Mission

Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

I begin here a two-part blog post on Turkey. What has captured the headlines is the Trump administration love affair with Saudi Arabia (apparently uninterrupted by the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggji) and its support of its proxy war against Iran in Yemen, now in its fifth year. But it is not just the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran battling for preeminence in the wider Middle East. You have to add Turkey to the mix, the heir of the Ottoman Empire, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would like to revive some of its past glory.

So much could be said about Turkey, about the Syrian civil war next door, and especially about its 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. That is almost four times the total number of Syrian refugees now present in Europe. Despite the agreement with Europe in March 2016 to halt the flow of refugees in its direction in exchange for a substantial aid package, Turkey is now moving to expel many who were not registered and who may lose their lives once back in Syria. There are no good or even foreseeable solutions to the human disaster caused by Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.

The purpose of my blog is always to look behind the news headlines and consider the wider context, and in most cases as it touches on contemporary Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. So here and the next installment, I want to look at …

1) The meteoric rise of a moderate islamist party in the Muslim world’s most secular nation;

2) The evolution of President Erdogan from a staunch defender of democracy and human rights to a decidedly more authoritarian ruler

3) Erdogan’s foreign policy seeking to increase its influence in the ME and beyond

4) The curious phenomenon of white supremacy amidst a revival of a “clash of civilization” campaign by some of Turkey’s ruling elites

The last two points I will reserve for the second half, but here allow me to start and give you a skeleton version of Turkish history, from Ottoman Empire to the fierce secularism of modern Turkey’s father, Ataturk, to the soft islamism of Erdogan and his AKP party.

 

How religion gradually crept back into the Turkish republic

My last duty (I hope) as translator of Rached Ghannouchi’s classic book, The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, is to be one of its proof readers. As I was in the second chapter the other day (“Human Rights and Freedom in Islam”), I reread this section:

 

“In the West, they [human rights] originated in the struggle against the Church and the absolute rule of kings, who both had a share of political authority, though it was later entirely snatched away from the former and given to the people; still, one source of authority remained. This marked the Western state with an individualistic stamp and with a nationalist, secular, and legalistic spirit. The situation in Islamic countries, however, is different, as they did not experience this avoidance of religion nor for the most part the split between political power and the religious community. Even in periods of oppression, the Shari‘a continued to constrain the political ruler in two important areas: the authority to enact laws and the imposition of taxes.”

 

If you read my trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State,” you will know that Ghannouchi’s last sentence has some historical truth to it but also that the reality is more complex. Historically, there was indeed a tug-of-war between the religious scholars (ulama) and the rulers who derived a good bit of political legitimacy from their good relations with the former. But there were always tensions between them, and no two regimes – from large empires to local petty dynasties – were alike in this regard. Still, his main point here is valid, namely that democracy in the West grew out of a long history of autocratic rulers using Christianity to keep their realms under control. Think of the Emperor Constantine, or of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, or of the medieval popes who until the Reformation held sway over the kingdoms of Europe.

Ghannouchi as a Tunisian likely sees the breaking point as the French Revolution. That would be true. Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI were executed by the revolutionaries and the French Catholic Church suddenly lost all political connections. The division between religion and state in France is the most extreme among all Western nations (laïcité). Unlike Britain and Germany, for instance, it has no national church, and unlike the US, religion is completely banned from the political arena, except when it comes to blackballing Muslims. But as you know, the relation between religion and state, and indeed the origin of human rights before and during the Enlightenment is much more complicated than Ghannouchi lets on here.

That said, Ghannouchi’s point is that religion and politics have always comingled to some extent in Muslim lands is true. But then Turkey is the great exception, or is it? And that matters too, because Ghannouchi saw Turkey’s AKP as a model Islamic parties elsewhere could emulate. In this part of my post I quote from a very readable piece written by liberal Turkish Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol who resides in the US. He is most famous for his Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (now only available as an Audible Audiobook – see also this intro from the New York Times). I encourage you to read the full text of his essay https://tcf.org/content/report/turkeys-troubled-experiment-secularism/ , which was a policy report part of a project launched by The Century Foundation supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, “Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East.”

His first main point is that in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had embarked on series of reforms, partly under Western and Russian pressure, aiming to give all of its Muslim and non-Muslim peoples equal citizenship rights, including “more rights and opportunities for women, and the annulment of some of the illiberal aspects of sharia, such as the death penalty for apostasy.” Yet these reforms (“Tanzimat”) were imposed from the top down, without any participation from the traditional Islamic scholars (ulama). The result was a bloated, “overempowered state,” which in the hands of Attatürk, the general who by dint of military conquest reclaimed some territories from the Greeks in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s humiliating defeat in WWI as one of the Axis Powers.

So this legacy of bureaucratic centralization and state overreach was passed down from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, which Akyol calls “revolutionary.” Why? It was an all-powerful, autocratic state that sought to transform society through and through. The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and “Atatürk’s ideological blueprint, which came to be known as ‘Kemalism,’ rested on two main pillars: Turkish nationalism and secularism.” This was completely new: “Nationalism implied a nation-state built for Turks, in contrast to the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. And secularism implied that Islam would not be allowed to have any significant public role in this new, modern, Western-oriented republic.”

Secularism for Atatürk meant dismantling most all of the institutional structures of religion: he dissolved the “ministry of Sharia” and banned the Sufi brotherhoods and schools of religious learning (madrassas). The Turkish language from now on would no longer be written in the Arabic script but in the Latin alphabet and the Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one. Men had to adopt Western clothing and women had to uncover their hair. All of this was in the name of progress and it was called laiklik, a version of the French laïcité.

Kemalist nationalism (“We’re a Turkish nation”) met with mostly approval and still does – except of course, for the large Kurdish minority, which has taken up arms multiple times to claim its independence, or at least a larger measure of autonomy.

Kemalist secularism, by contrast, has consistently been opposed by most Turks, who have remained on the whole quite religious. Akyol lists several Center-Right political parties since the 1950s that have pushed at minimum for a more religiously-friendly secularism. But then you have those who outright opposed it, those in favor of a state run by religious principles, or the islamists who consistently polled between ten and fifteen percent of the electorate. They hail from several currents:

 

“These Islamists consisted of Sufi orders; the popular “Nur” movement led by Said Nursi (1877–1960), along with its various offshoots, including the Gulen Movement; intellectuals, some of whom got inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979; and ordinary pious Turks who felt humiliated by a Westernized elite.”

 

The political founder of this movement was “Necmettin Erbakan (1926–2011), who first appeared in the late 1960s with his National [here, code word for ‘Islamic’] Order Party.” He founded various parties, which the military (always in charge up to the 2000s) closed down one after the other. But in 1996, he managed to be named prime minister. But this was too much for the military, which forced him to resign. This event is recalled in Turkish history as the “post-modern coup.” But these secular ruling elites, particularly in continuing to back the ban on women wearing the hijab in public buildings, including the universities, were by this time overplaying their hand. This kind of imposition of laiklik was, as Akyol puts it, was clearly “about the state’s duty to secularize society by imposing a “way of life” that had no visible trace of traditional religion.” Or put differently, “The main concern of Turkish secularists was freedom from religion, and almost never freedom of religion.”

Here I have to add a little known fact about the Shia-related sect, the Alevis who make up over 15 percent of the population. Distinct from the Alawis in Syria (also about 17 percent, including dictator Bashar al-Asad), they trace their teachings and practice from the 13th century Sufi saint, Haji Bektash Veli. But they have also incorporated insights and practices from Buddhism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianims and though self-identifying as Muslims, they worship in cemevis instead of mosques, do not pray five times a day nor fast during Ramadan. Staunch supporters of Turkey’s secularist state, like other religious factions they too found their religious activities curtailed but were also persecuted by the majority Sunni Muslims. Under Erdogan (see next section), they have enjoyed more security but they have also suffered from the ruling party’s deliberate “Sunnification” of public education. Then in 2013, when state subsidies were expanded for Sunni institutions, they were deliberately overlooked. Turkish Alevis, more than ever, feel not just discrimination but the total erasure of their distinct and proud identity. The history of Turkish secularism, to say the least, has many twists and turns!

 

The soft Islamism of the AKP

At the turn of the new millennium, two movements coalesced to craft a message that appealed to the majority of Turks: the Development and Justice Party (AKP) and the Fethullah Gulen movement (a quasi-Sufi movement under Gulen’s leadership which by then had followers in the millions mostly in small business circles). These two remained close allies till about 2013. They defined their position as followers of the British and American versions of secularism, obviously in opposition to French laïcité.

The year 2003 marks the beginning of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rising star, first as prime minister in 2003, then after successfully pushing through a constitutional amendment, as president since 2014. His platform from the start was full acceptance of a secular constitution with an emphasis on democracy and the respect for human rights. The latter, however, include religious rights, so gradually the Turkish culture wars tipped to the advantage of the religious. Here are some of those signs:

 

“In the early 2010s the headscarf ban gradually vanished in all state institutions. Sufi orders and other Islamic communities found more freedom—and in fact, privilege—than ever before, at least as long as they supported the government. . . . The Sunni majority keeps enjoying the blessings of state support for their faith—evident everywhere from the huge budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which finances all mosques with taxpayer money, to the education system, which includes compulsory pro-Sunni religious education.”

