David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

I was asked in 2011 to contribute an article to a special issue of the journal Religions published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (Qatar). The Editor-in-Chief is Patrick Laude, a faculty member of the Georgetown University extension in Doha and this was a special issue on "Ecological Responsibility." The Keynote article was written by Prince Charles of Wales and my article was the first one after his. Twelve more followed mine, including one by Omid Safi, "Qur'an and Nature: Cosmos as Divine Manifestation in Qur'an and Islamic Spirituality." Two other articles were written by Christians, both Orthodox. There were two Jews, three Muslims (including Safi), one Buddhist, one Hindu, one Chinese author emphasizing the diversity of views of China's "Three Teachings" (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism). There was also one article on indigenous African religions and environmentalism and another by Yale scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker on "World Religions, Earth Charter and Ethics for a Sustainable Future."

My article, “Muslim-Christian Trusteeship of the Earth: What Jesus Can Contribute,” is a combination of things I have written before, except for my extensive use of Glen Stassen and David Gushee's Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). I was also arguing that being trustees of the Earth included peacebuilding among humans.  Truly, a holistic approach to caring for the enviroment also entails we take care of one another as fellow human beings. Peacebuilding encompasses all the above concerns, as Glen Stassen's ten steps for Just Peacemaking demonstrate. Wars have become more and more destructive on people and nature.

Take notice of their interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, especially. I believe you will find the idea of "transformative initiative" very helpful, whatever your spiritual orientation.

 

I was finally able to finish the revised draft of my translation of Ghanouchi’s book in June and in July I completed the changes to my book, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation. The Equinox Publishing owner and chief editor told me she was delighted I got this done after an almost three-year hiatus and would work on getting an outside reviewer immediately. This doesn’t mean there won’t be more work for both of these projects, and especially for the translation – I will have to deal with comments and suggestions coming from Ghannouchi’s family and two blind reviewers this fall! But I feel a great sense of relief!

Justice and Love is five chapters and is a bit more than 150 pages. All five chapters and the Conclusion begin with short case studies of conflicts or injustices that cry out for resolution in contexts where Muslims and Christians are involved: Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Egypt, racial reconciliation in the US, and Nigeria. Three of those I did from scratch last month and that’s why I checked out an edited book by Susan Thislethwaite, Interfaith Just Peacemaking (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). I did not use it in the end, but I will now. It is so very significant for the sake of advancing the cause of peace in our troubled world.

In addition, I know several of the contributors to this book, including the man who conceived of this project from the beginning, the late Glen Stassen (d. 2014), a Christian ethicist and activist who finished his teaching career at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Have a look at his obituary in the NY Times: “Glen Stassen, Theologian; Championed Nuclear Disarmament.” The first paragraph is telling:

 

“Glen H. Stassen, a Southern Baptist theologian who helped define the social-justice wing of the evangelical movement in the 1980s and played a role in advancing nuclear disarmament talks toward the end of the Cold War, died on April 25 in Pasadena, Calif. He was 78.”

 

Stassen’s seminal work was Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives of Justice and Peace (Westminster Press, 1992). His main insight was to add a third option between pacifism and just war theory, namely preventing war in the first place. How is that possible? Stassen listed ten practical steps to achieve conflict resolution and the prevention of war. But already a movement was forming around these ideas. For one thing, twenty-three scholars collaborated with him over five years in refining this paradigm. The third edition of that edited book was published in 2008 (Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of War and Peace, Pilgrim Press). Interestingly, President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech mentioned each one of these of these ten steps for a just peace.

[For a more in-depth treatment of how the teaching of Jesus led Glen Stassen to his work on just peacemaking, see my article on Jesus, environmentalism and peacebuilding in the journal Religions published by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue.]

These scholars represented several disciplines, many Protestant denominations, and a number were Catholic as well. Right from the beginning, they phrased these practices in a way that could be adopted by adherents of other faiths. Meanwhile, shortly after 9/11, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush gave a substantial grant to Fuller Seminary for a Muslim-Christian dialog project in partnership with the Salaam Institute for Peace and Justice in Washington, DC, from 2003 to 2008. I personally benefitted from that grant in two ways. I received grant money for my writing of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, and I participated in two long weekend conferences in Pasadena with Christian and Muslim scholars (2005, 2006). The result was Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians, Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, eds. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). Glen Stassen, as you might imagine, was very much a part of those dialogs.

The story of the present book, Interfaith Just Peacemaking, picks up precisely at this point. The positive momentum generated by those Muslim-Christian dialogs led to a new, wider project, and this time with the support of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Jewish scholars were invited to join and in total thirty scholars gathered in January 2009 for the Interfaith Just Peacemaking conference. They decided to put together a book with introduction and conclusion, ten chapters, with three scholars from each tradition contributing to each chapter.

Thistlethwaite notes that the Jews and Muslims drew attention to the importance of scripture: “We are text-based faiths; we need to base our peacemaking practices on our scriptures” (3). But another important issue was building trust. How do you create an atmosphere in which no one feels under attack and therefore has to write defensively, or apologetically? This would apply especially to the Muslim scholars, considering the growing Islamophobia in the 2000s. Fortunately, during the earlier conference at Stony Point (2007) participants had to present papers that included past instances when their own scriptures had been used to justify violence. Naturally, the fact that all three traditions had plenty of examples to share served as an icebreaker. “So we experienced a remarkably nondefensive spirit as we worked together” (3).

By now I’m sure you’re wondering what those ten practices of just peacemaking are …

 

The ten practices to build peace

Practice Norm 1: Support nonviolent direct action

            Think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, but also of Christian and Muslim women who came together to protest the civil war under the name Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Because they staged a sit-in outside the presidential palace while negotiations were ongoing, they pressured the mostly male assembly to sign a peace agreement in 2003)

Practice Norm 2: Take independent initiatives to reduce threat

            These are a series of steps taken graciously by one side, and clearly communicated, in order to de-escalate tensions and encourage reciprocation. Under presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy the US said it would halt nuclear testing for a year and if the USSR also halted, it would continue to do so for another year. In both cases the Soviet Union reciprocated and eventually this led to “the treaty that halted nuclear testing above ground, under water, and in outer space” (34).

Practice Norm 3: Use cooperative conflict resolution

            Former adversaries are encouraged to actively and creatively cooperate in finding mutually acceptable solutions. “To truly engage in this kind of initiative, participants must be willing to listen carefully, understand the perspectives of their adversaries, and suspend judgment, even though they may personally disagree” (51). Though the Sri Lankan government defeated the separatist movement (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in 2009, the end of the 26-year civil war left plenty of tensions between Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The USIP partnered with the Columbo-based Centre for Peace-Building and Reconciliation and began training 100 clergy and professionals from all four communities. This has made a remarkable difference on the ground in the last decade.

Practice Norm 4: Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness

            This is an attempt to build empathy and trust between both sides. This is a lot more promising than it seems, mostly because the idea of apology, pardon and reconciliation has gained so much traction in literature, sociology, political science, and psychology. Yet even as it has garnered interest in these secular contexts, interfaith movements have been multiplying in many parts of the world, and not least in Israel-Palestine, the Balkans and in West Africa.

Practice Norm 5: Advance democracy, human rights, and interdependence

            I will end with a few more thoughts on this one. Just one word here: “no democracy with human rights fought a war against another democracy with human rights in all the twentieth century (although some funded and fomented wars by others)” (87).

Practice Norm 6: Foster just and sustainable economic development

            This involves not just material prosperity but also “the cultivation and growth of the individual person … Just Peace cannot truly be said to exist without a resultant state of human flourishing … Sustainable development also requires the defense of the human rights and economic and property rights of the poor … and is therefore inseparable from legal and political development” (111).

Practice Norm 7: Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system

            We can rejoice in and seek to develop more of the social activism that through the social media has multiplied in the last couple of decades. But mostly, we should contribute to nongovernmental organizations that seek to alleviate the plight of the poor and shine a light on human rights violations. Some NGOs are faith-based, but many are not. Both types need to be supported.

Practice Norm 8: Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights

            Despite its flaws, the U.N. represents a key factor in fostering world peace. “Empirical data show that the more nations are engaged in supporting U.N. actions, the fewer wars they experience” (145).

Practice Norm 9: Reduce offensive weapons and the weapons trade

            By lowering military budgets nations are able to spend more on sustainable development and in alleviating poverty. The arms trade has only increased the risk of conflict and war. We must find ways to build trust and cooperative conflict resolution.

Practice Norm 10: Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary organizations

            Individual peacemakers can only be effective as they build peacemaker communities and movements. “Grassroots organizations are inherently focused on transformation and do not easily become entrenched in cycles that perpetuate conflict and injustice” (195).

 

The crucial nexus of democracy and human rights

I want to conclude with the “Christian Reflection” by Matthew V. Johnson Sr., an African American pastor from Atlanta, an academic (PhD in philosophical theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School) and an activist (national director of Every Church a Peace Church). It’s easy to pick out the speck in our brother’s eye, Jesus said, and much harder to take out the log in our own. We can name any number of human rights abuses in other nations, but they are more difficult to see at home. Johnson quotes Martin Luther King Jr: “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society” (99).

Democracy in the United States, he then asserts, “excluded African Americans and other minorities.” Giving them their full human rights is a foundational democratic objective. Yet our track record so far is spotty at best: “The commitment to democratic values and ideals has ranged from very warm when in the interests of the ruling party, class, or race, to ice cold when it comes to subjects, servants, and slaves.” Western democracies in general leave many with a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” But that “healthy skepticism” does not undermine belief in democracy” (102).

The African American church, as a result, has developed over the years “an ethic of struggle,” focusing on the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament (the prophets calling for social justice) and on the eschatological passages in both testaments. God promises to make all things right in the world to come, and even before that he will come to judge the nations and all the oppressors and evildoers. One such passage also mentions peace: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Racism in daily life has worsened for African Americans in the last couple of years. The high incidence of young blacks being shot by police is not going away, despite Black Lives Matter and other organizations. But though there’s been progress, sustainable economic development for this community is far behind what it is for whites, Asian Americans and Latinos. Look at this NPR article from yesterday on black homeownership (“In Baltimore, the gap between white and black home ownership persists”). That rate is about the same ratio as it is nationally: 43 percent for blacks, versus 72 percent for whites. But if you look at the graph there, you will see a dramatic decrease in rates for blacks after the “Great Recession” a decade ago. In fact, “the black homeownership rate today is just the same as it was in 1967.”

This is a failure in democracy and human rights, and as you can see, many of those norms for just peacemaking are interconnected and work not just internationally but nationally within the domestic fabric of each nation. Yet these are issues we can work on and successfully move forward, particularly in an interfaith mode. The third Muslim member of Congress was named last night (Rashida Tlaib replaced Rep. John Conyers who resigned last year) and the first Muslim woman. That’s on the political level, which of course is crucial for a democracy. But at the grassroots level, we should rejoice at all the interfaith organizations working in so many locations around this country. I know Peace Catalyst International very well, but there are others too, like the Abrahamic Alliance in the Bay Area pictured above. This should give us much hope.

