Three years ago, I posted this must-see video. It’s Joyner Lucas‘ hip-hop dialog between a white man and a black man. When I reviewed it again in the current context of uprisings against police violence, I couldn’t help seeing its continued currency and the need to post it again.
See what you think.
I only wish that there had been a third participant in the dialog — someone who might helped the principals see that their anger is misdirected. They are not each other’s enemies.
No, the real enemy is the system of capitalism run by the 0.1%. Its underlying ideology of extreme individualism, and vicious competition keeps everyone’s eyes off the ball by pitting blacks and whites against one another. Meanwhile, the system enriches the few while failing miserably to provide adequate jobs, wages, education, housing and health care for the majority.
This is an example of the system’s “divide and conquer” strategy that works every time.
Through your comments, please share your reflections.
Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A; PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11; MATTHEW 10: 37-42
Today’s first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Second Book of Kings sets the tone for this Sunday’s reflection. It is about a privileged woman (from biblical Shunem) who is given a new lease on life by creating a room “upstairs” for a prophetic presence and voice. Doing so brings her new life beyond anything she had dared hope for.
Her situation taken in conjunction with our day’s other readings can be understood as calling us all to clear space in our minds for recognizing our own inner prophets. Currently, that means attuning our consciousness to the oracular nature of the shouts and denunciations raised in our streets. The black voices resonating there are far more perceptive and informed – more prophetic – than anything we hear from white politicians and talking heads on TV. In effect, the tumult in the streets calls us to recognize the truth of black supremacy.
To see what I mean, let’s think about prophecy as referenced in today’s liturgy of the word. Then consider the analytical advantage native to the truly exceptional among us (our African American sisters and brothers). Finally, let’s entertain suggestions for creating suitable space in the upper reaches of our minds for black prophets who possess the power to change our nation’s collective life.
The reading about the Shunamite woman comes from the part of 2nd Kings that details the words and deeds of the great prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha. For our purposes today, those details are not important.
What is important is to rethink the category of prophet. Most lump the term together with something like fortune teller. They think prophets are primarily concerned with the future.
But that’s where they’re wrong. Biblical prophets were not principally concerned with the future. They were not fortune tellers. Instead, they were understood as spokespersons for God. Though some functioned as court advisors, most were primarily defenders of the poor and oppressed – the real “chosen people” of Israel’s God throughout the Jewish Testament.
As such, prophets had their eyes firmly fixed on the present. Their task was twofold. It was first of all to denounce and secondly to announce. Prophetic denunciation targeted kings, rich landowners, bankers, the royal classes in general, and temple officials. The habitual crime of the well-off was their systemic exploitation of poor peasants and laborers, and those forced into debt peonage. In fact, if you examine the parables of Jesus, you’ll find most of them addressing the situations of such people. Yes, Jesus appeared in the prophetic tradition.
The second prophetic task was to announce a new future for the oppressed. For the prophets, another world was possible. Another God was possible. Jesus called that other world “the kingdom of God.” The phrase and its parabolic descriptions in stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan captured what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.
That God was “Father” to the poor, their “Good Shepherd,” the Great Liberator of people like those Jesus himself befriended – prostitutes, beggars, insurgents, lepers, foreigners, drunkards, the hungry and thirsty, social outcasts, children, and repentant tax collectors.
Besides being a prophet, Jesus himself was a poor man – a day laborer (not a priest or rabbi) who had been an immigrant in Egypt as a child. From the beginning of his public life, he was under surveillance and investigation by the authorities. They identified him as a terrorist and subversive. He finished as a victim of state torture and capital punishment.
All of that means that (according to Christian faith) God chose the socially marginalized and rejected as the vehicle for revealing the true meaning and purpose of human life. It’s as if (according to divine epistemology) the poor are somehow more connected with Life itself.
African American Exceptionalism
What could that mean for our actual world that’s now on fire with insurrection? And here, let me emphasize that I’m not just referring to Minneapolis, but to the rebellions that Twin City has evoked across the country and across the planet. Does it all suggest that African Americans know more than the rest of us? Does it suggest that as a people, they’re more perceptive – more prophetic – than the rest of us?
Cuba’s great poet and historian Roberto Fernandez Retamar thought so.
I remember 20 years ago when he addressed my class (about half of them African American) when we were in Havana for a month studying “The African Diaspora in Cuba.”
In his riveting presentation, he described the descendants of African slaves as the world’s most exceptional people. They are, he said, the strongest, most beautiful and most intelligent humans on earth.
Professor Retamar reasoned as follows:
Slave traders in Africa began by selecting the sturdiest, best looking and smartest specimens to sell to their slaver counterparts in the New World. (It’s the way the market works.)
On the Middle Passage to distribution points like Cuba, up to half of those so carefully selected perished; only the strongest survived.