 

Notably absent from the AKP’s agenda is any tampering with the state’s laiklik ideology. He doesn’t need to, says Akyol. Kemalist secularism has been essentially “defanged.” This is largely because of the amazing success of Erdogan and the AKP, which reinforced Turkish democracy and liberalized the economy. Emmanuel Karagiannis from Kings College London explains in his recent book, The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), that the AKP’s rise can be credited to the “Anatolian Tigers, namely the small to medium-sized export-oriented businesses based on family networks in Anatolia [central Turkey].” In essence, you had “a class of entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie” that was “seeking political emancipation.” They represented “a kind of Islamic Calvinism that urges devout Muslims to work hard while abiding by Muslim values” (87). But then after winning the 2007 parliamentary elections by garnering 46.6 percent of votes, the AKP “was able to expand its support base and reach middle-class and professional Turks from urban centers.” The next year Turkey joined the Group of Twenty (G-20) major economies and seemed even closer in its official bid to join the EU.

 

Creeping authoritarianism

The AKP’s nearly fifty percent win in the 2011 parliamentary elections apparently signaled a green light in Erdogan’s mind to begin settling scores with political enemies. The 1997 military coup mentioned above was the third such military intervention in Turkish politics. Erdogan had already begun using evidence of a fourth coup, this time aimed at him, in a series of trials beginning in 2008 uncovering a military plot known as the Ergenekon case. Guney Yildiz for the BBC in 2013 writes that “[f]ollowing five years of legal proceedings, the court delivered 17 life sentences to formerly prominent figures of the military establishment, along with politicians, academics and journalists.”

During this struggle to limit the power of the military in the late 2000s, the powerful “Hizmet” (“Service”) movement, founded and spearheaded by the Sufi-like cleric Fethullah Gulen (living in Saylorsburg, PA), had become an ally Erdogan firmly counted on. In fact, Gulenists helped to fill many government positions of people sacked by Erdogan without due process. But already in 2010, the AKP “discovered” some heavy-handed investigations into their affairs by a police force largely in the hands of Gulenists. Erdogan then began accusing Hizmet of being a “parallel state.” The official split didn’t come till 2013, but with that in mind, the reaction to the attempted military coup of July 2016 makes complete sense.

Written a year later, this article sums up nicely what we know about the coup attempt. The bloodiest of all previous coups, a section of the Turkish army coordinated attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, with explosions coming from tanks and even fighter jets bombing the parliament building in the capital. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was even kidnapped for a while. Yet, miraculously it would seem, Erdogan slipped through unscathed, warned by his brother-in-law (to this day no one knows how or why Turkish intelligence didn’t manage to alert the president). Then too, crowds supporting the government flowed into the streets of Anatolia, Ankara and Istanbul. The dramatic end came swiftly:

 

“The crowds resisted tank fire and air bombardments and, with the help of loyalist soldiers and police forces, they defeated the coup attempt in a matter of hours. The government swiftly declared victory and scores of troops that had taken part in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul.”

 

Yet in those few hours, 241 people had died and 2,194 others were injured. Erdogan’s reaction was just as swift. He blamed the coup on Hizmet, though Gulen has denied any involvement in it, and then embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on perceived political enemies, while declaring a state of emergency. Almost two years later, just before the referendum on the presidency, the BBC offered some numbers: over 107,000 public employees (soldiers, police officers, teachers and judges) were forcefully dismissed from their jobs; over 100,000 appealed via the state of emergency commission; 19,600 cases were reviewed, but only 1,010 were reinstated. According to the main opposition party, the Republican’s People Party (CHP), over 5,000 academics and 33,000 teachers lost their jobs. A New York Times article from March 2018 chronicles the sentencing of 24 journalists to prison for their alleged role in the coup. More were sentenced before and after that as well, so that Turkey has the highest number of any country of jailed journalists. Altogether, Turkey now has over 50,000 political prisoners pending trial.

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board had this to say after last year’s presidential election and referendum on the expansion of presidential powers: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory means a five-year term in an executive presidency of expanded powers. How he will use those powers has been amply telegraphed by his actions in recent years, especially after the failed coup attempt of 2016, when he imprisoned or silenced his critics and attempted to neuter civil society. The strongman just got a new lease on a bigger place.”

Much more could be said about this, naturally, but I will end the first installment here and begin the second one with Turkey’s foreign policy aspirations.

I confess to being surprised that I haven’t touched this topic more than once, and that back in January 2012 (though I do have a ten-page paper on Christian Zionism and the I/P conflict in Resources, the ideology without which President Trump could not do what is doing with this issue). We lived there for three years as a family in the mid-1990s; I spent five weeks there doing some research in Hebron for my doctoral dissertation in 1999; my last visit, however, dates back to 2002. Still, I closely follow the political situation and keep in touch with some people. Lately I wished I could attend one the international conferences hosted at the Bethlehem Bible College (where I used to teach), called “Christ at the Checkpoint.”

I have never been very optimistic about a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinians peace deal, and the recent one by the Trump administration, reportedly to be announced in June 2019, is likely dead on arrival. The chief negotiator on the Palestinian side, Saeb Erekat, made it clear that “the constant position of the Palestinian leadership that any solutions ruling out the international resolutions and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital will be rejected.”

In this post, I will first give a couple of examples of how Israel grievously violates Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law, and then argue that the winning strategy that finally brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa is the only possible path to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

 

Military occupation and home demolitions

I’m borrowing part of this material from the case study introducing Ch. 2 of my upcoming book, Justice and Love (5 out of 6 chapters start with a case study, while Ch. 1 is itself a case study on racism in the US). So what do I mean by “military occupation”? What Israelis call the “Six Day War” in 1967 ushered in an era of Israeli control over the Gaza strip (previously under Egypt), the West Bank (under Jordan) and the Golan Heights (under Syria), an era that continues until today. Many books have been written about various aspects of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, but here I only highlight one aspect of this overall campaign of ethnic cleansing (a term used by noted Israeli historian Ilan Pappe).

Don’t take my word for this. Have a listen to one of the oldest and most established Israeli human rights organizations focused on these issues. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories in 1989, better known as B’Tselem, Hebrew for “in the image,” from the creation story on the first page of the Torah, “And God created humankind in his image” (Gen. 1:27). Its mission as seen on its website is clearly formulated in terms of human rights: “Israel’s regime of occupation is inextricably bound up in human rights violations. B’Tselem strives to end the occupation, as that is the only way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, both Palestinian and Israeli, living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Here is the kind of discourse B’Tselem used in a special report from February 2019 (“Fake Justice: The Responsibility Israel’s High Court Justice Bear for the Demolition of Palestinian Homes and the Dispossession of Palestinians”):

 

“The planning apparatus Israel has instituted in the West Bank serves its policy of promoting and expanding Israeli takeover of land across the West Bank. When planning for Palestinians, the Israeli Civil Administration endeavors to obstruct development, minimize the size of communities and increase construction density, with a view to keeping as many land reserves as possible for the benefit of Israeli interests, first and foremost for the expansion of settlements. Yet when planning for settlements, whose very establishment is unlawful in the first place, the Civil Administration’s actions are the very reverse: planning reflects settlements’ present and future needs, aiming to include as much land as possible in the outline plan so as to take over as many land resources as possible. Such planning leads to wasteful infrastructure development, loss of natural countryside and relinquishing open areas.”

 

When B’Tselem uses the word “unlawful” for the construction of settlements, they are referring to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which forbids the building of settlements in militarily conquered territory. So while bankrolling the expansion of these Israeli communities in the “Occupied Territories” (UN language), Israelis strictly limit and impede Palestinian natural population growth. One way they do this is to deny 96 percent of building applications (B’Tselem’s figure covering the period of 2000-2016). Another way is to demolish homes that have been built “illegally.” From 1988 to 2017 the [Israeli] Civil Administration issued 16,796 demolition orders. Out of those, 20% were carried out and 18% are still pending in the courts.

What is certain, however, is that the pace of home demolitions has accelerated in recent years. From 2006 through 2018, B’Tselem documented the destruction of “at least 1,401 residential units in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem), causing at least 6,207 people – including at least 3,134 minors – to lose their homes.” At least 1,014 of these people saw their homes razed more than once!

 

Incarceration of children

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) highlighted in 2018 the issue of child detentions in the West Bank. Israel as an occupying power is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions but human rights organizations working in these territories (B’Tselem, UNICEF, Defense for Children International) “have extensively documented reports of mistreatment of Palestinian youth within the Israeli military detention system. Such allegations include both unreasonable use of force (such as threats, intimidation, long-term handcuffing, beatings, and solitary confinement) as well as lack of due process of law.” Here are some troubling figures cited by a 2016 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for Israel and the Palestinian Territories:

      • 1.3 million Palestinian children in West Bank.
      • 500-700 Palestinian children detained annually.
      • 84% of detained children have not been read their legal rights.
      • 75% of detained children report experiencing physical violence. 
      • 66% of detained children are held in solitary confinement for average of 13 days. 
      • 41% of children are arrested during the middle of the night.
      • 33% of detained children sign confessions not in their native language.

As you might guess, these figures – both the home demolitions and the incarceration of children – are only the tip of the iceberg of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. From the construction of the “security barrier” which cuts off many Palestinian farmers from their olive groves or fields, to the many checkpoints which make travel within the West Bank painfully slow and unpredictable (and worse yet for the very few who are able to secure a job within Israel), to all the heavy regulations that routinely cripple the Palestinian economy – all these and many more daily injustices explain why Palestinians even in the West Bank wholeheartedly support the international campaign to boycott Israel as a means to end this occupation (I wrote “even,” because life is much more grueling and dangerous in Gaza where even potable water is almost impossible to get and power is on for less than two hours a day!).

