Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Cry of Hope

This past December patriarchs and leaders from the historic churches in Jerusalem gathered to issue a statement on behalf of their beleaguered Palestinian Christian congregations. Known as the Kairos Palestine Document, the statement is a moving cry to the world for help, as well as a Christian message of hope and love in the midst of suffering. Here are some highlights:

We, a group of Christian Palestinians, after prayer, reflection and an exchange of opinion, cry out from within the suffering in our country, under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land. Inspired by the mystery of God’s love for all, the mystery of God’s divine presence in the history of all peoples and, in a particular way, in the history of our country, we proclaim our word based on our Christian faith and our sense of Palestinian belonging – a word of faith, hope and love.

Why now? Because today we have reached a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people. The decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it. The hearts of the faithful are filled with pain and with questioning: What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing? The problem is not just a political one. It is a policy in which human beings are destroyed, and this must be of concern to the Church.

We address ourselves to our brothers and sisters, members of our Churches in this land. We call out as Christians and as Palestinians to our religious and political leaders, to our Palestinian society and to the Israeli society, to the international community, and to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world….

1.1.1 The separation wall erected on Palestinian territory, a large part of which has been confiscated for this purpose, has turned our towns and villages into prisons, separating them from one another, making them dispersed and divided cantons. Gaza, especially after the cruel war Israel launched against it during December 2008 and January 2009, continues to live in inhuman conditions, under permanent blockade and cut off from the other Palestinian territories.

1.1.2 Israeli settlements ravage our land in the name of God and in the name of force, controlling our natural resources, including water and agricultural land, thus depriving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and constituting an obstacle to any political solution.

1.1.3 Reality is the daily humiliation to which we are subjected at the military checkpoints, as we make our way to jobs, schools or hospitals.

1.1.4 Reality is the separation between members of the same family, making family life impossible for thousands of Palestinians, especially where one of the spouses does not have an Israeli identity card.

1.1.5 Religious liberty is severely restricted; the freedom of access to the holy places is denied under the pretext of security. Jerusalem and its holy places are out of bounds for many Christians and Muslims from the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Even Jerusalemites face restrictions during the religious feasts. Some of our Arab clergy are regularly barred from entering Jerusalem….

1.1.8 Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, symbol of peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divides Palestinian neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims. Their identity cards are confiscated, which means the loss of their right to reside in Jerusalem. Their homes are demolished or expropriated. Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a source of struggle rather than peace.

1.2 Also part of this reality is the Israeli disregard of international law and international resolutions, as well as the paralysis of the Arab world and the international community in the face of this contempt. Human rights are violated and despite the various reports of local and international human rights’ organizations, the injustice continues….

1.4 In the face of this reality, Israel justifies its actions as self-defence, including occupation, collective punishment and all other forms of reprisals against the Palestinians. In our opinion, this vision is a reversal of reality. Yes, there is Palestinian resistance to the occupation. However, if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity. This is our understanding of the situation. Therefore, we call on the Israelis to end the occupation. Then they will see a new world in which there is no fear, no threat but rather security, justice and peace.

1.5 The Palestinian response to this reality was diverse. Some responded through negotiations: that was the official position of the Palestinian Authority, but it did not advance the peace process. Some political parties followed the way of armed resistance. Israel used this as a pretext to accuse the Palestinians of being terrorists and was able to distort the real nature of the conflict, presenting it as an Israeli war against terror, rather than an Israeli occupation faced by Palestinian legal resistance aiming at ending it….

Again, we repeat and proclaim that our Christian word in the midst of all this, in the midst of our catastrophe, is a word of faith, hope and love….

2.3.3 Furthermore, we know that certain theologians in the West try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our rights. Thus, the promises, according to their interpretation, have become a menace to our very existence. The “good news” in the Gospel itself has become “a harbinger of death” for us. We call on these theologians to deepen their reflection on the Word of God and to rectify their interpretations so that they might see in the Word of God a source of life for all peoples….

2.4 Therefore, we declare that any use of the Bible to legitimize or support political options and positions that are based upon injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, transform religion into human ideology and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality and truth.