Scott Pruitt, who until last week was President Trump’s Environmental Agency (EPA) Administrator, resigned amidst numerous ethics scandals. Yet he was ruthlessly effective in carrying his boss’s mandate to dismantle as many Obama-era regulations as possible. His deputy Andrew Wheeler, now the acting head of the EPA, will no doubt continue where he left off.

Of course, this was predictable. Pruitt, when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, sued the EPA fourteen times. He had always been a staunch climate change denier. In an article that lists seven ways Scott Pruitt’s legacy will move ahead at the hands of his successor, the author argues that without the weight of scandals over him Wheeler will implement Trump’s deregulatory zeal even more effectively.

On top of that list was Pruitt’s lobbying for Trump to pull the US out of the Paris Accord and to dramatically downplay any connection between the rise of human-related greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global warming. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists contribute to and agree with the ongoing reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007). The IPCC was formed by two United Nation agencies in 1988 and its reports comb though all the most recent published studies in the field. The hundreds of scientists who contribute to this ongoing work all volunteer their services to the IPCC. They do so, believing in the urgency and crucial importance of their work as a way to reduce the suffering of future generations inhabiting this planet.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment came out in 2013 and the most complete summary of three Working Group contributions to this assessment was published in 2015 (“Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report,” available for download here). Perhaps this summary captures best the kind of tone exhibited by these ongoing reports (the Sixth Assessment is due to be published in September 2019):

 

“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

 

In this blog post I want to specifically examine the damage that sea level rise is already having on the United States eastern seaboard. But first, a look at new report on the accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica.

 

Polar ice runoff accelerating

We know that Arctic ice is melting faster and faster, if only because for the first time in human history ships can now cross that region in the summer months. But that ice is mostly sea ice, that is, icebergs or mammoth ice blocks floating in the sea. One of the big exceptions is Greenland, where the ice is melting fast, but not necessarily all going out to sea for now. Still, a recent study found that between 2011 and 2014, a trillion tons of ice has poured into the sea.

By contrast, Antarctica is a continent covered by ninety percent of the Earth’s ice, and were all those ice sheets to melt, the oceans would rise about 200 feet. Some of it is three miles thick, so it is not likely to see much of it melting for several hundred years. But the pace of melting is accelerating, and that speed has tripled in the last decade.

An article in Vox helps us to visualize the extent of this melting. An Olympic-size swimming pool contains 2,500 tons of water. Every second, Antarctica is losing three times that amount, which means that every forty hours, it looses one gigaton (or a billion tons) of ice. That is definitely more than the peak flow of Niagara Falls, and it is accelerating.

 

Eastern seaboard especially threatened

Because of the many factors involved, scientists cannot predict exactly to what extent the seas will rise in this century. The two direct causes are a) expansion of water as it warms; b) ice melt. But the main cause behind these is the rise of greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity. A NASA article (“Empirical Projections”) considers various studies and estimates that seas could rise anywhere between 0.2 meters and 2 meters. But if a midway position around one meter might seem conservative, even that would spell catastrophe for most of today’s human populations, which lives on the sea coasts.

As might be expected, this would affect poorer countries much more than wealthier ones. Miami and New Orleans will suffer from rising tides with more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, but the U.S. will no doubt find ways to lessen the impact of this rise on its population.

Not so for the Bay of Bengal, where almost one in four humans live. People from eastern India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra, all have to share in the pollution, which is enormous, and in the deadly consequences of dramatic sea rise. Lands in the various deltas is sinking, salt water is encroaching more and more on agricultural lands, and food production is threatened.

Still, the rate of sea level rise is projected to be higher on the U.S. east coast. An article published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies reports that “from 2011 to 2015, sea level rose up to 5 inches — an inch per year — in some locales from North Carolina to Florida.” This is much higher than most other coasts around the world. Why? It seems that three factors contribute to this: “a slowing Gulf Stream, shifts in a major North Atlantic weather pattern, and the effects of El Niño climate cycles.”

 Miami already suffers from what is now termed “king tides,” or flooding from unusually high tides. Another study this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that by the end of the century this will happen every other day along the east coast. Then the Yale article adds this:

 

“Scientists have been steadily increasing their estimates of how much sea level overall will rise this century from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets. The current best estimates are in the range of 3 to 6 feet.”

 

 Naturally, this would mean much higher sea level for the east coast and other places like the Gulf of Bengal where changing monsoon patterns have markedly heated and expanded the northern Indian Ocean. But in the Atlantic, you also have the Gulf Stream that is slowing down. This current of warm tropical water, about 100 to 200 miles from the coast “whisks water away from the eastern seaboard.” As recent research shows, its slowing down means that sea levels rise along the coast, and this is likely to increase as Arctic and Greenland ice dump huge quantities of fresh water into the North Atlantic.

Add to that the effect Pacific El Niño patterns have on the Jet Stream and wind patterns moving across the US to the Atlantic, but I have no room here to explain. Suffice it to say we have a convergence of factors that will wreak havoc in New York, Boston, and other eastern cities in the decades to come.

And then you have an increase in more devastating hurricanes, like Sandy in Oct./Nov. 2012. Here’s an article from May 2017 on that same Yale website, this time by Gilbert M. Gaul, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and been a finalist four other times:

 

“Sea level rise played an important role in Sandy, with historic flooding from Delaware to the Battery in lower Manhattan. Upward of 100,000 people experienced flooding who otherwise would have been dry, researchers estimate. Most late season hurricanes veer out to sea by the time they reach the mid-Atlantic. Sandy took a hard left-hand turn, crashing ashore near Atlantic City and pushing a five-foot plume up the bays, into places water had never reached before.”

 

As you might imagine, insurance and real estate companies have taken notice. The federal insurance plan (National Flood Insurance Program, NFIP), even before Sandy was basically bankrupt. Zillow, a real estate firm, conducted a study that estimated that with a likely sea level rise of six feet two million homes worth about $900 billion along the eastern seaboard would literally be underwater by 2100. But again, we can figure that out and find a way to pay for it. A large percentage of those homes are secondary residences along the New Jersey shore. Cities like New York are already investing hundreds of millions of dollars in storm mitigation infrastructure.

 

Ethical and theological conclusion?

At the end of 2016, I posted a two-part blog on Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Laudate Si, which literally translates as “Praise be to you,” but with the subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home.” There I did my best to unpack the pope’s “theology of planet care.”

By way of summary, by virtue of God’s creation God has delegated great responsibility to his human creatures to care for the earth he designed for them. They have plainly failed in many aspects of their divine calling, but it is not too late for common action:

 

“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (18-19).

 

The pope’s phrase “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes” ties into his conviction that people of all faiths and of no faith – humanity in its entirety – must wake up to this crisis and work together. On this point, note that I posted a blog in 2012 on “Muslims Investing in our Planet” and I co-edited an issue on Islam and Ecology that year in the journal Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (see here). I have done less with Christians, but here is a short piece on evangelicals and ecology. For a statement by over 300 senior evangelical leaders on climate change, see here.

Certainly the three Abrahamic faiths emphasize the solidarity of the human race and the divine imperative to love God and love our neighbor, whoever and wherever on the planet he or she might be. It’s out of that imperative that I end with a note of urgency. What strikes me the most in what I learned for this piece is how various factors impinging on the climate are accelerating in their intensity and interactivity with one another. Less than a decade ago, scientists were talking about two or three feet of sea level rise as a worst-case scenario. Now six feet seems no longer an extreme prediction.

This only makes the Paris Accord all the more urgent – and the US pulling out of it all the more tragic, though it’s likely that states and large corporations will step in to realize similar goals. Many Pacific islands and nations will likely disappear before 2100. Droughts and flooding in various places will exact a staggering human toll. As people of faith in particular, we must not remain silent. Following Pope Francis, we must also lead the way in making “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.” We must also pressure our politicians to sideline the use of fossil fuels and dramatically expand the use of clean energy as first steps.

The media was abuzz this last week with the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and its resulting wrenching of children from their parents’ arms. He finally reversed course, but the damage internationally was done. UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein put it this way , “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” A couple of months ago, his office declared that this practice “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.”

The United States, it turns out, is the only country in the world not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which entered into force in 1990. In fact, it just pulled out of the Human Rights Council set up in 2006 over a number of complaints. But human rights discourse aside, you say, what difference should this make? Plainly, ripping children away from their families is a violation of human decency.

In this regard the history of human rights remains instructive (see also my two-part blog post on human rights). After two unimaginably violent and bloody world wars, momentum got under way for the creation of the United Nations and for a document that would clearly set some standards of human decency toward fellow human beings. The document that came to light in that process was the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

True, the founding document of the United Nations, the UN Charter, was signed by 50 countries on June 26, 1945 and ratified on October 24 of the same year. It mandated for all member states “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” But it was short on details.

Meanwhile, the UN Economic and Social Council established the 18-member Human Rights Commission (HRC), which in turn designated a Human Rights Drafting Committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The lead drafter was Canadian John Peters Humphrey, Director at the time of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat, but the lion’s share of ideas goes to three other influential members: the French jurist René Cassin, the Lebanese Charles Malik, and the Taiwanese scholar of Confucianism, P. C. Chang.

The committee met twice in as many years and the UDHR was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, with 48 nations in favor, eight abstaining (including Saudi Arabia), and two failing to vote (Honduras and Yemen). Not one nation voted against it. Note that among the signatories you find eight Muslim-majority nations: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey.

Now I want to focus on the enormous contribution made in this process by Charles Malik. This will also highlight his role as a politician and especially as a theologian.

 

Charles Malik: global statesman

Charles Habib Malik (1906-1987) hailed from a small north Lebanese village (Bitirram) in which his father served as medical doctor, and like many in his Greek Orthodox family and entourage, he went to a Protestant secondary boarding school, the Tripoli Boys School, one of over 40 such schools at the time run by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions (BPFM). He then studied mathematics and physics at the American University of Beirut (also founded by the BPFM). But philosophy is what captured his attention the most, and he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard University under Alfred North Whitehead, including a year of study under Martin Heidegger in Germany (which he quickly left behind when the Third Reich was ominously beginning to take shape). He obtained his PhD in 1937.

Malik was an academic at heart, and he reluctantly dove into diplomacy and politics, first as Lebanon’s ambassador to the USA (1945-55), Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1956-58) and its Minister of National Education and Fine Arts (1956-57), and finally MP for the Koura region.

Malik’s greatest accomplishments, however, should be seen in his contribution to the United Nations. He was Lebanon’s delegate for the founding conference of the UN (San Francisco, 1945) and immediately wanted to contribute to the reinforcement of human rights. He managed to secure Lebanon’s place in the body most responsible for working on human rights, the UN Economic and Social Council, and this by thwarting Turkey’s bid to do so. This also meant that he became one of the 18 members of the newly formed HRC. He chaired the third session of the UN General Assembly which presided over the passage of the UDHR, and it was largely because of his diplomatic skills that it passed unanimously with only eight abstentions.