 

The BDS movement

As the Wikipedia article on BDS makes clear (I’m guessing it may have been watered down by some pro-Israeli hands), the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign does not command universal support among those who actively support the two-state solution as envisaged by the Oslo Process of the early 1990s. Though historians disagree about the exact antecedents of the movement, they do agree that the first BDS conference was held in Ramallah (West Bank capital of the Palestinian Authority set up by the Oslo Accords) in 2007. It established the BDS national committee to be the organizing body of an international movement.

According to the BDS website, its goals are threefold:

      1. 1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
      2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
      3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their home and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The movement’s main reference and source of inspiration is the original boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s. As you might expect, the movement has met with mixed success internationally (see again the Wikipedia article). But my goal here is to highlight the Christian support in Israel/Palestine and the US (though admittedly not in most evangelical circles, that is, in the so-called Christian Right). But first let me circle back to the rumored peace plan put forward by Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

 

The European Union’s support for the two-state solution

The British newspaper The Guardian published a letter by thirty-seven “high-ranking former European politicians” urging the European Parliament to stand behind the two-state solution and refuse any peace initiative by the US that undermines “the multilateral, rules-based international order” – an order which has opened up an unprecedented era of peace and stability in Europe itself.

The current American administration has taken steps to distance itself from some important building blocks of that system of international law:

 

“It has so far recognised only one side’s claims to Jerusalem and demonstrated a disturbing indifference to Israeli settlement expansion. The US has suspended funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and for other programmes benefitting Palestinians – gambling with the security and stability of various countries located at Europe’s doorstep.”

 

You can read the trepidation of these seasoned leaders between the lines. The letter further clarifies where these leaders draw their red lines in the sand:

 

“European governments should further commit to scale up efforts to protect the viability of a future two-state outcome. It is of the utmost importance that the EU and all member states actively ensure the implementation of relevant UN security council resolutions – including consistent differentiation in accordance with UN security council resolution 2334, between Israel in its recognised and legitimate borders, and its illegal settlements in the occupied territories.”

 

Then this statement that almost certainly refers to the BDS movement: “Furthermore, recent escalating efforts to restrict the unhindered work of civil society have made European support for human-rights defenders in both Israel and Palestine, and their critical role in reaching a sustainable peace, more important than ever.”

Why again is this important support for the two-state solution? Look no further than what is likely to be unveiled by the Trump administration in June 2019, as explained here. The most likely scenario is that with the support of Israel and Saudi Arabia Trump’s plan is about flooding the Palestinians with money in exchange for their civil rights.

 

Some Christian voices in support of BDS

Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican clergyman with whom I worked while teaching at the Bethlehem Bible College founded the Palestinian Center for Liberation Theology (or Sabeel – meaning both “the way” and “the spring” in Arabic) in the late 1980s. We attended his Arabic services at the St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem. I would also help out leading the liturgy with him and we cooperated in his youth ministry endeavors. His landmark book was Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1989). Sabeel is also a co-sponsor of the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences (CATC).

In a recent letter by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), the executive director Tarek Abuata wrote the following: “As we set our gaze on the liberation of Palestine, we are building a movement that reflects Jesus’ multiple and vibrant forms. The stakes are high and the struggle is long, but we are not deterred. It is our task to work with stubborn endurance to that end.” Then this statement: “We are pushing BDS campaigns in denominations, congregations, and local cities. We are uplifting Palestinian voices through our Palestinian Narrative Training program . . . We are leading ethical pilgrimages to occupied Palestine.”

Here are two contrasting articles on the last CATC biennial conference (June 2018). One was written by a journalist friend of mine, Jayson Casper, who attended it for Christianity Today. His tone is appropriately balanced and seeking to give voices to both supporters and critics. But you can tell that the old fortress of unconditional evangelical support for Israel is developing serious cracks, and especially among the millennial generation. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, was a plenary speaker (pictured next to the Bethlehem Bible College president, Jack Sara, a former student of mine), and so was Eugene Cho, who is the lead pastor of the urban, multicultural Quest Church in Seattle.

No mention of BDS in that article … But it was plainly mentioned in an article in Israel Today strongly critical of CATC. Likely a messianic Jew himself (that is, a Jew believing in the Jesus of the New Testament), Arthur Schwartzman wrote that most of the Palestinian discourse put nationalism above Christ despite the theme of the conference, “Christ at the Center.” The Palestinian foreign minister gave a speech, he complained, and nothing critical of the Palestinian Authority was said by anyone. Then he adds, “Support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was also heard.” I know for a fact that far and away most Palestinian evangelicals see the boycott movement as the only nonviolent tool capable of pressuring Israel to change the status quo.

Finally, the NGO Monitor (a pro-Israel think tank in Jerusalem), indicates that CMEP supports the Kairos document, which calls for participation in the BDS campaign. That 2009 document is a carefully crafted theological statement by a coalition of Christian churches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One article under the heading “Resistance” argues that the BDS movement integrates “the logic of peaceful resistance.” Then this statement:

 

“These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice. The aim is to free both peoples from extremist positions of the different Israeli governments, bringing both to justice and reconciliation. In this spirit and with this dedication we will eventually reach the longed-for resolution to our problems, as indeed happened in South Africa and with many other liberation movements in the world.”

 

A new wind among house Democrats?

The young female freshman congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, has been repeatedly attacked and smeared by Republicans for her outspoken support for the BDS movement. Her Palestinian-American colleague from Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, holds the same position though manages to raise less controversy.

Nevertheless, both of them raised more than eyebrows over this past weekend, as armed hostilities between Israel and Gaza flared up once again. Newsweek spotlighted Omar and Tlaib for bucking the Democratic consensus by condemning neither side but by focusing on Gaza’s human suffering. In particular, Omar tweeted:

 

“How many more protesters must be shot, rockets must be fired, and little kids must be killed until the endless cycle of violence ends? The status quo of occupation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unsustainable. Only real justice can bring about security and lasting peace.”

 

I cannot say that better (with one caveat: I would have deleted "rockets must be fired," though I know she condemns this kind of indiscriminate killing). The fight for justice for Palestinians must go on in earnest, except only in peaceful ways. The international campaign for Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions on Israel, realistically, is the only way to nudge the party that holds all the cards to dismantle its military occupation of 52 years. Admittedly, Palestinian divisions have nicely played into the Israeli colonial strategy – divide and conquer.

But this year especially, Israel is dreading a potentially bruising blow to what is left of its international goodwill. Its long-desired hosting of the immensely popular Eurovision song contest in June 2019 could be marred by protests. And though all 42 participating countries will come, many artists are boycotting the event. The pro-Palestinian social media are calling for “A Week of Action against Eurovision in Tel Aviv” with “loud, visible, mass nonviolent protests.” Though leaders known to the Israeli intelligence services will certainly be banned from entering Israel, there is much angst about unexpected protests among the crowds or even from the stage. We shall see.

What is certain is that Israel fears the BDS campaign more than any acts of terror. One of the most vocal and influential backers in the US, Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, has endured first hand an operation of threats and intimidation run by ex-Israeli intelligence agents. The sophistication of these methods betrays the level of anxiety among Israeli leaders regarding the BDS movement.

They too know that the kind of peaceful, direct mass action as practiced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. worked powerfully to bring down apartheid. We hope and pray it will bring down the Israeli occupation and usher in peace and prosperity for those two nations side by side.

This was a paper delivered at a the Society of Vineyard Scholars which in 2014 was held in Columbus, OH. Stanley Hauerwas is one of America's most influential theologians and public intellectuals, and it struck me when I was reading him that he could see no theological justification for human rights. In his view, they are the product of the secular Enlightenment and now also the symptom of all that is wrong with market capitalism and its attendant consummerist society. It is a sign of our postmodern hyper-individualism. In this paper I examine his views of human rights, and those of influential lawyer and writer Steven L. Carter, who as a Christian takes Hauerwas to task on this issue, but from a different angle. I end with a brief look at Pope Francis' first public document Evangelii Gaudium and its teaching on human solidarity. I conclude (unsurprisingly for those who follow my blog) that the Chistian doctrine of creation (Muslim and Jewish too) provide ample grounding for a theology of human rights.

This is the longer version (about twice the length) of a case study that begins my fifth chapter in Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation. Having taught an introductory course in Islam at the West Africa Theological Seminary as a two-week intensive course on three occasions, I have been eager to read more about the history of that nation's sectarian tensions. This is a very brief introduction to the question, but one I believe will be useful for anyone trying to grasp how the 1999 Sharia controversy irrupted and why it has been somewhat resolved since then. That is the focus of this paper and not the issue of Boko Haram. It is mentioned in passing, but that would be a separate topic.

In reaction to remarks made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), which questioned the offensiveness of white nationalism or white supremacy, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution (424-1) on January 15, 2019, condemning that ideology. Specifically, the House “once again rejects White nationalism and White supremacy as hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” Ironically, the only vote against it was by African-American representative from Illinois, Bobby Rush, who felt it didn’t go far enough by specifically censuring Steve King.

Then over this past weekend, a photo from the Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page turned up with a “black face” next to a man in KKK gear. Nearly everyone, and especially fellow Democrats, are calling for him to resign. The NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, quipped, “When are we going to address it – the issue of intolerance and racism and not seek to sweep it under a rug that can never cover it up?"

"Addressing the issue" is the purpose of this blog post. This is Black History Month, but too, after a very thorough reviewer of my manuscript, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation, I felt compelled (his/her critique was spot on!) to rework parts of the book, including dedicating a whole chapter to the question of racial justice in the United States. So this is a good lead-in to that task.

Though much of this blog post is about Jim Wallis’s 2016 book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to the New America, I want to begin with a key concept in John Dawson’s 1992 book, Healing America’s wounds. I end with my own experience this year at a Martin Luther King Jr. prayer service.