Then on auction blocks in places like Charleston and New Orleans, none but those with the best characteristics and strongest bodies were again selected by discerning slave buyers. (They examined teeth, hair and limbs as if the slave wares were horses.)
Only the best and brightest of those so purchased survived the harsh conditions of slavery to reproduce and have their offspring once again culled and selected.
The repetition of such processes for 300 years produced the super-race of people that continues to exhibit admirably courageous survival characteristics to this very day. Despite all the obstacles, they’re the authors of the unparalleled moral achievements embodied in slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, and in civil rights struggles – the most spiritually-grounded, inspiring and influential causes in the history of the world.
Moreover, African American achievements in the arts, especially in music including spirituals, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop rank with the highest contributions that westerners have made to world culture. The black community’s tremendous athletic achievements are second to none.
Yes, Dr. Retamar concluded, the African diaspora represents the best and brightest of the human race. They are the most beautiful, strongest and smartest of humans. Their wise and perceptive prophetic presence is based on an American experience that is truly exceptional. It has much to teach us about what blacks are especially privy to – about the nature of Life Itself and the unending struggle for justice.
With all of that in mind, please reread today’s liturgical selections. As I said, they’re about making room for prophets (like Elisha and the ones in our streets) in the upper reaches of our minds. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read the originals here to see if I got them right.
2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A: Despite obstacles of wealth and power, even the privileged can make room for prophets who speak for the poor. But to do so, the rich must carefully create space in the upper reaches of their clouded minds. “Up on the Roof,” they should cultivate quiet, rest, and space for reading and enlightenment. Such provision will free their inner prophet and yield new and unexpectedly welcome life.
PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19: So, repair to your own “upper room” every day and there discover transcendent security, strength, joy, fidelity, and commitment to God’s justice. Doing so will even confer ability to discern political leaders who exhibit such qualities.
ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11: In fact, the whole point of following Jesus the Christ is to die to the comfortable but misleading wisdom of the world and rise to God’s new life as exemplified in the poor man, Yeshua. That life is lived entirely for justice despite the world’s threats.
MATTHEW 10: 37-42: Notwithstanding such intimidations then, be open to prophetic voices. Depart from familial truisms even as taught by your parents and (ironically) as accepted by successfully indoctrinated children. Such departures represent the only way to find your True Self. But be forewarned: the state will incriminate and crucify you even for giving a cup of cold water to thirsty oppressed people. Do it anyway and learn to live with the resulting fulfillment and happiness.
Today, we are called to imitate the Shunamite woman who welcomed the prophet Elisha.
She prepared space for him, and provided him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp. She welcomed him to her dining room, fed him, and made him feel at home.
Today’s liturgy of the word calls us to do something similar. It suggests that we use this time of COVID-19 respite to make room for our inner prophet who turns out to be black and (because of a unique experience of oppression) is especially insightful and aligned with the divine purposes of the universe.
This is the time to figuratively enter that space in our attic, to turn on its lamp, to meditate and read something like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. While we’re at it, we might watch something like “The Help,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” or “Glory.”
Today’s readings (and our very times) call us to rethink everything, turn it upside down, see it with new eyes, and perhaps recognize the truth of black supremacy.
Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JEREMIAH 20: 10-13; PSALM 69:8-17, 33-35; ROMANS 5: 12-15; MATTHEW 10: 26-33
Today’s readings can be seen as centralizing the term “jeremiad.” In that light, and despite its usually dismissive connotations, I hope you’ll consider what I’m about to say as belonging to that prophetic category. I make it my own in a spirit of desperation generated by the trouble we all observe in our streets these days following the murder of George Floyd. What follows is entirely consistent with a liberation theology perspective — the most important theological development in the last 1500 years.
According to online dictionaries, “jeremiad” refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.
The word derives from the name of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah whose words set the tone for today’s liturgy of the word. Taken together, the day’s readings might be considered commentary on his opening denunciation of his own country, Judah.
By way of context, you should know that Jeremiah did his work during the Babylonian Exile (roughly, 597 – 538 BCE), when his country’s elite had been abducted to what is modern day Iraq. Jeremiah attributed that defining tragedy to the infidelity of Judah’s leadership to their covenant with their God. Above all, it mandated care for the nation’s poor, its widows, and orphans.
Instead, its kings and upper classes were busy lining their own pockets while neglecting the very ones their religious traditions identified as God’s favorites. For Jeremiah, that neglect represented a rejection of God’s very self. It accordingly merited a half century of exile from the Holy Land and God’s special presence there.
With all of that in mind, please read today’s biblical selections. To repeat, they will lay the groundwork for my contemporary jeremiads that might be addressed to the United States. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read them for yourself here to see if I got them right.
JEREMIAH 20: 10-13: I am surrounded by state terrorists. They monitor my slightest missteps using a sophisticated surveillance apparatus and sting operations that seek revenge for my damning accusations. But I remain undeterred. My rich persecutors are the ones who will end up confused and shamed. YHWH, the champion of the poor, will see to that.
