Americans United for Separation of Church and State | April 4, 2014
Government officials in Phoenix are violating the law by compelling individuals suspected of prostitution-related offenses to participate in a program administered by religious groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a letter sent today to city officials, attorneys with Americans United assert that the program, Project ROSE, clearly violates the First Amendment. Project ROSE consists of a partnership between Phoenix police, Catholic Charities and a local Christian church.
Those arrested in the city’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted into the church in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program.
“Phoenix is essentially telling criminal suspects that they can go to church or go to jail,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The government has absolutely no right to force anyone into a position like that. These suspects shouldn’t be coerced into participating in a program that might not reflect their own beliefs.”
Under the program, suspects must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program in a section of the church marked by a sign with a Latin cross, the Project ROSE logo and the words “Prosecutor’s Office.” There, a city prosecutor informs them that if they wish to keep their arrest off the books, they must complete Catholic Charities’ program.
If the suspects don’t agree, a police report is submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office, and they are charged with prostitution. A conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 15 days to six months’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine.
“The city is coercing individuals to participate in religious activities and programs, under pain of criminal prosecution,” reads AU’s letter. “The city is conveying its endorsement of religion generally and Christianity in particular. And the city is using taxpayer money and law-enforcement resources to aid religious institutions.”
- Sex workers in Arizona given choice of therapy in church or arrest
- Project ROSE Is Arresting Sex Workers in Arizona to Save Their Souls
CNN reports on Israeli PM Netanyahu’s reception at the Vatican and plans for the Pope to visit Israel in May.
Recalling the shabby treatment of religious leaders on previous visits to the Holy Land, let us hope Pope Francis takes a firmer line than his predecessor and insists on seeing Gaza and ministering to his terrorised flock there.
In May 2009, when Benedict was Pope, the Vatican told the Israeli press that the Holy Father would refrain from visiting Gaza. The word ‘refrain’ was a peculiar one in the circumstances. “The Pope will refrain from visiting Gaza….” smacks of abstinence, as in refraining from sexual intercourse. Setting foot in Gaza was as sinful as sneaking into a brothel, it seems. Israel’s hoodlums of course were keen to prevent him seeing how the tiny, overcrowded enclave had been devastated 16 months earlier by their murderous blitzkrieg codenamed Cast Lead. And the Pope went along with it.
Gaza’s isolated and besieged Catholic community were none too happy with the Pope’s attitude, judging by the reaction of their redoubtable old priest Fr Manuel Mussallam. “We will ask him why he came, what he intends saying to the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims and why he isn’t coming to Gaza,” said Fr Manuel. “We’ll tell him that this is not the right moment to come and visit the holy places, while Jerusalem is occupied.”
Time for the Pope to join BDS?
Having decided to go to Palestine (via Israel) it was imperative for the Pope to include Gaza or it would look like he didn’t give a damn about the appalling persecution in the very land where Christianity was born. He might as well hammer one more nail into Christendom’s coffin. Then again, should he be going to Israel at all while Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other places dear to Christian and Muslim religious belief are under the jackboot?
Indeed, has it finally come to the point where the Pope ought to do the decent thing and boycott Israel… join the BDS movement? Admittedly, it’s a tough call given the Catholic Church’s considerable interests out there.
But we have seen enough wimpish conduct by Christian leaders while Israel defiles the Holy Land. The previous November, while the regime was planning its vicious assault, codename Operation Cast Lead, on Gaza’s Muslims and Christians after softening them up with two years of blockade and starvation, we were treated to the spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury joining the Chief Rabbi on a visit to Auschwitz to show joint solidarity against extreme hostility and genocide. The Archbishop called it “a place of utter profanity” and spoke of the collective corruption and moral sickness that made the Holocaust possible.
Would the pair show the same spirit of righteous solidarity by visiting Gaza? The scale of horror might be different but the moral sickness is just as obscene. And this being the Holy Land the profanity is many times worse.
The Pope too had been to Auschwitz to pray for the people murdered there. “I had to come here as a duty to truth and to those that suffered,” he said and spoke of the Nazis’ mania for destruction and domination.
Very commendable. But he wasn’t so keen to come and pray for those suffering in Gaza, victims of much the same kind of criminal insanity. Nevertheless, he turned up at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Western (Wailing) Wall, and hobnobbed with the chief rabbis… but not with his brave priest and the shattered congregation in Gaza. What had happened to his ‘duty to truth’?
After my visit to Gaza in late 2007, 18 months after Israel’s merciless squeeze began, I wrote:
Fuel is running out, so are basics like washing powder. Shattered infrastructure and food shortages mean serious public health problems. Power cuts disrupt hospitals and vital drugs cannot be kept refrigerated. Thousands look death in the face as medicare collapses.
A friend emailed:
“Today in Gaza we have no cement to build graves for those who die.”
The subjugation and dispossession of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land continues. It remains a mystery to me why our largely Christian democracy in Britain slavishly supports the Middle East ethnocracy that’s doing this…
The last six years have seen things go from bad to worse – much worse. Palestinians in the Holy Land, and especially Gaza, need to be shown that the Christian Church cares about them even if nobody else does. So where are these extravagantly robed and mitred Men of God when needed?
No repetition of the Benedict debâcle, please
Archbishop Rowan Williams, visiting in 2010, did manage to get into Gaza. But as far as I could discover he made no public statement about the wretched conditions there, nor did he reveal his findings to the House of Lords where he had the support of a large gaggle of bishops. This despite his claim to be “in a unique position to bring the needs and voices of those fighting poverty, disease and the effects of conflict, to the attention of national and international policy makers”.
And despite his declaration that “Christians need to witness boldly and clearly”.
And despite his urging greater awareness of the humanitarian crisis to ensure that the people of Gaza were not forgotten.
The Israelis, I heard, refused him access to Gaza from the start and only at the last minute allowed the Archbishop an hour or so, just enough for a quick visit to the Ahli Hospital and nowhere else. For that concession one wonders if he had to sign a gagging order.
His website, however, described how he, like the Pope, hobnobbed with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and paid respects to Yad Vashem and the Holocaust. He also talked with the President of Israel, who no doubt enjoyed his guest’s frustration at being prevented from seeing the horrors that had been inflicted on Gaza.
And news of any get-together with senior Islamic figures on the ground was conspicuously absent, leaving a question-mark over his commitment to inter-faith engagement.
Why on earth did he agree to fraternise with Jewish political and religious dignitaries when it was clear that his wish to carry out his Christian duty in Gaza would be obstructed? Does Lambeth Palace not realise that meekly accepting such insults only serves to legitimise the Israelis’ illegal occupation and gives a stamp of approval to the brutal siege of Gaza, the daily death-dealing air strikes against civilians, the persecution of Muslim and Christian communities and the regime’s utter contempt for international law and human rights?
One can only hope the Vatican realises it too and avoids a repetition of the Benedict debâcle.
The Israelis walk all over fawning sycophants masquerading as Western political leaders. Our spiritual leaders, however, are supposed to be made of sterner stuff and to have the moral backbone to face down evil.
