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David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

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.”

This is my 2018 review of Ayman S. Ibrahim's The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (622-641): A Critical Revision of Muslims' Traditional Portrayal of the Arab Raids and Conquests (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2018).

09 September 2018

Ending Hunger

Amazingly, the goal of halving the number of undernourished people worldwide was just about reached hrough the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015). UN chief Ban Ki-moon declared at the end of that process, “The MDGs helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before and to protect our planet.” Still, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says 815 million people (10.7% of the total 7.6 billion) suffer from chronic undernourishment.

Quoting from the best recent studies, CBS reported on May 2018 that one in eight adults in the United States suffered from food insecurity (“not having enough food because of a lack of money or other resources”) and one in six children. Other research shows one in seven adults and one in five children. The ten most food-insecure states are all in the south.

My goal in this blog post is mostly to highlight the work of one faith-based organization, Bread for the World. I will also introduce the successor program to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030), which seek to provide states and NGOs alike a common blueprint for improving the lives of those most struggling in today’s world.


The functional side of our world community

Arguably, our world is riven with conflicts under the surface, with some already boiling over in several parts of the world. Syria and Yemen, for different reasons, are magnets drawing in many powers that could easily end up fighting one another in the process. North Korea still threatens to use its nuclear weapons, and the Trump administration seems poised to attack Iran.

At the same time, the story behind the MDGs is an inspiring tale of nations coming together, crafting a new vocabulary and agreeing on a new strategy to fight the scourge of poverty and injustices done to women and other marginalized groups. It inspired struggling nations to roll up their sleeves and work on those goals in a way that made the most sense to them.

After the UN final MDG report came out in September 2015, Bread for the World was full of praise for the success of this mammoth collective project:


“According to the final report, the MDGs spurred "the most successful anti-poverty movement in history.” In fact, the goal of lowering the global rate of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day) by half was more than met. Extreme poverty fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 14 percent by 2015, an even more impressive achievement when you consider that the world's population continued to grow in the meantime.”


Naturally, much work lies ahead, but this success spurred the global community to set a new batch of goals for the next 15 years. There were eight broad MDG goals: “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and forge global partnerships among different countries and actors to achieve development goals.”

In the next round the eight goals became seventeen goals and sustainability became the overarching principle undergirding them. A New York Times article on the same day gave more details regarding these SDGs:


“The new global goals are more ambitious, and are meant to apply to every country, not just the developing world. Stated in broad terms, the goals are accompanied by 169 specific targets meant to advance the goals in concrete ways. Most are meant to be achieved by 2030, though some have shorter deadlines.”


Three of the goals, for instance, target environmental sustainability:

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

15. Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but in a coming post I will return to the SDGs as a projection of a philosophical and interfaith perspective I believe is crucial for all of us to ponder and adopt in one form or another.


Ending food insecurity in the US

The hunger goal for the MDGs was to cut the number of food deprived people in half, and as mentioned above that goal was just about reached. But hunger was subsumed under “poverty.” The Sustainable Development Goals, by contrast, are much more ambitious (because they now seem attainable!):

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

How “ending hunger” in the developing world is much wider topic than I can deal with here, but doing so in the United States, the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth, should not be that difficult. Plainly, it is a national disgrace that so many children and adults do not have access to sufficient food. Yet, on the flip side, says the 2018 Bread Hunger Report, the solution is simple: make sure that “everyone who wants a job can get one and that it pays a sufficient wage.” That “decent job” is one that “should provide families with the means to put food on the table. For those who are raising children, a decent job should allow them to balance their responsibilities as an employee and parent.”

But there’s a wider context as well: decent jobs are the number one factor for combatting hunger in developing nations. So here is the main thesis of this 2018 hunger report:


“The zero-sum narrative holds that prosperity in another part of the world must come at the expense of workers in the United States. But it doesn't have to be this way. Better policies can make the difference. We can reclaim the American Dream for all in our country, and we can share that powerful dream with our neighbors who are striving for more than a subsistence life.”


Before moving on to the text itself, let me emphasize one more time: this Christian organization’s research and political advocacy is built around a central principle: it must all be done in bipartisan fashion. More than ever in our present political climate, this is so vitally important!

The report lays out four points, which I will summarize here:


1. Stagnant wages are contributing to hunger. Since 1980, when adjusted for inflation salaries have gone down for lower class and lower middle-class families. Economic growth has in a spectacular way benefitted the top one percent of Americans who earn at least one million dollars a year (have a look at their Figure 1). That said, what has allowed the lowest earning Americans to barely keep their heads above water has come through such federal nutrition programs as SNAP (known previously as food stamps), Woman, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). These are “indispensable,” says the report. What is more, if economic growth had been more equitable, “it could have raised income for everyone.”