PSALMS 69: 8-17, 33-35: In fact, nothing can stop any genuine prophet from siding with the poor: not public shame, not family ostracization, not insults or curses. Bolstered by divine kindness, mercy and love, all prophets speak words of comfort to the impoverished and imprisoned. In this, God’s spokespersons are one with the Source of Life itself that fills the seas and skies and the very hearts of humanity.
ROMANS 5: 12-15: The prophet, Paul of Tarsus, was no different from Jeremiah. Shockingly, he identified Law itself as the source of the world’s evil – a tool of the rich and powerful to control God’s favorites (the poor and despised) with feelings of guilt and shame. For Paul, Jesus the Christ – the greatest of the anarchistic prophets — rendered all such law obsolete.
MATTHEW 10: 26-33: In that spirit, Jesus advised absolute refusal to accept the regulations, cover-ups and “state secrets” of the rich and powerful. Their every utterance should be disclosed for the lie it is. Speak truth then, even in the face of death threats. It is far better to lose your life, Jesus said, rather than surrender to lies of Rulers from Hell. Follow the example of prophets who though typically assassinated, preserved their integrity by telling the truth of a loving God committed to the poor and oppressed.
Jeremiads for America
So, in the spirit of those words from Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus the Christ, let’s review some of the most profound reasons for the police riots in our streets. I feel confident our three prophets would say that taken together, the following half-dozen propositions describe elements that have shaped our national reality of damning racism and police state violence. Our readings direct us to face up to these defining truths and take our lead from those vilified by mainstream culture – our nation’s indigenous, descendants of slaves, and the Latinx community.
“America” was founded by scoundrels, not heroes: Face it: the so-called “Founding Fathers” were not heroic. They were outright colonialists who tired of sharing the spoils of their Grand Larceny with royal godfathers back home in England. Washington, Hamilton, and the rest wanted it all for themselves and their class. As liberation theologians argue, their Jeffersonian declaration that “all men are created equal” was intended principally to establish the fact that settlers were equal with the “Indians” and so could steal their land and resources which, they argued, were up for grabs according to the law of the strongest and that of capitalist “efficiency.”
It all began with unbelievable genocide: In American Holocaust, David E. Stannardputs the number of indigenous Americans killed from the time of Columbus’ invasion to Wounded Knee (in the 1890s) at 100 million. It remains the most massive act of genocide in human history.
Primitive accumulation of capital came from the unpaid work of millions of slaves: Three hundred years of such labor created huge fortunes and laid the groundwork for America’s industrial revolution.
Huge swaths of “America” were stolen from Mexico: In 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first, and then [after the Mexican American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. So, it’s not that Mexicans are crossing “our border;” rather, the border crossed them.
Probably, about 90% of the nation’s police force is criminal: The evidence or police brutality displayed in our streets these days leads one to think that not much has changed since 1973. That’s when NYPD police insider, Frank Serpico, estimated that about 10% of police officers are honest; about 10% are absolutely corrupt, and the other 80% wish they weren’t. In fact, ninety percent of the cops we’ve seen on our TV screens exhibit what can only be described as unconstitutional criminal activity. Virtually all of them cover up, condone evidence-planting, and make excuses for crimes of their colleagues that we’ve all seen with our own eyes. In other words, virtually all of them are liars.
Our nation remains the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: This characterization by Martin Luther King is as true today as it was when he made the allegation in 1967. As the most violent nation on earth, the United States represents the origin of most of the planet’s problems. If it fell off the face of the earth, the planet would be better off.
Of course, the list of propositions like those could go on infinitum. Our nation continues to exist in profound denial about its continued racism and overwhelming corruption. Democracy in America has virtually disappeared through gerrymandering, voter suppression, crooked voting machines, and campaign contributions that amount to legalized bribery. All levers of power now reside in the hands of oligarchs supported by a racist “justice system” that has also been captured by the wealthy elite – all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Glimmer of Hope
Besides echoing prophetic jeremiads, what I’ve just said are simply home truths. By themselves they’ll surprise almost no one who is paying attention. Yet (at least for me) taken together they illustrate the fact that (far from being exceptionally good) our country is deeply, deeply flawed by a profound racism, corruption, and supporting violence that put us nearly beyond human possibility of redemption.
Ironically, however (as always in the biblical tradition that Jesus endorsed) it’s in society’s marginalized classes that hope is to be found.
At this particular historical moment, it’s the nation’s black community that embodies our last best prospect. It’s what makes America truly distinct and great. I’m referring to abolitionism, the civil rights movement, and heroes like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. They were more highly principled and greater heroes than Washington, Jefferson or Hamilton. Their work for social justice has influenced liberation struggles across the planet. It has inspired other achievements that make America great – such as the drive for women’s liberation, the gay rights struggle, and the environmental movement.