Charles Malik’s son, Habib Malik, also a Harvard PhD, directs the Charles Malik Foundation, which in 2000 in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Lebanese Studies published some of his father’s writings on human rights (The Challenge of Human Rights: Charles Malik and the Universal Declaration). Harvard Law professor and specialist in human rights law, Mary Ann Glendon (see her A World Make New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: Random House, 2001) wrote the Introduction to that work, noting Malik’s extraordinary contribution:

 

“At one time or another, Malik held nearly all the major posts in the UN, including a rotating seat on the Security Council and the presidency of the General Assembly. During the period covered by most of the writings in this book, he served as rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission, which he later chaired” (1).

 

Before I focus on his particular contribution to the UDHR, allow me to comment on his subsequent academic career. Besides his record-breaking 51 honorary doctorates from all over the world, Malik taught in the USA at Harvard, the American University in Washington, DC, Dartmouth College, Notre Dame University in Indiana, and the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He also taught in his home country as professor of philosophy at the University of Beirut (1962-76).

 

Charles Malik and Human Rights

First, his contributions as a philosopher: I’m following Mary Ann Weaver’s outline here. Already, Western nations were clashing with their communist counterparts on the issue of collectivism and the freedom of the individual. Malik urged all the delegates to look past their respective ideologies and focus on the human person. What is his nature? (this was before gender-inclusive language) Is he not than just an economic being, or one defined by his group, whether ethnic, religious, or political?

Malik steered the group away from Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Anglo-American-style individualism,” and by making an alliance with the two delegates from China and Latin America, “Malik saw man as uniquely valuable in himself, but as constituted in part by and through his relationships with others – his family, his community, his nation, and his God” (3). Thus he challenged both competing concepts, the oppressive state under the communists on the one hand; and the capitalist construction of society as atomistic individuals seeking their own economic self-interest.

Then too, Malik often insisted on the crucial distinction between society and state, and thus the importance of civil society: “Malik insisted on the political importance of the many associations and institutions of civil society that stand between the individual and the state – families, religious groups, professional associations, and so on. It is due in no small part to Malik’s vigilance that the declaration explicitly protects these mediating structures” (3).

Finally, the Preamble’s wording that human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience” is largely due to Malik’s insistence. This is no doubt an important philosophical concept, but it is also his way of making sure there was room for theological justification from a variety of religious traditions.

Second, his contributions as a diplomat. Glendon details the tremendous odds against securing the UN vote that would ensure the adoption of the UDHR. The June 1948 Berlin blockade all but guaranteed the collapse of the USSR-Western alliance. Procedure dictated that the Economic and Social Council had to approve the UDHR first. Unfortunately, it “was filled with hard-boiled, hard-nosed practitioners of realpolitik, and the declaration was expected to face strong opposition there” (4). Fortunately, it had elected a new president months earlier – Charles Malik himself! The document sailed through with flying colors, “to the astonishment of many,” Glendon adds.

The next seemingly insurmountable hurdle was obtaining the approval of the General Assembly’s Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Affairs (aka, the Third Committee, composed of 58 members, one from each UN member state). Fortunately again, in the fall of 1948 when the final round of review convened, Charles Malik was elected as chair by secret ballot. Yet here is a man who again and again in his diaries confesses his distaste for public life and politics especially!

Writing about him, John Humphrey claimed in his memoirs that he was “one of the most independent people ever to sit on the Commission.” Independent or not, it took an inordinate amount of grit to get the job done – over 80 meetings all in all, with bitter arguments over every line. As the meetings spilled over into November, the level of anxiety was rising. The General Assembly would adjourn in December!

Malik had to balance pressure from the Soviet block that was deliberately extending discussions so as to kill the project, and from Mrs. Roosevelt and others who wanted to bring it to a vote as soon as possible. Coming from a small country himself, Malik calculated that the adoption could only come if every country could be brought on board. As Glendon puts it, “He was far-sighted enough to realize that a sense of ‘ownership’ on the part of many cultures would not only improve the declaration’s chances of adoption but, more importantly, would promote its lasting reception among the nations” (6).

Malik was relieved when, at the end of November, the Third Committee approved the declaration with no opposing votes and only seven abstentions. Historians give Malik most of the credit for achieving this victory.

Now the last great hurdle was passing the UDHR through the General Assembly. Any “no” vote would greatly compromise its future legitimacy. As mentioned earlier, in his December 9 speech he gave credit to the contributions of every major culture and nation, explaining that the UDHR had been “constructed on a firm international basis wherein no regional philosophy or way of life was permitted to prevail” (6). He then reviewed the document’s history and then declared that the UDHR would “serve as a potent critic of existing practice” and “help to transform reality.” At the same time he stressed that this was only the first step in harnessing the power of human rights to protect people.

To this Glendon adds, “How right he was! Though the Great Powers regarded the non-binding declaration as of little importance, its ‘merely’ moral force later eclipsed in importance the covenants that were adopted to implement its provisions” (7).

 

Charles Malik the ecumenist and theologian

If I succeeded in whetting your appetite for learning more about Charles Malik, your first step would be to consult this fascinating 2010 essay in the journal Biography (available if you can get access to a jstor.org account): (“Charles H. Malik and human rights: notes on a biography”. The author, Glenn Mitoma, is professor at the Human Rights Institute of the University of Connecticut, and this article was a prelude to his 2013 book, Human Rights and the Negotiation of American Power.

Mitoma argues in his essay that studying Malik’s work from the perspective of biography is particularly illuminating. In particular, he stresses Malik’s Christian faith and how it underpinned both his objectives and philosophy on the Human Rights Commission and within the longer arc of his efforts as a Christian statesman.

This was possible because of Malik’s life-long loyalty to his Greek Orthodox upbringing while incorporating in a critical and discerning manner his American Protestant education. Quoting from Malik, Mitoma provides some useful information regarding his three years at the Tripoli Boys School (notice the many quotes by Malik):

 

“Malik ‘witnessed one of the profoundest and most lasting religious experiences’ of his life. The ‘short simple prayer’ at mealtimes, and the ‘disciplined, quiet, dignified’ march of students, two-by-two, to Sunday service at the Tripoli Protestant Church, helped him become aware, he said, of the ‘ultimate Christian religious realities.’ Malik expressed a deep admiration for and gratitude to the ‘God fearing men and women’ who staffed the school, and no doubt of greatest satisfaction to his audience of earnest and faithful humanitarians, spoke of the ‘true vision of Christ’ that had for the first time filled his heart.”

 

I already mentioned his son Habib Malik and the foundation bearing his father’s name. In his Foreword to an edited book in honor of his father’s centenary, Habib emphasizes two aspects of his father’s religious commitment: his intentional promotion of Christian unity beyond the three main traditions of the church (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) – the very definition of ecumenism; and his own devotion, and in particular, his “very special, life-long, intimate relationship with the Bible, which he read daily according to a rigorous schedule” (14). This emphasis makes sense in light of this book’s nature. It is built around the address that Malik gave at the 1980 inauguration of the Billy Graham Center on the Wheaton College campus in Wheaton, IL. This means that Billy Graham himself would have chosen Malik for this great honor. The address was simply entitled, “The Two Tasks,” and the book, The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar: Redeeming the Soul, Redeeming the Mind.

I have no room here to comment much on the book’s content, but let me simply make two remarks.

 

1. A vocation to Christian unity: Malik remained Greek Orthodox, but two of his brothers became Catholic priests (Jesuit and Dominican) and his mother’s family was mostly Protestant from the congregational tradition. In the World Council of Churches (WCC) context, he served as president of the World Council on Christian Education (1967-71). In an even more ecumenical institution, he served as vice president of the United Bible Societies (1966-71). As mentioned earlier, he taught in two Catholic universities over the years. As I peruse his list of twenty books or so, I see three theological books aside from many articles and speeches: Christ and Crisis (1962); God and Man in Contemporary Christian Thought (1970; he also edited a parallel book in 1967 relative to the Islamic tradition, both published by the American University of Beirut); finally, The Wonder of Being (1974).

 

2. His theological commitment to saving humanity’s soul and mind: clearly, if Billy Graham chose him for the inaugural address of his one and only venture into academia, he trusted Malik’s basic Christian commitment to evangelism – the mandate Jesus gave to his disciples to announce the Good News everywhere and make disciples of all nations (Mat. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). But he also approved of his emphasis on “saving” the mind. And here Malik does not disappoint.

To sum up Malik’s speech, the great confusion the world is experiencing can be traced to a large extent to the cacophony of ideologies, which, despite their many differences, are all forms of self worship in the end – like “materialism and hedonism; naturalism and rationalism; relativism and Freudianism; a great deal of cynicism and nihilism; indifferentism and atheism … (the list goes on).” His message is simple, and it is appropriately addressed to evangelicals (jokingly, Wheaton is often called “the evangelical Mecca”). He doesn’t mince his words: “the great danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism” (63).

He also says, “Christ being the light of the world, his light must be brought to bear on the problem of the formation of the mind. The investigation will have to be accomplished with the utmost discretion and humility, and it can only be carried out by men of prayer and faith … We are dealing here with a thoroughgoing critique, from the point of view of Jesus Christ, of Western Civilization as to its highest contemporary values” (63-64). Then further on we read, “If it is the will of the Holy Ghost [Spirit] that we attend to the soul, certainly it is not his will that we neglect the mind. No civilization can endure with its mind being as confused and disordered as ours is today” (64).

Though he had no time to mention this in his address, Malik might well have brought up the issue of human rights. And that is where I particularly resonate with his work and life. Christians must reflect deeply on the implications of God’s creation of humankind on the one hand. What does human dignity mean from that angle? This concern we share with people of all faiths and no faith. And on the other, what does the cross of Jesus mean for the redemption of individuals and nations, for the power of forgiveness and healing in a broken and fractured world?

Both Bible and Qur’an teach God’s imperative for economic justice. Everyone has a God-given right to the bounty God has bestowed on humankind. And we are duty-bound to share it.

More on that below, but first, the piece that got me thinking about this in the first place: a short review of Chris Hughes’ book that came out in February 2018 (Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn).

Chris Hughes was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and co-founded Facebook with him. After three years he left with several hundred million dollars to his name. “I have too much money,” he says. Felix Salmon explains,

 

“Hughes is acutely aware of how unfair this is. ‘Most Americans cannot find $400 in the case of an emergency,’ he writes, ‘yet I was able to make half a billion dollars for three years of work.’ He’s also aware that the flip side of people like himself having too much money is that tens of millions of Americans have too little. Over 40 million Americans live below the poverty line, including one in five children under the age of 6.”

 

Remember the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that started in September 2011? It was set against the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans monopolizing the nation’s wealth to the detriment of the rest of the population. “We are the 99 percent!” went the slogan.