Then comes this important statement about human dignity and work. “Labor is more than a commodity. The work people do is a source of dignity in their lives, or at least that is how it should be. It is dehumanizing when wages are not sufficient to provide for basic living costs.” When rent, transportation, childcare, and health care have been paid for, then people buy food. Put otherwise, “Food is the most flexible item in a household budget, which is why hunger is usually episodic. It shows up after fixed costs are paid—when monthly SNAP benefits are exhausted but the next paycheck has not yet arrived.”


2. Policies can improve opportunities for low- and modest-income workers. On the one hand, we count on markets to “function efficiently.” On the other, they cannot do so unless government enacts and monitors rules that allow it to do so. Another necessary government job is to ensure that workers are protected and adequately supported. Yet it has fallen behind in making sure workers earn a living wage: “The federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour, has not been raised since 2009. When adjusted for inflation, it is worth 27 percent less today than it was 50 years ago.”

Besides raising the minimum wage, government has to set up an adequate infrastructure, particularly in areas where poverty is concentrated. That includes better public transportation, better roads, but also better “human infrastructure,” like better schools, “child nutrition and child care.” Those “are cost-effective investments in the current and future workforce.”

Prison reform figures high on the list of things to fix in this area. Close to one third of non-working men between 25 and 54 are behind bars. Because most of them are fathers, they represent the population most exposed to poverty and hunger. Yet thousands of statutes nationwide bar individuals with criminal records from working. Members in Congress on both sides of the aisle would like to see that change. That could mean shorter sentences and more effective prison programs preparing inmates to re-enter civilian life. More, “A nationwide infrastructure initiative could be a new source of jobs for these returning citizens.” [Clearly too, racism and poverty are closely related in the US; Bread has a helpful report on that].

Surely the people most vulnerable to poverty and hunger are undocumented immigrants, even though their rates of employment and entrepreneurship are higher than the national average. The quicker we enact immigration reform, the faster we will empower a population that will energize and expand our economic output. And, of course, we would then be obeying the biblical mandate to care for the “foreigners living among you” (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 16:11; 26:11; Ezekiel 47:22; Malachi 3:5).


3. Reducing poverty in developing countries can contribute to economic opportunity for all Americans. This is not a zero-sum game. To the contrary, as poverty rates have fallen around the world, trade has increased on all sides and all have gained – sadly, not always equitably, but the potential for fairer trade is palpable, if we push for it. Think of it this way: in 1985, 29 percent of US exports went to developing countries; today, it’s about half, and that could rise.

“Compared to other high-income countries, the United States invests a much lower share of national income in helping displaced workers adapt to the changing global economy. The United States also invests less in the health, education, and economic security of its people.” We could learn a lot from other developed countries in this area.


4. Through advocacy and political engagement, citizens have the power to bring about change. The report chronicles the constant rise of economic inequality, the erosion of people’s faith in the democratic system, and particularly as they witness the outsized role of corporate money in politics. The 2017 tax cut law only exacerbated the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Bread report reminds us that we citizens in a democratic polity have a say in how government establishes the rules that frame our collective life as a nation. We need to take more responsibility by means of a) legislative advocacy (“telling our members of Congress what we want them to do on specific issues”); and b) elections advocacy (“getting in on the ground floor”). This is what this organization has been doing for 44 years: “organizing churches and Christians to urge Congress to take actions that are important to hungry people.” It then adds, “In its early years, Bread for the World played important roles in establishing the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition program and child survival programs around the world.”

Put simply, soup kitchens and food pantries are necessary, but nowhere sufficient to fight hunger in the US. Congress must pass laws to keep the programs that have proven effective in the past and level the economic playing field so that no one is left behind. And we can help make sure our members of Congress do the right thing.


Interfaith advocacy is the most effective

On a website sponsored by the Islamic Circle of America you can read an excellent article on this topic, “Interfaith Action on Hunger: A Shared Obligation.” Though people of all faiths have worked together to eradicate hunger before, it is especially the effort of Jews, Muslims and Christians that is the easiest to marshal. Their texts plainly mandate caring for the needy, and especially feeding the hungry. At one point the author writes,


“Around the world, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others are hard at work, working together to eliminate hunger. Individual Muslims and other can support these efforts in any number of ways, as interfaith action is valuable in a wide range of initiatives that target hunger, from local soup kitchens and food banks to programs that invest in international food security or engage in global advocacy.”