2.5 We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice….

3.3 The Church in our land, her leaders and her faithful, despite her weakness and her divisions, does show certain signs of hope. Our parish communities are vibrant and most of our young people are active apostles for justice and peace….

3.3.2 We can add to this the numerous meetings for inter-religious dialogue, Christian–Muslim dialogue, which includes the religious leaders and a part of the people…. They all try to breach the walls imposed by the occupation and oppose the distorted perception of human beings in the heart of their brothers or sisters….

3.3.3 …Likewise significant is the developing awareness among many Churches throughout the world and their desire to know the truth about what is going on here.

3.3.4 In addition to that, we see a determination among many to overcome the resentments of the past and to be ready for reconciliation once justice has been restored. Public awareness of the need to restore political rights to the Palestinians is increasing, and Jewish and Israeli voices, advocating peace and justice, are raised in support of this with the approval of the international community. True, these forces for justice and reconciliation have not yet been able to transform the situation of injustice, but they have their influence and may shorten the time of suffering and hasten the time of reconciliation….

3.4.1 The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events. If she does take sides, it is with the oppressed, to stand alongside them, just as Christ our Lord stood by the side of each poor person and each sinner, calling them to repentance, life, and the restoration of the dignity bestowed on them by God and that no one has the right to strip away….

3.4.3 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” (Jn 18:36). Saint Paul says: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom.14:17). Therefore, religion cannot favour or support any unjust political regime, but must rather promote justice, truth and human dignity. It must exert every effort to purify regimes where human beings suffer injustice and human dignity is violated. The Kingdom of God on earth is not dependent on any political orientation, for it is greater and more inclusive than any particular political system….

4.2 This word is clear. Love is the commandment of Christ our Lord to us and it includes both friends and enemies. This must be clear when we find ourselves in circumstances where we must resist evil of whatever kind.

4.2.1 Love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister. However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression.

The injustice against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted. It is an evil and a sin that must be resisted and removed. Primary responsibility for this rests with the Palestinians themselves suffering occupation. Christian love invites us to resist it. However, love puts an end to evil by walking in the ways of justice. Responsibility lies also with the international community, because international law regulates relations between peoples today. Finally responsibility lies with the perpetrators of the injustice; they must liberate themselves from the evil that is in them and the injustice they have imposed on others….

4.2.3 We say that our option as Christians in the face of the Israeli occupation is to resist. Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that engage the humanity of the enemy. Seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy means taking up positions in the light of this vision of active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression and thus achieve the desired goal, which is getting back the land, freedom, dignity and independence….

4.2.6 Palestinian civil organizations, as well as international organizations, NGOs and certain religious institutions call on individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation. We understand this to integrate the logic of peaceful resistance. These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice. The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation. In this spirit and with this dedication we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world….

5.1 We all face, today, a way that is blocked and a future that promises only woe. Our word to all our Christian brothers and sisters is a word of hope, patience, steadfastness and new action for a better future. Our word is that we, as Christians we carry a message, and we will continue to carry it despite the thorns, despite blood and daily difficulties. We place our hope in God, who will grant us relief in His own time. At the same time, we continue to act in concord with God and God’s will, building, resisting evil and bringing closer the day of justice and peace….

5.4.1Our message to the Muslims is a message of love and of living together and a call to reject fanaticism and extremism. It is also a message to the world that Muslims are neither to be stereotyped as the enemy nor caricatured as terrorists but rather to be lived with in peace and engaged with in dialogue.

5.4.2 Our message to the Jews tells them: Even though we have fought one another in the recent past and still struggle today, we are able to love and live together. We can organize our political life, with all its complexity, according to the logic of this love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.

5.4.3 The word of faith says to anyone engaged in political activity: human beings were not made for hatred. It is not permitted to hate, neither is it permitted to kill or to be killed. The culture of love is the culture of accepting the other. Through it we perfect ourselves and the foundations of society are established….

6.1 Our word to the Churches of the world is firstly a word of gratitude for the solidarity you have shown toward us in word, deed and presence among us. It is a word of praise for the many Churches and Christians who support the right of the Palestinian people for self determination. It is a message of solidarity with those Christians and Churches who have suffered because of their advocacy for law and justice.