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Part 2 of 2
Hector Avalos is professor of religious studies at Iowa State University and the author or editor of six books on Biblical studies and religion, including his recently published work, The End of Biblical Studies. Join us for a fascinating presentation detailing how the more we discover about the ancient world, the less reliable we find the Bible.
From the dust jacket of The End of Biblical Studies: Hector Avalos calls for an end to biblical studies as we know them. He outlines two main arguments for this surprising conclusion.
First, academic biblical scholarship has clearly succeeded in showing that the ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and humanity that are fundamentally opposed to the views of modern society. The Bible is thus largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of contemporary human beings.
Second, Avalos criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today’s world. In effect, he accuses his profession of being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account of its own findings to the general public and faith communities.
Half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public classrooms, religion is nonetheless very present in schools these days.
But the rulings applied only to public school teachers and administrators.
Students were free to say grace in the cafeteria, meet outside class to study the Bible, Quran, or Torah, and participate in religious after-school programs on their campuses.
“We’ve gone from virtual silence about religion in the curriculum and virtually no student religious expression in many schools,” Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center and head of the Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, DC, told the Christian Science Monitor, “to today, when social studies and other standards are fairly generous to religion, and students are expressing their faiths in many different ways in many public schools, if not most.”
Consider the following facts:
Good News Clubs, organized by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, hold Sunday school-like classes in some 3,200 public elementary schools for 156,000 students.
One million to two million students participate in “See You at the Pole” prayer services every September beneath their campus flagpoles.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has more than 8,000 chapters on junior and high school campuses across the country.
Campus Crusade for Christ has about 200 clubs, almost all of them in public schools.
Youth for Christ, an evangelical missionary organization, has on- and off-campus clubs at 1,200 schools, most of them public.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted in 2012 by the National Opinion Research Center showed that 57% of Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court prohibition against public schools requiring the reading of Bible verses or the Lord’s Prayer, while 39% approve. However, there were sharp regional differences. A majority in the Northeast and the West did approve of the prohibition, while in the South 73% disapproved. In addition, Americans age 18-29 differed from their elders, approving of the prohibition 56% to 38%.
To Learn More:
School Prayer: 50 Years after the Ban, God and Faith more Present than Ever (by Lee Lawrence, Christian Science Monitor)
School Prayer 50 Years Later: What Do Americans Believe? (by Jaweed Kaleem, Huffington Post)
High School Valedictorian Sues to Stop Graduation Prayer (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
- Prayer in School: Why Isn’t Silent Prayer Good Enough? (atheistrev.com)
- Prayer in School: All Eyes on Mississippi (atheistrev.com)
The name of the report is/was ‘The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land.’” Authored by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, it basically came to the conclusion that the Bible accords the Jews no privileged claim over the land of Palestine, nor does it provide any justification for the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, or the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes and lands.
The report was posted at the Church of Scotland’s website—ah, but regrettably only temporarily. It has since mysteriously disappeared, to be replaced by a statement that includes the following:
The Church of Scotland and representatives of the Jewish Community in Scotland and the United Kingdom, held useful discussions facilitated by the Council of Christians and Jews this afternoon, Thursday 8 May. We agreed that the drafting of the report published by the Church and Society Council for discussion at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has given cause for concern and misunderstanding of its position and requires a new introduction to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used.
Did the church cave in to Jewish pressure? This appears to be the case, although the report apparently is to be discussed at the church’s upcoming General Assembly, later this month.
I first became aware of “The Inheritance of Abraham?” after reading an article about it on Wednesday of last week. Intrigued, I went to the church’s website to access the full report. Fortunately, I had the foresight to download it and save it, for when I returned to the site on Saturday, lo and behold it was nowhere to be found. The statement above, dated May 9, 2013, seems to promise a re-posting at some point, though with “a new introduction to set the context for the report”—which presumably means the old introduction will be gone, and that there may be other changes in the original wording as well.
However, you can go here and read the report in its entirety and with the original wording intact. You will find that it cites passages in Genesis—specifically 12:7, 13:15-17, 15:18-21, and 17:7-8—which have God promising the land to Abraham and his descendants without any conditions attached. Or as the report phrases it, “There are no ‘so long as…’ or ‘until…’ clauses in them” and “alone they can be read to show that God promises the land to the Israelites unconditionally.”
But the report, in the next section, goes on to note “a second view,” which, among other things, says we should read “the Pentateuch in the light of the prophets.” In this view, “the land is a gift, not a right, and one which brings with it obligations, most particularly to practice justice and to dwell equitably with the stranger.” The report cites the prophet Jonah as an example.
The book of Jonah is a key text for understanding the Hebrew Bible’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. Written at a time when Jewish people were turning inwards, the book presents Johan as a Jewish nationalist to drive home the point: God’s universal, inclusive love is for all. God in Jonah is merciful, gracious, a liberator of the oppressed and sinful who looks for just living. The people of God even include the hated Assyrians. So Johan suggests a new theology of the land, because God was not confined within the land of Israel, but also embraced the land of Assyria.
And then, of course, there are the New Testament and the words of Jesus, whose teachings the report describes as “inclusive,” not only in their own right, but also in Christ’s view of the Old Testament prophets—a view that is offered in Luke 4:25-30… along with the reaction it provoked among the Jews of Nazareth at the time:
“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
By expressing the view that God had love in his heart for others than just Jews, Jesus seems, then, to have caused feelings of jealousy and anger amongst his Jewish listeners that day. The report goes on to observe:
Jesus offered a radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism, but the people of Nazareth were not ready for it. John’s gospel speaks of Jesus being lifted up and drawing all people to himself (John 12:32). Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple means not just that the Temple needs to be reformed, but that the Temple is finished. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 makes it clear that God is no longer confined to the place of the Temple. Temple and land give way to a new understanding so Paul can say that all the barriers that separated Jews from the rest are down—“there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female in Christ Jesus.” The new ‘place’ where God is found is wherever people gather in the name of Jesus.
Or in other words, “the promise to Abraham about land is fulfilled through the impact of Jesus, not by restoration of land to the Jewish people” and “no part of the New Testament gives any support to a political state of Israel beyond that to any other state.” Thus, the requirements for justice and the protection of human rights apply to each land, and to every inhabitant in the land.
Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory. They are a way of speaking about how to live under God so that justice and peace reign, the weak and poor are protected, the stranger is included, and all have a share in the community and a contribution to make to it. The ‘promised land’ in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land; can be found—or built—anywhere.
The report also includes several quotes from Kairos Palestine, a document published in 2009 by Palestinian Christians and which I have commented upon previously. Among the quotes from Kairos Palestine we find this one:
Our land is God’s land, as is the case with all countries in the world. It is holy inasmuch as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those of us who live here, to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war. It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God’s land: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).