Hughes’ solution is for one percenters like himself to collectively pay a monthly grant of $500 to all working Americans making under $50,000, including those caring for small children or the elderly at home. Critics point out that this excludes the poorest of the poor and the disabled who will continue to depend on the miserly grants already in place. So in practice this would only help 42 out of 120 million American households.

Yet Hughes didn’t pull this idea of using cash grants to solve poverty out of a rabbit’s hat. As a young philanthropist, he made two exploratory trips to Kenya. First, he went with the renowned American economist Jeffrey Sachs and studied his Millennium Villages Project. Sach’s premise is that all the infrastructure (including good education and healthcare) needs to be set up first and then people will thrive and wealth will multiply for the benefit of all. The second trip was with economist Michael Faye, cofounder of GiveDirectly, “a nonprofit that has a much simpler strategy of supplying cash grants to people living on less than a dollar a day.” That seemed to him to be a more efficient and effective strategy to reduce poverty. So Hughes founded his own nonprofit, The Economic Security Project. The Amazon page for his book describes it as “a network of policymakers, academics, and technologists working to end poverty and rebuild the middle class through a guaranteed income.”

As I mentioned above, there are plenty of detractors and critics for this redistribution of income approach, but there is also a growing movement “for a universal basic income in America,” as Salmon notes. I’m not competent to evaluate the economic merits of this kind of proposal, but in this blog post I aim to do two things. First, I will argue how growing inequality in our nation is not just bad for our economy but it also violates our religious conscience as people of faith, Christians and Muslims in particular. Second, I point to economist Robert Reich who cogently explains that economic justice is about the rules we make up to create the “market” in the first place.

 

The moral disgrace of inequality

First we have to understand poverty as much more than simply the lack of money. The Indian economist Amartya Sen (b. 1933, 1998 Nobel Prize of economics) has argued that equality can only be fairly measured by people’s actual ability to achieve their own wellbeing. His groundbreaking work has considerably influenced the United Nations Development Programme. So people themselves should be at the center of any economic policy in his view.

A Brookings Institution 2016 article applies Sen’s capabilities-approach to poverty to the American situation. The authors argue that inequality can only be understood when we see poverty in five dimensions. Here is their opening paragraph:

 

“Poverty is typically defined in terms of a lack of adequate income, especially in U.S. policy debates. But the experience of poverty goes well beyond household finances, and can include a lack of education, work, access to healthcare, or distressed neighborhood conditions. These additional dimensions of poverty can be layered on top of income poverty; they can also put those who are not income-poor at a disadvantage.”

 

Seeing this in bullet form helps to picture what they’re saying:

    1. Low household income (below 150 percent of the federal poverty line)
    2. Limited education (less than a high school degree)
    3. Lack of health insurance
    4. Low income area (PUMA – Public Use Microdata Areas – poverty rate exceeds 20 percent)
    5. Household unemployment

Taking these five dimensions into account reveals a stark reality: poverty is very much tied to race. The research was done on the basis of the 2014 American Community Survey, which included respondents from ages 25 to 61. Half of the population suffered from at least one of these disadvantages, but over 3 million black adults and 5 million Hispanic adults suffered from at least three disadvantages.

That may not seem like many people, but read on. A majority of white adults did not suffer from any of these disadvantages; still, 38 percent of them struggle with one of these. By contrast, seventy percent of black and Hispanic adults face at least one of these disadvantages. And whereas most white adults who struggle with one of these disadvantages do not struggle with additional ones, “most black and Hispanic adults with at least one disadvantage suffer at least one additional advantage.” In other words, obstacles in the way of greater well-being quickly multiply for these minorities.

That said, there are differences between these two groups: “Black residents are more likely to live in a poor area and/or a jobless family than Hispanics, who are more likely to lack a high school education and/or health insurance.”

With this in mind, we can look at income levels once again. A (March 1, 2018) Bloomberg article reports on a recent study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute on the basis of seventeen years of census data: “US Income Inequality Hits a Disturbing New Threshold.” Here we learn that, “Median real wages only grew 0.2 percent over the last year … Wages for African-Americans declined in most wage brackets, while women with graduate degrees made less money than men with only college degrees.” Meanwhile, “those in the 95th wage percentile saw an average pay hike of 1.5 percent over the past year.”

Two new Brookings studies (March 2018) show that it is especially black men who are likely to be left behind: “black men born to low-income parents are much more likely to end up with a low individual income than black women, white women, and – especially – white men.”

This level of injustice in a democratic nation that prides itself in the equality of all citizens before the law is morally outrageous. In the next section I dig a bit more around the connection between law and the reality of relative economic justice.

 

Fixing this injustice has nothing to do with releasing “market forces”

Robert Reich, a top American economist who has served three presidents (Ford, Carter, Clinton) and taught at Harvard and UC Berkeley, also declared that universal basic income for the US was “almost inevitable.” This was while he was discussing his 2013 documentary film “Inequality for All.” But my interest here is the issue of economic justice at core, which he deals with directly in his 2016 book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.

Unfortunately, he writes, the dominant view of economics that splits the right from the left is that the economy runs best when the impersonal forces behind the market are left unfettered and a small government intervenes with the least possible regulation (view from the right), while the other side (the left) advocates for a larger government that steps in more often and in more areas to level the playing field. So you have to pick which side to favor: government or market.

But this is a false dichotomy, contends Reich:

 

“There can be no ‘free market’ without government. The ‘free market’ does not exist in the wilds beyond the reach of civilization. Competition in the wild is a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win. Civilization, by contrast, is defined by rules; rules create markets, and governments generate the rules” (p. 4).

 

The reason why a debate framed solely by an artificial tug-or-war between market and government is that it obscures vast mechanisms of power. Rules define the market and those who create those rules are likely the people who will most benefit from them. The following quote is a bit long, but it goes a long way in explaining Reich’s reasoning:

 

“The size of government is not unimportant, but the rules for how the free market functions have far greater impact on an economy and a society. Surely it is useful to debate how much government should tax and spend, regulate and subsidize. Yet these issues are at the margin of the economy, while the rules are the economy. It is impossible to have a market system without such rules and without the choices that lie behind them. As the economic historian Karl Polanyi recognized, those who argue for ‘less government’ are really arguing for a different government—often one that favors them or their patrons. ‘Deregulation’ of the financial sector in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, could more appropriately be described as ‘reregulation.’ It did not mean less government. It meant a different set of rules, initially allowing Wall Street to speculate on a wide assortment of risky but lucrative bets and permitting banks to push mortgages onto people who couldn’t afford them. When the bubble burst in 2008, the government issued rules to protect the assets of the largest banks, subsidize them so they would not go under, and induce them to acquire weaker banks. At the same time, the government enforced other rules that caused millions of people to lose their homes. These were followed by additional rules intended to prevent the banks from engaging in new rounds of risky behavior (although in the view of many experts, these new rules are inadequate)” (pp. 5-6).

 

I hope I don’t have to convince you that the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of December 2017 passed by the US Congress is a great example of “reregulation” favoring the wealthiest Americans. Some large corporations raised workers salaries a bit and gave one-time bonuses away, but these benefits are marginal and limited in time, whereas billions were poured into rewarding shareholders, increasing executive pay, and investing in capital improvements.

I cannot go into any detail here, but the rules Reich is talking about concern five main areas (p. 8, Ch. 2):

 

    1. Property: what can be owned.” The trickiest aspect of ownership today is intellectual property: what do you include here, and how long can you keep those rights?
    2. Monopoly: what degree of market power is permissible.” Much of this debate today revolves around the great tech companies, search engines, and the like.
    3. Contracts: what can be bought and sold, and on what terms.” This is much more complex than just supply and demand. Defining these transactions must be on the basis of ethical norms agreed on by society, like you can’t sell votes, sex, babies, dangerous drugs, and “deceptive Ponzi schemes.” But too, the issue of coercion and fraud in contracts is often very tricky to define.
    4. Bankruptcy: what happens when purchasers can’t pay up.” Big corporation can get off the hook much more easily than students or homeowners saddled with impossible debt. What gives? What is fair?
    5. Enforcement: how to make sure no one cheats on any of these rules.”

 

A democracy, by definition, is a state run by the people. A functioning democracy ensures that “elected officials, agency heads, and judges will be making the rules roughly in accordance with the values of most citizens” and the system will “improve the well-being of the vast majority.” A failing democracy, on the other hand, will tend to benefit a certain class that because of its wealth and influence is able to ensure that the “free market” works mostly to enhance its own position and power. That’s a state of economic injustice that is only likely to worsen with time. People of faith should be standing up to denounce such a travesty of justice. This in essence was what Martin Luther King, Jr. was trying to accomplish with the poor people’s campaign he was about to launch when he was assassinated (on MLK's poor campaign, see this excellent article: it demanded "federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programs, and housing for the poor."). Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself railed against the rich who exploited the poor.

 

Final thoughts from a Christian and Muslim perspective

Though many Muslim-majority nations suffer from as much poverty and inequalities of opportunity than other nations, the Islamic tradition, from its sacred texts to the practice of zakat (the duty to give away 2.5 percent of one’s net worth yearly to the poor and reputable Islamic causes), and to the theory and practice of “Islamic economics,” is very much focused on distributive justice. Have a look at this 2015 journal article Malaysia entitled, “A Conceptual Framework of Distributive Justice in Islamic Economics.”

The author points to several studies over the years that argue that 1) God is the Creator and Owner of all earthly goods; 2) he has established human beings as his trustees to manage those resources equitably among themselves while ensuring that those activities are environmentally sustainable; 3) zakat is only one way to enforce distributive justice.

 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, in their classic volume (Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, 2nd ed.; I’m quoting from the first edition below), have a chapter on economics. They make a similar argument to the Islamic one above:

 

“All material goods, beginning with the most basic – food – should be viewed as God’s good gifts, divine provision for all humankind . . . The human task is to exercise our God-given dominion over such goods in such a way that they are rightly distributed to all to whom they might be addressed.

This is the fundamental mandate of economic ethics – just distribution (p. 420).”

 

 Individual ownership is certainly encouraged and everyone should be permitted to “delight” in God’s abundant provision of goods. But, they add, “[t]his is the case as long as this ownership is understood as bounded by deeper theological and ethical realities: the universal destination of goods, moral limits on how wealth and property are acquired, the obligation of stewardship and the quest for distributive economic justice.”

 In this light, I end here by encouraging the reader to consider carefully the analysis and concrete proposals Chris Hughes and Robert Reich have put forward. Principles of distributive justice have to be applied and adapted to very different contexts and literally fought for in the nitty gritty of democratic politics.

 

______________________

*** For those interested in reading more about comparative Muslim and Christian teaching on poverty and actual poverty alleviation, see my 2012 Lenten trilogy here:

A Muslim and Christian Holistic Approach to Poverty

"US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?"

Zakat and Poverty Alleviation

In the first half I looked at the life and work of St. Augustine (354-430), mostly focusing on his multiple identities and how this may have helped him carry out the momentous mission he believed God had given him. I also discussed his view of politics and the surprising fact that, considering his strong views on original sin, he seemed fairly hopeful about people banding together around “the love of peace or the desire for security.”