However, it is also a call to repentance; to revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support certain unjust political options with regard to the Palestinian people. It is a call to stand alongside the oppressed and preserve the word of God as good news for all rather than to turn it into a weapon with which to slay the oppressed. The word of God is a word of love for all His creation. God is not the ally of one against the other, nor the opponent of one in the face of the other. God is the Lord of all and loves all, demanding justice from all and issuing to all of us the same commandments. We ask our sister Churches not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us. Our question to our brothers and sisters in the Churches today is: Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?

6.2 In order to understand our reality, we say to the Churches: Come and see. We will fulfil our role to make known to you the truth of our reality, receiving you as pilgrims coming to us to pray, carrying a message of peace, love and reconciliation. You will know the facts and the people of this land, Palestinians and Israelis alike.

6.3 We condemn all forms of racism, whether religious or ethnic, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and we call on you to condemn it and oppose it in all its manifestations. At the same time we call on you to say a word of truth and to take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. As we have already said, we see boycott and disinvestment as tools of non violence for justice, peace and security for all.

7. Our word to the international community is to stop the principle of “double standards” and insist on the international resolutions regarding the Palestinian problem with regard to all parties. Selective application of international law threatens to leave us vulnerable to a law of the jungle. It legitimizes the claims by certain armed groups and states that the international community only understands the logic of force. Therefore, we call for a response to what the civil and religious institutions have proposed, as mentioned earlier: the beginning of a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel. We repeat once again that this is not revenge but rather a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace that will put an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories and will guarantee security and peace for all….

9.1 This is a call to see the face of God in each one of God’s creatures and overcome the barriers of fear or race in order to establish a constructive dialogue and not remain within the cycle of never-ending manoeuvres that aim to keep the situation as it is. Our appeal is to reach a common vision, built on equality and sharing, not on superiority, negation of the other or aggression, using the pretext of fear and security. We say that love is possible and mutual trust is possible. Thus, peace is possible and definitive reconciliation also. Thus, justice and security will be attained for all….

9.3 Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination and exclusion, preferring one citizen over another. We appeal to both religious Jews and Muslims: let the state be a state for all its citizens, with a vision constructed on respect for religion but also equality, justice, liberty and respect for pluralism and not on domination by a religion or a numerical majority….

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Time to Take on the Corporate State

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….a time to be silent and a time to speak…a time for war and a time for peace.”
–Ecclesiastes 3

When it came to America, I used to be a cockeyed optimist, like most of my countrymen. I used to think that no matter what challenges we faced, we would get through it. As a nation, after all, we have been through a lot together: a Revolution, a bloody Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction, two World Wars, a Great Depression, a Cold War, Vietnam, the turbulent 60s and the struggle for civil rights, and Watergate. Often there arose leaders of integrity, strong voices of reason, faith or sanity (Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., RFK) who helped steer our bark through the storm; at other times, it was the people themselves who banged on the gates and clamored for justice, when our leaders were silent.

Now we are facing a new set of challenges, perhaps the most formidable in our short history: a conspiracy of powerful moneyed interests, coupled with a corruption that has spread to all three branches of government, and a public that is uninformed and easily led. A deadly concoction for an ailing republic. And one has to admit, history is against us. When faced with similar problems, the great democracies and republics of the past have all tanked. So pardon me if I do not wax patriotic about America’s great heritage and her destiny upon the world stage, or of Americans themselves and their penchant for hard work and stick-to-itiveness. When the patient is dying, it’s not a time for poetry or duck-billed platitudes, but for prayer and action.

Our Founders never took it for granted that America would endure or endure long. They were not so foolish. For them the new nation was but an “experiment in democracy.” They knew their history well and they trembled at the grave pitfalls and temptations they knew we would face as a people. They were hopeful but hardly optimistic. As James Madison wrote, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

As I have watched the last decade unfold and how we have reacted to it, there are several reasons that I fear for the future of my country:

1. An ignorance and contempt for the Constitution. In the face of fear, too many Americans seem too eager to chuck what generations fought so hard for. And they seem unaware of what is at stake. Our leaders have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, but it is not just up to them. “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder,” said George Washington. Our leaders may have sold themselves at auction (and if you knew for how much you would wonder at their pretensions to patriotism), but we cannot afford such cynicism. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Tag, we’re it.