 

John Dawson’s “identificational repentance”

Dawson, a New Zealand missionary to Watts, Los Angeles since the early 1970s, wrote Healing America’s Wounds in the wake of the deadly Rodney King riots in 1992, which killed 59 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage. And this was all in their neighborhood.

I referred to Dawson’s book in both parts of my Fourth World post in December 2017 (see here and here), because of his useful recounting of all the broken promises made to the Native Americans. That is only half of the equation, however. Slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the sordid treatment of Blacks in so many areas of civic life – even after the Civil Rights Act – is the other half of that tragic equation. Dawson has much to say about that too.

I have no space here to recount Dawson’s persuasive arguments from the Old and New Testaments about covenants, curses and blessings, but allow me to highlight two of his points, which will then lead us into the Wallis book. First, each nation has a God-given personality, along with divine gifts it contributes to other nations, or even just ethno-linguistics groupings among humankind. He sees this wonderfully played out in the huge mission agency he belongs to – Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Dawson’s mother Joy Dawson was one of its earliest leaders (founded in 1960, it is very decentralized with 1,200 centers in 180 countries and with over 20,000 staff and volunteers; see its website and the wiki article on it). It’s from this vantage point that he could write back in 1992:

 

“Modern missionary enterprise is no longer a European/American activity; it is the Latinos, Asians and Africans who are mobilizing in great numbers. The churches of the nations, when combined, bring us a picture of God’s character and personality that cannot be accommodated in one language or represented adequately through one people” (34).

 

This certainly aligns with the picture at the end of the Bible that John paints of God’s people in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Rather than disembodied spirits, they are resurrected people. What is more, they seem to still belong to various “nations” and as such, they bring their gifts to impart blessing to the whole assembly of redeemed humanity:

 

“I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of the day because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city” (Revelation 21:22-26).

 

What does the United States have to contribute? Dawson begins to enumerate: “Breadth of vision, communication skill, hospitality, generosity, flexibility, openness; my list is long” (35). But as with other nations, it comes with “a tangled web of righteous and unrighteous roots.” From some of the early Puritan settlers it offers ideals of service (e.g., a refuge for the oppressed); from the European age of conquest, however, it has valued “unbridled liberty” and has been focused on “the pursuit of affluence, security and status” (36).

Now for the second point: by virtue of God’s creation of humanity in his own image and his empowering them to exercise dominion on earth which is accountable to Him, nations with power must exercise it with restraint and for the purpose of serving the weaker ones, and not oppressing them. So with regard to his native land, New Zealand, Dawson was part of a movement of “whites” who publicly repented and asked forgiveness of their fellow citizens from a Maori (indigenous people) background. He relates how one such large gathering went on for two days with much weeping, prayer, embracing, and healing. This is what he calls “identificational repentance”. Members of the offending group identify with the past sins of their people, publicly repent and ask forgiveness of members from the aggrieved group. In his words,

 

“Unless somebody identifies themselves with corporate entities, such as the nation of our citizenship, or the subculture of our ancestors, the act of honest confession will never take place. This leaves us in a world of injury and offense in which no corporate sin is ever acknowledged, reconciliation never begins and old hatreds deepen” (30).

 

Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin

At the heart of this book is the plea to Euro-Americans (“white,” he demonstrates, was a sociopolitical construct designed to justify the enslavement of Africans) to listen to the stories of their African-American fellow citizens. Really listen. They have to let the reality of “the talk” that each of them has to give to their children sink in. That is when black parents sit their kids down and tell them how they must behave with the police:

 

“‘Keep your hands open and out in front of you, don’t make any sudden movements, shut your mouth, be respectful, say ‘sir,’” as my friend and regular cab driver, Chester Spencer, said he told his son. ‘The talk,’ is about what to do and say (and what not to do and say) when you find yourself in the presence of a police officer with a gun.

White parents don’t have to have this talk with their kids. That’s a radical difference between the experience of black and white parents in America. Why do we continue to accept that?”

 

When these kinds of issues are brought up, most of us white folk will react defensively, saying something like, “I’m not a racist!” And we mean it. But there are two problems with this answer. The first is that racism (among white Americans, but in general as well) is part of the culture we grow up with. It is taught and even if we resist it overtly, we still carry it implicitly. Jim Wallis remembers as a child loving the musical South Pacific based on the book by James Michener. But this was also his first exposure to the idea of racism, as the story about mixed-race love affairs unfolds. This is laid out most graphically in the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Here are some of the lyrics:

 

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / of people whose eyes are oddly made,

and people whose skin is a different shade, / you’ve got to be taught …

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / before you are six or seven or eight,

to hate all the people your relatives hate, / you’ve got to be carefully taught!” (82-83)

 

Much research has now been done on implicit bias. You can even take a short test online called the Implicit Association Test, developed by several American universities (here is one example). Cheryl Staats of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University explains,

 

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. . . . Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purpose of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection” (84).

 

This is a frightening fact. As Staats explains, “implicit biases are robust and pervasive. . . . Everyone is susceptible to them, even people who believe themselves to be impartial or objective, such as judges” (85). The other scary consequence is that “most Americans, regardless of race, display a pro-White/anti-Black bias on the Implicit Association Test.”

This is especially alarming, because implicit bias can “explode into explicit behavior.” Staats reports the findings of a study using a video game that simulates situations faced by police officers. Participants were told to shoot armed individuals who appeared on the screen but not those holding innocuous objects like wallets or cameras. The game was set up in such a way that these decisions had to be made in a split second. As a result, researchers found that “participants tended to ‘shoot’ armed targets more quickly when they were African American as opposed to White, and when participants refrained from ‘shooting’ an armed target, these characters in the simulation tended to be White rather than African American.” Staats concludes, “Research such as this highlights how implicit biases can influence decisions that have life and death consequences” (86).

There is good news, however: these biases need not be permanent. They can be unlearned over time. At both institutions where I teach – St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA – there have been ugly racial incidents this past year that have forced them to take some drastic measures. Part of those has to do with specialized training in diversity awareness.

The second reason for dismissing a defensive statement by a white person who says, “I’m not racist” is that this is not just an individual matter. As Wallis puts it, “These issues are historical and structural and have to do with how our racial groupings as human beings have been deliberately manipulated for social and economic purposes” (82). Particularly as Christians, we need to “die to our whiteness.” Part of that is recognizing the reality of white privilege. As a white American, I have benefited from several centuries of “affirmative action” that has oppressed Black Americans and granted untold advantages to Whites.

My own father served in WWII and like 7.8 million other veterans until 1956, the GI Bill paid for his college education. Though my parents moved to France in 1953 that same GI Bill would have given them a generous interest-free loan to buy a house. By contrast, African Americans benefited very little from these statutes. Historical research demonstrates that congressional leaders in the North and South ensured that these programs were carried out by local officials and not the federal government. “As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South – and the North as well – were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities” (89).

Add this and many other policies over time and you realize that it is not by chance that “there are more African-American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began” (156). The well-known civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, in an article published in Sojourners in 2014 (“How to Dismantle the ‘New Jim Crow”), writes how the war on drugs was used like a club to beat down communities of color who were already mired in poverty: “where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factory jobs have disappeared, … the drug war has been waged with ferocity.” She goes on to explain:

 

“SWAT teams are deployed here; buy-bust operations are concentrated here; drug raids of schools and housing projects occur here; stop-and-frisk operations are conducted on these streets. If such tactics were employed in middle-class white neighborhoods or on college campuses, there would be public outrage; the war would end overnight. But here in the ghetto, the stops, searches, sweeps, and mass arrests are treated as an accepted fact of life, like the separate water fountains of an earlier era” (160; for more on the poverty gap between African Americans and the rest, see my post on economic justice).

 

There is so much more in this book, especially a host of practical ideas for changing public policy and for Christians to work together across racial barriers to “build a bridge to a new America.” You will have to read it for yourself. Yet I do want to end this post with a brief story of what happened to me a few weeks ago as I was grappling with this material.

 

The interchurch MLK prayer service

Our church was one of a dozen or more in our area that came together a couple of years ago and after several discussions the consensus was that racial reconciliation was the most urgent task we could work on together. Sometimes these local committees of activists are slow to translate ideas into action and this prayer service scheduled for the Saturday before the Martin Luther King Monday holiday was too last-minute to bring much of a crowd.

But I was able to bring a close family friend from the Central African Republic. After five years of legal limbo he and his wife finally obtained political asylum refugee status. Since this special service was being held at an African Methodist Episcopal church (AME), I thought this would be a good experience for him.

Though the program was nicely divided between leaders of various churches, the African-American clergy appropriately was more involved, partly because the pastor of that AME church (a woman) truly played the role of host, and partly because the music was all done by another African-American pastor at the piano and his wife on electric guitar.

I noticed in the printed program this rubric, “Time of Testimony: open for all to participate.” I thought, “I need to stand up and say something.” Four of us shared in the end, all white. I was the second.

Though I spoke for less than five minutes, I managed to list a number of recent signs of overt discrimination against African Americans, including the numerous killings of unarmed black youth by police, the dreadful white nationalist 2017 march in Charlottesville, and the rise in hate crimes done against Jews and Muslims as well. I quickly mentioned that one of the night aides for my aging mother-in-law was an African American lady from Chester, PA (a majority black population, notorious for its poverty and violence). She and another aide have truly become part of our family, and we deeply felt her pain when her 20-year-old son was shot and killed in the street late one night. As for so many others, the police never found out who murdered him. I added that his was just a symptom of the shameful and tangled history of oppression of the slaves’ descendants and other people of color in this country.