Amazingly, dozens of articles and books on this greatest of Church Fathers are still published every year in many languages around the world. Yet the most surprising fact of all, as I see it, is that in this new century Augustine has been claimed by Algeria as one of their own.

The story begins officially in 1999 when the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, attended the annual conference of an Italian Catholic movement (Communion and Liberation) in Remini. On the occasion of a speech he gave there, Bouteflika launches into a chorus of praise for the fourth-century theologian. I translate here an excerpt from that speech in French. After a section mentioning the great Berber kings of the second century BCE, Massinissa and Jugurtha, he turns to Augustine:

 

“And then, what can we say about the Algerian Augustine who contributed so much to the Church? Theologian, philosopher, writer and activist, author of the Confessions and the City of God, he was the bishop of Hippo, today’s Annaba in the western part of this land where he died. He was rightly considered one of the most influential and prestigious Catholic Church Fathers. It was said of him, ‘He treated legal questions like a Roman lawyer, and exegetical questions like a great theologian of Alexandria. He argued like an Athenian philosopher. He told anecdotes like a nobleman from Carthage and stories of the exploits of Berber militia like a worker from Hippo.’ Do I dare add that he was Cartesian before Descartes himself?”

 

Then he announced that in 2001 Algeria would host an international colloquium on Augustine, “the Algerian Philosopher.” More on that below, but in the meantime, during a 2000 state visit to France Bouteflika addressed its National Assembly. Surprisingly (think of France and its laïcité!), in one passage he pays homage to the work of the Catholic Church in Algeria. And I quote from an article in the French Catholic periodical La Croix that in his speech he called all Muslim nations to dialogue with other cultures and religions and even to emulate the Church’s public apologies and repentance. He also wanted “to pay tribute to the Church’s acts of abnegation,” and in particular “when it resolutely pursued in the darkest days of its tribulation its mission of witness and human solidarity in my country.” Specifically he condemned the assassination of the seven Trappist monks and of Bishop Claverie in 1996 during the civil war period. These acts represent “a grave insult to Algeria, a land of hospitality, and to Islam, a religion of tolerance.”

[The ordeal of the seven Trappist monks was beautifully and dramatically captured in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men , which won first prize at Cannes that year]

The 1990s were indeed Algeria’s darkest days since it achieved independence from the French after a brutal eight-year war that killed over a million of them (see these two blogs). Around 200,000 Algerians, mostly civilians, died in the civil war from the bomb blasts, shootings and massacres of entire villages. No wonder the president, who had recently declared a unilateral amnesty, was eager to work for national healing and mend Algeria’s reputation for murderous violence in the name of religion and politics!

The international colloquium on St. Augustine did take place as planned in 2001 (April 1-7). In the end, it was co-sponsored by the Swiss Confederation and the Algerian High Islamic Council of Algeria. Bouteflika had chosen that year, partly because the United Nations had proclaimed it as the Year of the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations, and partly because it was the beginning a new millennium with high hopes for new and joyful developments. It was a resounding success. Close to fifty Augustine scholars and archeologists from twenty-seven countries came together for sessions both in Algiers and Annaba.

There was plenty of national and regional pride on display too. I have in front of me the book gathering all the papers presented on that occasion: Augustinus Afer: saint Augustin, africanité et universalité (eds. Pierre-Yves Fux et al., Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 2003). In his opening speech, the president thanks his “friend and brother,” the Sorbonne Augustinian specialist André Mandouze for pointing him to the words given by a colleague (Henri Irénée Marrou) at a Mediterranean congress in 1976:

“Today I would like to show that a transfer has been made from the south to the north … from Africa to Europe … I don’t know if you North Africans have given this enough thought … I believe that you North Africans should be quite proud of the fact that you offered Europe the masters who formed its thinking, whether it be Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine … All of Europe was thus fertilized and educated by your ancestors, your fathers, dear North Africans.”

 

Two North African witnesses

Just as an example, I would like to cite two of the conference contributors whose papers are found in this book, Augustinus Afer. Both have North African names and both are archeologists working for UNESCO in Paris: the Algerian Mounir Bouchenaki, and the other, the Tunisian Azedine Beschaouch. Both write in French (four fifths of the book is in French).

Bouchenaki’s chapter (131-9) is entitled, “Augustine and African Identity, from historical works and the study of the sites of Thagastus, Hippo, and Carthage.” His thesis is that Augustine’s rich correspondence has been under-studied so far, and with some examination his letters contain a rich record of the political, legal, social and economic context of Augustine’s writing. It also sheds light on his attitudes toward the people, towns and villages of his native land. He has often been accused of being overly pro-Roman, but do the writings bear this out?

His review of the historical literature on this period in North Africa, whether under Rome’s imperial rule or independent of it, shows that Christianity had largely replaced paganism and “had acquired incomparable influence and prestige.” As dominant as it was, however, it was also racked by internal divisions, which at times could turn violent. But just to give an idea of the numbers, 565 bishops took part at the Church Council of Carthage in 411, with both Catholics and Donatists present. That is a huge representation, considering that there there were only 600 towns in North Africa at the time.

But how was Augustine different from his fellow countrymen? He was certainly not distinguished from them by race. Besides the indigenous population of the countryside and mountainous regions that spoke a punic language (lingua Punica, the ancestor of today’s many Berber dialects), those living in the towns were educated in Latin and identified much more with their Roman identity. Some of them were transplants from Italy, but others were Greek-speaking from other parts of the empire.

Augustine was of local stock, though well educated. According to the sources Bouchenaki quotes, Augustine grew up in more humble circumstances than I thought (using the sources I did for the first part of this blog). His father owned a vineyard, but in his letters Augustine himself uses the adjectives “modest” and “poor” to describe his upbringing. His father apparently struggled to send his son to Madaurus to study with a famous grammarian for three years. After coming back, Augustine was then stuck for a whole year in Thagaste before his father could persuade an acquaintance to finance his son’s rhetoric studies in the capital city, Carthage, some 280 kms east of there.

Bouchenaki quotes a number of scholars to show that Augustine’s sermons contain a treasure-trove of information on the various basilicas dedicated to martyrs in Carthage, on the various localities in the vicinity of Hippo, without mentioning notes on his other travels on Church business east and west. Thus by perusing his hundreds of letters and sermons, we see a man profoundly connected to his African soil and to the people he serves with such attachment and love.

At one point Augustine corresponded with the famous grammarian of Madaurus, Maximus. The latter had spoken disparagingly about Christians who gave more honor to the martyr Namphano than to the immortal gods of Rome. Augustine was no pushover and he wrote back, “You could have found plenty of things to mock in Rome, with the god Sterculius [god of feces], the goddess Cloacina [associated with Rome’s sewers], and the bald Venus [one of her post-classical forms]. How could you have renounced your own African origins by attacking Punic names? Are we not both Africans?”

I love Bouchenaki’s pithy conclusion paragraph, summing up so well his own love and esteem for this fourth-century “ancestor”:

 

“In the town of Hippo now under siege in 430 by the Vandals, seventy-six-year old Bishop Augustine, son of Numidia and pillar of the Roman Church, is about to experience the distress of its population and breathe his last in August of that same year.”

 

Azedine Beschaouch’s shorter article, “Saint Augustine and the land of Carthage,” tells of his love for Carthage, its ruins and its glorious history, and how, as an archeologist who has covered most of the Roman sites of Tunisia, he has at times, “with the help of Providence, walked, as it were, in the physical footsteps of Augustine in the regions surrounding Carthage.” Once, in the ruins of ancient Mustis on the road Augustine would have taken from Thagaste to Carthage, he discovered a commemorative plaque with the first ever inscription bearing the name of the proconsul of the African province Helvius Vindicianus dated 380-381. He wrote up the finding and his article was published in 1968.

Another discovery brought him much closer to Saint Augustine. For years archeologists had been searching for the town of Abitina, where the famous African martyrs, men and women, were tortured and killed in February 304 under the reign of Diocletian. Augustine had written about this event in great detail in several places. Thanks to some of these details, Bouchenaki discovered the exact place by means of two inscriptions. Perhaps they should have trusted local lore a bit more, because the Arabic name for that place was “Shuhud al-Batin,” literally, the “the martyrs of Batin” (or Abitinia).

Besides the archeological discoveries, Beschaouch’s piece tenderly reflects his own affection, both for Carthage and Augustine. He writes,

 

“Carthage represented for Saint Augustine the privileged site for his preaching and his doctrinal stands. In that respect, one should think of one of his most beautiful sermons, the one he delivered end of June or beginning of July 397, which he dedicated to the theme of love, both the love for God and the love for neighbor. He was referencing the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind’; and the second commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

 

I cannot help but interject the following thought here. Beschaouch wrote these lines at least three years before Prince Ghazi of Jordan penned the historic “Common Word Letter” addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and all Christian leaders and signed by 138 leading Islamic scholars and clerics worldwide. It was an invitation for Christians and Muslims to unite in dialogue over the heart of both traditions: love of God and love of neighbor (I explain this in more detail in the following blog post).

 

Last words from the Augustinian priest in Hippo

Lucien Borg is the Augustinian priest serving at the Saint Augustine Basilica above the ancient ruins of Hippo in Annaba, Algeria (see picture above). He wanted to record his own version of how this historic conference went. In his article in the September/October 2001 issue of their Augustinian Assumptionist journal, Borg quotes another Catholic author, Michel Kubler, who stated that “the colloquium which Algeria consecrated to Saint Augustine constituted a genuine rehabilitation.” Indeed it was, he adds. For years the Catholic Church in Algeria dreamt about such an event, but it seemed very unlikely. Naturally, he writes, some of the islamist factions opposed it from the start, “seeing it as a veiled attempt to Christianize the Algerian people and therefore as a threat for Islam.” He then cites a front page article in an Algerian newspaper only two weeks after the conference which stated that “six Algerians convert to Christianity every day.”

Borg had been part of the planning committee for the colloquium, and he mentioned how carefully he and his colleagues were to avoid any unnecessary polemics. The result, therefore, exceeded all expectations. As we saw, it was spearheaded by the president from the start, and let me add that despite the appearance of democratic governance, Algeria remains a mostly authoritarian state. So let’s not be surprised that the High Islamic Council co-sponsored the event with the Swiss authorities. The Algerian postal service even issued two stamps on the occasion.

Still, Borg believes this represented a sea change in official Algerian political and cultural attitudes. Now they are drawing up plans to have a museum dedicated to Augustine in Annaba. In 2015 the University of Annaba sponsored an international conference on Augustine. Now back to 2001, Borg quotes from the president’s official address:

 

“[A conference on Augustine] offers a privileged platform for a common reflection which will allow us to highlight our similarities, indicate our points of convergence, and lay the foundation of an ethics of inter-civilizational relations built on respect, mutual understanding and solidarity … The study of Augustine is incredibly relevant today, and the debates that will naturally flow out of it can contribute to our making progress together, as diverse as we are, toward a peaceful world, a world of justice and brotherhood to which all people of good will have aspired since the beginning of time.”

