Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.
I’m currently enrolled in an extremely thoughtful on-line course about aging led by the great spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson. The course is called “Aging Miraculously.”
As I approach my 77th birthday, Marianne is stimulating me to rethink this Third Act of my life. Her course is making me less willing to “retire” from it all as one mistakenly identified with this rapidly changing body. I’m more anxious to “re-fire” the spirit I truly am – the Self that never ages. I’m realizing that the time I have left on earth is far too short for me to surrender to the life of an elderly spectator.
Such awareness was reinforced last night during a conversation with five dear friends of mine. The youngest pair among us were in their mid-60s; the rest of us were in our late 70s and early 80s. (Even writing those words frightens me!)
In any case, there we were reviewing the ills of the world:
- The gradual disappearance of democracy
- Its replacement with plutocracy and authoritarianism
- Class warfare: the unending wars of the world’s richest (the U.S. the E.U., Israel, Saudi Arabia) against the planet’s most impoverished (e.g. in Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. . .)
The question of faith came up and its power to change all of that.
Now, mind you, all of us in the conversation identified ourselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, my friends (none of them taking Marianne’s course) seemed convinced that faith has no power to alter the problems we were busy rehearsing.
Selfish human nature reigns supreme, one friend insisted. It’s unredeemable. So nothing can ever really change – except for the worse. What we do in church is meaningless as far as engagement with the world is concerned. No one really understands any of it anyway. But that’s the best we can do. It’s naïve and a waste of time and energy to think otherwise. We must settle for the mediocre.
And, in any case, we’re all old! So all that’s left for us is to finish out the few years we have left with our low expectations intact – just enjoying the moment and (cocktails in hand) being happy. Our work is over. God expects no more from us. The world’s problems are no longer ours. They belong to our children. And good luck to them with that!
With Marianne’s instruction in mind, I wanted to shout: “Stop, stop! Cancel! I don’t want to hear that! Precisely because I’m a community elder, I have no time left for such small-time thinking and pessimism.
“In fact, it’s all an insult to God. We’re talking about faith here. – about the power of God and of God’s Word to change the world and its consciousness that condemns us, our children, our grandchildren, and the very planet to destruction. Don’t you see that despite the faith we claim, we’re denying that power? We’re arrogantly claiming that we and the world’s thinking and technology somehow have more clout than God himself – that the Almighty stands impotent before the likes of The Donald, Mad Dog Mattis, our computers, robots – and desperate fears!
“I refuse to believe that. Please stop! Cancel!
“And besides: the power of faith to change the world has been undeniably demonstrated. It’s just that as successfully propagandized, relatively comfortable white “Americans” we’ve bought into the “official story” as narrated on Fox News. It wants us to believe that it’s all hopeless.
“We’ve fallen into their trap!
“However, the fact is that the world has already been changed dramatically by faith-in-action. And for more than 60 years, it’s scared the hell out of the fearful little people at the top. Since the Civil Rights Movement (beginning with Brown in 1954), they’ve been desperate to cram that genie of faith-inspired human liberation back into its bottle. But it simply won’t fit.
“Since Vatican II (1962-’65) and the emergence of liberation theology at Medellin (1968), backward church authorities (like Paul II and Benedict XVI) have been doing the same thing – with the same result. The genie is loose forever. Thank God.
“I’m referring to the undeniable fact that the Civil Rights Movement and liberation theology have changed the world. Without them, you can’t explain Black Lives Matter or the pink tide that has swept Latin America in the past 20 years. You can’t explain the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez, Standing Rock in the Dakotas, the revival of the women’s liberation movement, or LGBTQ activism.
“Without recognizing the power of faith to change the world, you can’t explain movements for independence in Palestine and throughout the Islamic world. Face it: what’s happening there is intimately involved with faith!
