to save yourselves from what will happen to all these evil people.”   41On that day about three thousand believed his message and were baptized.   42They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread [c]and prayed together.

43Everyone was amazed by the many miracles and wonders that the apostles worked.   44All the Lord’s followers often met together, and they shared everything they had.   45They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it.   46Day after day they met together in the temple. They broke bread [d] together in different homes and shared their food happily and freely,   47while praising God. Everyone liked them, and each day the Lord added to their group others who were being saved.

Acts 2  Contemporary English Version.  I’ll reserve commentary for a post tomorrow. Today, let the Word speak.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | Church, diversity, economic justice, Holy Spirit, mission, nonviolence, peace, Pentecost, Pentecostals, race, sexual orientation | Leave a comment

A Brief Note on Glenn Beck’s Horrid Usurpation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy

I haven’t written on this because it has made me so angry.  But I cannot let it pass.  Saturday was the 47th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  As the climax of that historic march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech. The real title was “Normalcy: Never Again!” and the “Dream” refrain was a spur of the moment riff–since King’s public speaking style was shaped by Black Church preaching, which is a dialogue in which preacher’s adapt due both to the leading of God’s Spirit and to feedback from the congregation.  Sadly most people known only a few words of the speech and dismiss Dr. King as “the Dreamer,” never seeing him as the nonviolent WARRIOR for justice, peace, and the Beloved Community that he was. (J. Edgar Hoover, the evil, paranoid, and very racist founding Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not describe King as “the most dangerous Negro in America” because he was a harmless dreamer.)  While this was not his most radical speech (I’d give that award either to his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” or the sermon given the night before he was assassinated in 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”), because so very few know the whole “Dream” speech, I am glad my friend Dan Trabue has reprinted it in full here.  I urge you to take your time and read it slowly and ponder it deeply–then go to Youtube and watch/listen to the speech given in Dr. King’s amazing delivery.

But Saturday the nation did not reflect on the March, the speech, and how far we still are from realizing the Dream.  Instead, tens of thousands of (mostly white) people poured into D.C. to attend a “Restore Honor” rally organized by former rodeo clown turned rightwing “news” pundit, Glenn Beck and hear speeches by him and Sarah Palin and others on how today white people are the only victims of racism, Pres. Barack Obama (of whom I am a critic from the Left–as Dr. King would be) is an evil tyrant who hates white people and free enterprise, how we need to have more wars in order to “restore honor” to the nation–and other pure bullshit! (I do not often use scatalogical language and I see this blog as a family-friendly forum, so I hesitate to use that term–but no other will do. The Apostle Paul counted his life before Christ as “all shit” (Phil. 3:8). ) Isaiah’s judgment on those who call evil “good” and good “evil” quickly comes to mind.

That anyone could see Glenn Beck as a contemporary standard bearer for the values of Dr. King shows how much King’s image has been “tamed” over the years.  Maybe it was a mistake to ever make his birthday into a national holiday.  Maybe it helped us forget the “dangerous Negro,” that the Dreamer was a radical democratic socialist who called his nation “the world’s largest purveyor of violence,” who wept over the funerals of 4 little girls killed at Sunday School by white terrorists and said “My dream has become a nightmare,” who called for a “revolution of values” in this nation, who spent the last year of his life organizing a Poor People’s Campaign of African Americans, whites from Appalachia, Native Americans, Mexican-American migrant workers, and others.  This man with a Ph.D. from Boston University was assassinated for marching for the rights of garbage workers in Memphis, TN.  We have too much tamed Martin King when Glenn Beck and his followers can see themselves as his legacy!!

And it enfuriates me that, 47 years later, most white pastors have still not read King’s writings–or the writings of any African-American theologian.  It should be IMPOSSIBLE to get a theological education in 2010 without wrestling with major non-white, non-Western figures.  But it is.  That’s the only way to explain how ignorant voices could portray Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a “hatemonger” based on snippets from one sermon or accuse James H. Cone, one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, of “reverse racism” and hatred.

It should be impossible to graduate university or even high school without having to read major non-white voices alongside white and Western ones.  How can our children grow up without ever encountering Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois or Martin Luther King, alongside Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and others?  Why is it that nearly every African-American (and Latino/a and Asian) pastor and theologian in this country knows the white, Western intellectual tradition, but so few whites bother to learn anything from others?  That unconscious racism, the “othering” by eliminating those voices from the conversation, is what allows rewriting of history and allows the ignorance displayed by the Glenn Beck usurpation.

Are there conservative African Americans? Sure.  Do Beck and others have the right to gather and make a case for their (individualistic, libertarian) view of society in which corporations can do no wrong, but any attempt at government work for the common good is denounced as “socialism?” Sure.  Do they have the right to try to convince Christians and others that “social justice” is a betrayal of the gospel? Sure.  But should anyone be taken in by their nonsense? No–and they can only be so taken in because of our failure to educate.  We reduce the Black Freedom movement to Rosa Parks sitting down one day and Martin King giving a speech the next day and think, “Poof! Segregation disappeared.” Our amnesia is leading to the resegregation of our schools. We rightly celebrate the first time a non-white person was elected president by a nation where whites are still the majority (although not by the middle of this century when we will have no majority ethnic group and whites will simply be the largest minority). But while Barack Obama gets to live in a White House built by slaves, we have a greater percentage  African Americans in prison than during the darkest days of segregation.  Dr. King would be more concerned about the latter–and Glenn Beck’s libertarian dream is not.

Al Sharpton had a counter-march on Saturday to “reclaim the dream.”  But to reclaim the dream of a non-racial society in which there are no poor people, which is characterized by justice and peace and in which people, not corporations, decide things, we have to first remember what the dream was.  I challenge white pastors and theologians and seminary students to do their part–by introducing themselves and their congregations to voices long ignored and silenced–including Martin King’s.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, History, justice, racial justice | Leave a comment

Peacemaker Profiles # 2: Diane Nash

Diane Nash (1938 -), Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement
by Michael Westmoreland-White

In the 20th Century, nonviolent mass movements began to build upon the experiences of earlier movements. This is abundantly clear in the case of the many connections between Gandhi and the Indian Freedom Struggle and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (or African-American Freedom Struggle). The experiences of the Indian Freedom Struggle were reported and analyzed closely by Black newspapers in the U.S., newspapers that were distributed far outside their primary geographical circulation in the lobbies of the Black Church, African American barber shops and beauty salons, and in local chapters of the NAACP. Further, numerous African-American leaders traveled to India and met with Gandhi or (after Gandhi’s 1948 assassination) colleagues at Gandhi’s ashram. One such African-American was a young Methodist ministerial student whose pacifist convictions led him to become a conscientious objector to the Korean War, one of the first African-Americans to be granted C.O. status by the Selective Service Board. This young man was James Lawson and he studied organized nonviolence in India before returning to the United States to finish seminary. Lawson had hoped to do graduate studies at Harvard University, but Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced him that the Civil Rights movement needed him in the South. So, Lawson enrolled as a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, one of the few prestigious institutions of the South willing to admit a few black students yearly.