Yes, this has been a jeremiad homily against a dying nation blinded to its false premises by systemic racism. Today’s readings and the prophetic traditions they represent remind us that what makes America great are those who have resisted and continue to resist all representations of white supremacy. The real heroes – the truly Great Americans – are our country’s indigenous remnant as embodied for example in the Standing Rock water protectors. They’re the slavery and prison abolitionists, women suffragists and feminists. Above all, at this moment, they’re the Black Lives Matter activists inspired by their Civil Rights Movement forebears.
The prophet Jeremiah himself, along with his counterparts, Jesus and Paul call us to accept such uncomfortable facts and join forces with those equally prophetic agents of hope.
I’ve participated in two unrelated Zoom groups in the past couple of weeks where the same pair of probing questions were asked: What’s Really Happening? And What about looting?
One group was composed mostly of editorial board members of the online publication, OpEdNews (OEN). The other was a “Mindfulness Dialog” meeting in my local faith community, the Talmadge Hill Community Church here in Westport Connecticut.
Of course, the shared questions were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with the general uprising throughout the country (and world) incited by the brutal police murder of yet another unarmed African American, George Floyd.
In the OEN meeting, the spirit behind the discussion searched for invisible powers (perhaps Deep State?) that have us all under house arrest and why? Who’s benefitting from all this was the underlying theme. Cui bono? And why the general rebellion on a scale that Americans haven’t seen since 1968?
My church group took another tack. There, the questions became what is Life Itself teaching us by the whole process – the pandemic, the uprising, and the violence? What is the Great Inter-Being that some of us call “God” asking us to learn and transform?
As I see it, the framings of both meetings were inseparable. It’s true that Mother Inter-Being is teaching us something. But she’s also calling us to think critically and structurally precisely about what bell hooks has described as the “white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.” That whole interlocking system is firmly based on violence and looting on a gargantuan scale that makes burning buildings and flaming police vehicles insignificant by comparison.
Begin with the pandemic. As seen by my church group (and by senior OEN editor, Meryl Ann Butler) it’s a virus and accordingly represents an indispensable part of the evolutionary process directly related to life’s fundamental progressions.
This virus’ name is “corona,” the Latin word for crown. In metaphysical perspective, its message is therefore addressed to our minds where the crown of humanity currently lies so uneasily. “Corona” is also connected with the heart, as in the adjective “coronary.” In this perspective then, the message of the Great Cosmic Mother is addressed to both heart and mind.
And what might she be communicating at such profound levels? Could it be that the way of life we post-moderns have chosen remains at odds with those she has established? That wouldn’t be surprising, given that it’s consistent with the Natural World’s other insistent warnings that humans have chosen largely to ignore. These include human-induced climate chaos, droughts, floods, devastating forest conflagrations, rising sea levels, species extinctions, vanishing topsoil, waste disposal problems, atmospheric pollution, and the human suffering associated with each of those elements. Supported by climate scientists across the planet, desperate Cassandras of every stripe – from Pope Francis and the Dali Lama to Greta Thunberg – have foretold inevitable disaster.
Now it’s happening. The difference this time is that the coronavirus has secured the attention of the entire world all at the same time! Unmistakably, we’re all being told again that the dominant civilization is on the wrong evolutionary track.
Revolt vs. Neoliberalism
That consciousness had already sunk in across the world well before the advent of COVID-19. Remember, it was entirely in flames at the conclusion of 2019.
Recall the inferno of rebellion. Demonstrations and street riots had erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses protested in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surfaced in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Then there were the Yellow Vests in France, and Brexit in Great Britain, and recurring protests in Greece. The list of hot spots also included Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Now, with the murder of George Floyd, the worldwide rebellion has finally reached the shores of the United States. Like the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in 2010, like the subway fare hike in Chile, the police murder of George Floyd put a torch to the tinder of discontent that’s long been lying around awaiting the first incendiary spark.
The kindling in question included the frustrations of a nation-wide lockdown that has subjected everyone to a strain of cabin fever even more contagious than the coronavirus itself. The lockdown in turn caused the greatest economic downturn since the onset of the Great Depression more than 85 years ago. The resulting unemployment surged towards 1933 levels of 25%, with twice that number unemployed in black and brown communities. Breadlines had sprung up everywhere, and people experienced food scarcity and hunger in a country where even before the lockdown 40 million Americans were described as food insecure.
Government response to the crisis proved even more frustrating. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it was constitutionally unable to reform its healthcare system. Instead it awarded generous bailouts to the already wealthy and crumbs (if anything) for the working classes. Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, had his income rise by 20 to 30 billion in the first two months of the lockdown. Meanwhile, many workers saw their jobs disappear – some of them permanently.