I ended with something to this effect: “I am a white guy and I’m particularly aware of having benefited from the ideology and institution of white privilege in America. I want to state this clearly. Inasmuch as I am a white American, I want to ask my black bothers and sisters here to forgive me and to forgive us as a people. We need healing as a nation.” By then the words were coming out with difficulty, as tears were coming down my cheeks. But I felt strongly that the Spirit was telling me what to say, however difficult it was.

The host pastor came and gave me a hug, as did the couple playing the music. One of the church’s leaders, also an African American woman stood then and spoke to me, “No one should have to apologize for who they are,” and a few more sentences along those lines. Later in the basement meeting hall where we shared a lunch, I was able to talk with this lady and explain the idea of identificational repentance. This time we connected, and she seemed grateful, and hopeful as well.

Someone mentioned on the podium earlier that my own church’s representative had seen a vision (perhaps a prophetic word) of the stadium in Chester, home of the Philadelphia Union, full with Christians from diverse backgrounds gathering to celebrate the beginning of a divine work of racial reconciliation. May it be so!

This is not just an academic topic– how Muslims and Christians think about caring for aged parents. For me it’s deeply – achingly, in this case – personal. We moved down to Philadelphia from Connecticut in 2006 to be close to my wife’s mother whose health was declining. Less than five years later we actually moved in to her home (bigger than ours) for the same reason. Just before this New Year 2019 she passed away at 92.

I am not writing this to congratulate my wife Charlotte and I for taking such good care of her mother. In fact we did, but I clearly see God’s hand in the whole process. For one thing, her only other sibling is disabled, so the choice was clear. For another, my mother-in-law had been very careful in managing her own father’s estate and there were sufficient funds to pay the caregivers who came to help her for many hours each week. Finally, as you will see below, we all had to change and grow through this experience over time.

So first this disclaimer: I am NOT saying that children caring for their disabled, aging parents in their own home is ALWAYS the right thing to do. Each situation and each family is different. In many cases an acute medical condition requires a nursing home. Many other factors come into play as well, like each parent’s wishes, the dynamics of family relationships, and finally having the necessary room and sufficient finances to juggle work commitments with care for the ailing parent.

In my case, my parents decided to move into a full-service Christian retirement community in California where they already had many friends. One of my brothers was able to be with my father when he passed away and my mother was there over ten years in an Alzheimer’s unit. But my youngest brother lived in the area and saw her weekly. I was only able to visit about once a year.

 

The duty to care for our elders

On this topic the ethics are straightforward, and even inescapable. Siblings have the duty to surround their parents with loving care when old age and disease renders them vulnerable and helpless. After all, they gave birth to them, nurtured them and raised them to be the well functioning adults that they are today.

Then too, the three monotheistic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all stress the duty to care for one’s elderly parents. The fifth commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NIV). Paul underscores the fact that this is the only commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2). In a later letter, he gives instructions to Timothy concerning the care of widows, which then leads into this topic:

 

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God (I Timothy 5:3-4 NIV).

 

Notice that caring for one’s family is “to put one’s religion into practice.” This is similar to the saying of James in his letter, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).

 Jesus in one instance lambasts the religious leaders for finding loopholes in the law as an excuse to neglect their elderly parents:

 

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:3-7)

 

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) makes this clear too, even aside from the fifth commandment. The teaching comes in the form of warnings sometimes; at other times in the form of exhortation; and finally in a prophetic word by Malachi that is picked up by the angel announcing to Zechariah the birth of his son John the Baptist (Luke 1:17):

 

“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17 ESV).

“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures (Proverbs 30: 17 ESV).

“Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22 ESV).

“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6 NIV).

 

Malachi’s message from God is especially meaningful. It implies that as a result of sin’s entrance into the world because of the fall, fathers and children struggle with a degree of estrangement. So this future healing, presumably in the messianic age, comes as a work of God in the hearts of family members. This is definitely the kind of healing we experienced in our family with regard to Charlotte’s mother. I cannot go into those details, but I offer at least a small window on that below.

For Muslims, elder care is also a central duty of the believer. A Google search on this topic offers many places to explore this topic. A popular Western Muslim website, offers fatwas (legal opinions by scholars) on various issues. Here a Saudi scholar, M. S. al-Manajjid, gives a response to the question of what Islam teaches about “care for the elderly.”

The scholar presents five initial points, including the dignity of the human person in general (“And indeed We have honored the Children of Adam …”, Q. 17:70) and “Muslim society is a society of cooperation and mutual support” (a hadith, part of which says, “Anyone who goes with his Muslim brother to meet his need, will be made by Allah to stand firm on the Day when all feet will slip”).

 Then more specifically on this topic: doing good to one’s parents (“Worship Allah and join none with Him (in worship); and do good to parents,” Q. 4:36; see also Q. 17:23). He then cites a hadith in which Muhammad, in response to the question of what good deed God loves the most, answers: 1) praying on time; 2) honoring one’s parents; 3) jihad for the sake of Allah.

 He adds one more point: honoring one’s parents friends, even after the parents have passed away. Quoting a hadith to this effect, the scholar avers that this is one good way to help the elderly in their isolation, “which in turn reduces the impact of the social and psychological changes that the elderly go through.” He then ends with a carefully worded comparison with what happens in non-Muslim societies, where the elderly tend to suffer more from isolation. I personally heard this expressed in much stronger terms over the years living in the Arab world (“You people in the West neglect your parents by getting rid of them in nursing homes”).

Interestingly, on an evangelical website you can read a kind of “fatwa” parallel to the one just mentioned. The tone here is more of an exhortation than an apology for Christianity. But I am sure most Muslims living in the West could identify with this exhortation:

 

“The elderly can be seen as burdens rather than blessings. Sometimes we are quick to forget the sacrifices our parents made for us when they are in need of care themselves. Instead of taking them into our homes—whenever that is safe and feasible—we put them in retirement communities or nursing homes, sometimes against their will. We may not value the wisdom they have acquired through living long lives, and we can discredit their advice as ‘outdated.’”

 

My remarks at Judy's memorial service

So I end with the text I prepared for Judy’s memorial service, which, fittingly, was held in a Quaker meeting house (she was a Quaker) led by her nephew, a longstanding member there. A good eighty people attended and she would have been very honored with the way it turned out. Even three of her favorite caregivers (one African American, and two women immigrants from Liberia, a Christian and a Muslim) attended. In six years, we had become family.

One last remark. This is from my perspective. My wife did a whole lot for her mother too. Even though she has a full-time job, she also spent lots of time with her mother, often caring for her with her professional nursing skills, sometimes just sitting with her in the evenings and keeping her company before the night aide came in. Almost till the end, as a family we were able to take her places (besides doctors' appointments!) over the weekend. She enjoyed watching the countryside, like when we would take our daughter to her horseback riding lessons. We would eat out occasionally too.

 

When Judy and Herb came to our wedding in Algiers, Algeria, 32 years ago, they hardly knew me. It helped that we had a whole week together there with my parents before the wedding, but thereafter we would only see them sporadically, every two or three years for a short time at the most.

So fast forward to 2006, in fact three years after Herb had died, while we were living in Connecticut we finally decided it was time to come back to this area to be closer to Judy.

For the first time ever, we bought a house – a little one in Wallingford near Chester Park. We definitely enjoyed seeing more of her. But in 2011, Judy invited us to come live with her so she could stay in her house.

As you can imagine, that took some work and flexibility from both sides of the equation. But it worked, though she and I would butt heads now and then! We were definitely NOT living in our own house anymore. I remember several times having to come back to her later in the day to apologize for my words or tone of voice. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her either.

But then in January of 2013 Judy had some kind of stroke with several weeks in the hospital. It was touch and go, and we thought more than once that we were losing her. So we prayed with her everyday before leaving her in her hospital room. She really counted on that.

Her recovery at home was slow and for a long time she never wanted to be left alone. But her health improved miraculously. No more insulin; no more oxygen; very few meds. But she never drove again. Within three or four months, though, she began to come to church with us and she was making lots of new friends. We had a weekly small group meeting in our home and though she would not normally join in, she did when we had potluck dinners and the like.

Near the beginning of her convalescence at home, she said something that deeply touched me. “It’s nice you can care for me. In a way it’s caring for your mother who you could not care for.” She was right.

One of my routines with her in the morning is that we ate breakfast together starting at seven when the night aide left, and we read the paper (keep in mind, my wife was the spouse with the full-time job). Saturdays when there was no paper I would show her my phone and we would look at National Geographic pictures or short films. She enjoyed that. On weekdays an aide came in at 9. But before turning the TV on in her room, I would read her some scripture, usually a psalm or a passage in the gospels. She always enjoyed that, including the prayer I would pray holding her hand. Those were especially sweet memories.

So Charlotte and I like to say that, as far as we can see, God opened this 6-year window for us to enjoy Judy and marvel at how God touched our lives together. It was truly amazing! We all were changed. And now we take great comfort in the fact that she’s with the Jesus she came to know and love.

On New Year’s Day 2019 I read an OpEd by “the most important political artist of our time” (as Princeton University Press put it). China’s illustrious artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, now 61 and living in Germany since 2015, ominously proclaimed, “Human Dignity is in danger. We must stand as one to survive.” Human rights are threatened all over the globe, but part of the problem, he argues, is that their definition has been too constricted. It’s not just about individuals and states. No, the globe is so much more interconnected than that. Much more needs to be included. He explains,

 

“The right of children to grow up and be educated, the right of women to receive protection, the right to conserve nature, the right to survival of other lives intimately connected with the survival of the human race – all these have now become major elements in the concept of human rights.”