“And it is precisely those movements that have given birth to a counter-revolution waged by the fearful little people who pretend to lead us. Don’t be misled: the right wing co-optation of faith has not arisen spontaneously from selfish human nature. Instead, it was part of the well-funded Nixon Southern Strategy to distort Christian faith to counter a growing black power that faith itself had inspired among African Americans everywhere. All of that eventually resulted in the Tea Party and the control of the GOP by Christian conservatives.
“Moreover, fostering and bankrolling evangelicals throughout Latin America (and here at home) was part of Reagan’s response to liberation theology. Already in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller had identified it as a danger to national security. Similarly, the rise of ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism has been nourished by counter-revolutionary forces in Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski who originally assured fighters in Afghanistan that their resistance to Russia had Allah on their side.
“As community elders, we should know all of that. We’ve lived through it. We are products of the hope-filled ‘60s. More importantly, the Catholics among us are products of Vatican II and liberation theology and of the unlimited horizons of faith those movements opened. As a result, we have experience, knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom unavailable to our children, grandchildren, and to the young in general.
“Keeping those memories and hopes alive represent our specific contributions to saving the world. But time is running out. To retire now without passionately sharing what we’ve learned is not just irresponsible. It deprives us of the joy that comes from fulfilling our very life’s purpose.
“What’s left of this particular incarnation is too short for wasting it on despair and surrender. It’s too short to live as though we are primarily aged bodies rather than the ever-youthful, experienced, informed, and wise Selves that God has created.
“It’s time to get on with Act Three and to finish the performance with a flourish and deep bow.”
My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.
Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes? They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.
All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.
At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.
While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!
Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?
I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”
So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.
I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.
I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.
To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).
As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.
Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.
Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)
None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.
Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.
I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.
To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.
I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.
(Next week: Nicaragua!)
It had to happen. I mean you can’t establish dictators and despots throughout the world and not have it eventually come home. And it has in Donald Trump. His election has brought the spirits of U.S. darlings Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, and Duvalier to our shores. We should all be terrified.
By the same token, you can’t inflict such despotism on people of faith without their eventually discovering in their traditions a God who stands on the side of the poor and oppressed rather than with their wealthy oppressors. That happened with the emergence of liberation theology over the last 50 years among Christians in Chile, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. In 1979 it happened in Iran with the first Islamic revolution that has since spread across the Middle East. (I’ve written about that here, here, here, and here.)
And now it’s happening in the United States. Of course, awareness of the connection between Christian faith and release from oppression dawned most prominently with the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then during the ‘70s and ‘80s Catholics joined in as they observed (often first-hand as I did) U.S oppression throughout Latin America. During the ‘90s and the first decade of the current century, I could even see it emerging among the white U.S. Evangelical students I taught during their term abroad in Central America. As a result, I increasingly witnessed them reading and referencing non-fundamentalists and liberationists like Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and others.
And now with the arrival of Trump, a highly political form of liberation theology has hit the “Higher Consciousness Community.” I’m referring to followers of Marianne Williamson, Neale Donald Walsch, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, Abraham Hicks, and other teachers of the “spiritual, but not religious” seekers proliferating throughout the United States and the world.
Just last week, I personally witnessed unmistakable signs of the latter awakening in Washington, DC during the best three-day conference I’ve experienced in more than 40 years of attending such events. It was Marianne Williamson’s Sister Giant Conference. And judging by the standing ovations nearly all the speakers received from the 2000 attendees, they had similar experiences. (There were also 4000 live-streamers listening and watching.)
As you might judge from the conference title, Sister Giant attendees were mostly women.
Many of them, two weeks earlier, had attended the DC Women’s March. And it was evident that their enthusiasm from that event carried over.
Both the march and the conference empowered women, who at Sister Giant were urged to own their power by speakers like Bernie Sanders, Karenna Gore (Daughter of Al Gore), Jean Houston, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Dennis Kucinich, William J. Barbour, Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), and Zephyr Teachout. Each of them recognized women as the de facto leaders of the anti-Trump Movement.
Many other speakers presented as well including stand-up comic, John Fugelsang who actually told liberation theology jokes. For instance, he pointed out that the Vatican is ahead of the White House on science. Referring to the Bible’s Adam’s Rib Story, he observed that “The very first woman transitioned to a woman from a man.”