Those paying attention knew it didn’t have to be that way. As economist Richard Wolff points out for instance, pre-crisis unemployment in Germany stood at 5%. Currently, the rate is 6%. That’s because (thanks to strong labor unions and powerful socialist parties) corporate bailouts there were conditioned on employers agreeing not to fire their workers. As part of the same package, the German government covered up to 80% of the workers’ income. It was similar in France. By contrast, here in the United States there were no such preconditions for the nation’s largest employers. Bezos and others were given carte blanche relief. Their income soared, while pink-slipped workers often wondered where their family’s next meal would come from.
The convergence of pandemic, lockdown, unemployment, poverty, hunger and government’s impotent malfeasance confined working people to a pressure cooker that was bound to explode. Even if protestors were unaware of all its elements, even if they thought it was all about George Floyd and police brutality, there was really much more at work to send the cooker’s gauge beyond the red danger zone. Put otherwise: the explosion we’re witnessing represents an uprising, a rebellion, not mere police riots.
Les Misérables React
With all those pressures at work, it should not have surprised anyone if a small minority of protestors engaged in property destruction and looting. The reasons justifying (yes, justifying) the petty thievery, breaking of windows, burning of buildings, slashing of tires and throwing of stones should be obvious to everyone. Let me list just a few. They include the facts that:
Charges of looting are highly suspect: Everyone knows that police and other official sources regularly employ agents provocateurs. As others have pointed out, it is virtually impossible to distinguish looters from officials masquerading as such for purposes of discrediting protestors in general.
Property destruction is the American way: From official statements of “leaders” like Barack Obama, Donald Trump and various police chiefs, you’d think all of them were committed followers of Jesus, King, and Gandhi. You’d think they were all pacifists. On the contrary, our government’s official response to almost any international problem you care to name is that “all options are on the table.” And “all” means bombing, droning, sending in troops, killing on a massive scale, and even threatening nuclear war. Of course, every one of those options includes destruction of lives and property on massive and (in the case of nuclear weapons) total scales. So, it’s quite amusing to see government officials wringing their hands over broken windows and burning police cars.
The rich have just looted our treasury: The CARES ACT’s immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic prioritized taxpayer-backed loans and tax breaks to the already rich. At the same time it neglected the pressing needs of the poorest among us (e.g. the homeless and undocumented) while offering crumbs to the rest of us. Some have described the measures as those of a fire department entering your burning home, forgetting about the fire and stealing your most valued possessions. That’s looting.
In a context of lockdown, looting has been long expected: This is what I refer to as a “Les Miz Moment.” Recall that in Victor Hugo’s play, Jean Valjean is imprisoned, tortured, and hunted relentlessly for stealing a loaf of bread. Hungry desperate people do desperate things. Stealing food or a TV from behind a broken display window is less than nothing when compared with the stealing and looting that historically undergirds our country’s primitive wealth accumulation.
Historically, our country’s economy is based on looting: It all began with genocidal looting of an entire hemisphere from Native Americans. Remember, African Americans are here in the first place because of the looting of millions of their very lives beginning in 1619. Mexicans had huge parts of their country snatched from them in 1848. And afterwards prosperous Mexican farmers saw whites routinely attack, destroy, and loot their property and homes with impunity. In 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma killed hundreds of African Americans as they burnt down the city’s prosperous “Black Wall Street.” The list of such outrages is long and bloody.
It is a form of restitution: Looting represents a poor man’s largely unconscious reparation in a country that refuses to entertain the massive restoration that is systemically due our nation’s black and brown inhabitants.
Looting works: The argument can be easily made that until windows are broken and property destroyed, no one pays attention to “peaceful protestors.” On this, please see the debate on the subject recently moderated by Glen Greenwald.
So, what’s going on?
The murder of George Floyd ignited tinder just waiting for some spark to set it aflame. Obviously, we’re witnessing a rebellion against police brutality particularly as aimed at poor black and brown citizens.
But OEN editors and contributors were also correct: the counter-rebellion involves nefarious forces associated with our government and its armed forces. It’s all part of a last-gasp defense of a quickly disintegrating neo-liberal economic system and the actual worldwide rebellion against its order.
Part of it too is a mostly unconscious, but nonetheless genuine cry for reparations for unaddressed longstanding grievances. And on an even larger (metaphysical) scale, the trouble in streets across the planet can be credibly seen as a desperate response to a message from that Great Interbeing some of us call “God.”
Regardless of what you might call it, we had all better listen and respond before it’s too late.
Readings for Trinity Sunday: Exodus 34: 4B-6, 8-9; Daniel 3: 52-56; 2nd Corinthians 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18
You’ll never convince me that theology is unimportant or irrelevant to politics.
Early last week, President Trump had Lafayette Park cleared of protestors for a Bible-waving photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Evidently, his specifically theological point was to assure everyone that God is somehow on his side and that of the DC police in their fight with the peaceful protestors he called “thugs” and “terrorists.” The president implied that God supports his and the cops ham-handed attempts to quell the general uprising sparked throughout the country (and the world) by the brutal murder of George Floyd, yet another unarmed black man executed by the police state Mr. Trump now heads.