2. A contempt for basic human rights. The thought that a majority of Americans not only do not oppose but actually support the use of torture makes my head spin. That they also do not oppose the President’s policy of ordering the assassination of individuals, including American citizens, who are suspected of terrorism, is a grievous moral failure. And God is not blind. We will reap what we sow. “The arc of the universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.”

3. The break down of the system of checks and balances. Congress has basically abdicated its role in making war, giving that power instead to the Chief Executive. Our Founders would flip! And with both parties and every branch of government now beholden to the moneyed interests (whether Congress, White House, or judges, it’s pay to play), it’s not surprising that there is essentially one party line: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.

4. A blind support for an increasingly imperial Presidency. I’m not referring to a single individual here but to the office itself. Most Americans are resigned that we are in a perpetual state of war with no specific goals or end in sight. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, firmly believed that “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

5. An indiscriminate consumption of media. With the ever increasing corporate control of media and the dismal failure of public education, Americans are the among the worst informed and least educated people in the industrialized world. It’s not that we lack media stimulus, but our brains are like our bodies, fat but malnourished. When official press releases, infotainment and propaganda pass for news and fact, and “fair and balanced” means exactly the opposite, we have as a nation entered a frighteningly Orwellian stage. “And they drink up waters in abundance” (Ps 73:10). John Adams fervently believed that the success of any democracy depended upon an educated and informed citizenry. That is why we cannot depend on media to educate us; we must search for the truth and educate ourselves.

If America does not pull through the present storm, it will be because we do not deserve to. If we will not put down our Ring-Dings and remote controls, rise up and take on the corporate state, then we may well deserve to lose all that has been handed down to us. If the powerful have taken our democratic institutions hostage, it is because we have allowed them to do so. Like dogs mating in the street, they no longer have any shame, but now do openly and without fear what was once done in back rooms– because they have nothing to fear from us, so they think.

And the church in America is either AWOL or, like the head lemming, it is leading the charge over the cliff. A dog that cannot bark, it has lost its prophetic voice. And Satan is so deeply invested in keeping it so. Would that the church would focus its political crusade against the injustice of the corporate state, instead of some imaginary socialism.

Some may say, Forget about those things and focus on the kingdom of God. By all means, let’s. But is not God’s kingdom one of justice and truth? And when we have led them to Christ, what kind of church will we be bringing them into? Can the church be part of the problem and the solution at the same time? No. God’s kingdom is good news for the poor and the oppressed. It is bad news for greed and oppression. When the church starts doing its duty and speaks out against evil instead of coddling it, then I don’t believe most people will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to church. The world knows better than we what the church ought to look like. It ought to look like Jesus. And Jesus is attractive.

So pray for this nation, pray for God’s mercy, pray for our enemies; get involved, get organized, speak out, clamor for peace, clamor for justice; write, email your elected officials, speak truth to power; talk to your children about what is happening; and don’t be afraid to be a pain in the keister– the prophets of old were just that.

We’re going to be a pain in somebody’s backside, either man’s or God’s. So let us choose wisely.

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The Course of Empire

“Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down….Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray….'”–Rev. 18:21,23

Regarding such a strange book as Revelation, there is no shortage of interpretations. Yet, whether one takes a strictly preterist view (that the book speaks of events fulfilled in the 1st century), a futurist view (that it speaks only of the future), a historicist view (that it speaks of various stages within church history), an idealist view (which looks for no specific fulfillment but recurrent themes within history), or a historical-critical view (which attempts to set the book within the 1st century and the literary context of apocalyptic), it is clear that Revelation describes an empire doomed to destruction. Whether a specific empire is in mind (such as the Roman or some later worldwide empire) or the entire corrupt world system controlled by Satan, scholars have rarely agreed.