Meanwhile conference-organizer, Marianne Williamson, supplied her own transitions and highlighted points made. Between speakers, she kept us all focused with her insightful reflections on relevant passages in A Course on Miracles, and spontaneous, unself-conscious prayers like those found in her book Illuminata. She was wonderful. (And unbelievably, she will be coming to speak here in Berea at the end of March.)
From all of this, randomly organized thoughts worth sharing here include:
- This country (the U.S.A.) was never meant to work for people like me.
- The U.S. government has lost all legitimacy.
- Our economic system (capitalism) contradicts Jesus’ teaching and universal religious values in general; it is based on greed, competition, inequality, racism, violence, and environmental destruction.
- Donald Trump has shown everyone that he is absolutely unqualified for office.
- In fact, most people in the Sister Giant audience were better qualified than D.T.
- The world was not born fair; we have to make it that way.
- Large groups of desperate people do desperate things.
- No serious religious path gives anyone a pass allowing them to ignore the suffering of other sentient beings.
- If Jesus finds injustice intolerable, so must his would-be followers.
- Native Americans (e.g. at Standing Rock) talk to God, not about God.
- Neutrality always serves the oppressor, never the victim.
- In view of Donald Trump’s election, it might be time to make America Great Britain again!
- The main axis of social change is vertical rather than horizontal.
- American Muslims are the canaries in our coal mine.
- You are either a feminist or a masochist.
- It’s time for a Pro-Democracy Movement in the United States.
- My calendar and my checkbook proclaim infallibly what my values are.
- America needs a new bottom line (not a measure of efficiency and power, but of how loving and generous we are as we stand responsibly before the grandeur of the universe.)
- We must begin planning for the day when we have to take to the streets — net neutrality and Social Security will be the issues.
Such liberationist thoughts only palely reflect the richness of thoughts shared at the Sister Giant conference. But I hope they give you some idea of what’s needed to exorcise the despotic spirits of Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier – and of Donald Trump.
Last Sunday, the New York Times (NYT) devoted its entire Sunday Magazine to a five-part article by Scott Anderson. It was called “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.” The epic piece traced the lives of six Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan as each struggled to live through and make sense of the disintegration of the Arab World since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In so doing, Anderson attempted to put compelling faces on a longer historical narrative that begs for clarification, order and humanization.
The author succeeds admirably in the human interest portion of his project. More importantly, he supplies invaluable detail about a 100 year-long history of political decisions and processes responsible for the crumbling of the Arab world.
But perhaps his most stunning insight is that “Arabia” has been fractured not principally by internecine religious radicalism, but by a long-standing anti-socialist policy on the part of the United States and its allies. Ever since the conclusion of World War II, that policy has blocked economic reform not only in the Arab world and the Middle East, but also in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia – in other words in the former colonies. In the Middle East, the resulting conflict has only recently taken on heavy religious overtones.
Specifically, in that troubled region, the result of U.S. policy has been warfare and economic sanctions imposed on socialist movements involving both Arab and non-Arab countries – on peoples most of whom happen to be Muslims. As a result, those Muslims have experienced extreme poverty, joblessness, and loss of hope. Consequently, many have gravitated towards a brutal gang of reactive terrorists (ISIS) offering employment, a sense of identity, pride, short-lived hope – and the power that comes from a uniform and a gun. The grunts in this gang know very little about Islam.