Nashville was part of the segregated South, but not quite as virulently racist as many more cities deeper in the South. For instance, Nashville boasted of being the home of several African-American institutions of higher learning: Tennessee State University, The American Baptist Theological Seminary, Meherry Medical College, and Fisk University. In the Fall semester of 1959, Lawson began offering workshops in nonviolence for the students of these institutions on the premises of First Colored Baptist Church (whose pastor, Kelly Miller Smith, was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization dedicated to nonviolence) and Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, near the campus of Vanderbilt Divinity School. A white student at Fisk University named Paul LaPrad told a young woman at Fisk named Diane Nash of these workshops and she soon joined a small group of African-American students whose names would read like a Who’s Who of future Civil Rights leaders: Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and James Bevel. By November, Nash had become the unofficial leader of the group.

Diane Judith Nash was a light-skinned African-American woman with green eyes who had been born and raised in Chicago. Although used to the racism of the North, she knew of the more blatant indignities heaped on African-Americans only through the stories of her father, who was from the deep South. In Chicago, Nash had even won several beauty pageants over white rivals as a teen, something that would never have been allowed in the South. She came from a middle-class Catholic family and had, at one time, even considered becoming a nun. Instead she enrolled as an English major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville in 1959. In Nashville, Nash had found the segregated restrictions overwhelming and personally degrading. So, although she was initially skeptical about Gandhian nonviolence, she joined Lawson’s workshops determined to challenge Nashville’s Jim Crow laws. Some of those workshops took place at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN, a center for popular education for social change founded by a white Christian radical named Myles Horton. At Highlander, Nash met and learned from Septima Clark, a 60 year old organizer of unions and educator in voter registration for the NAACP, white ministers Glenn Smiley (United Methodist, an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation or F.O.R.) and Will D. Campbell (Baptist, a liason between the National Council of Churches and the Civil Rights movement), and other African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and C. T. Vivian.

Back in Nashville, it was time to put these workshops to use, especially as nationally the Civil Rights movement was in a stall. On 7 February 1960, the students began the Sit-In Movement in Nashville, attempting to be served at the lunch counters of downtown department stores such as Woolworth. As the sit-ins continued, the press soon began to focus on Nash as a spokesperson because she was articulate and poised in front of cameras, doubtless due in part to her past in beauty pageants. The exposure placed her in extra danger. She once overheard white teenage hoodlums mutter, “That’s her. Nash. She was on TV. She’s the one to get.” Indeed, when white mob violence was released on the sit-ins, Nash was sometimes singled out for violence. But as a practitioner of nonviolence, she found courage in herself that she didn’t know she possessed. When the students decided not to accept bail or pay the $50 fines for their arrests (or allow others to pay them), Nash was chosen to explain their decision in court. She addressed the judge with respect, but without the fawning subservience Southern whites expected of African-Americans. “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.”

By April 1960, the sit-ins had cost Nashville tourist dollars and the downtown sector was suffering as whites stayed in the suburbs rather than shop downtown. The mayor, Ben West, tried to intervene and negotiate a compromise. He addressed a crowd of African-Americans (with small numbers of white supporters) and told them of his attempts at negotiating with the lunch-counter owners. He suggested at the end that they all pray together. Nash spoke up. “What about eating together?” West replied, “We should also try to arrange that.” Nash: “Then, Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?” Put on the spot, West answered, “Yes.” The crowd erupted in cheers. Soon the lunch counters were desegregated and the movement went on to successfully challenge segregation at Nashville’s movie theaters and churches.

Toward the end of 1960, the Nashville students began to communicate with student movements in other Southern cities, notably in North Carolina. They decided to create an organized movement for the entire South and named it, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, which members and others alike began calling “SNICK.” Diane Nash left college to work full-time as a SNCC field worker. At first, SNCC had two branches, one for voter registration work and one for nonviolent direct action. Nash led the direct action wing of SNCC, along with her old friends John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel, to whom she would soon be married.

In 1961, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), led by James Farmer, revived a nonviolent strategy they had successfully used in 1940, the “Freedom Rides” in which white and black activists rode interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways, then separate companies) together into the South where segregated seating was still the law. Federal laws demanding desegregation on interstate buses and in bus stations were not enforced. The Freedom Riders were to test compliance. In the deep South, they encountered mob violence that injured several of the Riders and threatened to destroy the rides. Nash contacted SNCC for students to take up the rides by substituting for injured CORE riders. She herself rode one of the buses into Mississippi where she endured both mob violence and imprisonment.

After this, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization founded and headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., hired Nash and James Bevel as field workers and liaison with SNCC, seeking to bridge the trust gap between the more militant (but still nonviolent) students and the older and more moderate leaders (mostly African American ministers) of SCLC. She also tried to build bridges to the NAACP which considered both SNCC and SCLC to be far too radical. NAACP had been committed to a strategy of legal challenge in the courts and was threatened by the nonviolent direct action campaigns. In these roles, Diane Nash Bevel was more than competent. Her articulate speaking bridged communication gaps between the various civil rights organizations and her good looks frankly charmed most of the (male) leaders of other organizations.

Nash was to learn the suffering that comes with nonviolent action in oppressive contexts. In May 1962, she was jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, for teaching black children the tools of nonviolent direct action, just as she had learned them from Lawson and others. She was four months pregnant, but was still sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, Nash only served a short time before release. Nash was also a major organizer for the 1963 campaign in Birmingham. Despite all these leadership roles, the sexism of both the press and the major civil rights organizations soon eclipsed her. In the 1963 March on Washington, not one woman was scheduled to speak. Nash was introduced by A. Philip Randolph, chair of the march, as “one of the outstanding women of the civil rights struggle,” but she was expected to fade into the background sweetly after that introduction.