Finally, on the occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the US in September 2015, a group of 69 diverse American religious leaders issued an “Interfaith Religious Leaders’ Pledge (downloadable in a window in Bread’s 2018 Hunger Report). Of that number three were Jewish and three were Muslim (including the CEO of Islamic Relief, Anwar Khan). This pledge coincided with the UN’s signing of the SDGs, but the Pope who had spoken on this topic at the UN also spoke about this to a joint session of the US Congress. So I will end with the American religious leaders’ pledge, and in particular the next to last paragraph which highlights the role, not only of civil society and NGOs, but also of the American government:


“Ending hunger will require action by all sectors of society and by all the nations of the world. Yet a shift in U.S. national priorities seems crucial to ending hunger in our country and internationally. People of goodwill can disagree about policy strategies. But ending hunger by 2030 seems unlikely unless we can achieve a shift in U.S. national priorities by 2017, so that our government helps to put our nation and the world on track toward ending hunger."


May it be so! And may we citizens, from all political parties, strongly urge our elected officials to work toward that goal. Ending hunger by 2030 is achievable.

As my writings attest, I believe strongly in countering today’s rampant Islamophobia (and not just in the “West”). At the same time, I believe that interfaith dialog entails a mutual commitment to finding truth. This includes, at the right time and place, discussions about difficult and tense topics.

No topic is more fraught with fear and rancor than that of Islam and terrorism. I dealt with that last year, showing that the issue was vastly overblown and callously exploited for political purposes (see part 1 and Part 2). But part of the reason it raises such potent emotions is that it is tied to a centuries-old Christian and Jewish complaint, namely the early military expansion of the Prophet Muhammad’s rule in Medina.

This issue of the early Muslim conquests is a particularly vexed one. On the one hand, a good eighty percent of evangelicals (the Christian tribe with which I mostly identify) subscribe to the right-wing mantra that Islam is a religion of hatred and war. Franklin Graham may bear the most responsibility for that, since he declared shortly after 9/11 that “Islam is a very wicked and evil religion.” Sadly, his father, Billy Graham, who was likely the most influential evangelical in the twentieth century, would never have said or believed such a thing (read here religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s piece about how he believes Franklin is dismantling his father’s legacy).

On the other hand, I have to disagree with the standard Muslim apologetic which claims that the early Muslim conquests were a) defensive military operations; and b) all about spreading the blessings of the new faith these leaders had received. That said, I do agree with them that the oft repeated statement, “Islam was spread by the sword,” is also very misleading. But before explaining what I mean, let me first start with some remarks about biographies of the Prophet Muhammad.


Kecia Ali’s The Lives of Muhammad

Boston University’s Kecia Ali is best known for her work on Islamic feminism and the Islamic legal literature on women (see for instance Sexual Ethics and Islam, exp. & rev. ed., 2016). Yet in 2014 she had a book published on modern bibliographies of Muhammad (The Lives of the Prophet, Harvard U. Press). Her main thesis is that the Muslim and non-Muslim biographies, in spite of and perhaps because of their disagreements, have been mutually interdependent. My concern here is to look at the issue of war, but first, a quick summary of her main points.

Ali is building on another recent work that spans the last twelve centuries of biographical writing (Tarif Khalidi, Images of Muhammad, Doubleday, 2009). Keep in mind that Muhammad, “alternatively revered and reviled, has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of biographies since his death in the seventh century” (Ali, 2). Khalidi sees three distinct stages:

1. From the late 8th through the early 10th centuries, we have the “Sira [biography] of primitive devotion,” which as we will see in the next section contains even “stories or anecdotes that may offend the sensibilities of Muslims” (19).

2. From the 10th to the mid 19th century Muslims composed various forms of literature, most of it devotional, which pruned the early material for theological consistency with an emphasis on “Muhammad’s superhuman qualities – his pre-eternity, miraculous powers, and sinlessness … [and] an object of love and devotion” (20).

3. The final stage began at the end of the nineteenth century: “the polemical Sira, written largely to defend Muhammad’s reputation against the attacks of the European Orientalists” (20). This is the stage on which Kecia Ali focuses her Lives of Muhammad.


Medieval Christian writings about Muhammad in one way or another magnified his perceived lust for power and women, and his excessive recourse to violence and war. In a paper I presented to a 2015 conference on Islamophobia at Temple University, you can read about the long history of anti-Muslim polemics in the United States since the seventeenth century.