And also this one:
We believe that our land has a universal mission. In this universality, the meaning of the promises, of the land, of the election, of the people of God, open up to include all of humanity, starting from all the peoples of this land
And this one:
Our Church points to the Kingdom, which cannot be tied to any earthly kingdom. Jesus said before Pilate that he was indeed a king but “my kingdom is not from this world.” St. Paul says: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:7). Therefore religion cannot favour or support any unjust political regime, but must rather promote justice, truth and human dignity.”
So does the modern day state of Israel meet these conditions? Hardly. And the report says as much.
From this last perspective, the desire of many in the state of Israel to acquire the land of Palestine for the Jewish people is wrong. The fact that the land is currently being taken by settlement expansion, the separation barrier, house clearance, theft and force makes it doubly wrong to seek biblical sanction for this.
Church leaders from South Africa, following a visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the autumn of 2012, observed similarities to the concluding years of the apartheid regime in South Africa. They concur with proposals to consider economic and political measures involving boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions against the state of Israel focused on illegal settlements, as the best way of convincing Israeli politicians and voters that what is happening is wrong, and that Christians around the world should not contribute in any way to the viability of illegal settlements. This raises particular questions for the Church of Scotland as we seek to respond to the question: “What does the Lord require of you…?”
And the conclusion reached is:
From this examination of the various views in the Bible about the relation of land to the people of God, it can be concluded that Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people, to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory. It is a misuse of the Bible to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflicts over land. In the Bible, God’s promises extend in hope to all land and people. Focused as they are on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these promises call for a commitment in every place to justice in a spirit of reconciliation.
The report then goes on to assert that “the current situation is characterized by an inequality in power and therefore reconciliation can only be possible if the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the blockade of Gaza, are ended.” Note: it does not say that Israel has no right to exist, although this is the interpretation being given by a number of Jews, some of whom seem quite upset over the whole thing.
So let’s cut to the chase, and see what some of these people have been saying about the report.
“Scottish Jews said they were ‘outraged’ by a recent Church of Scotland paper which denies Jews any special claim to the land of Israel.” So begins a report in the JTA dated May 3. The article makes reference to a statement issued by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, who denounce the report as “an outrage to everything that interfaith dialogue stands for”, insisting as well that it “reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism.”
In the opinion of the Scottish Council, the report also “closes the door on meaningful dialogue,” and quite naturally we find a demand that the Church of Scotland “withdraw it ahead of its forthcoming General Assembly.”
Interestingly, the Council’s statement additionally frets about “the arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts,” although of course there are plenty of Jews telling Christians how to interpret the New Testament, not to mention those who have lambasted the Gospels as “anti-Semitic.”
Israel Hayom, the Israeli newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, calls the report “a culmination of more than a decade of increasingly strident anti-Zionism and pro-Palestinian activism by the church, especially by its local Palestinian Christian chapters,” while the always amusing Algemeiner characterizes the Church of Scotland as waging a “war on Judaism,” and committing a “moral crime” to boot, while the church’s report, Algemeiner asserts, is “immersed…in anti-Semitic clichés and malicious distortions of Jewish theology.”
Also, Israel’s ambassador to Britain has gotten in on the act. A later report by the JTA, dated May 11, quotes Ambassador Daniel Taub as saying, “This report not only plays into extremist political positions, but negates and belittles the deeply held Jewish attachment to the land of Israel in a way which is truly hurtful.” Taub reportedly made the comment over Israel’s Army Radio.
Not to be outmatched by these pikers, the ADL’s Abe Foxman has called the report “stunningly offensive,” as well as a “classic rejection of Judaism.”
“By brazenly dismissing Jewish self-understanding of its own bible—the Torah, the Church of Scotland has disregarded nearly five decades of progress in Jewish-Christian theological dialog by promoting religious principles which deny the legitimacy of Judaism and were used for centuries to justify the brutal repression of Jews,” Foxman goes on to add.
Will all this pressure result in a complete capitulation on the part of the Church of Scotland? Will we see the report fundamentally altered, perhaps beyond recognition, or even withdrawn altogether? Hard to say, but you’ll recall I began this article by quoting from a statement on the whole matter which has been posted on the Church of Scotland’s website. The statement, I mentioned, replaces the report itself, which has since been taken down. What I neglected to say is that this is a joint statement, signed not only by the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, but also four Jewish organizations: Here is the rest of it:
In particular the Church of Scotland needs to be explicit about some things that are implicit policies of the Church:
- There is no change in the Church of Scotland’s long held position of the right of Israel to exist.
- The Church condemns all violence and acts of terrorism, where ever they happen in the world.
- The concern of the Church about the injustices faced by the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain firm, but that concern should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist.
- That the Church condemns all things that create a culture of anti Semitism.
There is an equal sense of concern amongst both communities for justice and peace for all the people of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Sitting round the table and listening to each other more deeply has created a real opportunity for both communities to better understand each other and that this report now becomes a catalyst for continued and growing conversation.
The two communities have agreed to work together both here and in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to continue what was a very positive dialogue.
Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities
Board of Deputies of British Jews
Movement for Reform Judaism
Rabbis for Human Rights
Note the dictatorial tone: “the Church of Scotland needs to be explicit…”
One might ask: Or else what?
Of course it isn’t only the Jewish media who have weighed in on the issue. Here is a report from Iran’s Press TV, which includes an interview with Anglican Vicar Stephen Sizer:
President Hugo Chavez was unique in multiple areas of political, social and economic life. He made significant contributions to the advancement of humanity. The depth, scope and popularity of his accomplishments mark President Chavez as the ‘Renaissance President of the 21st Century’.
Many writers have noted one or another of his historic contributions highlighting his anti-poverty legislation, his success in winning popular elections with resounding majorities and his promotion of universal free public education and health coverage for all Venezuelans.
In this essay we will highlight the unique world-historic contributions that President Chavez made in the spheres of political economy, ethics and international law and in redefining relations between political leaders and citizens. We shall start with his enduring contribution to the development of civic culture in Venezuela and beyond.
Hugo Chavez: The Great Teacher of Civic Values
From his first days in office, Chavez was engaged in transforming the constitutional order so that political leaders and institutions would be more responsive to the popular electorate. Through his speeches Chavez clearly and carefully informed the electorate of the measures and legislation to improve their livelihood. He invited comments and criticism – his style was to engage in constant dialogue, especially with the poor, the unemployed and the workers. Chavez was so successful in teaching civic responsibilities to the Venezuelan electorate that millions of citizens from the slums of Caracas rose up spontaneously to oust the US backed business-military junta which had kidnapped their president and closed the legislature. Within seventy-two hours – record time – the civic-minded citizens restored the democratic order and the rule of law in Venezuela, thoroughly rejecting the mass media’s defense of the coup-plotters and their brief authoritarian regime.
Chavez, as all great educators, learned from this democratic intervention of the mass of citizens, that democracy’s most effective defenders were to be found among the working people – and that its worst enemies were found in the business elites and military officials linked to Miami and Washington.
Chavez civic pedagogy emphasized the importance of the historical teachings and examples of founding fathers, like Simon Bolivar, in establishing a national and Latin American identity. His speeches raised the cultural level of millions of Venezuelans who had been raised in the alienating and servile culture of imperial Washington and the consumerist obsessions of Miami shopping malls.