In an August 12th interview with Scott Anderson on “Democracy Now,” Juan Gonzalez led the Times correspondent to make that very point. He asked Anderson what he had learned from his 18 months of research that included interviews with 20 ISIS fighters all of whom are now imprisoned in Iraq or in Kurdistan. Anderson responded:
“There was an amazing pattern. . . (T)hey were all young men, kind of with very bleak futures, either unemployed or underemployed, from working-class families, and not religious at all. . . (T)hey were not from religious families. They did not know the Qur’an very well. In a couple of cases, I knew the Qur’an better than they did. . . And I think it was this kind of decision that young men make, that better to live large for a couple of years, and, you know, the power and the so-called glamour. . . that comes of carrying a gun . . . they had more akin to why somebody might join like an inner-city gang or why in Mexico they might join a narco gang. It’s this kind of despair at seeing any sort of future. But it’s not political, it’s not religious. It’s just this impulse to—you know, to have some sort of—I mean, it’s awful to say, in terms of ISIS, but adventure.”
Juan Gonzales then observes, “But that’s a quite different perspective from what we get here . . . that these are religious zealots who are willing to die for Islam.”
“Yes,” Anderson agrees.
With that astounding exchange in mind, it’s informative to reread the NYT article and the long-term history it reviews to detect the pattern underlying what Anderson uncovers as an economic rebellion with a recent and thick religious overlay that obscures what’s really behind ISIS and the fracturing of the Arab world. For as Anderson implies, the rebellion there is not about religion, but about economy. It is about the conflict between capitalism and socialism that has been raging at least since the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. Far from ending with the fall of the USSR in 1990, the conflict has only intensified, when the West took the Soviet demise as a signal that it could subsequently increase pressure and even overthrow socialist governments everywhere – from Cuba and Venezuela to Yugoslavia and Iraq – without fear of reprisal.
To understand, we need to examine the underlying historical pattern responsible not only for the fracturing of the Arab world, but for relations between the developed world (principally the United States) and impoverished nations generally.
- Any Western colony that attempts to “break for freedom” (from capitalism and colonial control)
- By instituting a “socialist” economy prioritizing the needs of its own people, especially its majority poor
- Will have its leaders accused of being undemocratic dictators – communist, totalitarian, or terrorist.
- Those countries will find themselves undermined (with Western support) by local dissidents – usually drawn from those privileged under the old colonial order or from those marginalized by the new socialist order.
- This will cause the governments in question to institute severe national security measures that Western enemies will vilify as dictatorial, thus justifying further measures to overthrow the “repressive” regime.
- If such methods do not result in the desired regime change, the country in question will ultimately be subjected to direct invasion or other military action on the parts of its former colonial masters.
- Interventionist military action will be met with resistance and retaliation on the part of imperialism’s victims. (This explains the origins of ISIS.)
To reiterate, this pattern lays the blame for Middle East conflict at the feet of colonialism. It suggests that since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, capitalism’s real enemy in Arab countries and throughout the Middle East has been anti-imperialist socialism not primarily Islam. More precisely, the conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan have been spawned not by religion, but by resistance to colonialism and by economic policies resistant to free market capitalism.
To grasp that point, let’s think first of all about imperialism or colonialism. Then connect resistance to such foreign adventurism with socialism and the birth of ISIS.
In essence, colonialism is a system of robbery. It has foreign armies invading, conquering militarily weak, resource-rich countries, and then controlling them either through occupying armies or through local militaries armed by the invaders and headed by indigenous collaborators working hand in glove with the colonists. The chief goal of such invasion is resource extraction – wealth transfers for purposes of enriching the colonizers.
Western colonization of Arabia began in earnest after World War I. Up until then (and from the end of the 13th century), what Westerners called the “Middle East” was the center of the Ottoman (i.e. the Turkish) Empire controlled by Muslim sultans.
The Ottoman Empire was the Islamic State of its day and at its height comprised central Hungary, the Balkan Peninsula, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, Egypt, the Caucasus and western Iran. As the Anderson essay shows, the Sultans did not impose their religion or Sharia Law on those they colonized. Instead, they allowed Christians, Jews and others to practice their faiths with no interference. As long as they paid their taxes, tribes and clans throughout the region were allowed a great deal of freedom and self-determination.