If we assume, however, that the author, who identifies himself merely as John, certainly had something to say to his own as well as to later generations, we may wish at least initially to identify Babylon as a cypher for Rome, the hub of an evil empire. In ch. 17 Rome is described as a prostitute dressed in purple and scarlet and seated upon a scarlet beast, colors here associated with wealth and imperial power. The seven heads of the beast represent seven hills on which she sits (the famous Seven Hills of Rome?) as well as the seven emperors who had reigned up to that time (vv. 9,10). This prostitute is portrayed as drunk on the blood of the Lord’s saints and prophets, for indeed when the book was written, Christians in the province of Asia (to whom Revelation is addressed) were experiencing a harrowing persecution.

Yet the author sets this macabre image against the backdrop of coming judgment and the even wider context of the end of this present evil age and God’s ultimate justice. For in the next chapter we see that the empire’s doom is indeed sealed. Though written in the last decade of the 1st century, the prophecy here looks ahead to a time when the power and terror wielded by such an evil system would dissolve “in a day” (19:8). The author did not know when this demise would take place; like all prophets he saw from mountain top to mountain top, without the valleys in between, and so time for him was telescoped. Doubtless he felt the day of wrath very near indeed.

In reality it was not until three centuries later that Rome began to receive her Tarkingtonian comeuppance, when in AD 410 the Visigoths sacked the city. By that time the empire had been “baptized” and Christianity become her official religion. But that did not deter the Almighty from judging her for her sins. For though she was now a Christian empire, her armies carrying Christ as their standard instead of the former blasphemous images, she was still an empire. And as Gertrude Stein might have written, “An empire is an empire is an empire.” There are no good empires anymore than there are good witches. The myth of the “benevolent empire” is indeed an oxymoron.

As political scientist and historian Michael Parenti notes emphatically, “…Imperialism is what empires do. And by imperialism I do not mean the process of extending power and dominion without regard to material and financial interests.” Instead, he defines imperialism as “…the process whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear their economic and military power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, natural resources, capital, and markets-in such a manner as to enrich the investor interests. In a word, empires do not just pursue ‘power for power’s sake.’ There are real and enormous material interests at stake, fortunes to be made many times over.”

These are the very material and economic interests that John so fiercely condemns: her arrogance, her luxury and consumer mentality, and a contempt for the suffering of others.

“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men” (18:11-13).

When news spread throughout the empire of the Visigoth’s sack of Rome, it seemed like the end of the world. People wandered the streets in a daze or sat stupefied. Even St. Jerome commented on the event, “My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” And “Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of nations had become also their tomb.” It was as if “the bright light of all the world was put out” and “the whole world perished in one city.” Roma Invicta, unconquered Rome, had fallen. Yet the city was rebuilt and over the ensuing decades regained some of her wealth, only to be sacked again in 455 and 546 by other Germanic tribes. From these she never recovered. Nevertheless, though the empire in the West had crumbled, in the East Rome continued to hold on for another thousand years, until, having shrunk to a mere toe-hold of land, it fell prey to the Ottomans. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Constantinople, too, was built on seven hills.

It may be no accident that the most popular interpretative view of Revelation in this country is the futurist. And why not? It spares us looking at ourselves. This is the view beloved of most of my fellow conservative evangelicals, who tend to see almost any other nation as Babylon except our own. This works well as they goad America’s imperial and militaristic appetites, turning Jesus into a capitalist mascot or a hood ornament for their Humvees. (They already have him inscribed on their rifle sights.)

“Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues…'” (18:4). Here John employs a common prophetic warning reminiscent of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Only here the exhortation refers perhaps more to a spiritual than a geographical separation. God’s saints are to refrain from participation in the sins of an evil empire and to consecrate themselves to the Lord alone, lest they become ensnared and share its doom.

It is a tragedy that we spend so much energy trying to identify the antichrist with whichever leader we currently hold in contempt or using the prophecy of Revelation as a survivalist guide for the end times, while remaining stone deaf to the book’s true message.

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Life Among the Lowly

“And yet, oh my country! these things are done under the shadow of thy laws! O, Christ! thy church sees them, almost in silence!”— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch. xl.