Chavez succeeded in instilling a culture of solidarity and mutual support among the exploited, emphasizing ‘horizontal’ ties over vertical clientelistic dependency on the rich and powerful. His success in creating collective consciousness decisively shifted the balance of political power away from the wealthy rulers and corrupt political party and trade union leaders toward new socialist movements and class oriented trade unions. More than anything else Chavez’ political education of the popular majority regarding their social rights to free health care and higher education, living wages and full employment drew the hysterical ire of the wealthy Venezuelans and their undying hatred of a president who had created a sense of autonomy, dignity and ‘class empowerment’ through public education ending centuries of elite privilege and omnipotence.
Above all Chavez speeches, drawing as much from Bolivar as from Karl Marx, created a deep, generous sense of patriotism and nationalism and a profound rejection of a prostrate elite groveling before their Washington overlord, Wall Street bankers and oil company executives. Chavez’ anti-imperial speeches resonated because he spoke in the language of the people and expanded their national consciousness to identification with Latin America, especially Cuba’s fight against imperial interventions and wars.
International Relations: The Chavez Doctrine
At the beginning of the previous decade, after 9/11/01, Washington declared a ‘War on Terror.’ This was a public declaration of unilateral military intervention and wars against sovereign nations, movements and individuals deemed as adversaries, in violation of international law.
Almost all countries submitted to this flagrant violation of the Geneva Accords, except President Chavez, who made the most profound and simple refutation against Washington: ‘You don’t fight terrorism with state terrorism’. In his defense of the sovereignty of nations and international jurisprudence, Chavez underlined the importance of political and economic solutions to social problems and conflicts – repudiating the use of bombs, torture and mayhem. The Chavez Doctrine emphasized south-south trade and investments and diplomatic over military resolution of disputes. He upheld the Geneva Accords against colonial and imperial aggression while rejecting the imperial doctrine of ‘the war on terror’, defining western state terrorism as a pernicious equivalent to Al Qaeda terrorism.
Political Theory and Practice: The Grand Synthesizer
One of the most profound and influential aspects of Chavez’ legacy is his original synthesis of three grand strands of political thought: popular Christianity, Bolivarian nationalist and regional integration and Marxist political, social and economic thought. Chavez’ Christianity informed his deep belief in justice and the equality of people, as well as his generosity and forgiveness of adversaries even as they engaged in a violent coup, a crippling lockout, or openly collaborated and received financing from enemy intelligence agencies. Whereas anywhere else in the world, armed assaults against the state and coup d’états would result in long prison sentences or even executions, under Chavez most of his violent adversaries escaped prosecution and even rejoined their subversive organizations. Chavez demonstrated a deep belief in redemption and forgiveness. Chavez’s Christianity informed his ‘option for the poor’, the depth and breadth of his commitment to eradicating poverty and his solidarity with the poor against the rich.
Chavez deep-seated aversion and effective opposition to US and European imperialism and brutal Israeli colonialism were profoundly rooted in his reading of the writings and history of Simon Bolivar, the founding father of the Venezuelan nation. Bolivarian ideas on national liberation long preceded any exposure to Marx, Lenin or more contemporary leftist writings on imperialism. His powerful and unwavering support for regional integration and internationalism was deeply influenced by Simon Bolivar’s proposed ‘United States of Latin America’ and his internationalist activity in support of anti-colonial movements.
Chavez’ incorporation of Marxist ideas into his world view was adapted to his longstanding popular Christian and Bolivarian internationalist philosophy. Chavez’ option for the poor was deepened by his recognition of the centrality of the class struggle and the reconstruction of the Bolivarian nation through the socialization of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’. The socialist concept of self-managed factories and popular empowerment via community councils was given moral legitimacy by Chavez’ Christian faith in an egalitarian moral order.
While Chavez was respectful and carefully listened to the views of visiting leftist academics and frequently praised their writings, many failed to recognize or, worse, deliberately ignored the President’s own more original synthesis of history, religion and Marxism. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, some leftist academics have, in their self-indulgent posturing, presumed to be Chavez’ ‘teacher’ and advisor on all matters of ‘Marxist theory’: This represents a style of leftist cultural colonialism, which snidely criticized Chavez for not following their ready-made prescriptions, published in their political literary journals in London, New York and Paris.
Fortunately, Chavez took what was useful from the overseas academics and NGO-funded political strategists while discarding ideas that failed to take account of the cultural-historical, class and rentier specificities of Venezuela.
Chavez has bequeathed to the intellectuals and activists of the world a method of thinking which is global and specific, historical and theoretical, material and ethical and which encompasses class analysis, democracy and a spiritual transcendence resonating with the great mass of humanity in a language every person can understand. Chavez’ philosophy and practice (more than any ‘discourse’ narrated by the social forum-hopping experts) demonstrated that the art of formulating complex ideas in simple language can move millions of people to ‘make history, and not only to study it’..
Toward Practical Alternatives to Neoliberalism and Imperialism
Perhaps Chavez greatest contribution in the contemporary period was to demonstrate, through practical measures and political initiatives, that many of the most challenging contemporary political and economic problems can be successfully resolved.
Radical Reform of a Rentier State
Nothing is more difficult than changing the social structure, institutions and attitudes of a rentier petro-state, with deeply entrenched clientelistic politics, endemic party-state corruption and a deeply-rooted mass psychology based on consumerism. Yet Chavez largely succeeded where other petro-regimes failed. The Chavez Administration first began with constitutional and institutional changes to create a new political framework; then he implemented social impact programs, which deepened political commitments among an active majority, which, in turn, bravely defended the regime from a violent US backed business-military coup d’état. Mass mobilization and popular support, in turn, radicalized the Chavez government and made way for a deeper socialization of the economy and the implementation of radical agrarian reform. The petrol industry was socialized; royalty and tax payments were raised to provide funds for massively expanded social expenditures benefiting the majority of Venezuelans.
Almost every day Chavez prepared clearly understandable educational speeches on social, ethical and political topics related to his regime’s redistributive policies by emphasizing social solidarity over individualistic acquisitive consumerism. Mass organizations and community and trade union movements flourished – a new social consciousness emerged ready and willing to advance social change and confront the wealthy and powerful. Chavez’ defeat of the US-backed coup and bosses’ lockout and his affirmation of the Bolivarian tradition and sovereign identity of Venezuela created a powerful nationalist consciousness which eroded the rentier mentality and strengthened the pursuit of a diversified ‘balanced economy’. This new political will and national productive consciousness was a great leap forward, even as the main features of a rentier-oil dependent economy persist. This extremely difficult transition has begun and is an ongoing process. Overseas leftist theorists, who criticize Venezuela (‘corruption’, ‘bureaucracy’) have profoundly ignored the enormous difficulties of transitioning from a rentier state to a socialized economy and the enormous progress achieved by Chavez.