After the Ottoman Empire broke down in 1920, the British, French, Italians, and the United States stepped in to fill the void. To control their newly annexed territories (and their oil), they instituted a divide and conquer strategy. This entailed creating small client states that never existed before. These new “nations” included entities such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen. Each was run by local collaborators (royal monarchs and their families) who could be counted on to transfer Arabia’s patrimony at confiscatory prices.
Such divisions were immediately resisted by tribes and clans throughout the region. Their loyalty was (and remains) to local chiefs, not to prime ministers or presidents. Together tribal leaders and their people wanted foreigners out. Many wished to unite all Arabs in a “Pan Arab” movement to restore the unity of the Arab world that had existed under the Islamic State and Caliphate for more than 600 years. The operative sentiment was “Arabia for Arabs.”
Pan Arabism took two main forms, one secular and socialist, the other (much later) religious and Muslim.
It helps to keep Smith’s historical pattern in mind: (1) break for socialist freedom, (2) vilification of socialism’s leaders, (3) empowerment of their natural enemies (secular or religious), (4) repressive measures by the threatened government, (5) (as a last resort) U.S. military action, and (6) insurgent response.
To verify the pattern, let’s begin with Egypt as Anderson does. Then let’s join him in considering the cases of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Add in the non-Arab examples of Iran and Afghanistan to complete the regional picture. All the while, note the elements of the six-point historical pattern. To repeat, they illustrate that capitalism’s enemy has not changed since 9/11. It remains socialism, not Islam.
The most prominent secular and socialist anti-colonial movement began emerging in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy that had cooperated closely with the West. Nasser was an outspoken socialist. His first act as Prime Minister was to institute a wide-ranging land reform program benefitting peasant farmers.
In addition, Nasser was critical of the West in general. He was also anti-imperial and hostile to Israel, which he and his constituents saw as another Western colonial beachhead in the Arab world. Nasser and his supporters saw Jews returning to their “homeland” as opportunistic European invaders whose ancestors hadn’t thought about living in Palestine for well over a millennium.
Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat in 1970. As Anderson shows, Sadat alienated Pan-Arabs by moving closer to a client-patron relationship with the United States. He cooperated with the Carter administration in negotiating a separate Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, without prior consultation with the other Arab states. For such betrayal, Sadat was assassinated. He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, an even more compliant client of the United States who remained in power till he was driven from office by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.
Nasser’s vision was shared by Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in Syria in 1970. Like Nasser, Assad had participated in a revolution against a Western-compliant monarchy. That revolution brought his Pan-Arab Ba’athist Party to power in 1963. The Ba’ath Party derived its name from the Arabic word for “renaissance” or “resurrection.” It envisioned the eventual restoration of a single Arab state. It espoused Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism – again, Arabia for the Arabs. Besides being anti-imperial and anti-West, Ba’athism was also socialist. Since 2011, the United States and Syria’s former colonial master, France, have taken both indirect and direct action for regime change in Syria.
In 1969 Ba’athism spread to Iraq, where revolutionary forces led by Saddam Hussein toppled the monarchy established and supported by the West. Of course, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, Desert Storm (1991) and the invasion of Iraq (2003) involved elaborate military measures by the United States to remove Saddam from office.
The same year Saddam Hussein came to power (1969), the Pan Arab socialist movement spread to Libya under Muammar Gaddafi who also led a revolution against a monarchy supported by the Western colonial powers. Gaddafi gradually moved away from the Ba’athist Pan Arab ideal and embraced Pan Africanism instead. His Third International Theory (published in his Green Book) championed socialism and anti-colonialism for the entire African continent. U.S. military action deposed Gaddafi in 2011.
Besides its links to the six-point pattern indicated above, what socialism in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya had in common was the fact that it worked. It lifted masses of people from poverty and modernized the relevant countries in a relatively short time. For example, before the 1991 invasion, Iraq boasted the highest standard of living in the Arab world. Similar statements can be made about Nasser’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya.
Regional resistance to control by Western capitalists also emerged prominently in non-Arab Iran and in Afghanistan – two other artificial countries which came into being at the end of the 19th century. It was in these countries that (with major U.S. implication) opposition to Western imperialism eventually took on the decidedly religious turn that most mistakenly identify today as the root cause of conflict in the Middle East.