 

Borg here is certain that Mr. Bouteflika was sincere in stating this. I think too that Augustine himself would be heartened – sad to see the disappearance of the church in his region for so many centuries but glad to see that it is slowly growing again. He would especially rejoice that his life and writings can still spread some of the values of the Heavenly City among the inhabitants of our earthly city, and especially in his native land.

St. Augustine (354-430), dubbed “Foremost Father [of the Church],” was as prolific a theologian and philosopher as he was influential, down to our day. Eminent nineteenth-century theologian and church historian, Adolf von Harnack, saw him as “the incomparably greatest man between St. Paul and the reformer Martin Luther.” Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon entitled her review of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1995 book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, “A Saint for Our Times.”

So why am I suddenly writing about Augustine? Since I arrived in the Philadelphia area in 2006, I have been a part of a Thursday noon discussion group called the “Faculty Staff Christian Forum” at the University of Pennsylvania. While I have attended more sporadically in recent years (I now have less to do with Penn), I stay in touch. This week in the context of a series on “Great Souls” (of the Christian past), I gave a talk on Augustine. This blog post draws on some of that material in three parts: Augustine’s multiple identities, Augustine and politics, and Augustine, the Algerian philosopher.

 

Augustine’s multiple identities

We talk a great deal about identity nowadays, whether in politics, in the classroom, or in the work place where many of us have undergone “diversity training.” From experience too, we know that we all draw on different elements that make up our “self,” depending on the context and on who we are with. Ethnically, I am Swedish on both sides of the family, but on my mother’s side I am also an eighth English and an eighth Chinese. She in fact was living in Hong Kong when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was only by the grace of God that she and her family survived the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the war years. I often bring this up when talking with Chinese people.

Our past experiences can help to define our identity as well. Having lived sixteen years in three different Arab countries, I seek out Arabs and enjoy their company. My efforts over the last two decades to bring Muslims and Christians into conversation obviously impacts my relationship with Muslims in general.

Augustine himself carried within himself multiple identities. Born in Thagaste (today’s Souk Ahras in Algeria, not far from the Tunisian border), he was an “Afer,” Latin at the time for a Roman living in the African province of Numidia, once a Berber kingdom with the same capital, Carthage. His father was an upper class Roman (Romanized Berber) who owned a large tract of land employing Berber day laborers (“circoncellions”). Though he might have owned slaves to till his land as well, we do know that Augustine wrote against slavery later in life. His mother, a devout Christian, was from an indigenous Berber family. We remember her as Saint Monica.

Augustine studied some in his hometown, then at age eleven in neighboring Madaurus (today’s M’Daourouch), and finally at seventeen he went to Carthage (in today’s Tunisia) for the equivalent of a university degree in rhetoric, which is public speaking and the art of persuasion. By all accounts, he fell in love with Cicero, and he stayed in Carthage to teach rhetoric himself.

Augustine must have been very good at what he did, for he was given the opportunity to teach rhetoric in Rome and then in Milan. Clearly, he was on his way to a brilliant political career, but he was also a spiritual seeker. For a few years he even embraced Manichaeism.

He never married the Berber woman he lived with for nineteen years, but he fathered a child with her. For this and other reasons he increasingly struggled with feelings of guilt and restlessness. Around this time he began to listen to the famously eloquent Ambrose, bishop of Milan and was deeply moved by what he heard. Ambrose noticed Augustine too and urged him to move to Milan so he could take him under his wing, though he was not yet a Christian. Augustine jumped at the opportunity to sit under this wise elder churchman.

He turned to his mother’s faith at age 33 and was baptized, together with his son. Soon he traveled back to Thagaste, his birthplace, selling all his land and giving the proceeds to the poor. He then turned his family house into a small monastery for him and his friends. Ordained priest in 391, he was named bishop of Hippo in 395. This is where he served God and the church for the last thirty-five years of his life, leaving behind over a hundred books, more than seven hundred sermons, and hundreds of letters.

We know from various references in his writings that his African identity meant a lot to him. For instance, he once referred to famous second-century writer Apuleius, who hailed from Madaurus, as “the most notorious of us Africans.” We know too that his father’s family had been given Roman citizenship about a century before his birth and with his high profile presence in Rome and Milan – not to mention his great eloquence as a Latin rhetorician – Augustine must have been a proud Roman, at least to some extent.

A topic to be explored would certainly be how proud he was of his Numidian heritage. His household growing up spoke Latin, as it was a class issue. But his mother spoke fluent Berber and that was her heritage, though she was very comfortable in Latin. She even came to Milan to live with Augustine there for a period of time.

This is relevant for other reasons too, though I cannot pursue the question here. When the Arab armies swept through North Africa in the seventh century, there was military resistance from the Berber population but, unlike Egypt and the Levant, the church in North Africa totally disappeared within a century. Augustine sharply opposed the Donatists, a puritanical sect that did not want to belong to the Roman church, partly because they were Berbers from middle and lower classes. Another reason I have heard is that the Bible was never translated in their language. Had Roman imperialism divided the church?

Now back to Augustine’s multiple identities. He was the shepherd (bishop) of a network of churches, spiritually overseeing mostly Berbers and Romanized Berbers for over three decades. At the same time, through his voluminous writings, he was taking positions on important theological questions being debated all over the Roman world, including the eastern capital, Constantinople. He was in dialogue with the other church luminaries of his time and led the charge in refuting the Manichaeans' beliefs and the “heretical” claims of the Pelagians and Donatists. In all of these herculean efforts which turned out to be very fruitful for the church, one has to believe he was well served by his multicultural upbringing in Roman Numidia and by his expert practice and teaching of rhetoric in Carthage, Rome and Milan.

 

Augustine and politics

As most of you will know, I have been immersed in issues at the intersection of political science and religion over the past two years. Translating Rached Ghannouchi’s classic work mostly written from a Tunisian prison cell (The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State), I have reflected a great deal from both a Muslim and Christian perspective on the why and how of politics. Augustine sheds some interesting light on the question.

I mentioned earlier Glendon’s review of Elshtain’s book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics. This paragraph of hers is a perfect place to start our reflection on this topic:

 

“In making Augustine’s thought relevant to the contemporary world Elshtain discusses how, for Augustine, wisdom comes from experiencing fully the ambiguity and division that characterized the human condition after the fall, and how human beings are fated to narrate their lives within temporality and to work at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity. This is the central feature of what Augustine called our business 'within this mortal life,' and he insisted that any politics that disdains this business, this caring for the quotidian, is a dangerous or misguided or misplaced politics.”

 

Let me make three simple comments based on this quote about Augustine:

 

1. Augustine was the early church father who in his writings contributed the most to the doctrine of the fall (“original sin,” which is opposed by Jews and Muslims). Here he says, we would be “wise” to seriously consider “the ambiguity and division” that plagued the human condition as a result of the fall. Politics in every society will be messy by definition.

2. Another consequence of the fall is that humans are born “broken” to some extent. Part of this dilemma stems from our inheriting some of the sins of our bloodline (in the context of the second of the Ten Commandments, God says that he will visit the sins of individuals onto the descendants up to the third and fourth generation, Exodus 20:4). Another part comes from our own sin growing up into adulthood. Consider too the great diversity of the human race, which is at the same time a great blessing and a curse, as it tends to foster tribalism, racism, horrible injustices and unspeakable violence. All of this and more complicate the task each one of us has in narrating our “lives within temporality,” working “at gathering together a ‘self’ and forging a coherent identity.” Notice again how modern this talk about identity is!

3. Any political system that is too centralized and authoritarian will inevitably oppress people who need some freedom and space to work out how to manage their daily lives as useful members of their families, their social groupings and their state.

 

The best place to read about Augustine’s view of politics is in his most famous work, The City of God Against the Pagans, or just The City of God. It’s an 800-page book in a recent translation, so it’s definitely Augustine’s magnum opus! The following offers a brief introduction to some of the major discussion points.

In a 1992 political science journal (History of Political Thought), Peter J. Burnell argued that twentieth-century scholars of Augustine have overemphasized the role of the fall in his view of politics. Here is how he summarized the general consensus:

 

“[B]ecause civil institutions are a necessary response to sin, they are not something natural in the full sense; in the end civil life is theologically neutral and serves ephemeral ends; it constitutes an ‘area of indeterminacy’ between the City of God and the City of this world; the state is intrinsically coercive in its methods, it involves to some degree domination of one human being by another, so it could never have come to exist in the Garden of Eden. Such an institution is regrettable, but in the circumstances acceptable. This implies that there is no part of natural law that is intrinsically political; politics are a technical matter and do not engage our full humanity.”

 

So at issue here is this: to what extent has the fall corrupted the image of God in humanity? And can our doctrine of humanity not offer a higher view of what God intended for human social and political life? Burnell wants to answer that question in the affirmative. His article divides the question in two parts: first, the relevance of politics to Christianity; second, the relevance of Christianity to politics. First, then, how can we speak theologically about politics? Here is his conclusion:

 

Firstly, in principle for Augustine the civil state is the chief natural means of justice; hence the rectitude of the state is the pre-eminent natural form of moral goodness in man, though it can be fulfilled only by reference to man’s relationship with God. Secondly, in practice the goodness of civil society (as of all kinds of human relationship) has been much diminished (not annihilated) by the Fall, which has necessitated coercion and also much institutional pluralism – for states find themselves in a plurality of circumstances as they attempt (when they do attempt, and then only with partial success) to approximate to rectitude.”

 

I may shock some readers here, but that first conclusion is exactly what the islamist position is, and that of the current American Christian Right. I can tell you with confidence that it is what Ghannouchi is arguing in his magnum opus, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Additionally, already in the book and especially in his thinking now that he has declared that “political Islam” is no longer relevant for Tunisia, the second point is also germane to his thought. In a nutshell, though far from perfect a democratic system of governance is the best means to foster “rectitude” or justice. Checks and balances are necessary, because people in power are easily corrupted.

I will end this first part with an article on Augustine from 2007, which specifically looks at the policies of the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and its declaration of a War on Terror (Michael Wolcott, “The ‘War on Terror,’ the Liberalism of Fear, and the Love of Peace in St. Augustine’s City of God,” New Blackfriars 88).

Wolcott asks whether fear is a good emotion to drive “men and women to submit to sovereign power”? He answers that although Augustine has been the most influential thinker in political theory leading up to Hobbes, the latter’s view about fear as the “governing emotion” does not truly represent Augustine’s view. Here is a good summary of his argument:

 

“In Augustine’s definitive account of political emotions in Civitas Dei [The City of God] he suggests that a commonwealth is a multitude of people who are bound together by their ‘common objects of love’.The moral quality of a commonwealth therefore depends on the kinds of things that are loved. The supreme love is the love of God, and this love characterises those who inhabit what Augustine calls the heavenly city or the Church. But there can also be worthy loves in an earthly city, even although in such a city there will not be so much common agreement about the love of worthy objects. And the love that is most widely held in the earthly city is the love of peace or the desire for security.Wherever men and women live together it is possible to discern that they will act together socially in order to bring about a state of affairs in which they can enjoy peace. This is because peace is that collective condition without which it is much harder to pursue such other worthy goals and ends as the nurture and education of the young or the contemplation of the eternal” (emphasis mine).