Nash continued to play a vital role in the Freedom Movement. It was Nash who designed the plan used by the SCLC for their successful campaign in Selma, AL, in 1965. She also became a liaison to the peace movement and the early actions of the women’s movement. After 1965, however, Nash seemed to cut all ties to the SCLC and SNCC. SNCC had changed leadership that year, and its new head, Stokely Carmichael, took SNCC away from a commitment to nonviolence under his leadership to embrace the slogan “Black Power,” which he coined. The continued sexism of the SCLC and its dominance by clergy also alienated Nash.

Today, Nash, now divorced from James Bevel because of his serial adulteries, has returned to Chicago, completed her education, and is an educator. She has yet to write a “movement memoir,” but gave a full interview in 1998 that became part of the book, Free At Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It by Fred Powledge (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991). Nash remains involved in quiet ways in organizations working for racial justice and reconciliation and with the peace movement. She has remained committed to nonviolence as a way of life.

August 22, 2010 Posted by | biographies, blog series, civil rights leaders, heroes, History, peace, racial justice | Leave a comment

Recommended Works on Frederick Douglass

In my last post, I mentioned that there is a mini-scholarly renaissance in studies on Frederick Douglass.  Here are some of the better studies.

First, one needs to be familiar with the primary sources.  Douglass wrote 3 autobiographical works:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).  All 3 have been collected together as Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Library of America, 1994).  Many of Douglass’ articles from The Liberator and from The North Star have been collected as Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass–A Slave (CreateSpace, 2010).  Another excellent collection is Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (1910-1994), abrided and adapted by Yuval Taylor (Lawrence Hill, 2000).  Two other excellent collections are The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Frederick Douglass:  A Critical Reader (Blackwell Critical Readers), ed. Bill Lawson and Frank Kirkland (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

Among the many secondary sources on Douglass’ thought, I especially recommend the following:

Reginald F. Davis, Frederick Douglass: Precursor to Liberation Theology (Mercer University Press, 2005).

Scott C. Williamson, The Narrative Life:  The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass (Mercer University Press, 2002).

John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, 2008). 

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican:  Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Anti-Slavery Politics (Norton, 2008).

Maria Diedrich, Love Across Color Lines:  Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (Hill and Wang, 2000). 

William B. Rogers, We are All Together Now:  Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition (Routledge, 1995).

I’d also recommend Per Caritatem, the blog of theologian and philosopher Cynthia R. Nielsen, one of the few white theologians or philosophers who regularly interacts seriously with African-American scholars (and other non-white scholars).  Her work on Douglass is on a par with her excellent work on St.  Augustine of Hippo.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice | Leave a comment

Garrison and Douglass: Friendship and Estrangement

The most famous white abolitionist in the U.S., and deservedly so, is William Lloyd Garrison.  The most famous black abolitionist, and deservedly so, is Frederick Douglass.  For over a decade (1841-1850), they were also close friends and co-workers in the American Anti-Slavery Society.  While not identical, their views on most topics of the day were close and each defended the other from attacks by critics.  Yet their friendship ended and the two men became estranged–a breach that was never healed in life.  Why?

Was it lingering racism on Garrison’s part, or an unconscious patronism that had difficulty when Douglass’ fame and leadership began to outstrip Garrison’s in the cause they both lived for?  Was it simply natural competition and resentment between two selve-made men from humble backgrounds–both strong-willed, ambitious, strivers?  Was it a growing “black nationalism” on Douglass’ part–an estrangement from the goal of an equal and integrated society?  Did the complex tensions of self-determination and integration break the two men apart in a way similar to the break-down of “black and white together, we shall overcome” in the face of militant nationalism and smoldering resentments in the Freedom Movement a century later?  Can we who seek a just and equal “rainbow society” today learn from both their friendship and its breakdown?

First, let us examine their very real friendship.  William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was older than Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) by more than a decade and began as a mentor to Douglass.  They met in an 1841 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in which Garrison was the headline speaker but Douglass was unexpectedly asked to tell the story of his life during slavery and his escape to freedom. (Even his name, Frederick Douglass, was a pseudonymn to make it harder for slavecatchers to find and return him to slavery.) Riveted like everyone else, Garrison asked the crowd, “Have we been listening to the testimony of a piece of property or a man?” “A man!” they thundered in reply. “Can we ever allow such a man to be treated as property?” “Never!” “Can you doubt that such treatment is the grossest sin?” “No!” “Then will you pledge with us to end this sin and crime in which 3 million of our fellow beings are not seen as fellow citizens, but simply as property and tools of another to use as he will?” “YES!!”

Garrison and Douglass often shared a speaking stage for the American Anti-Slavery Society and they worked well together.  Because Garrison’s religious views had become more suspect (from hanging around Hicksite Quakers, Unitarians and holiness perfectionists) and Douglass was seen as more theologically orthodox, the tag-team often had Garrison keep quiet on-stage about the churches’ complicity in slavery while Douglass would thunder against the racism of the white churches.  Meanwhile, because Douglass was more vulnerable to reprisals by local, state, and federal governments, it would be Garrison who took the lead in criticizing the racism even of the free states.  This was a careful strategy since both men actually had radical views about the need for reform of both state and church.

Both were also strong supporters of women’s rights–although, after Garrison’s death, Douglass would strain his relationships with many white feminists by supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution even though it protected the voting rights of black men but continued to deny the right to vote to women of all races. 

Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, first published Douglass’ story in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Garrison has never received enough credit for this publication. It was a bestseller and most of the profits went to Douglass and to the abolitionist movement–Garrison was poor throughout his life and made no attempt to exploit Douglass’ story for his personal gain.  He also took quite a risk in publishing Douglass’ book and was charged with several crimes, but he faced the charges bravely. Moreover, he recognized that this publication placed Douglass in grave danger of being recognized and reclaimed by his former “masters.” Garrison solicited wealthy abolitionists for funds to enable Douglass to tour Britain on the lecture circuit in order to avoid capture.  Further, although Garrison was against schemes of ending slavery by paying off slaveholders (enabling them to profit from their sin of slaveholding) instead of compensating slaves for their free labor, he defended the morality of escaped slaves and free blacks purchasing their own or others’ freedom.  Just as in cases of kidnapping and ranson, Garrison argued, the sin is not in paying for freedom, but with those who receive such money for the crime the King James’ Bible called “man-stealing.”  Thus, against further criticisim, when he joined Douglass in England at the end of the lecture tour, Garrison helped him raise money and purchase his freedom so that he could return to America without risk of arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law.