Economic Crisis Without Capitalist Austerity
Throughout the crisis-wracked capitalist world, ruling labor, social democratic, liberal and conservative regimes have imposed regressive ‘austerity programs’ involving brutal reductions of social welfare, health and education expenditures and mass layoffs of workers and employees while handing our generous state subsidies and bailouts to failing banks and capitalist enterprises. Chanting their Thacherite slogan, ‘there is no alternative’, capitalist economists justify imposing the burden of ‘capitalist recovery’ onto the working class while allowing capital to recover its profits in order to invest.
Chavez’ policy was the direct opposite: In the midst of crisis, he retained all the social programs, rejected mass firings and increased social spending. The Venezuelan economy rode out of the worldwide crisis and recovered with a healthy 5.8% growth rate in 2012. In other words, Chavez demonstrated that mass impoverishment was a product of the specific capitalist ‘formula’ for recovery. He showed another, positive alternative approach to economic crisis, which taxed the rich, promoted public investments and maintained social expenditures.
Social Transformation in a ‘Globalized Economy’
Many commentators, left, right and center, have argued that the advent of a ‘globalized economy’ ruled out a radical social transformation. Yet Venezuela, which is profoundly globalized and integrated into the world market via trade and investments, has made major advances in social reform. What really matters in relation to a globalized economy is the nature of the political economic regime and its policies, which dictate how the gains and costs of international trade and investment are distributed. In a word, what is decisive is the ‘class character of the regime’ managing its place in the world economy. Chavez certainly did not ‘de-link’ from the world economy; rather he has re-linked Venezuela in a new way. He shifted Venezuelan trade and investment toward Latin America, Asia and the Middle East — especially to countries which do not intervene or impose reactionary conditions on economic transactions.
Anti-Imperialism in a Time of an Imperialist Offensive
In a time of a virulent US—EU imperialist offensive involving ‘pre-emptive’ military invasions, mercenary interventions, torture, assassinations and drone warfare in Iraq, Mali, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan and brutal economic sanctions and sabotage against Iran; Israeli colonial expulsions of thousands of Palestinians financed by the US; US-backed coups in Honduras and Paraguay and aborted revolutions via puppets in Egypt and Tunisia, President Chavez, alone, stood as the principled defender of anti-imperialist politics. Chavez’ deep commitment to anti-imperialism stands in marked contrast to the capitulation of Western self-styled ‘Marxist’ intellectuals who mouthed crude justifications for their support of NATO bombing Yugoslavia and Libya, the French invasion of Mali and the Saudi-French (‘Monarcho-Socialist’) funding and arming of Islamist mercenaries against Syria. These same London, New York and Paris-based ‘intellectuals’ who patronized Chavez as a mere ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’ and claimed he should have listened to their lectures and read their books, had crassly capitulated under the pressure of the capitalist state and mass media into supporting ‘humanitarian interventions’ (aka NATO bombing)… and justified their opportunism in the language of obscure leftists sects. Chavez confronted NATO pressures and threats, as well as the destabilizing subversion of his domestic opponents and courageously articulated the most profound and significant principles of 20th and 21st Marxism: the inviolate right to self-determination of oppressed nations and unconditional opposition to imperial wars. While Chavez spoke and acted in defense of anti-imperialist principles, many in the European and US left acquiesced in imperial wars: There were virtually no mass protests, the ‘anti-war’ movements were co-opted or moribund, the British ‘Socialist’ Workers Party defended the massive NATO bombing of Libya, the French ‘Socialists’ invaded Mali- with the support of the ‘Anti-Capitalist’ Party. Meanwhile, the ‘populist’ Chavez had articulated a far more profound and principled understanding of Marxist practice, certainly than his self-appointed overseas Marxist ‘tutors’.
No other political leader or for that matter, leftist academic, developed, deepened and extended the central tenets of anti-imperialist politics in the era of global imperialist warfare with greater acuity than Hugo Chavez.
Transition from a Failed Neo-Liberal to a Dynamic Welfare State
Chavez’ programmatic and comprehensive reconfiguration of Venezuela from a disastrous and failed neo-liberal regime to a dynamic welfare state stands as a landmark in 20th and 21st century political economy. Chavez’ successful reversal of neo-liberal institutions and policies, as well as his re-nationalization of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ demolished the reigning neo-liberal dogma derived from the Thatcher-Reagan era enshrined in the slogan: ‘There is no alternative’ to brutal neo-liberal policies, or TINA.
Chavez rejected privatization – he re-nationalized key oil related industries, socialized hundreds of capitalist firms and carried out a vast agrarian reform program, including land distribution to 300,000 families. He encouraged trade union organizations and worker control of factories – even bucking public managers and even his own cabinet ministers. In Latin America, Chavez led the way in defining with greater depth and with more comprehensive social changes, the post neo-liberal era. Chavez envisioned the transition from neo-liberalism to a new socialized welfare state as an international process and provided financing and political support for new regional organizations like ALBA, PetroCaribe, and UNASUR. He rejected the idea of building a welfare state in one country and formulated a theory of post-neo-liberal transitions based on international solidarity. Chavez’ original ideas and policies regarding the post-neo-liberal transition escaped the armchair Marxists and the globetrotting Social Forum NGO pundits whose inconsequential ‘global alternatives’ succeeded primarily in securing imperial foundation funding.
Chavez demonstrated through theory and practice that neo-liberalism was indeed reversible – a major political breakthrough of the 21st century.
Beyond Social Liberalism: The Radical Definition of Post-Neo-Liberalism
The US-EU promoted neo-liberal regimes have collapsed under the weight of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Massive unemployment led to popular uprisings, new elections and the advent of center-left regimes in most of Latin America, which rejected or at least claimed to repudiate ‘neo-liberalism’. Most of these regimes promulgated legislation and executive directives to fund poverty programs, implement financial controls and make productive investments, while raising minimum wages and stimulating employment. However few lucrative enterprises were actually re-nationalized. Addressing inequalities and the concentration of wealth were not part of their agenda. They formulated their strategy of working with Wall Street investors, local agro-mineral exporters and co-opted trade unions.
Chavez posed a profoundly different alternative to this form of ‘post-neoliberalism’. He nationalized resource industries, excluded Wall Street speculators and limited the role of the agro-mineral elites. He posed a socialized welfare state as an alternative to the reigning social-liberal orthodoxy of the center-left regimes, even as he worked with these regimes in promoting Latin American integration and opposing US backed coups.
Chavez was both a leader defining a more socialized alternative to social liberation and the conscience pressuring his allies to advance further.
Socialism and Democracy
Chavez opened a new and extraordinarily original and complex path to socialism based on free elections, re-educating the military to uphold democratic and constitutional principals, and the development of mass and community media. He ended the capitalist mass media monopolies and strengthened civil society as a counter-weight to US-sponsored para-military and fifth column elites intent on destabilizing the democratic state.