The presidential photo-op underscored not only the tone-deaf cynicism of the current occupant of the White House. It highlighted as well, the identity of the three-personed God he and his white “Christian” supporters actually worship. It’s not the God of Jesus.
I bring that up, because today is Trinity Sunday – a day that calls attention to the mysterious Christian belief that almost no one can coherently explain. It’s the faith that there are three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today in these remarks, I’m setting aside any concern with obscure, esoteric explanations of that rich mystery so often trivialized into some sort of mathematical problem. (It has been well explained most recently by Richard Rohr in his The Divine Dance. Highly recommended.)
My point instead is to redirect its understanding in a more immediate way intimately connected with what’s happening now in our city streets. It is to explore the mysteries of the real Trinity that we Americans actually worship. It’s a divinity Americans call on to solve any problem you might imagine. I’m talking about the deity called Violence. Yes, as what Dr. King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” our nation worships Violence Itself.
Our reverence for this quasi-divine being is revealed in our vicious cultures of police and military so evident in our cities these days. It’s revealed in our worship of guns, in our “defense” budgets, in our films, and in the wars our nation more than any other on the planet initiates and sustains throughout the world.
Like the traditional Trinity, our God of Violence also has three manifestations. There is Violence the Father, Violence the Son, and Violence the Evil Spirit. Let me try to explain.
Violence the Father: This is the invisible power that shapes all of our lives. Sociologists refer to his domain in terms of “structural violence.” He is the creator of every society’s status quo – the form of mayhem that begets most of its other manifestations. This violent divinity is the one in whom we Americans live and move and have our being; he’s like the air we breathe; we don’t even notice his presence. Yet our simple participation in the world-as-we-know-it transforms us into his votaries.
Worldwide, this is the God who allows 15,000 children to die each day of absolutely preventable poverty and hunger. Most commonly, they are victimized by ailments as simple as diarrhea caused by contaminated water. But all those children die at our system’s hand just as surely and predictably as if executioners put guns to their heads and pulled the trigger 15,000 times every 24 hours. The God of the status quo endorses every shot.
Violence the Father also underwrites ghettoes, decrepit schools, food deserts, and structural unemployment. He makes sure drinking water is contaminated by lead, that borders are closed to refugees and asylum seekers, and that the air in poor communities is unbreathable.
For the police, he’s the patron of “qualified immunity.” That’s the legal doctrine that encourages law enforcement crime. In practice, it guarantees that police will never be convicted of any crime unless their attorneys prove unable to turn up a single cop anywhere in the world who wouldn’t have acted similarly in a similar situation. What a joke!
Americans love Violence the Father. We’re convinced his order is the best human beings can achieve. After all, we live in “the greatest country in the world.” [We say that with a straight face, even though (if we opened our eyes) we would see clearly that other better countries are all over the map. However, our fundamentalist religious brainwashing masquerading as “patriotism” just won’t let us go there.]
Violence the Son: This is the second person of the unholy trinity worshipped throughout America. Violence the Son is the offspring of the Father – his only (i.e. inevitably) begotten son. He embodies the self-defensive, but ultimately auto-destructive response of perhaps 5% of the protestors in our streets during these days of rage and rebellion. They are the marginalized, despised and brutalized who have abandoned hope of systemic reform by going through the channels. They’ve given up on Dr. King’s and on Jesus’ non-violent resistance.
If the truth be told, many of them are heroic by standards widespread in our country, where precious few subscribe to non-violence. Often, these devotees consider themselves spiritual descendants of the U.S. Founding Fathers. Remember how those sometime heroes bravely defended the right to take up arms against any government or police force that denies rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In their Declaration of Independence, the founders wrote “. . . whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government. . .”
Yet, the attitude of these followers of Violence the Son, though apparently heroic, is self-destructive. That’s because it inevitably incurs a response from the militarized state that is overwhelming and absolutely destructive. It’s that response of police brutality that has horrified us all over the past ten days. It’s the third-level violence — that of the Unholy Spirit.
Violence the Evil Spirit:
This is the spirit of fear, racism, vengeance, and false patriotism that inspires police and military over-response to the small number of protestors who worship Violence the Son. And, as I just said, the response in question is devastating. Worldwide, this Spirit routinely leads the United States to mercilessly slaughter any who dare raise a fist against first-level structural crimes inspired by Violence the Father. Think of the hundreds of thousands butchered throughout Central America during the 1980s, when the U.S. crushed peasant response to U.S. neocolonialism, regime change, torture and assassination in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras.
But closer to home, think of last week’s spectacles of police cars running over those exercising their Second Amendment rights. We all saw those committed to “protect and serve” instead slashing tires, tear gassing, pepper spraying, and tasering peaceful protestors. We saw them crack open the head of a 75-year-old man in Buffalo. As agents provocateurs, they smashed windows, set fire to police cars, and left piles of bricks strategically placed for use by activists inclined to throw them.