 

The other reason that presses us to redefine human rights is that science and technology, apart from the good they produce, have also contributed to a much darker side. Authoritarian governments now spy on their citizens with chilling efficacy. He rightly adds the arms trade to the list of threats: “Today, Europe, the US, Russia, China and other governments manufacture, possess and sell arms. Pontificating about human rights is simply self-deluding if we fail to curb the dangerous practices that make armed conflict all the more likely.”

The final threat he mentions is one he pairs with the oppression of autocracies: “Likewise, if no limits are placed on capitalist global expansion and the pervasive penetration of capital power, if there is no effort to curb the sustained assault by authoritarian governments on natural human impulses, a discussion of human rights is just idle chatter.” This is the combination of threats to human dignity I wish to examine in this blog post.

 

How western management consulting is empowering the world’s autocracies

China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, just to name the top three autocratic regimes, do not pay for the expertise of western consulting firms to make their governance more broad-based, accountable and responsive to the needs of their citizens. No, they pay dearly for their services to either burnish their international image, or promote a particular policy at home and abroad, or in most cases to breathe new life into state-owned companies that had long been on life support.

The New York Times recently published an excellent piece of investigative journalism on the gold standard of American management consulting, McKinsey & Company, founded in Chicago in 1926. Its clients represent 80 percent of the world’s largest corporations and its alumni, much more than any other firm, populate the highest ranks of these corporations – like Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai, Morgan Stanley C.E.O. James P. Gorman, Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sanders, and many more (see Wiki article). With a revenue of over ten billion dollars in 2018 and close to 30,000 employees, McKinsey’s tentacles literally reach around the world. And though it only relates to China, this is an apt summary by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe of their 5,100-word article:

 

“For a quarter-century, the company has joined many American corporations in helping stoke China’s transition from an economic laggard to the world’s second-largest economy. But as China’s growth presents a muscular challenge to American dominance, Washington has become increasingly critical of some of Beijing’s signature policies, including the ones McKinsey has helped advance.”

 

You will definitely want to read this article, so just allow me to whet your appetite with three short points.

 

1. Underpining China’s bid for hegemony

One of the Chinese companies McKinsey has advised is the one that built those artificial islands in the South China Sea, which have infuriated the Philippines, as well as Vietnam and Brunei, which all share a stake in this sea (to understand why the international tribunal ruled against China in 2016, read this). Clearly, the US is also nervous about China projecting its military power in such an aggressive manner.

Further, according to The Times’ research, McKinsey consults with “at least 22 of the 100 biggest state-owned companies — the ones carrying out some of the government’s most strategic and divisive initiatives.” China’s most ambitious plan is its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BTI), a recreation of the ancient Silk Road Marco Polo famously publicized in the medieval West. Today this represents a trillions of investment in infrastructure in nations from Central Asia to the Middle East and into much of the African continent. This in turn represents a formidable display of Chinese soft power in the world.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with boosting the economies of all these nations while landing lucrative trade deals and burnishing your own national image in the process. Western nations have been doing this for decades. But they usually pay at least lip service to improving governance and bringing jobs to the local population. China’s port-building or high-speed railroad projects are all done with its own workers and by definition they do NOT seek to spread democracy.

So it’s not surprising that China’s BTI policy has taken a hit in the last year when the construction of a port for Sri Lanka piled so much debt on Sri Lanka that is was forced to hand over the port to the Chinese for 99 years. Seeing this, Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad panicked and stopped work on the massive railroad project one of China’s largest companies, China Communications, was building in his country. As a result, Malaysia’s landscape is dotted with abandoned buildings and concrete bridge pylons.

But the Malaysia fiasco doubly bears McKinsey’s fingerprints. They had helped to craft China’s enticing proposal for this project and at the same time they had convinced Malaysia that this was a deal they should not turn down. Add to that shame on McKinsey the sanctions the World Bank had imposed earlier on China Communications for its high level of corruption and its involvement in building the South China Sea artificial islands. But as with other Chinese companies, these contracts were too lucrative to turn down.

 

2. The Ukrainian Yanukovych saga

Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, had made a deal with politician Viktor Yanukovych whose sordid past would seem like an insurmountable barrier to taking power (“two criminal convictions and a rigged election”). Not to worry, he could enlist the help of two US management consulting groups: Paul Manafort and his Russian cohorts, now well experienced in helping dictators with dismal human rights records, and McKinsey, which agreed to help him devise a winning economic program. We know how things turned out for Manafort, now in federal prison, and partly because of all the money he embezzled in the process of consulting. But why McKinsey agreed to sign this contract is more complicated.

For one thing, here’s how McKinsey defends its global involvement: “it will not accept jobs at odds with the company’s values. It also gives the same reason that other companies cite for working in corrupt or authoritarian nations — that change is best achieved from the inside.” Fair enough, at least to a degree. But as Bogdanich and Forsythe argue in their piece, there is absolutely no evidence that the billions of dollars McKinsey has earned by working with the Chinese have inched China any closer to democratic rule. Here too, no sooner had Yanukovych been elected president that he abandoned the economic blueprint crafted for him by McKinsey and over the next three years drew Ukraine into Russian arms. He was driven out of the country four years later by a popular wave of protests and a budding civil war. Later that year, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s most eastern territory.

 

3. Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissidents

McKinsey has been working with a number of Saudi firms over the years (600 projects from 2011 to 2016), but its most troubling project recently involved research on how the KSA’s policies were viewed by its public. In doing so, it pointed in particular to three individuals who elicited a good deal of negative chatter on Twitter. Bogdanich and Forsythe inform us that one was arrested, the other saw two of his brothers imprisoned and his phone bugged, while the third person’s account (anonymous) was shut down. McKinsey made a statement that it is “horrified” that its work might be used to curtail people’s civil rights but it showed no hesitation, unlike many other companies, to show up for the big Saudi investment conference in October, despite the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi murder in Istanbul.

A 19-month research project by an American academic in the Gulf countries focusing on the work of management consultants concluded that they were “the black box of authoritarian governance.” McKinsey and Company are only the biggest, but the sum total of those efforts, far from coaxing these regimes into more inclusive, participatory governance, actually may be giving them better tools to hold on to power and repress their political opponents.

My takeaway here is simply that US business corporations working abroad, and consulting firms in particular, need more Congressional oversight. In this case, good journalism shed a light on a problem that needs urgent fixing.

On another note, if in light of the preceding you are beginning to wonder whether autocratic governance is not spreading rather than retreating, you are right. That is the subject of the next section.

 

The 21st-century phenomenon of growing authoritarianism

I am helped here by a groundbreaking essay last April in Foreign Affairs. Yasha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, as I see it, make two basic arguments.

 

1. The twentieth century was the century of democracy

Post WWII North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan formed an alliance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Yet despite the USSR’s military might and politico-economic alliances over vast regions of the world, it collapsed in 1989, and at the turn of the new millennium no one would dispute the political and economic clout of the bloc that had embraced liberal democracy. Indeed, this is why an array of McKinsey-like firms suddenly stumbled into a goldmine of projects and contracts in the 1990s. Western capitalist knowhow was in high demand, but not necessarily as tools for democratic reforms.

Mounk and Foa recount the traditional narrative for the rise of democratic hegemony. Democracy flourished because people were becoming enamored with human rights and personal freedoms. Certainly those values played an important role, particularly in the rise of so many human rights NGOs and movements of civil society in most parts of the world. On the other hand, they argue that scholars have underestimated the attraction of the West’s economic prosperity. But that’s precisely where the balance began to tilt dramatically. Hence, their second argument.

 

2. Almost two decades into this century autocracies command the greatest wealth

Within the next five years these authors estimate that nations run by authoritarian regimes (with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia in the lead) will command the lion’s share of economic output for the first time ever. And adding to the weakness of the traditional bastion of liberal democracy is its current political turmoil. For example, two-thirds of Americans over 65 say it’s absolutely important to them to live in a democracy, whereas less than one third of those under 35 believe that. Worse, authoritarian solutions are considered possibilities: “from 1995 to 2017, the share of French, Germans, and Italians who favored military rule more than tripled.” Finally, as elections around the world in the last couple of years indicate, we are witnessing “a deep groundswell of antiestablishment sentiment that can be easily mobilized by extremist political parties and candidates.” They explain:

 

“As a result, authoritarian populists who disrespect some of the most basic rules and norms of the democratic system have made rapid advances across western Europe and North America over the past two decades. Meanwhile, authoritarian strongmen are rolling back democratic advances across much of Asia and eastern Europe. Could the changing balance of economic and military power in the world help explain these unforeseen developments?”

 

Of course, many different scenarios might be entertained at this juncture. Maybe the West’s current political volatility will settle down again, giving way to a more stable democratic state with improved economic performance. And at the same time, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia could see their economic rise falter, particularly in the transition from fossil fuel-based economies to ones based on cleaner energy alternatives. But then again, Mounk and Foa can easily imagine autocracies expanding and prevailing. And though they don’t bring up war as a possible outcome, I find it hard to put out of my mind. Think of it: it’s the democratic ideals that have guided (imperfectly, yes!) and empowered the work of the United Nations all these past decades. If that fragile structure with its paradigm of human rights begins to crumble, who is to stop another world war?

Today the Eurasia Group just published its Top Risks report for 2019. The number one risk is “bad seeds”: “the geopolitical dangers taking shape around the world will bear fruit in years to come.” This year will likely be fine, but trouble is looming down the pike. Unsurprisingly, the second top risk is the US-China relationship.