No other democratic-socialist president had successfully resisted imperial destabilization campaigns – neither Jagan in Guyana, Manley in Jamaica, nor Allende in Chile. From the very outset Chavez saw the importance of creating a solid legal-political framework to facilitate executive leadership, promote popular civil society organizations and end US penetration of the state apparatus (military and police). Chavez implemented radical social impact programs that ensured the loyalty and active allegiance of popular majorities and weakened the economic levers of political power long held by the capitalist class. As a result Venezuela’s political leaders, soldiers and officers loyal to its constitution and the popular masses crushed a bloody right-wing coup, a crippling bosses’ lockout and a US-financed referendum and proceeded to implement further radical socio-economic reforms in a prolonged process of cumulative socialization.
Chavez’s originality, in part the result of trial and error, was his ‘experimental method’: His profound understanding and response to popular attitudes and behavior was deeply rooted in Venezuela’s history of racial and class injustice and popular rebelliousness. More than any previous socialist leader, Chavez traveled, spoke and listened to Venezuela’s popular classes on questions of everyday life. His ‘method’ was to translate micro based knowledge into macro programed changes. In practice he was the antithesis of the overseas and local intellectual know-it-alls who literally spoke down to the people and who saw themselves as the ‘masters of the world’ … at least, in the micro-world of left academia, ingrown socialist conferences and self-centered monologues. The death of Hugo Chavez was profoundly mourned by millions in Venezuela and hundreds of million around the world because his transition to socialism was their path; he listened to their demands and he acted upon them effectively.
Social Democracy and National Security
Chavez was a socialist president for over 13 years in the face of large-scale, long-term violent opposition and financial sabotage from Washington, the local economic elite and mass media moguls. Chavez created the political consciousness that motivated millions of workers and secured the constitutional loyalty of the military to defeat a bloody US-backed business-military coup in 2002. Chavez tempered social changes in accordance with a realistic assessment of what the political and legal order could support. First and foremost, Chavez secured the loyalty of the military by ending US ‘advisory’ missions and overseas imperial indoctrination while substituting intensive courses on Venezuelan history, civic responsibility and the critical link between the popular classes and the military in a common national mission.
Chavez’ national security policies were based on democratic principles as well as a clear recognition of the serious threats to Venezuelan sovereignty. He successfully safeguarded both national security and the democratic rights and political freedoms of its citizens, a feat which has earned Venezuela the admiration and envy of constitutional lawyers and citizens of the US and the EU.
In stark contrast, US President Obama has assumed the power to assassinate US citizens based on secret information and without trial both in and out of the US. His Administration has murdered ‘targeted’ US citizens and their children, jailed others without trial and maintains secret ‘files’ on over 40 million Americans. Chavez never assumed those powers and never assassinated or tortured a single Venezuelan. In Venezuela, the dozen or so prisoners convicted of violent acts of subversion after open trials in Venezuelan courts, stand in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands of jailed and secretly framed Muslims and Latin American immigrants in the US. Chavez rejected state terror; while Obama has special assassination teams on the ground in over 70 countries. Obama supports arbitrary police invasions of ‘suspect’ homes and workplaces based on ‘secret evidence’ while. Chavez even tolerated the activities of known foreign (CIA)-funded opposition parties. In a word, Obama uses ‘national security’ to destroy democratic freedoms while Chavez upheld democratic freedoms and imposed constitutional limits on the national security apparatus.
Chavez sought peaceful diplomatic resolution of conflicts with hostile neighbors, such as Colombia which hosts seven US military bases – potential springboards for US intervention. On the other hand, Obama has engaged in open war with at least seven countries and has been pursuing covert hostile action against dozens of others.
Chavez’s legacy is multi-faceted. His contributions are original, theoretical and practical and universally relevant. He demonstrated in ‘theory and practice’ how a small country can defend itself against imperialism, maintain democratic principles and implement advanced social programs. His pursuit of regional integration and promotion of ethical standards in the governance of a nation – provide examples profoundly relevant in a capitalist world awash in corrupt politicians slashing living standards while enriching the plutocrats.
Chavez’ rejection of the Bush-Obama doctrine of using ‘state terror to fight terror’, his affirmation that the roots of violence are social injustice, economic pillage and political oppression and his belief that resolving these underlying issues is the road to peace, stands as the ethical-political guide for humanity’s survival.
Faced with a violent world of imperial counter-revolution, and resolved to stand with the oppressed of the world, Hugo Chavez enters world history as a complete political leader, with the stature of the most humane and multi-faceted leader of our epoch: the Renaissance figure for the 21st century.
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent book is The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chavez is dead, but his revolution goes on (alethonews.wordpress.com)
No large scale, long term, socio-political movements have emerged to challenge the bi-partisan dominant classes. For a brief moment the “Occupy Wall Street” movement provided a platform to denounce the 1% super-rich but then faded into memory.
Questions arose whether in the midst of prolonged hardship people would turn to religion for solace and escape into spiritual pietism. The question this essay addresses is whether religion has become the ‘opium of the people’ as Karl Marx suggested or whether religious beliefs and institutions are themselves in crisis, losing their spiritual attraction in the face of their inability to resolve the everyday material needs of a growing army of impoverished, low paid, unemployed and contingent workers and a downwardly mobile middle class. In other words are major religions growing and prospering in our time of permanent economic crises and perpetual wars or are they on the down-slope part and parcel of the decline of the US Empire?
According to the latest data as of 2008 the biggest religious group is Christianity with 173.402 million members representing 76% of the adult population followed by Judaism with 2.680 million representing 1.2% of the adult population; followed by Eastern religions 1.961 million and representing .9% and Muslims 1.349 million representing .6% of adults. The second most populous group after the Christians are those adults who state they have ‘no religion’ 34.169 million or 15%.
The dynamic trends over time show a declining percentage of adults who are Christians: between 1990-2008 they dropped from 86.2% to 76%; Jews have declined from 1.8% of adult population in 1990 to 1.2% in 2008 and Eastern religion is growing from .4% of adult population to .97% of population. Likewise, the percentage of Muslims in the adult population has grown from .3% in 1990 to .6% in 2008. The percentage of non-religious adult population has increased from 8.2% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.
While both practitioners of Christianity and Judaism, as a percentage of the adult population, have declined, there is a sharp divergence in terms of numerical change; between 1990 and 2008 the number of Christians has increased by 2,218 million while the number of Jews has declined by 457 thousand. Judaism is the only one of the major and minor religions to decline in absolute numbers.
The combined number of Eastern and Muslim religious affiliates now exceeds Judaism by 630,000 believers about 30%. Jews today represent only 1.2% of the adult US population compared to 1.5% for Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. The gap between Christians and non-religious US adults has narrowed over the past 20 years: from 86.2% to 8.2% in 1990 to 76% to 15% in 2008. Among Christians the biggest decline is among ‘mainline protestant churches’ (Methodists, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian/ Anglican and United Church of Christ) from 32.8 million in 1998 to 29.4 million in 2008; and among “unspecified Protestants” from 17 million to 5.2 million. The biggest increases are among “non-denominational Christians” rising from 194,000 to 8.03 million believers in 1990-2008, unspecified Christians from 8.1 million to16.4 million and Pentecostals up from 5.7 million in 1990 to 7.9 million in 2008. Catholic and Baptists grew in numbers but barely held their own as a percentage of the adult population.