The split between the two men began in 1848 when Douglass started his own newspaper, The Northstar instead of continuing as a lecturer for the AAS and a regular writer for The Liberator.  This cannot be seen as a racist attack on black-owned business by Garrison.  He had long been a supporter of black entrepeneurs.  He had even previously supported a black-owned abolitionist paper in New York (The Ram’s Horn).  But, while The Liberator had once had a virtual monopoly on abolitionist papers, there was now much competition and Garrison had to see The North Star as an economic rival, especially for black subscribers.  Black subscribers had kept the always-poor Garrison afloat during many hard times. Now that abolitionism was a much bigger movement, there was competition for subscriptions and The North Star’s success might come at The Liberator’s expense–or so it had to appear to Garrison.

The split continued when Douglass changed his mind over political activity.  He had started in complete agreement with Garrison that the Constitution so protected slavery that the legal overthrow of slavery would need “disunion” and a new Constitution.  But after founding The North Star, Douglass came to agree with members of the short-lived Liberty Party that the Framers had intended  the Constitutional compromises with slavery to be short-lived, that slavery was un-Constitutional, and that Congress had the power to end slavery.  He was thus a supporter of the new Republican Party (a “free soil” party) while Garrison continued to see party politics as a distraction from the work of abolishing slavery having it seen as morally abhorrent by the overwhelming majority so that the popular will would demand a new (anti-slavery) Constitution. 

The split widened when Douglass rejected his earlier pacifism to praise John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Garrison saw Brown as being more morally right than the defenders of slavery–and struggled to show non-pacifists that Brown should be seen in the same light as the American patriots who rebelled against Britain.  But he continued to see nonviolence as a more excellent way, still.  But Garrison also, reluctantly supported the Civil War (and saw one of his own sons enlist on the Union side) and black soldiers after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But while Garrison abandoned his absolute pacifism reluctantly and returned to the struggle for a peaceful world that would outlaw war after the end of the Civil War, Douglass moved to support the concept of “defensive” wars.  And Douglass ended up being influential with Abraham Lincoln in a way that Garrison never was.  The differences caused resentments.

But was this racism on Garrison’s part?  Perhaps.  I am among those who believe that in a thoroughly racist society like ours, it is impossible to be completely without racial prejudices.  The best we can do is to try constantly to become aware of our lingering prejudices, confront them, and attempt a life as a “recovering racist.”  I don’t think Garrison would have disagreed. He worked his entire life to see where he fell short of holiness, repent, and become more sanctified.  But I also think that some kind of split might have happened even if both men were the same color–because when students surpass mentors in fame and influence it usually creates generational rifts even if the mentor is rightly proud of the student’s success.

It is also difficult in our competitive society for two men to work so closely together, share so much, and maintain a close friendship.  The failure in Garrison and Douglass’ case is a case study in the tragedy of so many men to be able to sustain close friendships over a lifetime, but we ought also to give praise to the way they were able to sustain such a friendship for over a decade in very trying circumstances.  Outside of military service during war, we have few examples of such close friendships among heterosexual males for any length of time.  Garrison and Douglass both worked for a society that would go beyond the patriarchy that works against close male friendships, so it is sad that they did not succeed with each other–friendships should be able to survive differences inviewpoints when two kindred spirits agree on so much of the “big picture.”

Douglass was probably the deeper thinker–and it is good to see today a renewed interest in Douglass by political scientists, moral philosophers, and theologians.  But Garrison deserves more credit in all those areas than he usually gets, too–and without Garrison, would we have ever known Douglass at all?

July 29, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice, slavery | 4 Comments

Book Review: Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Henry Mayer, All on Fire:  William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).

Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable.  From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.”  The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.”  Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships.  Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.

This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes.  Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher.  When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery.  All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders.  The U. S.  Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery.  The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity.  When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man).  These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent.  To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.

So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate.  Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.

Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure:  A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard.  The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.

But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure.  Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference.  One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement.  The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported).  The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else.  Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws.  Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967.  If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day.  His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.

Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton.  We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass,  Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit.  (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)

Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.


July 25, 2010 Posted by | biographies, book reviews, books, civil rights leaders, ethics, History, racial justice, slavery | 2 Comments

Anatomy of Modern Movement Conservatism in the U.S.

In my previous post, I tried to rehabilitate the demonized term “liberal” in U.S. politics and locate myself as a part of this vital political tradition.  Here, I want to try to disect the anatomy of modern movement conservatism in U.S. politics.

Remember, “conservatism” as a personal temperament or orientation refers simply to a preference for the way things are and a desire for change to be slow and orderly when it must come. It is a focus on treasuring the good things of the past, of celebrating heritage. This kind of conservative is a traditionalist and it is vital that all societies have conservatives in this sense of the term.  In fact, seen as an orientation, we are probably ALL conservative about some part of our lives.

But what I want to describe is modern movement conservatism, conservatism as a political philosophy in the U.S. context. Once (before 1964) dominant among Southern Democrats, this is now the controlling force of the Republican Party in the U.S.–lately leaving little breathing space for other traditions within the Republican Party.  Movement conservatism as it exists today is a fairly recent ideology (ironically), first appearing after World War II and not really getting started until the 1950s–it’s early founders were William F. Buckley in his book, God and Man at Harvard and in the founding of The National Review, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, philosopher and bad novelist, Ayn Rand, her disciple, economist Milton Friedman (who began the horrible “Chicago School” of economics), columnist George Will and a few others.  Goldwater was the first presidential candidate of movement conservatives (1964)–and he lost in a landslide.  That landslide loss to LBJ could have crushed movement conservatism, but the youth movement’s unrest with LBJ over the Vietnam War added to Southern white dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party because of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, led Richard Nixon (who was authoritarian, but not really a movement conservative) to adopt “the Southern Strategy” of winning elections through thinly disguised appeals to white racial resentment.  Ronald Reagan was the first movement conservative to adapt Nixon’s strategy as a way, not just to win the White House, but to roll back the progessive and liberal gains of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Reagan was only partially successful in terms of legislation passed, but he changed the terms of debate from 1981 until now. (Liberals and progressives began to reframe the terms of debate in 2006 & 2008, but, beginning in the summer of 2009, conservatives have almost completely taken back the framing of political debate in mainstream circles in the U.S.–though whether this will lead to electoral or legislative success for these conservatives remains to be seen.)