 

Parting Words

At this point, we are brought back to Ai Weiwei’s eloquent and solemn New Year’s warning: “Human dignity is in danger: we must stand as one to survive.” For me, this makes the united work of people of faith even more necessary. Specifically, it calls for Christians banding together with Muslims across national boundaries and contributing in practical ways to a strong solidarity between all human beings. Why? Because, as our texts teach us, they are called and empowered by the Creator to manage this earth in just and peaceful ways.

On the cover of the November 2018 issue of National Geographic is a rancher on his horse illuminated by a setting sun against the backdrop of dark clouds. Speaking of the Bears Ears landscape, he says, “It’s a diverse, iconic, some say a spiritual landscape.” The two cover articles come under the rubrick, “Battle for the American West.” The first one’s subtitle reads, “The new push to cut back protected land is fueling a dispute rooted in our history and culture.”

The two articles’ author, Hannah Nordhaus, characterizes in these terms the reactions to the Trump’s executive order – reactions which are all predictable, as they fall along a well-worn path of conflict in our nation:

 

“Drillers and miners, loggers and ranchers, face off against hikers and bikers, climbers and conservationists. It’s the Old West versus the New; the people whose livelihoods depend on extracting resources from the land versus those who visit and the businesses that serve them – and at Bears Ears, the Native Americans who were there first.”

 

We will get to this, but I first want to examine a particularly fascinating and instructive case study written by David Gessner for the Sept./Oct. issue of the Sierra Club magazine. The title is simple, “Land Grab,” and the first part is about what led to President Obama declaring in his last month in office the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

 

The Story of Bears Ears National Monument

Land conservation and the national park movement in this country began with President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 bill creating Yellowstone National Park. It also got a great boost with the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 famously declaimed on the edge of the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.” He then added the following, “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Today as then, a group of people vehemently disagrees with land conservation. They are the developers, the ranchers, the entrepreneurs, and minors. They see dollar signs, but it’s all about short-term gain – for themselves. But that battle since Roosevelt’s days has only intensified of late. Gessner, standing in America’s newest national park at the end of January 2018, could feel the intense pressure to dramatically reduce its scope. He writes,

 

“We have entered another one of those periods where nothing feels safe, where everything is up for grabs. And it isn’t just land that is under threat; it’s the very law that was used to save much of that land in the first place.”

 

That law was the 1906 “Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities,” or the "Antiquities Act" for short. Sponsored by Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, who was a bird lover and an admirer of pre-Columbian artifacts, the Act aimed to save “historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest.” But it also granted the American president broad discretion to name new monuments without consulting Congress, which Roosevelt set out to do with glee as soon as it passed.

True, it was enacted mostly to keep Native American heritage sites from being looted, but Roosevelt resented the way Congress “had impeded his larger vision of protecting grand swaths of land from development.” His first successful act was to designate 800,000 acres as the Grand Canyon National Monument (later turned into the first “National Park” by Congress).

Bears Ears is exactly the kind of site John F. Lacey wanted to preserve – an area sparsely populated but full of cultural and religious significance for Native Americans. In fact, a few years back a Navaho group calling itself Utah Diné Bikéyah (“people’s sacred land”) started to survey and map the Bears Ears region (named after its twin buttes seen from miles around). They documented over 100,000 Native American sites and successfully secured the collaboration of four other Nations. Together they joined to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (Navaho, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute).

It may sound like a romantic Kumbaya moment, but in fact several of these tribes had been in the process of suing one another over land and water issues. Yet, however intense and angry some of those first meetings were, a consensus soon emerged as they began to see a dramatic victory for Native rights on the horizon. Gressner managed to interview the woman who almost single-handedly made it happen. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Ute nation, ably led the charge, commanding the respect of the tribes and of the various environmental groups now throwing in their weight. She then was delegated to represent them all in Washington, speaking to Congress and meeting personally with President Obama.

Naturally, after President Obama's proclamation of the Monument, Lopez-Whiteskunk was elated, “I was being taken seriously and being part of the conversation and lending my Indigenous knowledge and expertise. I really felt a part of the country. A part of the democratic process.” But tribes far beyond the Bears Ears coalition rejoiced as well. As Gessner puts it, “For the first time, traditional knowledge and a Native view of the land would be integrated into a national monument from its inception.”

 

The Empire Strikes Back

No, this isn’t Star Wars, but if you mean by “empire” the constellation of business interests within the energy industry, then parallels pop up immediately. Before David Gessner left the Grand Canyon to head out to Bears Ears, he decided to see Canyon Mine for himself, just ten miles southeast of the Tusayan entrance. A Canadian company called Energy Fuels owns and runs the enterprise. As he was driving there, Gessner spotted a number of “the failed uranium mines on the mesa walls” in Monument Valley. Teddy Roosevelt would have pointed this out as a good example of man “marring” a pristine landscape.

Gessner was eager to visit Canyon Mine for two reasons. It’s the company that owns the only uranium mill so far in the country, Utah’s White Mesa Mill. It’s also “the same company whose executives tagged along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he toured Bears Ears in late Spring 2017, and the same company that provided Zinke with area maps detailing the 300 uranium-mining claims inside the Obama-designated monument – the very same 300 claims conveniently left outside the newly drawn boundaries.” Note too that the new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, had worked for a time as a lobbyist for Energy Fuels. You can see where all this is going …

Clearly, the uranium industry invested considerable sums to lobby Ryan Zinke’s office in order to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Additionally, Gessner poured over publicly released emails from the Interior Department, which showed that the Bears Ears reduction was about tapping into potential gas and oil reserves and the Grand Staircase-Escalante reduction sought to exploit coal reserves. The energy industry had obviously been on high alert as soon as the results of the 2016 elections were announced.

Now back to the uranium industry. In 2010 a US Geological Survey report found that uranium mining around the Grand Canyon “had contaminated 15 springs and five wells in the region, and ... the Havasupai Tribe, which lives inside the canyon, worried that Havasupai Creek, its one source of drinking water, could be jeopardized if additional mining were to begin.” On that basis the Obama administration placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area. But that is changing under the current administration.

 

Public lands and the Native peoples

This blog post, as it highlights the seemingly perpetual clash between the notion of common good (as in “public lands” and “nature”) and the rich barons of the energy industry, circles back to the theme announced in the first part, namely, the commodification of the commons. We saw how the movement to privatize public education was eroding the American ideals of equality – economic opportunity for all and racial reconciliation. Of course there is a place for private schools, either for religious purposes (a good thing) or for the rich to prepare their kids for the elite colleges (a concession to capitalism). But when scarce funding for public schools is diverted to the private sector, we have a “commodification of the commons” that becomes culpable and egregious.

I am arguing here that the 85% reduction of Bears Ears and 46% reduction of the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante to satisfy the greed or uranium, oil, gas, and coal magnates are equally unconscionable.

Another reason to strongly oppose the Bears Ears National Monument’s gutting, however, is that it violates the sacred land of the Native tribes. Just think, most of those 100,000 Native artifacts will again be easily looted or defaced by unscrupulous tourists and the historical compact of those five Indian Nations has been compromised. I sincerely hope that the lawsuits now threading their way through the justice system will restore these lands to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. In Gessner’s words, here’s what’s at stake:

 

“Listening to Lopez-Whiteskunk describe her coalition’s use of the Antiquities Act, I began to see that what had evolved in the creation of Bears Ears was not just inspiring; it was original. Here was a confluence of the Indigenous ideals of respect, worship, and knowledge of the land and the revolutionary European American notion of public lands. That latter ideal, despite its flaws, really was one of the best things this country has ever done. Now, conjoined with the work of Native peoples, it had been given new life. Imagine: a national monument where traditional knowledge directs land management, a place where ancient artifacts are considered not objects of mere archeology but living history.”

 

In closing I urge you to view the slideshow of those ancient petroglyphs and pictographs (images carved and painted onto rock) from some of the caves and rock faces of Bears Ears in the National Geographic article by Hannah Nordhaus. They give witness to “a succession of prehistoric cultures [which] occupied the mesas and canyons of southern Utah for more than 12,000 years.

Finally, the rich heritage of American Indigenous cultures, including their religious worldviews and practices, reminds us of the sordid history of how we dispossessed them, “ethnically cleansed” them, and continue to oppress them in more subtle ways (see my 2017 2-part blog post, “Theological Reflections on the Fourth World”). Restoring the Bears Ears National Monument would represent a small but important gesture of honoring their contribution to who we are or could be as a nation. Though we can see some positive signs of that recognition in American society today, much work remains.

Need I say this again? The Creator established us human beings as his trustees or stewards of this good earth he provided for us. To Him we will give an account. Managing natural resources wisely and equitably, setting aside large swaths of breathtakingly beautiful lands for all to enjoy, and especially in this case paying respect and honor to those who lived in harmony with this land for millennia – all this is surely a way to discharge our sacred Trust. In this sense, the “commons” are sacred and should never be casually commodified.

I begin here a two-part blog post that revisits a theme I raised in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: the strong propensity since at least the 1970s of those with power, be they multinational corporations, rich individuals, or some governments, to privatize goods that should belong to the wider public, or the “common good.”

I want to end up next time in the American West, where President Trump has shrunk two recent collections of public lands in Utah – the Bears Ears National Monument (1.35 million acres, created by President Obama in his last month in office) by 85% and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (almost 1.9 million acres, created by President Clinton in 1996) by 46%. Five lawsuits challenged this move and are still pending.

But that story we will follow in the second installment of this piece, and especially the key role a coalition of five Native American nations played for the first time in lobbying an American president to designate their ancestral lands as a national monument. In this first part I want to paint a much wider landscape in space and time. I mean to expose a six-century-old rapacious colonial movement that not only plundered the lands of native populations in South, Central and North America while decimating millions of their people, but also laying the foundations of corporate structures that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor in our country and around the world.