Among the canon of American literature, the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852) needs no introduction. Its imprint is found on our history, our imaginations, as well as our language. Yet I am embarrassed to say that I had never read it. Having just finished the book for the first time, I was surprised to find the novel nothing like I had been led to believe.

For example, even as early as the late 19th century, the author was charged with sentimentalism. The book is sentimental, to be sure; it’s style and language belong to the first half of the 19th century, when audiences wept buckets over the death of Dicken’s Little Nell. Yet Stowe’s is not a sentimentalism for its own sake. Wretched situations produce strong emotions (at least they should) as well as commanding our own, and her melodrama is not as stilted nor her sentiment as exalted as that of Mr. Dickens. Nor can she be charged with depicting unrealistic characters or situations: slave children being torn away from their frantic mothers; the lingering, almost ethereal death of a child through consumption; the devotion of a slave to a kindly master; or the sadistic use of power by those who claim to own another human being.

Yet if a “feminine inclination” toward sentiment can be laid at her door, there was certainly method in it. As she writes in the last chapter:

“And you, mothers of America, — you who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind, — by the sacred love you bear your child; by your joy in his beautiful, spotless infancy; by the motherly pity and tenderness with which you guide his growing years; by the anxieties of his education; by the prayers you breathe for his soul’s eternal good; — I beseech you, pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom! By the sick hour of your child; by those dying eyes, which you can never forget; by those last cries, that wrung your heart when you could neither help nor save; by the desolation of that empty cradle, that silent nursery, — I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?… If the mothers of the free states had all felt as they should, in times past, the sons of the free states would not have been the holders, and, proverbially, the hardest masters of slaves; the sons of the free states would not have connived at the extension of slavery, in our national body; the sons of the free states would not, as they do, trade the souls and bodies of men as an equivalent to money, in their mercantile dealings.” (ch. xlv)

A later generation also accused the novel of being too religious. It is, after all, an abolitionist work; it’s goal, to waken a sleeping church to action against slavery. The novel reflects a time, quite foreign to us today, when religion, the Bible and pious language permeated most aspects of American society. Christianity was a glue that held much of “respectable society” together, and Stowe did not shy from using it as a switch to chastise her co-religionists. Indeed, it was to that respectable element of society that she addressed much of the book:

“Northern men, northern mothers, northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves.

“But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, — they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?

“Christian men and women of the North! still further — you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. And pray for those distressed Christians whose whole chance of religious improvement is an accident of trade and sale; from whom any adherence to the morals of Christianity is, in many cases, an impossibility, unless they have given them, from above, the courage and grace of martyrdom.

“But, still more. On the shores of our free states are emerging the poor, shattered, broken remnants of families, — men and women, escaped, by miraculous providences from the surges of slavery, — feeble in knowledge, and, in many cases, infirm in moral constitution, from a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality. They come to seek a refuge among you; they come to seek education, knowledge, Christianity.

“What do you owe to these poor unfortunates, oh Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out? Shall the church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out; and, by her silence, encourage the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle. If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that the fate of nations is in the hands of One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion.” (ch. xlv)

Neither is the figure of Uncle Tom the stock character cartooned on stage or in popular speech. Tom is a Christian of deep piety, faithful to his master because he is faithful to his Master, and yet, like any man, he deeply yearns for freedom, family and self-determination. In the characters of Tom and George, we have two opposite poles of character: one the long-suffering man of prayer, who would rather die than harm another of “God’s critters”; the other a man of action, prepared to use violence to protect his family and reach the shores of freedom. Stowe neither condemns nor prefers one character over the other. Their choices are ones of temperament and, perhaps, calling. God has his saints as well as his soldiers.

Perhaps if there is one fault in the book, it is that Stowe herself was not a slave and so could not have entered into the real thoughts, dreams, rage and despair of her subjects, but perhaps she comes as close as she could. Yet as an expose of an evil institution and the northern complicity that made it possible, as a story of the demoralizing effects of slavery on both slave and master and on a young nation bound so firmly in its grasp; as a record of the cultivated ignorance and the myriad of prejudices and justifications that perpetuated the institution, as a portrait of the very best and worst in human nature and a snapshot of a turbulent ante-bellum America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is and always will be unsurpassed in our literature.