As it has taken form in the post-1980 Republican Party coalition, movement conservatism is made up of three strands or streams–sometimes in tension as they do not really form a logically coherent governing philosophy.

  1. Business Conservatives.  This strand was once dominant in the Northeast (especially New England) and in some parts of the West.  It comes in 2 forms:  a) Protectionist crony capitalism, which is older, argued for tariffs and other trade deals which would support U.S. business against businesses located in other countries. It loves government corporate welfare in terms of defense contracts or sugar subsidies, etc. (or, in the West, free use of federal lands for mining, cattle grazing, etc.) b) “Soft” libertarianism. Pure libertarians are relatively rare in movement conservatism (but see Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Rep. Ron Paul, his son Rand, former U.S. Rep. from GA Bob Barr & a few others), but “soft” libertarians like Goldwater, former MN Gov.  Jesse Ventura, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson are much more numerous. They argue for small government with little help or hindrance to business–and they tend to be socially moderate, having a “live and let live” attitude about people’s personal lives. (I can still remember Goldwater yelling at Jerry Falwell that abortion was NOT a conservative issue!) The soft libertarians tended to be strongest in Western conservatism and the crony capitalists (think George H.W. Bush ) stronger in New England.
  2. National Security Conservatives.  This strand is found geographically dispersed nearly evenly across the U.S.  It came out of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R.  After the imperialist Spanish-American War and prior to WWII, most Republicans were isolationists who were critical of internationalist Democrats for getting the U.S. involved in wars. But the Cold War stand-off forged a bi-partisan foreign policy of “containment of Communism.” Among liberals (especially in the Democratic Party) this took the form of “Cold War Liberalism” until the Vietnam War destroyed that form of militarized internationalism–although Pres. Barack Obama seems to be forging a new version which I fear will do to his presidency what Vietnam did to LBJ’s.  But in the Republican Party (and, for a time, with Southern Democrats) this bi-partisan policy of containment led to what I am calling “national security conservatism.” Again, this comes in two forms:  a)Traditional Nationalism.  Ronald Reagan, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Colin Powell, George Schultz, and even Condaleeza Rice all fall into this strand.  They want a large military that can dwarf any conceivable foe, but are mostly wary of rash military adventurism–especially after Vietnam.  They want to use military force sparingly, only when what they consider to be “vital American interests” are threatened (and these can be economic–including another nation’s oil or a key strategic location for a military base) and with overwhelming force when it is used–and because wars are expensive, they usually want clear goals, and clear exit strategies before engaging. (Major example: The first Gulf War–1990-1991).  b)Neo-conservatives or Neo-cons.  These are people, following the collapse of the USSR, who wanted the U.S. to be far more aggressive militarily as the sole remaining superpower.  Some were involved in the administration of George H.W. Bush–although Bush I himself wavered between traditional nationalism and the neocon view that he partly inspired with his talk of a “new world order” after the Cold War. But they were far more dominant in the administration of his son, George W. Bush–including Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Donald Wolfowitz and many others. The neo-cons took the old liberal theme of spreading democracy and changed it to a belief (the “Bush Doctrine”) that the U.S. had the right to invade any country anywhere that might one day conceivably be a threat and impose a U.S.-friendly democratic regime by force. The architects of the invasion of Iraq were neo-cons and Afghanistan seems to be evolving that way–despite the official repudiation of the Bush Doctrine by the Obama administration.  Whereas traditional nationalists want to use the military sparingly, neocons think the road to peace (an openly imperial peace) is perpetual war.  National security conservatives originally had a love/hate relationship with business conservatives–it takes big government to have a big military and wars tend to get in the way of free trade.
  3. Social Conservatives.  When added to the mix that forms modern movement conservatism, social conservatives were predominantly found in the Old South (Dixie), though there were outposts in the Midwest (e.g., Grand Rapids, MI, the entire state of Kansas) & the West (e.g., Colorado Springs, CO; Orange County, CA).  Today, social conservatives are more geographically dispersed.  a)A politicized form of Christian fundamentalism is the primary strand of social conservatism with echoes in Mormonism. Although it has learned to echo the terms of the business conservatives (“small government,” “low taxes,”), and eventually take them on board, the original issues of the social conservatives had nothing to do with such matters, but were about using (Intrusive Big Government) federal and state power to enforce traditional morality–banning pornography, gambling, banning or restricting liquor sales, opposition to the sexual revolution (including, after about 1979, opposition to legal abortion–and eventually adopting the conservative Catholic opposition to artificial birth control methods, too), opposition to women’s rights and gay rights, enforcement of prayer and Bible reading in public schools–all things that REQUIRE the big government action that, theoretically, business conservatives oppose. b) A second stream of social conservatism that is less religious is white racial resentment of the growing social, political, and economic power of non-whites, especially African-Americans and Latino/as.  There is overlap, of course, since neither private Protestant schools nor the phenomenon of “homeschooling” existed until the desegregation of the public schools.

Many times these different strands come to similar conclusions through different routes:  A Western soft-libertarian Goldwater conservative would oppose Medicare, Medicaid, and, eventually, universal healthcare because of a belief that government has no business interfering in the “private business” of healthcare–seeing healthcare as a commercial commodity instead of a basic human right.  A Southern social conservative may oppose the same things because of a belief that liberal Yankees will use all their tax money to help “undeserving” poor blacks instead of poor working class whites.  And militaristic nationalism has been widely shared throughout the history of the U.S.A.–but positively fetishized in Old Dixie where Civil War memorials are found every other mile and there are more military bases (and military highschools!) than in the rest of the nation and where, since the end of the draft, a greater than average number of military recruits are found.

But there remain tensions between the strands of modern movement conservatism–tensions wide enough that, in a parliamentary system, the Republican Party would be split into 3-4 parties.