It’s at the altar of this evil spirit that the NYPD worships along with other infamous blue-clad gangsters throughout the country. By their actions, they’ve revealed the truth of Frank Serpico’s telling description of New York City police. Ten percent of them, he said, are honest. Ten percent are absolutely corrupt. And the other 80% wish they weren’t. In other words, 90% of our nation’s police forces are proving themselves to be brutally crooked especially towards people of color. And virtually all of them are committed to protecting each other’s backs no matter what. And that means that virtually all of them are liars and criminals.
And why not? They all worship our trinity’s third person – the Spirit of Violence itself.
Yes, what I’m saying is that almost all of us end up offering incense not to Christianity’s Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, the God most of us worship is Violence pure and simple. In fact, most in our country would laugh in your face if you suggested adopting and implementing Jesus’ words about love and forgiveness of enemies. No, we prefer to hate and kill them – in the name of God. For most of us, anger and violence are stronger and more realistic than any ethic endorsed by the one honored in that church Mr. Trump used as a prop. As a people, Americans love Violence.
Today’s Trinity Sunday observance and the teachings of Jesus in general call us away from all that. They ask us to repudiate our idolatry of Violence – Father, Son and Evil Spirit – and to join peaceful protestors all over the world – in the Holy Spirit of Jesus himself. That Spirit remains 180 degrees opposed to our country’s allegiance to the status quo and its violent police state Trinity.
Like every other basketball fan, I’ve just finished watching ESPN’s ten-episode series, “The Last Dance.” It was about the 1997-’98 championship year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ – their sixth such triumph in eight years.
The series took on special meaning for me, since at the same time, I was reading the late Allan G. Johnson’s book, The Gender Knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Johnson’s analysis made me realize that I was witnessing in the Jordan video saga the stark exposure of the same system Johnson was explaining in his book. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, calls it the “white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy.” That’s the oppressive paradigm in which all of us – men and women alike – live and move and have our being. Hooks and Johnson agree on that point.
But Johnson goes further. He suggests guidelines for escaping the paradigm to make room for its replacement. Following Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” I found myself wishing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had followed their direction. If they had, we might today be living in a very different world.
Before I get to that, consider first The Gender Knot, and then “The Last Dance.” Together they reveal our patriarchal dilemma.
The Gender Knot
The main thought of The Gender Knot is that every one of us is influenced by a powerful force called patriarchy. It represents our culture’s fundamental paradigm – its unspoken social arrangement and set of assumptions – this one driven by men’s fears and their need to control. It promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It’s what undergirds capitalism, racism, classism, and, of course, sexism.
For Johnson, patriarchy sets the rules of the game. It’s like we’re playing “Monopoly” barely aware that its instructions force us to adopt attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. “Sorry to drive you into bankruptcy,” we might find ourselves saying, “but those are the rules of the game.”
Understood in this sense, patriarchy governs the jokes men tell, our banter with other men. It governs male self-images as we compare ourselves with peers, competitors, co-workers, friends, characters in movies and on the field of play. It also governs workplace interactions between labor and management.
For many, that thesis in itself might be familiar. What was not as familiar (to me at least) is Johnson’s more penetrating insight that patriarchy is not primarily about men’s fearful and controlling relationships with women.
Instead, patriarchy is chiefly about relations among men. Psychologically, it’s about men justifying and protecting our “manly” and strong self-image before other men whose scrutiny hovers over every aspect of life – on the athletic field, at the bar, in the stadium, in the bedroom, and on the job. In all of these venues, we judge ourselves through a patriarchal gaze. At the deepest level, then, it’s other men we fear – how they might threaten, ridicule, replace, or even rape us.
Economically, it’s about how they might fire us from our jobs after our work has made them rich.
Jordan’s Last Dance
Those watching “The Last Dance” with such analysis in mind can see it played out in the series.
It brings us into the hyper-male context of locker room, court, fawning reporters, and fans. (Virtually no women have significant roles in any of the episodes.) It’s an entirely man’s world and so provides a kind of petri dish for observing and testing Johnson’s theory about men’s fears and desire to control. It also provides a context for analyzing the bigger patriarchal issue of white supremacist capitalism.
At the psychological level, “The Last Dance” displays situations where males must continually prove their fleeting manly worth through attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. The rules of the basketball world turn them into super patriarchs – openly, proudly (but also fearfully) competitive, aggressive, greedy, self-promoting, belligerent, domineering, vengeful, trash-talking, and preening – again, in an exclusively man’s world completely devoid of women and children.
All of that is true especially of Michael Jordan, the principal focus of the ESPN series. Under the threat of inevitably waning powers and the advent of younger rising stars, he’s driven to constantly prove he’s the best by vanquishing and humiliating all comers. He has to defend his position as GOAT (greatest of all time) by winning more scoring championships, All Star Game nominations, MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and (above all) NBA championships than any other player.