What is interesting here is that according to Khalidi “two British Lives of the nineteenth century ‘haunt’ modern Muslim biographers” (46). The first is Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lecture, “The Hero as Prophet.” With clear romantic overtones, Carlyle argues that Muhammad (he used the French “Mahomet”) is “a true prophet” when British imperialism was fast approaching its zenith. Following the German writer Goethe, he spoke of Muhammad’s natural genius and the sincerity of his thinking and actions, which demonstrated his perfect integration into the world of his time. Yet the lecture was less about Muhammad and more about good and true men in general. To Ralph Waldo Emerson he explained that his lecture proved that “man was still alive, Nature not dead or like to die; that all true men continue true to this hour” (49). Not surprisingly, Muslims have quoted from this lecture again and again, to this day.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Muir’s The Life of Mohamet from Original Sources was written as an aid to the Christian missionary enterprise, representing in Khalidi’s words, the “Missionary-Orientalist complex.” A British civil servant who rose through the colonial administration during his four decades in India, Muir was an evangelical who earnestly wanted to see Hindus and Muslims come to faith in Jesus. He was also a very capable Arabist and scholar, and so he embarked on this ambitious biography of the Muslim Prophet. Fifty years later (1905), his obituary proclaimed it as “the standard presentment, in English, of the Prophet of Islam.” As Khalidi sees it, Muir’s use of the original sources was imbued with “deadly accuracy” and that’s why his biography “was found so distasteful by Muslim readership” (51). Interestingly, Ali wants to tweak that statement: “though he was faithful to his sources, he presented information gleaned from them in unflattering ways.”

That is the crux of the matter. In the next and last section, I will try to show that the earliest sources as a whole constitute an “unflattering” portrayal of Muhammad’s raids and expeditions.


Ayman S. Ibrahim’s The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (622-641)

This is how I began my review of this book for a Southern Baptist journal (its full title includes: A Critical Revision of Muslims’ Traditional Portrayal of the Arab Raids and Conquests; Peter Lang, 2018). I still haven’t heard from the editor and this part might be cut out, but it’s certainly relevant here:


“I cannot claim total impartiality in reviewing this important book. When it was still in dissertation form, I was Ibrahim’s outside reader. I was impressed with his stellar historical skills, encouraged him to keep working on it for publication, and we have become good friends in the process. In fact, it was he who, countless times, helped me with Arabic passages I struggled with in a long translation project for Yale University Press.”


Ibrahim, born into an Egyptian evangelical family, is now Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY) and Director of the Jenkins Center for the Understanding of Islam. Ayman would be the first to agree with me that our friendship has included some strong disagreements at times, particularly about specific pieces he has published in The Washington Post, Religion News Services, and elsewhere. It is fair to say that we have learned from each other. But I have no reservations about this book, as my second paragraph indicates:


“Even aside the significant research he is now doing for his second PhD (on conversion in early Islam) at the University of Haifa, Ayman Ibrahim is fast becoming a noted historian in early Islam. This book, The Stated Motivations, demonstrates his wide and strong grasp of the sources and critical issues relative to early Islamic history and historiography. Part of the great input of his mentor J. Dudley Woodberry in his PhD program was to put him in contact with three exceptional historians of Islam, Chase Robinson, Gabriel Said Reynolds and David Cook. No doubt they in turn generously invested in Ibrahim because they saw his obvious gifting and hard work.”


Rice University historian of Islam David Cook writes in his recommendation of this work: “No recent scholar comes close to matching his total command of Arabic sources, both past and present. The issues he raises concern not only distant history, but contemporary Arab interaction with that history. Ibrahim proves conclusively that – contrary to contemporary apologetic-historical analysis – the initial conquests were not religious in nature, nor were they for the sake of self-defense.” Needless to say, I believe this is a very significant contribution to Muslim-Christian conversations today. It is a delicate one, and perhaps too sensitive at the moment, but a very necessary one in the long run.

[I will post my review in Resources when it is actually published later in September and since I have no room here to review the book properly here, you can check back later if you are interested in more details (the book costs $100).]

Ibrahim deals with the current state of historical research on early Islam, and particularly on the issue of the reliability of the written texts, the earliest of which date to almost two hundred years after Muhammad’s death. Just from that standpoint his book is a great primer on mainly four types of literature Muslims produced that touch on some aspect of the early expansion of Islam: a) the abundant maghazi literature (military campaigns); b) the sira literature (most famous of which is Ibn Hisham’s, d. 838), though the two genres overlap a great deal; c) the futuh literature (conquests made by Muhammad’s successors); d) early Muslim histories (tarikh), which begin in the late ninth century, the most famous being the work of al-Tabari (d. 923). His sources beyond that cover the whole medieval period up to today.