I think the movement is incoherent and I think it is dangerous.  In the presidency of George W. Bush we finally saw what happens when (for the first 6 years anyway) movement conservatism dominated all branches of the federal government.  The result was 2 endless wars, a corrupt Justice Department, federal departments like FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) that were completely inept (run by a horse trainer!), Katrina, a huge budget surplus turned into a skyrocketing deficit and, finally, complete economic collapse.

That legacy haunts the Obama administration because, as Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, movement conservatives during the Bush administration deliberately weakened government’s ability to be a force for good and then undermined the public’s faith in government, creating a vicious circle.  Ronald Reagan had said that the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But most people want government to help–especially during crises. But movement conservatives spent decades weakening the capacity of government to help–becoming a self-fulfillment of Reagan’s prophecy.  If you deregulate the markets, for instance, and then understaff regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), you make it next to impossible to avoid economic meltdowns such as happend in 2008–and you make rebuilding and prevention harder.  If you shrink the budget for toy inspectors, it’s hard to keep lead toys from China from poisoning the nation’s children. If you weaken safety regulations in the mining industry, then spend years underfunding inspectors and enforcement mechanisms, you make it difficult to prevent mine cave-ins and difficult to hold companies accountable for unsafe conditions when such cave-ins happen.  The same process is at work in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Government can never do everything, nor should it try–such an attempt would lead to tyranny.  But, from the perspective of anyone who is not a movement conservative, government exists to enable people to do together what it is difficult or impossible to do by themselves.  Government has been and can be again a force for good. (And one needs only look at some place like Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government for twenty years, to see that the lack of government is no libertarian paradise, but a very bloody anarchy.) Rebuilding OUR government’s capacities for good–and public trust in government as a potential positive force–will take some time. In my view, that is reason enough to keep the reigns of government away from modern movement conservatives.

June 5, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, ethics, History, political philosophy, pop culture, race | 3 Comments

“Papers, Please”: Arizona & Immigration in Christian Perspective (with updates)

Yes, friends, I know I have neglected this blog since Palm Sunday.  My deepest apologies. The truth is that, in addition to trying to catch up on paying writing and family responsibilities, I have been overwhelmed by many current events–and the activist in me supplanted the blogging theologian/public intellectual in me.  I would be mentally composing one column for this blog only to be distracted by new events. I shall try to make up for my absence this month, friends.


By now almost no one in the United States has missed the controversy over the state of Arizona’s new immigration law–which has re-ignited the stalled movement to reform federal immigration laws.  Many overseas have watched the story, too, with various degrees of comprehension.  But before I give biblical-theological reflections–never mind calls to political action–I want to sketch some historical and contemporary backgrown for broader perspective.

The U.S. had no immigration laws at all from the time we ratified the Constitution in 1789 until 1875.  Officially, at least, we favored open borders and welcomed all immigrants.  We were a “land of opportunity” built on waves of immigration.  When the French sculptor Bartholdi constructed the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York harbor, the poet Emma Lazarus (an American democratic socialist) wrote a poem (The New Colossus) to raise money for the statue that is engraved at the base–and represents the best of U.S. ideals on immigration. It reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


But if that famous poem of welcome represents our highest ideals, the reality of our policies has often fallen far short.  A Native American perspective would undoubtedly see all the rest of us as “illegal immigrants” who came–without permission–here, conquered, repeatedly broke treaties with the indigenous nations, stole ever-more of their land, spread disease (often intentionally, such as when smallpox-infected blankets were given as gifts in an early–and devastatingly effective–form of bio-terrorism), massacred millions, forced Native American children into missionary-run schools (paid with federal funds in a huge violation of the “no establishment of religion” clause of the 1st Amendment) where speaking in their native languages led to beatings, etc.  The crimes of the rest of us immigrants against the First Peoples of this continent continue to this day–and demonstrate both the hypocrisy of the anti-immigration feelings of the dominant “white” culture and that securing borders CAN BE necessary for the survival of a nation (or group of nations) or cultures.  Without security in one’s own land, the very existance of a people (or peoples) is threatened–as the genocidal near-extermination of Native Americans shows.

The history of African-Americans shows another tragic face of our bizarre contradictions in this country as they intersect the subject of immigration. Of all the non-indigenous people-groups in this country, persons of African descent are not “immigrants” in the usual sense.  They did not come here voluntarily, but were kidnapped and enslaved–stacked in overcrowded slave ships (often bearing blasphemous names like “The Grace of God,” or the “Jesus,”) whose conditions were so bad that historians estimate that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the human cargo did not survive and were simply thrown overboard.  Historical records indicate that sharks followed the slave ships for free meals.  No one knows how many millions of African slaves were kidnapped from their homelands and sold throughout the Americas, but sub-Saharan Africa had 200 years of virtually ZERO population growth, so the effect was horrendous.  And when the freed slaves finally had the status of citizens at the end of the U.S. Civil War (and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution), they were immediately forced into competition and conflict with new waves of immigrants for both “homesteads” (in areas recently stolen from conquered “Indians”) and unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.  African-Americans have sometimes held anti-immigrant views because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that every time they begin, as a people-group, to move up the economic ladder, they are undercut by the arrival of new groups working for less money.  (On the other hand, anti-black racism among some immigrant groups that came shortly after the end of slavery–such as the Irish who are a large part of my family tree–is at least partly traceable to the fact that newly-freed slaves would work for even lower wages than poor immigrants looking for a foothold.)

The U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” built on waves of immigrant labor.  The Chinese and the Irish in the late 19th C., along with African-Americans, built the transcontinental railroads that linked the far-flung nation together.  Numerous other examples could be given.  And, at our best, we have celebrated that heritage as Emma Lazarus did in her poem.

On the other hand, each wave of immigration (always including both legal and illegal immigration–my Irish ancestors met closed doors of a quota system at Ellis Island and so went to Canada and then snuck south into this country!) was met with suspicion and hostility by many.  Especially during economic hard times, immigrants have made convenient scapegoats for problems. I well remember the hostility to the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees during the recession of the late 197os, as well as to Haitians.  Often, our immigrants have been refugees from war–including wars in which the U.S. was a player: Here in Kentucky, recent waves of immigrants have included many from the former Yugoslavia, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Sudanese.