 

Though much more could be said, I will simply end here with the thought that “the love of peace or the desire for security” is a good place to start out our thinking about the role of politics in our increasingly globalized and pluralistic world of the twenty-first century. And this seems to be the thought that motivated the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 to call for an international colloquium on Augustine of Hippo, “the Algerian philosopher,” in his country in 2001. This is where we will pick up in the second half of this blog post.

Until last year, the only time Native Americans captured headlines was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. It was the culmination of a whole year of protests, which included sit-ins on Alcatraz Island and then at Mount Rushmore in a bid to force the federal government to honor past treaties.

The standoff was organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) on the very sight where in 1890 over 150 Lakota Sioux were massacred, and the days of this occupation turned to weeks, and then over two months. In the end, three people had died.

During that time, Marlon Brando, who had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards, decided to voice his public support for the AIM’s action at Wounded Knee. To do so, he declined his award (he won, as expected) and sent in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to read a statement. She was not allowed to do so on stage but was able to read a portion of it to the press afterwards. Other celebrities expressed their support for the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, including Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and William Kunstler.

There can be no doubt that sympathy for Native rights was on the rise after 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, arguably the first president to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, also had signed the American Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which partially reads:

 

This legislation sets forth the policy of the United States to protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiian people to 'believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. In addition, it calls for a year's evaluation of the Federal agencies' policies and procedures as they affect the religious rights and cultural integrity of Native Americans.”

 

Then there was the document President George H. W. Bush signed for the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. When the project was finally completed in 2004 – with native consultation and participation the whole way through, the opening ceremony saw “the largest known gathering of American Native communities in history,” according to the Smithsonian archives.

That record was arguably broken, however, with the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests from April 2016 to February 2017 at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, a writer from neighboring Montana, described her stay at the encampment in early September, staying for about a month. She then wrote this article for The New Yorker (“Standing Rock: A New Moment for Native-American Rights”). Unlike the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee with a few hundreds native Americans, most of them armed, the protest gathering on the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 saw thousands of native American participants with the flags of over 200 Indian nations lining up on both sides of the entrance of the camp (see photo above). Thousands of other well-wishers, including many veterans, came and went over those months, bringing food, supplies and cash to sustain the movement.

The other difference is that this movement was thoroughly nonviolent. If anything, the day before Crane-Murdoch’s arrival, protesters had attempted to stand in the way of the bulldozers and were attacked by dogs and pushed back with pepper spray. On another occasion, when some protesters had chained themselves to bulldozers, they were bitten by the dogs.

For the multitude of indigenous nations gathered at the confluence of the two rivers this was a sacred duty -- resisting a pipeline that cuts through property sacred to one tribe and that threatens to pollute the river that sustains the life of all. Sioux historian Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, notes that in the twentieth century Native Americans had witnessed “a more devious but hardly less successful war waged against Indian communities.” Crane Mudoch lists some of these indignities visited upon them:

 

“the lack of funding for tribal education, which forced parents to send their children to government-run boarding schools; the termination of federal recognition for scores of tribes, which caused the loss of services promised by treaty; and a disregard for the sovereignty of tribes, manifest in the building of infrastructure on Indian land without honest consultation or consent.”

 

Then on December 4, 2016, the campsite exploded with shouts of joy and celebration. The federal government had just refused to issue the mighty and well-connected company building the pipeline (Energy Transfer Partners) the needed permit to run the pipeline under the Missouri river, pending an environmental impact assessment.

Award-winning writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote on that day, “From the start, this has been an against-the-odds battle.” Almost the whole length of the pipeline had been laid before any significant opposition could be mounted. But by now the Dakota Access pipeline construction had awakened a sleeping giant. As McKibben puts it, "Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe" – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia.” Then he explains the nature of this protest:

 

“It wasn’t standard-issue environmental lobbying, nor standard-issue protest, though there was certainly some of both (lawyers took the company to court, activists shut down bank branches). At its heart, however, in the great camp that grew up along the rivers, this was a largely spiritual resistance, David Archambault, the head of the Standing Rock Sioux who demonstrated great character and dexterity for months, kept insisting that the camp was a place of prayer, and you couldn’t wander its paths without running into drum circles and sacred fires.”

 

Of course, they didn’t win in the end. A new president took office in January and on February 9, 2017, construction on the pipeline was ordered to resume. But this had certainly been a high-water mark of Native American unified action for regaining their legal rights.

As David Archambault wrote in the New York Times, however, resisting a pipeline that threatened the quality of a major river’s water is much more than about native rights. Here is how his piece ends, and it’s a fitting segue back into John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds:

 

“We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now. As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie, we need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of the millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline.

As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said: 'Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.' That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.”

 

John Dawson’s theology of the nations

“Satan,” intones Dawson, ”has never created and holds no title deed to anything: he is only a creature.” By contrast, “Peoples, cultures and nations have a redemptive purpose because they bear God-created gifts. They all have a power to bless the world that is an outgrowth of their unique attributes.” That blessing is love, and God’s ultimate purpose in creation is “that love be poured out on His creation, and that loving relationship be multiplied throughout time and eternity” (120).

Created as we are in God’s image, we bear his purposes in our souls, whether we fully understand them or not. As Dawson puts it, “therefore, something of God’s own nature is revealed through our creation” (121). And this includes the intentional fact of ethnic and cultural pluralism, as I mentioned in the first half of this blog post, referring to both Qur’an and Bible.

“As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie,” said Archambault. Dawson's version reads like this, “The peoples of the earth have all been created with the purpose of worshiping God uniquely and contributing unique service to other peoples.” But this is a double-edged sword: “These diverse gifts bring power to serve or to dominate, to wound or to heal, and God judges or blesses each people group according to their moral state as He works His redemptive purpose in the seasons of human history” (121).

Because of the fall and the reality of human sin, nations war against nations and seemingly endless cycles of aggression and retaliation play out. Still, that is not the whole story. God’s blessing in individuals, in nations and specific cultures continues to flow outward as well. Healing and blessing are passed on, sometimes through the arts and music, civil society activism and deeds of compassion, and practices of good governance and international cooperation.

Think of nations coming together after two mind-numbingly devastating world wars and agreeing on a covenant dedicated to human respect and dignity. It was called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This led to a series of other covenants and conventions we consider "international law." These are all signs of God’s redemptive purposes placed in humanity – and Christians might add that these are also evidence of the Holy Spirit “blowing where He will” (John 4:8) in the far corners of the globe, even in the midst of horrific acts of violence and war.

About five years before I read Kenneth Craggs’ works and discovered his insight about a Muslim-Christian theology of humanity (“the human caliphate” or trusteeship of humanity), Dawson wrote,

 

“Adam was commanded to cultivate the earth’s resources and build with the things placed at his disposal. He was to organize and govern, under God, the world in which God placed him” (125-6).

 

So what about the Healing of America’s Wounds?

I hope to come back to Dawson’s book when I look more closely at Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin. But for now, I’ll just reproduce his own summary, that is, the four points that define the strategy of an organization he was helping to lead at the time, the International Reconciliation Coalition, whose greatest accomplishment turned out to be the three-year Reconciliation Walk that retraced nine centuries later the steps of the first crusade (read this article on its climax in Jerusalem, July 15, 1999).

But now here are Dawson's four steps to reconciliation and healing (135-6):

 

CONFESSION: Stating the truth; acknowledgment of the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people group toward other persons or categories of persons. (The main theme of this book because it is the place to begin and we have neglected it.)

REPENTANCE: Turning from unloving to loving actions.

RECONCILIATION: Expressing and receiving forgiveness, and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies.

RESTITUTION: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed, and seeking justice wherever we have power to act or to influence those in authority to act.

 

I am guessing that after a flurry of speaking engagements and an actual movement across several major US cities during the 1990s, this work that John Dawson and others gave their heart and soul to petered out because of step four – restitution. As we saw with the Dakota Access protest, there are still so many areas of restitution that need attention if there is to be healing both within the Native American nations and between them and the wider American society. Changes have to take place in people's hearts, but ultimately changes also have to take place in the political realm.

If the first step is telling the truth, perhaps none did this better that Marlon Brando when he wrote this text to be delivered at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973. As mentioned earlier, Shasheen Littlefeather was not allowed to read it on the stage yet managed to read part of it to the press after the ceremony. It was then published in the New York Times.

After an opening paragraph in which Brando recapitulates the last 200 years of settler-Native interaction in the phrase, “Lay down your arms, my friends, … [then can] we talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.” He goes on,

 

“When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them [American leaders], we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.”

 

Brando captures well the American myth of “Manifest Destiny,” the mentality that might makes right, and that sentiment that human rights are nice ideals but our priority is to “make American great again.” Sadly, it’s a global issue too, as even the UN is despairing of being able to raise the issue of human rights on so many fronts. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, just announced this week he will not seek a second 4-year term, “citing concern that his voice would be silenced in an age when the United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.”

 

A theology from the Fourth World for us all

In my parting words, I simply want to refer you again to the excerpts I posted from my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in “Resources” on my website. It is a necessary complement to this two-part blog post. The part I would like to draw your attention to here is the one about Osage-Cherokee Lutheran theologian George E. Tinker, who has been teaching at the Ilif School of Theology in Denver since 1985.

As a Native American theologian he takes issue with traditional Protestant theology, which starts with “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ.” Important as this is for Christian theology, it’s the wrong place to begin, avers Tinker. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. He explains, “To make fall/redemption the beginning point in theological proclamation generates traumatic experiences of spiritual and emotional dislocation for American Indians which some people survive and many do not.”

What is needed is a theology that integrates the worldview of all the native peoples and that starts with the created world and the land in particular. In his words,

 

“Respect for creation and the recognition of the sacredness of all in creation is a deeply rooted spiritual base for American Indians, rooted in the soil of the tribal cultures of North America . . . . It is a matter of relatedness and interdependence that finally results in a necessary relationship of interdependence with all nature” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation: Restoring Trinitarian Balance,” in Constructive Christian Theology in the Worldwide Church, ed. William R. Barr; Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 202-13, at p. 209).

 

If however one proclaims the Good News of Jesus on the basis of a common ground of God’s good and sacred creation, then “it can generate genuine healing and life-giving response.” By doing so, at the same time the idea of interrelationship and harmony at the heart of all created things leads naturally to the crucial values of peace and justice among and between human societies and nations:

 

“On the one hand a proper prioritizing of First Article/Creation concerns will enable the churches to appreciate and value the inherent spiritual gifts that many cultures, especially indigenous, tribal, fourth-world cultures, bring with them to Christianity. . . . Secondly, . . . We will discover that respect for creation can become the spiritual and theological basis for justice and peace just as it is the spiritual and theological basis for God’s reconciling act in Christ Jesus and the ongoing sanctification in the Holy Spirit” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation,” 207).