Analysis of Religious Trends in Political-Economic Context
Contrary to most observers and pundits, the economic crisis has not led to an upsurge in religious memberships or identification – the search for ‘spiritual consolation’ in a time of economic despair. The mainline churches and synagogues do not attract or even keep membership because they have little to offer in material solutions to their members in time of need (mortgage foreclosure, bankruptcies, unemployment, losses of savings, pensions or stocks). Contrary to some pundits even the more otherworldly, apocalyptic, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Born Again Churches while increasing their number have failed to attract a larger percentage of the adult population over the past 20 years; in 1990 they had 3.5% of adults and in 2008 4.4% an increase of .9%.
The crises decade has had several major impacts – it severely weakened religious identity with any specific denomination, it increased religious uncertainty and vastly increased the number and percentage of adult Americans who are no longer religious. Between 1998 and 2008, the percentage of adults in both categories doubled from 10.5% to 20.2%; the numbers increased from 18.34 million to 46 million. It would appear that most of the ‘non-religious’ are drawn from former mainline Christians and Jews.
The rise of non-religious adults between 1990-2008 cannot be related to greater education, urbanization and exposure to rationalist thought which has more or less remained the same over the two decades. What has changed is the rising discontent over declining income among wage and salaried workers, the vast increases in inequality, the perpetual wars and the public discredit of the principle political and economic institutions – Congress is viewed negatively by 78% of Americans, as are banks, especially Wall Street. The religious institutions and religious faith is increasingly seen as irrelevant at best and complicit in the decay of American living standards and workplace standards. Despite the dramatic increase in ‘non-religious’ Americans close to 75% still claim to be believers of one or another version of Christianity.
The crisis in Judaism is far more severe than even the ‘mainline Christian’ churches. Over the past 20 years the number of adult Jews has declined by about 15%, over 450,000 former Jews ceased to identify as such. Some of the political economic causes for the flight from Judaism may be similar to the Christians. Others may be more specific to Jews: over 50% of Jews marry outside of the synagogue with non-Jews, cause and consequence of ‘defection’. Others may convert to other religions – Oriental or Christian. Some Jewish neo-conservative rabbis and ideologues rant about the threat of ‘assimilation’ being the equivalent of ‘genocide’. Most likely most former Jews have become ‘non-religious’ or secular and some of the reasons may vary. For some, Old Testament bloody tales and Talmudic rulings do not resonate with modern rational thought. Political considerations may also contribute to the sharp decline in self-identifying Jews: the ever tighter links and identity of Israel with Jewish religious institutions, the Israeli flag waiving and unconditional support of Israeli war crimes has repelled many former parishioners, who quietly retire rather than engage in a personally costly spiritual struggle against the formidable pro-Israel apparatus embedded in the inter-locking religious-Zionist networks.
The religious crises, the decline in belief and institutional affiliation, is intimately related to the moral decay in US public institutions and the precipitous decline of living standards. Among Christians the decline is incremental but steady; among Jews it is deeper and more rapid. No ‘alternative religious’ revival is in the horizon. The more fundamentalist Christian groups have responded by becoming more politically involved in extremist movements like the Tea Party demonizing public spending to ameliorate social inequities or have joined Islamophobic pro Israeli movements – precisely as increasing numbers of ex-Jews depart!
The secular or non-religious adult population has yet to organize and articulate a program in contrast to the fundamentalists, perhaps because they are too disparate a social category – in terms of socio-economic and class interests. ‘Not religious’ tells us little about what is the alternative. The shrinking percentage of religious believers can have several outcomes: in some cases it can lead to a hardening of doctrine and organizational structures ‘to keep the faithful in line’. In others it has led to increasing politicization, mostly on the extreme right. Among Christians it means insisting on literal readings of the Bible and anti- evolutionism; among Jews, the shrinking numbers are intensifying tribal loyalties and more aggressive fundraising, lobbying, and unconditional support for a “Jewish State”, purged of Palestinians, and more punitive witch-hunts against critics of Israel and Zionism.
What needs to be done is a movement that links the growing mass of rational non-religious people with the vast majority of American wage and salaried workers, experiencing declining living standards and the rising costs (material and spiritual) of imperial wars. Some religious individuals and even denominations will be attracted to such a movement others will attack it for sectarian and political reasons. But as a non-religious morality links individual and political crises to social action, so can the political community create the bases for a new society built on secular needs and public ethics.
By William A. Cook
When beliefs morph into truth, regardless of the realities of time and place, the non-initiated become fodder for those with the zeal and power to enforce their will. Thus the great discoverer of the Americas “fantasized that he had located— or had come close to—the site of the paradise into which Jehovah had placed Adam and Eve” ( Ned Hopkins, CTA Action, 1992). The “Christ-bearer,” baptized in his unquestioned faith, utilized his birth name to justify his actions, reasoning that God gave license to him as His servant. Perhaps, as we bear down on the anniversary of Columbus’ achievements, we might consider how it has been possible for a Medieval world of unbridled superstition, intolerance, and religious myopia to envelop the advanced civilizations of western culture at the beginning of the 21st century.
The irony of this review that watches Columbus sail from the ports of Spain as the Spanish Crown expelled or slaughtered the Jews and Muslims in 1492, empowered by their Christian faith, resides in the realty that the west and the Muslim world of the 21st century clings still to the superstitions that gave rise ultimately to the greatest holocaust the world has ever known, as David Stannard notes in his work, The American Holocaust. If Columbus precipitated an invasion of the western powers into the “new” hemisphere, what Hopkins claims “…resulted in the largest exchange of people, animals, and plants that the planet has ever seen…,” it also resulted in the near extermination of an entire race and multiple cultures. The justification for this invasion found expression in the authority of the Roman Catholic faith to bring salvation to the “savages” and civilization to the primitives who lagged behind the advances of European cultures.
What mindset allows such darkness to blind what the eyes can see? Before Columbus an estimated 10-18 million people lived and loved in what we now call the United States. The Hopi and Zuni cultures thrived in the south west for an estimated 4000 years before the Spanish arrived. In the east the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Muskogee peoples existed as far back as 10,000 years. The Iroquois formed a confederacy with five other tribes in the late 15th century that lasted long enough that Benjamin Franklin could visit its assembly and learn from it. These “savages” had a constitution and a code to guide behavior that included a prohibition of blood revenge, a social compact communitarian in nature, communal land, and hunters that provided for the community not for themselves. “There were no mendicants or paupers among them” (French Jesuit 1657) and “… the Chiefs are generally the poorest among them … obliged to give to others” (Dutch missionary). It might be said that these “savages” were taught “to think for them selves but to act for others.” What a novel thought for the “civilized” beasts that invaded this continent from Europe.