Some significant dates in U.S. immigration history:

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that “any alien being a free white person may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” (Notice the racism of this earliest immigration policy.)
  • 1875, The U.S. Supreme Court declares that regulation of U.S. immigration is solely the prerogative of the federal government (on this ground alone, it seems clear that that Arizona’s new law is unconstitutional).
  • 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act, reacting to fears of the “yellow menace” of Chinese immigration, stopped, for a long time, the legal immigration of Chinese to the U.S.
  • 1885, 1887, laws prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the U.S.
  • 1891, the federal government assumed the task of inspecting, rejecting, admitting, and processing all persons seeking immigration to the U.S.
  • 1892, Ellis Island is set up as the federal immigration center in New York harbor on 02 January 1892.
  • 1903, for the first time, immigrants crossing the border from Mexico are legally inspected–although informally (and probably illegally) the Texas Rangers and similar groups in other Western states permitted whites to raid Mexican ranches and steal horses and cattle while killing any Mexicans who attempted the same.
  • The U.S. Immigration Act of 1907 reorganized the states bordering Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico and much of Texas) into a Mexican Border District to stem the flow of immigration from Mexico. This had the effect of breaking up many families who had long traveled back and forth visiting relatives.
  • 1917-1924, a series of very harsh immigration laws set strict quotas of immigration–encouraging more Northern Europeans (light-skinned and Protestant), placing strict limits on Jewish immigrants, immigrants from Southern Europe (darker-skinned and Catholic) and banned all Asian immigrants except the Japanese.
  • 1924 Act: Greatly reduced the number of U.S. visas permitting any entrance to the U.S.–a reaction to the refugees from post-  WWI Europe in the America of the Roaring Twenties.
  • 1940, The Alien Registration Act established “green cards.” For the first time, all non-U.S. citizens in the U.S. legally (“aliens”) had to register with the U.S. government and receive a registration card.
  • 1950–The modern Green Card which allowed legal residents (non-citizens) to move and work in the U.S.
  • 1952–Modern immigration system with per-country quotas.
  • 1968–Immigration based on race, place of birth, sex, and residence is struck down. It also officially removed the banning of Asians.
  • 1976–Immigration preference to those from the Western Hemisphere was abolished. This had the unintended effect of making LEGAL immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America much harder than previously.  The contemporary problem of massive illegal immigration from Mexico has its roots in this law signed by then-Pres. Gerald Ford which was intended to be fairer to African and Asian people seeking immigration.
  • 1980–In response to the crisis of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the Haitian crisis of the late 1970s, as well as refugees from Cuba, a law was passed that formalized the acceptance of all refugees, signed by Pres. Jimmy Carter. Later, Pres. Ronald Reagan would distinguish between “political refugees” and “economic refugees” to claim that those fleeing the military dictatorships in Central America, especially Guatemala and El Salvador, were not “real” refugees and not entitled to entry. In protest, church groups created the “sanctuary movement” harboring thousands of refugees from U.S. backed military dictatorships in South America. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government raided numerous churches and paid people to become members of sanctuary churches and spy on their activities for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  (Full disclosure:  Although never a member of a “sanctuary congregation,” I visited several of these congregations throughout the nation during my seminary days in the 198os and wrote papers and articles on them–advocating resistance to the government’s policy and urging lawmakers to take a wider definition of “refugee.”–so that asylum was not simply granted or rejected based on whether the government of the originating nation was friendly with our government.
  • 1986–In response to the crisis of immigration in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan granted a widespread amnesty to illegal immigrants in this country–in return for a law which tightened restrictions still further on future immigration and gave stricter penalties to letting visas expire, etc.
  • Realizing that the current system was broken, Pres. George W. Bush (in one of the few moves of his I supported) tried in 2007 to get a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law that would allow far more legal immigration, punish companies that knowingly hired or recruited undocumented workers (usually illegal immigrants), would help reunite families, grant partial amnesty to longterm resident illegal immigrants who had broken no other laws and give them a path to citizenship, while strengthening border protections.  It was initially supported by most Democratic politicians and several Republican ones, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but was blocked by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican party.  A federal solution to the problem of immigration has languished ever since–and with border crime and violence, especially from the Mexican drug cartels, on the increase, border states have become increasingly hostile to all immigrants, legal or illegal, and of all persons from South of the U.S. border–even while Mexican tourism is a major source of income.

With this background came the AZ law.  The authors of the law may not have had pure motives.  There is strong evidence that AZ State Rep. Pearce and the orginazation FAIR that he used to help write the law, have very racist ideologies, including ties to the eugenics movement.  Gov. Brewer does not seem to have such far-right ties and I initially thought she signed this law as a harassed governor simply desperate in a no-win situation. But, as Secretary of State, Brewer did purge the AZ voting rolls of Latinos in a fashion that would have made Katherine Harris, former FL Sec. of State in 2000, blush with shame at the audacity of it. So, she may be motivated as much by a desire to suppress Latino voting in her state as by desperation over border security.

Now, to examine the law itself. The AZ law, which was SB 1070, claims to forbid racial profiling (which is unconstitutional) but the details of the law make this a contradiction in terms.  It DEMANDS that local police stop any person who “seems illegal” and ask for proof of citizenship and/or legal residency status.  It leaves up to the officer the decision as to what makes someone “seem illegal,” and what would constitute proof of legal status– in most cases simple driver’s license and Social Security card would be insufficient. I doubt I could pass muster were I to drive through AZ: I only have a photocopy of my birth certificate (the original was long ago destroyed in a fire) and don’t keep it in my car.  Who “seems illegal?” I sincerely doubt that the AZ police will be stopping busloads of Japanese tourists or “snowbirds” with Canadian license plates. Since the law is designed as an answer to the problem of a porous southern border, and especially violent crime from Mexican drug lords, police HAVE to target Hispanics. So, they will listen for Mexican accents and look for brown skin (though anyone who has spent time in Mexico, as I have, knows that Mexico has just as wide an ethnic diversity as does the U.S.–from blonde hair and blue eyes to brown skin and brown eyes, to persons of African descent, etc.). And if they don’t, the law allows any AZ citizen to sue the police for failure to comply.