And that brings us to the economic aspect of “The Last Dance” and its unwitting depiction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . .
Though universally admired, Jordan’s a kind of tyrant on the job. In labor terms, he’s the ultimate foreman. As a result, grown giants of men – Michael’s teammates – alternately cower and obsequiously smile under M.J.’s judgmental gaze. His leadership style embodies the fear and control Johnson identifies as patriarchal system’s underlying values. So, he berates his teammates, makes fun of them, gets up in their faces, laughs at them, calls them names, and (on one occasion at least) punches them out – all for the sake of more efficient production.
Ironically, Jordan is particularly hard on his boss, Jerry Krause, the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan constantly taunts him for being fat and short – at 5’6, a full foot below his tormentor. But like a kid bullied in the school yard, Krause too does the sheepish smiley thing, rolls over and takes it.
However, beneath it all, Krause, perhaps the most unathletic person in the story, is actually its most powerful patriarch. Yes, he’s fat, short and white in a world of giant African American supermen. Yes, they make fun of him and resent his taking credit for the Bulls’ success and for his vendetta against Phil Jackson, the team’s popular coach.
But in the end, it’s Krause along with Jerry Reinsdorf (the Bulls’ owner) who’s the boss – the one who finally decides to break up the greatest basketball team of all time. And this despite his “workers’” desires and those of millions of fans.
And the reason? In episode ten, Reinsdorf explains why. It’s the money. It’s profit. Referring to some of his frontline players, he said, “Now after the sixth championship, things are beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman and (unintelligible). Their market value was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the value they’d be getting in the market . . . So, . . . I realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild. . .”
In other words, the reason for not pursuing a seventh world championship was that that the organization would have to pay the workers too much. So, white ownership and management (Reinsdorf and Krause) bit the bullet. Or, rather, they forced their African American workers and the consumers of their product to do so.
But that’s the point. It’s the way the racist capitalist patriarchy works. It delivers to a few (usually white) men absolute power over the many. If it were up to the workers, if it were up to the consumers, the Bulls would have gone on to compete for and probably win a fourth consecutive championship. But it wasn’t profitable to the powerful few. So, it didn’t happen.
So much for consumer sovereignty. So much for workers’ rights.
Lines of Greatest Resistance
Confronted with such dynamics both psychological and economic, Johnson’s Gender Knot asks its central question: What would it take to shift the entire paradigm even as so clearly depicted in “The Last Dance?” What can be done to transform the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal paradigm both psychologically and economically?
Johnson’s answer: take the line of greatest resistance. That’s because, like all paradigms, the very purpose of patriarchy’s system is to shunt all of us towards lines of least resistance. Its intention in all spheres is to make it easy for us to go along to get along.
On the other hand, effective resistance means:
Following Gandhi and embodying the paradigm we’d like to see the world adopt.
Realizing that most of humanity’s 250,000 years were lived under matrifocal, matrilineal, non-capitalist societies.
Therefore, rejecting the myth that patriarchal capitalism is somehow inevitable and permanent.
Giving up the comforting idea that there’s nothing we can do to synchronize our lives and decisions with history’s ineluctable paradigm shift.
Rejecting the related myth that change is meaningless or irrelevant unless we’re around to see it. (We can’t use our human lifespan to judge social progress.)
Embracing in every sphere every chance to interrupt the flow of “business as usual.”
Daring to make people feel uncomfortable.
Beginning each day with the question, “What risk for change will I take today?”
To that end, adopting the slogan “Organize, organize, organize.”
The great Larry Bird once described Michael Jordan as “God pretending to be Michael Jordan.” Indiana Pacers legend, Reggie Miller, called him “Black Jesus.” Such transcendent references make me think. . .
Imagine if the collection of black workers called the Chicago Bulls led by their highly driven and charismatic foreman had shared the consciousness explained in The Gender Knot. What if they had organized, interrupted the flow of business as usual, and taken (admittedly large in their case) risks for change in the white supremacist system of capitalist patriarchy?
What if Michael Jordan had used his charisma and marvelous talents in the service of Johnson’s suggestions? What if the Bulls had not simply rolled over for the two Jerrys — Krause and Reinsdorf? What if they had employed their unprecedented status and star power in the eyes of millions worldwide to similarly raise public consciousness about the patriarchal paradigm that oppresses us all.
What if Jordan and company had just said “No!? We’re embracing and appropriating our own power. What’s more, we’re going to organize the NBA Players’ Association into a collective worker-owned cooperative run by us, for us, and for our fans? After all, you owners need us more than we need you. You’re history!”
It would have been revolutionary – and not just for the NBA.
That’s what might have been. But it’s not just fantasy. Changes like that are entirely possible. The fact is that workers united have far more power than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ever had.
And as both The Gender Knot and “The Last Dance” suggest, the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is more vulnerable than it seems.