There is an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, that when the author visited the White House during the Civil War, President Lincoln remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Stowe could hardly be blamed for that. In fact, if the book had had the effect she had hoped, the war would not have had to have been fought at all. But the exchange says something of the enormous impact and influence the book had on the minds of a generation, as well as those to follow.

Although, as a legal institution supported by our Constitution, slavery may seem no longer to exist in this country, it has not disappeared from our shores. It still thrives here, albeit in hiding, in agriculture, sweatshop manufacturing, and the sex trade– supported by unjust immigration laws, our insatiable hunger for pornography, our mad pursuit of cheap food and clothing, and a general blindness or indifference to its existence. Slavery also continues to grow apace overseas, where more of our food and clothing are produced, thanks to so-called “free-trade” agreements, and where the sex trade flourishes.

But there are other forms of slavery in which poor nations groan under heavy foreign debts they can never repay, designed to keep them under heel, breeding a steady stream of cheap labor for Western countries– some of the greatest and most egregious examples being in our own hemisphere. There are also those nations which we keep in a kind of slavery through our support of repressive regimes, whose cruelty and suppression of human rights make Stowe’s Simon Legree look like a Swedish au pair.

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, I thought it appropriate to conclude with an excerpt that forms the final, apocalyptic words of the novel:

“This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and convulsed. A mighty influence is abroad, surging and heaving the world, as with an earthquake. And is America safe? Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unredressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion.

“For what is this mighty influence thus rousing in all nations and languages those groanings that cannot be uttered, for man’s freedom and equality?

“O, Church of Christ, read the signs of the times! Is not this power the spirit of Him whose kingdom is yet to come, and whose will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?

“But who may abide the day of his appearing? ‘for that day shall burn as an oven: and he shall appear as a swift witness against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger in his right: and he shall break in pieces the oppressor.’

“Are not these dread words for a nation bearing in her bosom so mighty an injustice? Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship, the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed?

“A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved, — but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!” (ch. xlv)


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Are the Terrorists Winning?

terrorism, noun, defn: 1. the use of violence or threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes; 2. the state of submission and fear produced by terrorism or terrorization; 3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

Although there is currently no internationally acknowledged definition of terrorism, it is commonly agreed that terrorism involves the use of violent acts as staged events to create fear within a population for ideological purposes. Terrorism especially targets civilians, since such attacks create a feeling of chaos and bring the battlefield to Main Street. Terrorists hope that by sufficiently unhinging a population, they will force a government to use police-state tactics, resulting in loss of freedoms and privacy, as well as massive expenditures for security, all of which may cause citizens to cry uncle.

In the U.S., which is relatively new to the phenomenon, we have had few acts of terrorism, but the catastrophic events of a single day (9-11) and the accompanying loss of life were of sufficient magnitude to sow the seeds of fear deep within the national psyche. The “relatively few acts” may cause many to conclude that we are “winning.” Yet if we examine the goals of the terrorists, the opposite may in fact be true.

The British applied terroristic tactics during the American Revolution by burning farms, shooting civilians, and starving and freezing prisoners. When Congress and the Continental Army declined, on moral grounds, to respond in kind, the more cynical among the enemy remarked that “humanity” may be a “Yankee virtue,” but they will be “governed by policy”– in other words, “Just wait; they’ll soon have to cave in to fear and chuck their scruples like the rest of us.” The fact that we did not do so had a profound impact on the war and its aftermath (including the desertion of many of His Majesty’s mercenaries to the American side).

Tragically, two centuries later we seem to have forgotten that lesson. Instead, throwing humanity and all caution to the wind, we are indeed now governed by “policy”: electronic eavesdropping, racial profiling, preventive detentions without trial, torture, targeted assassinations of American citizens, among other egregious violations of our civil rights and Constitution, as well as an ever expanding militarism, ballooning deficits, and unconscionable acts of violence abroad. What the American people will not put up with in the quest for “security”!

Sadly, the one thing we will not put up with is an honest look at ourselves.