 

You can see why I was keen to bring this up in my book. This concept of the integrity and harmony of creation ties in nicely with a holistic doctrine of humanity, according to which God empowers humankind as his stewards, deputies or trustees, to oversee his good creation and ensure that their governance leads to the wellbeing of all creatures, from the smallest to the greatest, as well as to the reign of peace through justice for all the peoples of the planet for God’s greater glory. This is a vision sorely needed in our politically polarized societies of today, at a time when we wantonly pollute our planet and sabotage its precarious climate.

Truly, we need to listen to the collective wisdom of our indigenous brothers and sisters, as we also commit to supporting them in their bid to gain their full rights as fellow citizens and to experience the healing we all need, by God's grace.

I got interested in the indigenous peoples of the world while doing research at Yale University. Though my main focus was writing about Islamic law and how modern scholars like Morocco’s Allal al-Fasi, Algeria’s Malek Bennabi, and Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi were recalibrating its traditional methodology and concepts, I was also reworking my dissertation into book form.

I just posted in “Resources” a couple of excerpts from that book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in which I crafted a Christian theology of creation in parallel with the Qur’anic one, best expressed in contemporary Islamic theology as the “trusteeship of humanity.” It’s clear from the Qur’an and Bible that God empowered humankind to take care of the earth and of one another in his name – and for how well or poorly they fulfill that mission they will each give an account.

As the Qur’an puts it, “On that day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, and whoever has done an atom’s-weight of bad will see that” (Q. 99:6-8, Abdel Haleem). Or: “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad” (Q. 2:286, Abdel Haleem). Each individual will stand on the Last Day before God to be judged.

But this Christian, Muslim, and Jewish eschatological vision also has a collective dimension to it. Again and again, in the words of the Hebrew prophets, nations are called out for blessing or judgment. God chose Israel as a nation for a purpose. In the words given to its progenitor Abraham: “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, NLT). They did not live up to this great calling, reneging on the covenant they agreed to at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the curses of the covenant eventually came crashing down upon them.

At the same time, Babylon, the nation chosen by God to carry out his punishment upon the nation of Israel, was to meet a terrible fate:

 

You rejoice and are glad, you who plundered my chosen people.

You frisk about like a calf in a meadow and neigh like a stallion.

But your homeland will be overwhelmed with shame and disgrace.

You will become the least of nations – a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.

Because of the Lord’s anger, Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.

All who pass will be horrified and will gasp at the destruction they will see there” (Jeremiah 50:11-15, NLT).

 

Amos, the shepherd turned prophet from Tekoa in Judah, receives God’s messages for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Israel. Here’s just one example:

 

This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished!

Whey they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.

So I will send down fire on the walls of Rabbah, and all its fortresses will be destroyed.

The battle will come upon them with shouts, like a whirlwind in a mighty storm.

And their king and his princes will go into exile together’” (Amos 1:13-15).

 

This small kingdom of Ammon occupied the Trans-Jordan plateau (just south of the Syrian Kingdom of Damascus) from about 1800 BCE to 500 CE. Their capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, Jordan. The military campaign mentioned here took place at the same time the Babylonians attacked the Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The Israelite tribes which had settled east of the Jordan (Gad and Manasseh) in Gilead thus became an easy target for Ammon. But notice that it is not so much their attack to enlarge their territory that God is condemning here but their utter cruelty toward the general population, and pregnant women in particular.

The prophet Jeremiah goes into more detail about their crimes, but singles out their worship of the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom his people sacrificed their children through fire. He also lists their arrogance, announcing that God will “bring terror” upon them. Yet God intends to “restore the fortunes of the Ammonites in days to come” (Jeremiah 49:1-6).

God singles out cities for judgment too. Babylon was both capital city and empire. By contrast, Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah, Yunus in the Qur’an. In fact, a whole sura is named after him (Sura 10) and his story is told in Sura 37:139-148. Sadly, the ancient and impressive mosque that bears his name and housed his tomb (previously an Assyrian church) was destroyed earlier this year by ISIS.

Similarly in the Qur’an we find a recurring pattern according to which God sends a prophet to a particular people to warn them of impending judgment but there were always those who turned away and were met with God’s wrath as a warning to others. This was the case of the Arabian prophets Hud and Salih sent respectively to the people of Ad and Thamud. Others like Noah and Lot were met with total rejection and had to be saved miraculously by God himself. Here is the brief story of Noah, who preaches this message, “My people, serve God: you have no other god other than Him. I fear for you the punishment of a momentous Day!” They answer that he was “far astray,” to which he responds,

 

“‘My people, there is nothing astray about me! On the contrary, I am a messenger from the Lord of all the Worlds: I am delivering my Lord’s messages to you and giving you sincere advice. I know things from God that you do not. Do you find it so strange that a message should come from your Lord – through a man in your midst – to warn you and make you aware of God so that you may be given mercy?’ But they called him a liar. We saved him, and those that were with him, on the Ark and We drowned those who rejected our revelations – they were willfully blind” (Q. 7:61-64, Abdel Haleem).

 

So both in the Qur’an and Bible God deals with individuals and nations, calling them to repentance, and then to follow his ways. This part of the Apostle Paul’s message to the philosophers in Athens seems so close to the oft quoted Qur’anic verse, which says that God created people from a single couple and then made them “into races and tribes so that you should know one another” (Q. 49:13):

 

From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27, NLT).

 

John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds

Dawson is a missionary from New Zealand who came with his family to work in East Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Then in 1992, just a block from their apartment, an African-American man, Rodney King, was brutally beaten by four police officers. Largely because it was caught on video, five days of looting and burning followed. Fifty people died in the riots and over 2,000 were injured.

This is where John Dawson’s book begins [it is out of print, but you can find used copies on the internet: it was published in 1994 by Regal Books, Ventura, CA].

Dawson’s message, primarily addressed to American evangelicals, is that they should pray with hope and faith for God to heal their land. That’s the easy part of his message, but the second part is a harder pill to swallow: the deep wounds in the American psyche can only be healed by facing our egregious crimes of the past, by repenting and asking forgiveness from the aggrieved parties, the African-American community we enslaved and the indigenous population we decimated and betrayed again and again.

This message deserves to be heeded once again. That healing never took place. In fact, since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, riots have spread to numerous cities, the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up, and White Supremacists march openly, brandishing Nazi symbols in defiance.

Now back to the Native Americans and their plight … Dawson speaks about a groundswell of engagement with the issue by “prayer networks all over the nation,” with close coordination with Jean Steffenson who heads up the Native American Affairs chapter of Colorado. They were holding “solemn assemblies” in churches as well as on the actual ground where atrocities have taken place. I quote,

 

“In November 1992, such an assembly was held at Confluence Park, the birthplace of Denver. The event was attended by politicians, pastors and representatives of the Native American peoples of the front range. This was followed in January 1993, by a gathering of Christians of all races at a remote massacre site near the town of Chivington, Colorado. Events too place there in the 1860s that are a major cause of bitterness and rejection of Christianity by increasing numbers of young Native Americans” (137).

 

Dawson devotes a whole chapter to that massacre, because it kept coming up in his conversations with Native Americans over the years. Yet few anglo Americans have ever heard of it. Though he goes into great detail, quoting from several history books, I’ll close this first part of the two-part blog post with some details I found on the Smithsonian website. The good news here is that several archeological teams accompanied by Native observers discovered the site of this horrendous massacre in 1999. One thing led to another, and in April 2007 the site was dedicated as America’s 391st National Park, the only one with such a tragic name (“Sand Creek Massacre National Park”).

Tony Horwitz, the author of the Smithsonian article, a substantial one, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he includes not just details of the massacre itself, but also the trail of bloodshed and numerous broken treaties that followed (300 altogether, before and after, writes Dawson). He also details some of the controversies, from 1998 on, that marked the development of this national park.

Here is the short version of what happened. Around November 1864, “about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho lived in tepees here, at the edge of what was then reservation land. Their chiefs had recently sought peace in talks with white officials and believed they would be unmolested at their isolated camp.” Then the unthinkable happened:

 

“When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.”

 

To add insult to injury, Col. John Chevington who carried out the raid was a towering man with a booming voice. He was also a preacher who had been an active abolitionist. How is this possible? Only God knows, but he carried on the slaughter in many more Native settlements. Part of the answer is that there was a reigning paradigm in American culture, which we know as “Manifest Destiny.” Horwitz puts it thus:

 

“There were many such atrocities in the American West. But the slaughter at Sand Creek stands out because of the impact it had at the time and the way it has been remembered. Or rather, lost and then rediscovered. Sand Creek was the My Lai of its day, a war crime exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government. It fueled decades of war on the Great Plains. And yet, over time, the massacre receded from white memory, to the point where even locals were unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.”

 

Hence his title, “The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More.”

 

Last thoughts …

The continuing plight of America’s First Nations came into focus for me recently when in nearly Carlisle, PA, the Army exhumed the bodies of three Arapahoe boys forced to assimilate and erase their own culture. Like many others of the 10,000 Native children who were subjected to such horror in other locations, they died within the first two years of their stay. One of the Arapahoe elders, Crawford White Sr., said, “It’s a long time coming. It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”

Healing is the operative word in Dawson’s book too. I will start the next half with the historic gathering of indigenous nations from all over North America and several other continents at the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Over 280 Native tribes and many allies, including Black Lives Matter people and various celebrities, came to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The action failed in the end. But that was the first such gathering since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Such unity brought with it hope, and even a palpable dose of healing within the Native community.

My book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text is about forging a theology of creation common to Muslims, Christians and Jews, so as to encourage and sustain mutual cooperation toward a more just and peaceful world. In my research I was struck and saddened by the tragedy of millions and millions of indigenous peoples wiped out by the Western colonial expansion of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The message of the Qur'an may or may not be behind the breathtaking military expansion of the Arabian tribes in the seventh and eight centuries, but an empire even greater than Rome at its height emerged.

Coming out of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in bringing together the League of Nations. I doubt that he intended for his nation to supplant the British and French colonial empires, but that's what happened after WWII. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, only one superpower remained standing, and it may be for the best that US global power is waning so dramatically under the current administration. Empires may have some benefits for the people and nations under their sway, but the resulting repression and suffering outweigh any of those benefits. At least, that's how I see it.

Here are twenty pages expanding on this idea, but with a laser-like focus on the indigenous people, the so-called Fourth World. In the last part I raise the issue of human rights, not only on an individual basis, but on a collective basis as well. We must, as people of faith who believe that God created the nations and cultures of the world from "one soul" (Q. 49:13), find a way to work together to manage much better than we have up to now our natural enviroment -- God's "good" creation -- and our life together as humankind, a tapestry of many different languages, races and cultures.