(African) American Exceptionalism: The Case for Black Supremacy

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.

Prophetism  

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.

Today’s Readings

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.

Conclusion

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.

(Sunday Homily) Ten Reasons for Hope in a Time of Despair: Empire Is Crumbling before Our Eyes

Syriza (SYRIZA Poster: http://keithpp)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 7: 1-4, 6-7; PS 147: 1-6; I COR 9: 16-19; 22-23; MK 1: 29-39 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/020815.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word is about hope in a world wracked by despair. All of us are starved for such hope. In fact, discouragement and apparent powerlessness describe not only our personal consciousness but the larger zeitgeist that is the constant focus of these Sunday reflections dedicated to confronting the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today’s confrontation should help progressives realize that our times are actually changing for the better.

Think of the most recent historical roots of today’s despair – the way the world was just 20 years ago. As described recently by Andre Vitchek, it was an unbelievably hard time for opponents of empire.

Then think of how things are different today. It’s the difference between the condition of Job in this Sunday’s first reading, and the healing Jesus brought to the poor in today’s gospel selection.

Twenty years ago Russia was controlled by Boris Yeltsin, a boozy western puppet who betrayed his own people. Like Yeltsin, other heads of state throughout Eastern Europe joined their western counterparts in a shameless surrender to imperial interests. They were largely “led” by the offspring of the elites who preceded them. China 20 years ago was still under the spell of the free market reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, Latin America reeling from decades of dictatorships imposed by the West had turned its economies over to neo-liberals trained in the Chicago School of Economics. The same was largely true of the Middle East and Africa. In those cases, dictators and the one-percenters were firmly in control. Christian vision of a kingdom where the earth belonged to everyone had been completely hijacked by religious fundamentalists and reactionaries including in his own way, the pope of Rome. All of this was largely hidden by both local and international mainstream media (MSM) which applauded dictatorships and plutocracies as “emerging democracies.”

Those were indeed hard times for anti-imperialists. I remember the despair. We were like Job in today’s first reading sitting on a dung heap lamenting the loss of hope enkindled by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Remember Job? He too was the victim of an incredible series of misfortunes. They reduced him to a condition worse than poverty. Without warning, he lost all his wealth; his children died; he became terribly sick; and his reputation went entirely south.

Job is the image of us all 20 years ago. Like Job, progressives couldn’t be blamed for wondering if our situation could ever change.

Perhaps believers among us had forgotten the general hope offered in today’s responsorial psalm. It reminds us of the goodness of Life – the divine energy in which we live and move and have our being. (Some call that Energy, “God.”) The psalmist reminds us that time and history itself have a way of healing broken hearts.  Life has a way of supporting even the most devastated.  And (as Job’s case illustrates) it eventually topples even those who appear to live on top of the world. God is good, the Psalmist reminds us. God is gracious and wise beyond our wildest imaginings. God unifies the poor, even when they’re hopelessly fragmented by elite strategies of “divide and rule.”

Today’s gospel reading offers more particular hope.  It recounts the first acts of a prophet from and imperial backwater, Israel – Jesus, the carpenter-preacher from Nazareth, a “Nowheresville” if there ever was one.

There he encourages the downtrodden every bit as crushed as Job. He heals with a touch, an embrace, a smile, a kiss of the foot, a word of encouragement as the afflicted assemble before him to find health and hope and relief from their demons.  In other words, today’s gospel locates hope outside the political structure of the day, outside the realm of priests, lawyers, kings and emperors. It finds hope on the margins of empire.

And when you think of it, that’s where hope is to be found today. It’s not grounded in American presidents, in our imperial army, in the European Union, or in “foreign aid.” As I said, it’s not even reported in the mainstream media.

And yet the world is changing for the better right before our eyes. And the locus of change is on the margins – in the 50% of the world that has almost invisibly (for Americans) broken free of the imperial order that has governed the world since the end of World War II. Eventually the gains of that 50% will change us too.

Think of the progress I’m referring to. To even perceive it you have to step outside the powerful system of propaganda that envelops us all. Here are 10 signs of hope emerging from the margins. They have for years been signaled by J.W. Smith and his Institute for Economic Democracy:

  1. World-wide people have lost faith in the western model of mainstream media (the Great Wurlitzer” as Smith terms it). Most have awakened to the fact that it’s all lies. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media is not even “alternative” any longer. Its mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Its message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more torture, rape or genocide.
  2. Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts. Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy and independence from Empire.
  3. Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
  4. In Greece the overwhelming victory of SYRIZA has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. The party’s anti-austerity message is already being spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
  5. Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
  6. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) themselves represent at least half the planet’s population. They are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
  7. On June 17th of this year, under BRICS leadership, 133 of the world’s 196 countries declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by western Empire.
  8. For those paying attention, even the ISIS barbarians are unwittingly serving the cause of peace by demonstrating the horror of wars instigated by the West. They behead on YouTube videos, while U.S. moviegoers cheer American Snipers who blow the heads off unsuspecting Iraqis defending their homes from Seals. ISIS barbarians set fire to prisoners with matches, while their U.S. counterparts use napalm and white phosphorous. The clash of barbarisms highlighted by ISIS promises to make pacifists of anyone capable of seeing parallels. (It’s up to progressives to make them apparent.)
  9. Even the U.S. president (the first ever influenced by liberation theology) sees parallels like the ones just referenced. He has criticized American exceptionalism by challenging his people to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
  10. The pope of Rome is attempting mightily to defeat Catholic fundamentalism and to turn 1/7 of the world’s population (i.e. 1.2 billion Catholics) in the direction of social justice and environmental protection as advocated by liberation theology.