The law is probably unconstitutional on several grounds: 1) The 1875 Supreme Court decision which says that immigration policy and enforcement is a strictly federal matter. 2) The racial profiling violates civil rights of individuals including freedom of movement. By presuming people are guilty of being in the country illegally until and unless they can prove otherwise, it violates the “due process” of the 5th Amendment–which, among other things, guarantees that everyone, citizen or not, is presumed innocent under the law until proven otherwise–not the other way around.  3) The 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states.

But what should we think of this law, not just as Americans or people of good will, but as Christians?  I suggest that we who are Christian should be even more horrified than others about this law.  The Bible promotes fair treatment for foreigners, immigrants, and resident aliens throughout.  The practice of “hospitality to strangers” is made normative in both testaments.  Consider just a few texts:

“Do not oppress an alien.  You yourseves know how it feels to be aliens; for you were aliens in Egypt.” Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born.  Love him as yourselves for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 19:33-34, emphasis added.

Christians are to consider themselves not really at home in ANY earthly country, but as “aliens and strangers on the earth.” Heb. 11:13.  This theme goes back to the founding of ancient Israel. God did not, as commonly said by many, GIVE the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Rather, he let them use the land–a land God claimed for God’s own and in which the Israelites were to consider themselves God’s guests (Lev. 25:23). Actually, this theme has even deeper roots–in Abraham’s call to leave Ur to follow God in faith to some other country “that I will show you.” Wars, famines, plagues–and the call of God–have always led to migration.  (This reminder that the land never BELONGED to Israel would also give a different shape to Mid-east peace talks, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Finally, we must remind ourselves that we meet Christ in the stranger–including the stranger from another land (Matt. 25:35). So our treatment of immigrants and resident aliens, including our perspective on immigration laws, should flow from a desire to treat the resident alien we meet as we would treat Christ–Christ who was, because of Herod’s massacre, a refugee in Egypt for some of his childhood according to Matt. 2:14-16.

In an age of terrorism, it is, perhaps, unreasonable to have completely open borders.  I do not advocate only amnesty.  But I do think the AZ law is an unjust overreaction that no Christian should support.  We need comprehensive immigration reform that brings most undocumented workers out from the shadows and gives them a path to citizenship. We need to remind ourselves that ending wars and working for economic development and a just political order globally reduces many of the reasons people flee to the U.S. (Next time someone gets angry at aid to Mexico, remind them that if they want most Mexicans to stay in Mexico they had better help them form a stable and just nation.) We also need easier LEGAL immigration–importing the skilled and unskilled workers that we need–and making it easy for people to keep their families together, too.

Crime and violence, such as currently rocks Arizona and other border states, must be suppressed–but not by a presumption of guilt by anyone with an accent, with a Latino/a name or certain skin-color, eye-color, hair-color. 

A personal final word: I resent it when people refer to Latino/as as “prone to crime,” lazy, of loose morals, etc. Not only does this insult many of my friends, but it was said about every other immigrant group when they first came to these shores.  The sweeping generalization (i.e., “lie”) hasn’t improved any with time.

UPDATE:  It seems I gave Gov. Brewer too much credit in hoping that she was motivated to sign this draconian law mostly out of fear of cross-border crime.  But the Arizona Republic has done some old-fashioned investigative journalism, today.  They found that, contrary to claims by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and by John McCain, it’s NOT about the violence since there is no increase in violent crime along the AZ border in the last decade!  So, for Gov. Brewer, this has to be a continuation of her voter suppression efforts  (of LEGAL Latino/a citizens in AZ) as AZ Secretary of State in order to make GOP electoral victories easier.  And for State Rep. Pearce, this is part of his continued efforts for white supremacy as documented above. 

Racism is alive and well and rampant in AZ–and trying to come to a state near you as more states seek to copy AZ’s law.  So, we have to step up efforts to push Congress for Comprehensive Immigration Reform–this year, before the November elections.  Take voter registration cards to every rally for immigrants’ rights.

UPDATE II: The Washington Post has a good, brief, article on Five (5) Myths About Immigration that is well worth reading and sharing with others.

A CALL TO ACTION:  Join in any local marches for immigration reform and solidarity with immigrants that you can. Bring voter registration cards to every march or rally.  Write, call, & email your senators urging comprehensive immigration reform THIS year.  Support the Schumer-Kerry framework.  Boycott AZ, especially tourism in AZ, until the racist law is removed.  I cancelled our family’s planned trip to the Grand Canyon this summer as soon as Gov. Brewer signed the law.  Contact Gov. Brewer’s office and the AZ Bureau of Tourism and let them know that you are boycotting their state.  Write letters to your local paper against the AZ law.  Contact the Dept. of Justice and urge them to block enforcement of the AZ law as unconstitutional.  If you are clergy, please preach on the “hospitality to strangers” theme that should undergird Christian perspectives on immigration and condemn the racism of most anti-immigrant views.  Thank-you.

UPDATE III:  Arizona’s legislators and governor are not even PRETENDING that this is about illegal immigration anymore. It’s about turning Latino/as, especially Mexican-Americans, into permanently Second Class Citizens.  The state legislature has just passed (and Gov. Brewer signed) 2 more “anti-Brown” laws.  1) No one who has a “foreign accent” will be allowed to teach English in the public schools!  2)All courses in Latino studies are hereby banned.  Neither of these laws has anything to do with immigration. They are blatant attempts to promote white supremacy and a legal (nonlethal) form of ethnic cleansing! 

May 2, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, ethics, justice, oppression, racial justice | 6 Comments

W.E.B. DuBois (23 February 1868-27 August 1963)

This is the birthday of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), one of the great public intellectuals, civil rights leaders, and political philosophers of all American history and one of the two or three greatest figures of American 20th C. 

Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, editor, DuBois (pronounced “doo-Boyss” ) was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University (1895), and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  At the turn of the century, DuBois predicted correctly that “the color line [would be] the problem of the twentieth century.” Despite undeniable progress, it continues to be an issue into the 21st.  In the words of the historian, David Levering, “In the course of his long, turbulent, career, W.E.B.  DuBois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth century racism:  scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.” 

In the midst of the speeches at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, word was brought to Dr. King and the other speakers at the Lincoln Memorial that W.E.B. DuBois had just died in Ghana.

I will write a fuller biographical sketch at some other time on this blog, but I could not let this birthday pass without a mention.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights, civil rights leaders, History, race, racial justice | 3 Comments