In concluding his Chapter 3 on Muhammad’s maghazi, Ibrahim writes, “a careful study of our Arabic sources allows that political domination and economic gain were chief motivations for the early expeditions” (99). There are no indications that these campaigns were defensive or for spreading Islam through conversions. Indirectly, of course, strategic planning to defeat Mecca by force of arms, diplomacy, and gaining dominion over most of the Peninsula allows the Prophet to set up a rule in which Muslims are in control. But even that kind of motivation is not spelled out in the texts. We also know that by the end of the Umayyad period (the dynasty ruling in Damascus, so in the 740s) only about ten percent of that vast population from Spain through North Africa, and all the way to the Indus River on the edge of India were actually Muslims. So no, in that sense Islam was not “spread by the sword.” Part of the reason was the initial prejudice against non-Arabs. Another part was that converts no longer paid the poll tax, thus creating a loss of revenue. Then too, Islam as a "religion" was not yet developed in the first generations after Muhammad. The full ethical implications of the new faith had not yet been drawn out.

I’ll take just one example – the Battle of Badr (624), the first great Muslim victory over Mecca. There is no indication in the sources that the Meccans had attacked the Muslims first or that the Muslims had intended to preach their message in order to convert them. Rather, in a speech to his soldiers Muhammad “spoke of the abundance of possessions and properties, which awaited the Muslims upon victory” (74), and that many of the elite leadership were present in that caravan. Ibrahim makes five other points from his reading of the sources:

1. The Meccans, though vastly outnumbering the Medinans, tried very hard to avoid a confrontation, likely because they wanted “to secure their trade and social status.” The Meccan leader Abu Sufyan changed his route to avoid the Muslims and sent for reinforcement. Meanwhile, one of their wealthy notables, Ataba ibn Rabi’a was negotiating with his colleagues for a Meccan peace treaty with Muhammad, which would include also some financial compensation. The news of the Meccans’ unwillingness to fight reached Muhammad and the Believers, but it only added to their determination to attack and defeat the Meccans. As it turned out, Ataba was killed even before the battle started.

2. The later Muslim historians used “supernatural elements and deliberate exaggerations to add a spiritual nature to its course of events.” The aim was to show that this victory was due to God’s supernatural intervention. Though details vary widely among writers, Ibn Hisham describes for example “heavenly angels riding in the midst of sky clouds, wearing colorful ama’im (turbans) and beheading the non-Muslim Meccans” (76).

4. The vast discrepancies in the retelling of the battle might indicate that the writers were more interested on communicating their own particular slant on the events than in “documenting what actually happened.” For example, some texts report that Muhammad was leading the battle in front; others that he was protected by an elite guard; others that he was fighting for himself in the middle. One report even says that he was afraid the Medinan “helpers” (ansar) were going to abandon him.

5. The sources seem to point to revenge as the main Muslim motivation. They had been driven out of Mecca and their properties confiscated. Now they were going to get even with them. One report states that the blood of the Meccans reached the armpit of Ali. Others point to a strategy of killing the most influential leaders. Even the Prophet “instructed the killing of two major leaders of the Quraysh after they had surrendered and being held as prisoners of war” (78, emphasis his). Also, some Meccans were spared because of their clan affiliations. It’s hard not to conclude that this was mostly a tribal war.

6. Finally, the disputes over the spoils after the battle were ferocious, so much so that Muhammad had all the spoils brought to him and he distributed them once they had returned to Medina.


There is so much left unsaid here, but allow me to end with some remarks I made at the end of my last chapter in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. I had referenced Indian Muslim journalist M. J. Akbar’s 2002 book, In the Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict between Islam and Christianity (Routledge). In this book Akbar argues that Muslims are called to defend the faith, by the sword if necessary. He makes a direct connection between this early expansion of Islam, the promise to the martyrs in battle that they will be rewarded in the next life, and the current spate of jihadi fervor in Muslim lands.

Akbar’s book was not a scholarly work, though as a journalist he did some serious research. My point in mentioning his book was to shine a light on this early military expansion of Islam. I’m an outsider, I reminded the reader, and as such I could only venture two suggestions to my Muslim friends. First, take seriously the modern and postmodern hermeneutical turn when reading the Qur’an. Somehow those passages calling to fight had not only a particular historical context (which most Muslim scholars today recognize) but also perhaps stand in need of reinterpretation in an interdependent, globalized world. Then I wrote the following:


“Second, in the spirit of Islamic theology, I am pleading with my Muslim brothers and sisters to reconsider the ethical implications of the early Muslim conquests. Just as I have forthrightly condemned the Crusades and Western colonialism as contrary to the spirit and letter of the gospel, I would urge some soul-searching on the Muslim side” (517).


Enough said here. I hope the conversation will continue, God willing. And I know that that is His desire. In the meantime, we will continue to work together for greater peace and prosperity for all in our troubled world.

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

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

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