If the terrorists are winning, it is because they have, with little effort, bullied us into chucking the better angels of our nature, sacrificing our liberty and our Constitution, and dropping our benevolent mask, revealing the cruel and rapacious empire beneath. This is what they have wanted. This is how terrorism works. And they have had their way.

Unfortunately, the winner of this contest will not be determined by the last man standing on some rugged mountain in AfPak, but by how we have defended that which ought to be more sacred to us as a nation: our humanity, our compassion, and the rule of law.

As John Adams wrote at the height of the war in 1777:

“Is there any policy this side of hell that is inconsistent with humanity? I have no idea of it. I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this, piety, humanity, and honesty are the best policy. Blasphemy, cruelty and villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America in this contest, because I find the more of them are employed the less they succeed.”

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John Adams: Defending the Innocent

Boston. March 5, 1770.

British soldiers have been garrisoned in the colonial city to help keep order, a presence that only exacerbates the growing tensions between Colony and Crown. Resentment between Bostonians and their red-coated keepers frequently breaks out in shoving, shouting and even fistfights. Still, the British make every effort to avoid violence.

On this memorable night, an unruly mob faces down a troop of jittery soldiers, who are pelted first with snowballs, ice and oyster shells, then with clubs. When the smoke clears, three civilians lay dead, two dying. The city is outraged. Eight British soldiers are arrested on charges of murder. With the public crying out for blood and the Sons of Liberty hoping to use the incident to further their cause, the chances of the redcoats’ receiving a fair trial in such a hotbed seems slim.

One stout, 34-year-old lawyer, known to all as a man of integrity, agrees to take the case for the defense when no one else will– knowing he and his young family will be resented, reviled, perhaps harmed and that his career and growing popularity as a patriot might be at an end. In his opening statement before the court he states why he has taken the case: “I am for the prisoners at the bar, and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: ‘If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessings and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.’ . . .”

And as his argument proceeds, he makes the case, based on English law, that every effort should be made to guard against too hasty a condemnation of an accused, lest the man be innocent, even if that means many more guilty men go free.

“…We find, in the rules laid down by the greatest English judges, who have been the brightest of mankind; we are to look upon it as more beneficial, that many guilty persons should escape unpunished, than one innocent person should suffer. The reason is, because it is of more importance to the community, that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in the world, that all of them cannot be punished; and many times they happen in such a manner, that it is not of much consequence to the public, whether they are punished or not. But when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security. And if such a sentiment as this should take place in the mind of the subject, there would be an end to all security whatsoever.” (Adam’s oratory on this occasion has long been considered one of the greatest speeches in world history. To read it in its entirety, click here.)

If Mr. Adams lived in the U.S. today, it would surely seem to him a foreign country. In our fear and zeal to prevent any act of terrorism, we have ruined many innocent lives through years of detention and even torture. Yet few Americans seem to care, as so many of us have bought the lie that the ends justify all, that the freedom of a few innocent must be sacrificed to insure the safety of thousands.

I would like to think that if he were here today, Adams would disagree and feel duty-bound to represent these detainees, whether innocent or guilty, to insure that they received the due process that is the hallmark of any free, democratic society. And for that, he would no doubt receive in return the curses and hatred of his countrymen, as he so often did in his lifetime.


Update: 2-4-10

In the course of the speech, Adams quotes a well known maxim of Roman law: Satius est impunitum relinqui facinus nocentis, quam innocentem damnari. (“It is better that a crime is left unpunished than that an innocent man is punished.”Corpus Iuris Civilis: Digesta, 6th century)

The ancient Roman jurists recognized the danger in having so fine a net of justice that even the innocent are not safe. They knew the gods would avenge such an injustice, and so innocence had to be protected, even if that meant the guilty go free.

I am also reminded of this quotable exchange from Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man for All Seasons. Here, Sir Thomas More’s family chastises him for allowing an obviously corrupt man to walk away free. “And go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!” is his reply. His son-in-law Roper, a zealous Lutheran, is shocked at More’s willingness to “grant the Devil the benefit of law,” but Sir Thomas holds his ground:

“What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? … And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

The idea here is that if we mow down our own laws in order to try to get at every evil, we render ourselves vulnerable in the end, since no law would remain to protect the innocent.

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