Whether we observe the Spaniards in central and south America or the Puritans in New England, we find a Eurocentric racist mindset cobbled with an imperialistic belief in their own superiority given vitality by their religious tenets that they are the chosen of God, redeemed – and hence destined for everlasting life in the presence of God Almighty. Indeed the western mind has been bathed in such moral epistemology since medieval times and sustained by historians and politicians who defend colonialism by conquest as a God given duty. “The colonialist … reaches the point of no longer being able to imagine a time occurring without him. His irruption into the history of the colonized people is deified, transformed into absolute necessity,” as Frantz Fanon puts it.
All that is needed to sustain such a mindset is obliteration of the peoples being subjugated, to transform them from people to “savages” or barbarians, primitives without souls, without culture or intelligence, irrelevant “cockroaches” to be discarded, driven from the land, or killed. Thus do we witness the civilized European inflict their beliefs on the natives through acceptance of the “requerimiento” that ordered them to accept the truth of Christianity and allegiance to the Spanish Crown or suffer torture or death. Or in the case of the Puritans as they moved against the Pequot people, face extermination as Godless minions of Satan.
Then, strangely enough, as Edward Said remarked, the “Settler group adorns itself with the mantle of the victim: the European homeland of the colonists—or the metropolitan European power that politically controls the settlement area—is portrayed as the oppressor, while the European settlers depict themselves as valiant seekers of justice and freedom, struggling to gain their deserved independence on the land that they “discovered” or that is theirs by holy right.” (as quoted by Stannard).
Perhaps Columbus and the Puritans might be excused for their actions since they were raised in a world that knew the truth of God’s word from the dominant religious and political forces of their times. As a consequence they found license to slaughter at will in the name of their God. “[The Spaniards] took babies from their mother’s breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks … They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles. … Then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive” (Bartolome de Las Casas). Such is the power of myth in the medieval mind. What one believes justifies all. So Columbus and the Conquistadors mercilessly plundered and ravaged a people and their land.
Such dependence on myth to establish belief that drives the actions of a state to destroy another is surely the product of by gone times, times where superstition, prejudice, racism festered like some infection embedded in the heart and mind, the toxic atmosphere that propelled Columbus and the Puritans. Today, in our advanced DNA omniscience, in a world driven by globalization, prodded by ideologies of democracy, equality, liberty and the realization that we humans can bring these virtues to the entire world, surely such myths no longer exist.
How explain then America’s proclivity to torture under our most Christian of Presidents? Did he not send his forces to Iraq at God’s behest to bring the infidels the “gift” of God’s freedom and liberty in the manner of King Ferdinand of Spain who enlisted his servant Columbus to bring “souls to God” on his behalf? Didn’t our president’s advisor, Dick Cheney, justify “extraordinary interrogation techniques” to bring the recalcitrant to the truth, or die? How like the “requerimiento” that offered the Native life or death in the name of God Almighty.
What differentiates the slaughter of the natives by bloody massacres that wiped out whole tribes, as the Conquistadores swept across the south west or the Puritan massacre of the Pequots, in the fiery hell they designed for those God helped them destroy, from the razing of Fallujah by the American forces as they leveled the city to the ground and in the process scorched and seared the residents in the unforgiving fire of white phosphorus? What has changed since Medieval times? What progress is discernible but the technology of death? The racist mindset clamped on the brain by arrogance of belief in white superiority remains firmly in place justifying what the soul knows in its silence to be merciless slaughter that needs no God to trumpet its evil.
How similar the incantations of the righteous “settlers” arriving from a foreign land to lay claim to the homes of an indigenous people, people bought and brought to Israel by American dollars, defying law and logic in the process, condemning those who have lived on the land for centuries as invaders or usurpers of their God given rights as proclaimed in an ancient book of dubious authenticity but useful for purposes of theft. How strange that civilized people throughout the world witness this ludicrous behavior as rational, finding confrontation of truth and international law uncomfortable and so allow the robbery to continue.
Not even the barbaric behavior of these demented souls that find favor with their G-d when they club to death an old shepherd or mob children in the streets on the way to school or burn Palestinian homes or throw the residents of an apartment into the streets and take their home for themselves or, as soldiers in the IDF, glorify their G-d by killing defenseless and innocent women and children in Gaza, can nudge the indifferent people of the world to scream to the heavens that some sick stupidity is loose in this ancient land that is senselessly claimed to be the holiest piece of real estate on the planet.
Benny Morris, the most prolific of Israeli historians, in an interview in Ha’aretz contends that the annihilation of the Native Americans was unavoidable. “The great American democracy could not have been achieved without the extermination of the Indians. There are cases in which the general and final good justifies difficult and cruel deeds that are carried out in the course of history.” Dr. Adi Ophir, in commenting on this interview notes: “Morris seems to know what the general and final good is: the good of the Americans, of course. He knows that this good justifies partial evil. In other words, under specific circumstances, Morris believes that it is possible to justify genocide. In the case of the Indians, it is the existence of the American nation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is the existence of the Jewish state.” (“Genocide Hides Behind Expulsion,” Adi Ophir, 1-16-2004). How convenient an argument to give credibility to the genocide in Palestine, especially since the declaration of the American state occurred 289 years after the arrival of Columbus. But logic does not play a role here; superstition does.
Consider the logic of the new Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, as he castigated the world leaders at the UN two weeks ago for allowing a holocaust denier to address their assembly. “Shame on you,” he yelled, lifting his covenant with the God of Abraham high above the podium to prove that the land of Palestine belongs by historical right to the Jews, “Shame on you” for not accepting the fact that G-d gave this land to the Jews, as though their belief in what is now known to be fiction must be used to justify the decimation of the Palestinians. “If as archeology suggests, the sagas of the patriarchs and the Exodus were legends, compiled in later periods, and if there is no convincing evidence of a unified invasion of Canaan under Joshua, what are we to make of the Israelites’ claims for ancient nationhood?” (The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman, 98).How ironic that the “real” descendents of the people of ancient Judea are the people of Palestine who centuries ago converted to the Christian or Muslim faiths, not the Ashkenazi European Jews like Netanyahu who have no Semitic blood connection to the land but only an acceptance by conversion to the Jewish faith (Shlomo Sand, When and How the Jewish People Was Invented). What a convenient way to justify theft of another’s home and land.
How can we pretend that the United States and its “only friend” in the mid-east have the right to impose their beliefs on other states? Have these modern day colonists not, as Fanon said, deified their own being and justified their actions as the will of their imagined God as though no other God exists or no belief in a different divinity can be conceived? How can we pretend that flechette bombs, depleted uranium weapons, dimes, white phosphorus, bunker buster bombs, cluster bombs and all the machinery of modern war designed to decimate thousands of people, to inflict heretofore unseen wounds on mind and body, can in any rational way be justified as civilized or humane? Perhaps, like Columbus and his Conquistadores, we should forgo the luxury of technological prowess and return to the shield and sword so the full carnage we inflict might be visible to all of us as the screams of the baby and the mother sink deep into our hearts and the blood splatters over our face and we must face what we have wrought.
- William A. Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California and author of Tracking Deception: Bush’s Mideast Policy.