 

The two walls of social injustice and environmental degradation

In the first four chapters of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text I set the stage for the kind of Muslim-Christian dialog and cooperation that is needed in the twenty-first century. I did so by arguing for a particular conception of our time as “postmodern,” which comprises both “postmodernity” and “postmodernism.” I followed historian Arthur Mitzman’s thesis in this last book, Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), to describe postmodernity as a set of power configurations in the contemporary world, which portend an ominous future for humankind.

In modern times, the myth of Prometheus was interpreted as the victory of the industrialized world over nature. Mitzman begs to disagree. That hubris of modern man has sent us careening like a speeding car out of control which is now about to crash into the two walls of postmodernity: the one just mentioned, the wall of rising economic inequality and injustice, and then the wall of climate change and pollution of our planet. We’d better go back to another more venerable interpretation of that myth, he says, one which many European Romantics in the nineteenth century saw as a symbiosis of man with nature.

As for the first wall, we now know that the Nixon administration colluded with the Saudis and Iranians to drive up the price of oil in 1973. A resulting glut of dollars on the international financial exchange threatened to bring down the international financial system put in place by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 which used gold as the final guarantee of the system’s solvency, whether in individual nations or in the international financial institutions as a whole. This allowed the US to impose its solution, which was to use dollars as the currency of international exchange, which certainly helped to boost its power in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

William Greider in his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening paths to a Moral Economy (Simon & Schuster), shows how that new system rendered capital “abstracted and etherealized, mystified by dense mathematical calculation and accounting definitions, invested with unknowable intangible qualities like corporate ‘goodwill’” (p. 95). This could read as prophetic: the “Great Depression” sent the world economy reeling just four years after these lines were written precisely because all these increasingly complex financial instruments were hiding enormous quantities of bad loans.

It’s not clear in 2018 that all the safeguards have actually been put into place in order to avoid the onslaught of another financial meltdown, which once again will further enrich thousands of wealthy one-percenters and devastate the middle and lower classes. In fact, the rate of inequality between these classes has only widened over the years and shows no signs of abating (see this Aug. 2018 graphic piece in marketwatch.com).

Enough said about the wall of neoliberal capitalism, which fifteen years after Mitzman’s book, may be even more formidable in light of the recent rise of authoritarian regimes in different parts of the world (think Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, etc.). In turn, this only reinforces the already expanding influence of China and Russia and their totalitarian regimes. Now, ironically, should the world economy still largely based on the dollar crumble, the potential of a global conflagration is just waiting at the door.

No need here to go in any detail about the second wall Mitzman foresaw – environmental disaster. Besides the poisoning of the air and water in many parts of the world, it’s the mega cities of the developing world that suffer the most. This article based on a study of the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that nine out of the ten most polluted cities are in India. In eighth place is Bamenda, Cameroon. But much worse for humanity in the long term is the dramatic warming of the planet due to the excessive production of greenhouse gases. And that is something I’ve written a great deal about in this website (see my 2018 post, “Rising Tides”).

I’ll simply quote myself in closing this section. You can read the wider context of this argument, which represents the lion’s share of my first chapter. I just posted in Resources.

 

“What is needed is a holistic vision that jettisons the fetishism of growth inherited from modernity and encompasses the aspirations of Third World peasants, native peoples and the urban poor, as well as the majority of working and middle class people in other countries. This vision will have to focus on a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.”

 

Privatizing state institutions

I am not a socialist. My nine years in Algeria taught me how wrong it is for a state (especially one controlled by only one political party!) to monopolize all the major industries. For one thing, they are very inefficient and poorly managed; for another, they spawn rampant corruption, all in favor of the ruling elites who already control the country politically. A very bad idea.

My experience in Algeria from the late 1970s through the 1980s was constant shortages of basic foodstuffs, a nightmarish bureaucracy to contend with at every corner, and an economy that would never have survived hadn’t Algeria been rich in oil and natural gas.

I get it. Free enterprise allows lots of people to create wealth for themselves and others. Capitalism can be a blessing, as long as the state can set some ground rules that level the playing field and curb the human inclination toward greed and the exploitation of others. After all, the American Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But how do you ensure that a modicum of “equality” is maintained?

Indeed, this vision leaves a lot of leeway as to how it might be translated into public policy. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) lists a number of rights, including work, education, and social security, as well as the basic freedoms of conscience and religion. And after the enumeration of these rights, Article 28 says, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” This formula set the framework for much subsequent work in crafting various international covenants, the sum total of which represents the body of “international law.”

Now, moving back to the national level, each state is free to institute its own legal structures. Part of Article 29 reads, “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

This simply means that the state must enact laws that maintain a balance between freedom, equality, justice, and morality. I am free, yes, but my freedom must not infringe upon my neighbor’s freedom. Equality also means that certain goods are deemed public goods, worthy of being protected for the good of all citizens, rich or poor, from whatever religious, racial, or ethnic background they may come from. Clean air and water, parks all can enjoy, but also schools which prepare children and youth to become active citizens who will then be able to contribute to the good of society while earning a decent living through their work.

So I end with an example of what I find goes against these principles of justice and equality among citizens – something I see as a “commodification of the commons.” In the next installment, I’ll mention how under the president’s directives Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, has made it his mission to shrink public lands and make the rest available to private business interests, mostly energy companies. Here I highlight Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who is doing everything in her power to privatize public education. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post introduces an excellent background article on this by Joanne Barkan, “Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Story of Privatizing Public Education in the USA,” in these words:

 

“We now have an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is admittedly doing everything she can to promote alternatives to traditional publicly funded education. Many state legislatures are helping her with programs using taxpayer money to fund private and religious education. Supporters of America’s public education system are concerned about what they say is an assault on the most important civic institution in the country.”

 

The history of public education in America is fascinating. I will summarize it in three movements:

1. Starting in the nineteenth century, and particularly in view of a growing immigrant population, a consensus quickly grew in the US that government should fund and manage an educational process that would “impart general knowledge and practical skills, prepare young people psychologically and socially for self-sufficient adult lives, educate for democratic citizenship, unify a diverse population, and create opportunity for upward mobility.” Education is a democratic right, and in turn it is a necessary building block of democracy.

2. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “unequal” and therefore “unconstitutional.” Despite much opposition, the role of the federal government expanded “to include protecting the civil rights of all students and offering financial assistance to public schools with high percentages of low-income students.”

3. The 1980s witnessed the dramatic ascendancy of the neoliberal ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: allow market forces to foster competition and everything will be run more efficiently, from schools to healthcare, to the economy as a whole. In practice then, neoliberalism meant cutting taxes and government spending, and transferring as much as possible to the private sector. The neoliberal economist, Milton Friedman, had the ear of President Reagan, and unwittingly became the founder of the ed-reform movement that gained advocates on both sides of the aisle, though often for different reasons.

Two instruments epitomize this neoliberal, market-driven approach: vouchers and charter schools. Reagan made several unsuccessful attempts to pass laws favoring educational vouchers. To this day, however, the term has taken on negative connotations, so politicians had to find other formulations to transfer government funding into the private sector. Here is how it works:

 

“When students receive a government-funded voucher for a set amount of money, they give the voucher to a private or religious school as payment or partial payment for tuition. All of the taxpayer funds that end up in private and religious schools are funds no longer available for public education.”

 

By contrast, the private administrators of charter schools receive government funding for each student enrolled in their school. But again, this comes with the same catch: “The allotments are transferred directly from district schools to the charter schools, shrinking the district public school budgets. The public schools are left with the same fixed expenses but fewer students and therefore less money coming in.” Those public schools, therefore, deteriorate.

Barkan lists 67 sources after her article. This is serious research. One of the striking findings is that charter schools generally underperform, even after sending special needs and difficult students back to the public school system. The same can be said of the voucher system that is operative is 30 states and the District of Columbia. Here are two examples:

 

“In late 2015, researchers reported that Indiana’s “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement” in math and no improvement in reading. In June 2016, a study of a large Ohio voucher program, published by the pro-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found: “The students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…. Such impacts also appear to persist over time….”

 

Barkan also documents the frequent occurrence of corruption in these schools, mostly because there is little or no accountability to the district or the state. These are for-profit organizations eager to tap into the nearly $600 billion earmarked by the federal government for K-12 education! But perhaps the greatest drawback of these schools is this: “they increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.” African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to attend a charter school, which on average is 90 percent black. Unsurprisingly, the largest and best-known African American ed-reform organization, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, shut down in 2017. Already the year before, the NAACP issued “a moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.”

 

Revitalizing the Commons

Clearly, unleashing the power of the free market with all the deregulation that entails is no panacea for building a more prosperous and just society. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, invested his half-a-billion-dollar inheritance in founding the Blackwater corporation which was responsible for the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad, forcing him to resign two years later. So you see, Betsy wants to privatize education, while Erik seeks to privatize the army. But as this fascinating article reveals, “Erik Prince is all over the map – literally.” Prince has his share of detractors, however: He has been questioned in the ongoing Mueller investigation regarding his ties to Russia; he and his mercenaries have conferred with the Saudis to assassinate top Iranian leaders; long before that too, Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2011 where he was hired to train their army.

I will stop here with this reminder: to revitalize the commons also means holding on to a holistic vision which calls for “a sustainable modus vivendi for all people in harmony with the earth for which they share a common responsibility.

This is most of the first chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. What is missing here is in the first part of the document also posted in "Resources" entitled “Excerpts on the Fourth World from Earth, Empire, and Sacred Text.”

Books

  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. You can also read a summary for each of the 6 chapters on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:

     

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  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)

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