None of these are “pie in the sky” hopes. They are simply facts known to the world outside our borders but hidden from us by the MSM.

Along with today’s liturgical readings, such changes should be cause for hope and encouragement. More than half the world has left Job’s dung heap. The world’s poor whom Jesus served and embodied are leading the way. The rest of us will join them soon.

American “Deceptionalism”

exceptionalism

Last Wednesday’s reflection was about Peggy’s and my experience in St. Peter’s Square ten days ago. It was then, I was saying, that Pope Francis gently and subtly confronted our bellicose president and joined Russia’s President Putin in defusing a potentially disastrous crisis not only for Syria and the United States, but for the world. I suggested the pope might be the unsung hero of day.

By all measures, President O’Bomb ‘em was the villain.

His speech last Tuesday confirmed that. There he maintained his belligerent stance despite world opinion, that of the U.S. electorate, and of world moral leaders. Worse still, he portrayed the administration’s position as continuous with a supposed United States moral leadership. Specifically, he claimed that for seven decades the United States had been “the anchor of global security.”

Let’s see: that would bring us back to 1943. Was Mr. Obama referring to the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1954 and the 25 year reign of terror by Mosaddegh’s CIA replacement, the brutal Shaw of Iran, Resa Palavi? Or perhaps Obama had in mind the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guatemala’s democratically elected president that same year – and the 40 year dirty war waged by the U.S. supported military which then killed more than 200,000 of “their own people.” Or was the president thinking of the U.S. wars in Indochina and the millions of lives it claimed. Or perhaps he was referring to the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 – on September 11th of that year (what Latin Americans refer to as “the first September 11th). By all measures, the Chile coup was far worse than what occurred here on September 11th 2001. Or maybe the president was referring to our countries disastrous support of Mobutu in the Congo or of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The list truly goes on and on.

Either our Harvard educated president is ignorant of those details, has forgotten them or he was deliberately lying to intentionally foster Americans’ legendary ignorance of history. I’d recommend that he read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States. That would make him realize that only the ignorant can say (as the president put it in his speech) that we are “exceptional.”

That is, unless by American “exceptionalism” he meant (as Rob Kall recent
ly put it) that:

“We have more prisoners than any other nation– and most of them haven’t harmed anyone, but prosecuting and jailing them keeps them off the voter roles in many states.

We have the largest military and largest military budget– which means more money going to expenses that do not grow the economy or build the nation’s inner resources and strengths.

We spend more on healthcare than any other nation, yet we are the only first world nation, the only member of the G-20 nations which does not provide health care for all citizens.

We are a nation that spends more on spying on citizens than any other nation.

We are a nation that uses more psychiatric drugs than any other nation.

We are a nation that sets the standard for voting corruptibility, with electronic tallying that is impossible to reliably recount.

The list goes on and on, and then there are all the other list items where we are low, like infant death rate, access to WIFI, educational skills…”

No, America is not exceptional in the way the president meant. It is a rogue state, an outlaw state. It is the world’s bully and needs to be reined in.

Interestingly, the ones doing that reining are the pariahs of the last century, Russia diplomatically and China economically. For example, it was the Russian president who in the Syrian crisis ended up taking the high road stressing the need for diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation.

Definitely conceding that high ground to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama seemed content with the low. While calling Mr. Assad to observe international law, Mr. Obama himself violated those norms by peppering his speech last week with threats of violence that are themselves thereby prohibited. (Remember, the use or threat of force outside circumstances of immediate self-defense is prohibited by international law.)

So with black hat firmly in place, the U.S. president attempted to persuade Americans, both conservative and liberal of the moral superiority of bombing rather than diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation. In defending the morality of bombing, the president said nothing of the will of his constituents or the alignment of votes in Congress. Certainly, no mention was made of the dissenting positions of Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dali Lama all of whom had strongly opposed Mr. Obama’s plans.

Meanwhile, the president ignored a golden opportunity for using Mr. Assad’s concessions around chemical weapons for ridding the entire Middle East of such threats along with nuclear weapons. He could easily have done so and reclaimed the true moral high ground by calling for a Geneva Conference to that end.

He did not for one simple reason. And that is that Israel, America’s staunch ally, has refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits not only the use of chemical weapons, but their possession. Israel stands in violation of international law in virtue of its huge stockpile of chemical weapons along with an equally huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. No one in our government or the mainstream press says anything about that. They never will.

Israel also continues to illegally occupy the Golan Heights in Syria no less.

There’ll be no discussion of that either by our president, secretary of state or mainstream media.

Mr. Obama succeeded in only one thing last Tuesday. He made it clear that he and his country are not exceptional.

We are “deceptional” on the one hand and deceived on the other.