However, to begin with (as was the case in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya), post-World War II Iran experienced a highly secular grassroots rebellion against foreign control of their region following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The rebellion caused the democratic election of Mohammad Mossaddegh to displace the U.S. client, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.
Upon his succession to office, the enormously popular Mossaddegh instituted social and economic reforms of the type championed by socialists all over the world: social security, land reform, abolition of forced labor, rent control, agricultural regulation, compensation for workers injured on the job, public housing, and public works – all with the intent (as he said) to “combat disease, poverty, and backwardness.”
Above all, Mossaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry. This outraged Great Britain (who controlled Iran’s oil) the United States. So the CIA instituted a coup that removed Mossaddegh from office and replaced him, restoring to office Reza Pahlavi who returned from exile to administer an extremely repressive Western-friendly regime for the next quarter century.
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown in a rebellion. However, this time the uprising was not inspired by socialism, but by an anti-Western, anti-imperial movement organized “in the name of God.” It is here that Islam begins to take over as the face of the perennial regional resistance to Western imperialism that had roiled above and below the surface since 1920.
Something similar happened in Afghanistan. There too a secular socialist movement against the West morphed into a rebellion in the name of God.
In Afghanistan, the secular People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took control of the country in 1973 under Nur Muhammad Taraki. It offered equal rights for women, universal education, and land reform. To oppose such reforms and the intervention of the Soviet Union to uphold them, the CIA identified and supported internal opposition, the Mujahedeen – Islamic jihadists who from their founding had adopted as their goal the expulsion of foreigner rulers (viz. the British) from the Middle East. The CIA now empowered them to expel the Soviet invaders and establish an Islamic State to replace socialism.
But Mujahedeen goals were not reached with the expulsion of the Soviets. The jihadists wanted all foreigners out of the region. That meant the expulsion of U.S. troops from Islamic holy centers in Medina and Mecca. The troops had taken up residence there following the 1991 defeat of Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. That defeat was followed by 12 years of economic sanctions that ended up taking the lives of half a million Iraqi children. Osama bin Laden would later identify those murders, along with the previous 80 years of European control of Arabia, and the stationing of troops in Mecca and Medina as the specific motives for the infamous attacks of 9/11. His rationale was hardly reported in the U.S. mainstream media (MSM).
Since 9/11those media and Western politicians have shifted blame for the dissolution of the Arab world away from neo-colonial capitalist depredations and the interventionist pattern Scott Anderson implicitly reviews. Instead of blaming a failed capitalist system and its related foreign policy, they locate the cause of Middle Eastern chaos in Islam and in Hitler-like tactics of egregiously evil dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad. The problems thus become personalized, cultural and religious. Thankfully for those responsible, they also become largely insoluble thus necessitating permanent war. Thus the grateful include Israel, Saudi Arabia and other “American” client states. They include as well the oil and arms industries, and the corporate-controlled MSM all of whom profit from a chaotic Middle East and from misidentifying the true culprit in the region.
If all of this is true, what then must be done about Anderson’s “Fractured Arab World?” If the cause of the fissures there is not religion nor Hitler Redivivus, but capitalism itself, its 150-year war against socialism and its six-point pattern of colonial intervention, what policies might replace the failed, counter-productive measures of war, incessant bombing, and drone attacks? If the foot soldiers in the war are not religious zealots, but unemployed and underemployed young people without prospect or hope, what will give them hope and meaning beyond a black uniform, ski mask and gun?
Here’s where we might start:
- Abandon imperial pretensions and allow nations everywhere to experiment with alternatives to a capitalist system that clearly does not serve them.
- Stop all vilification of Islam and Muslims.
- Completely transform the U.S. economy from its fossil fuel dependency, thus removing the major reason for “American” interest in the Middle East.
- Nationalize the U.S. arms industry, thus severing the connection between war and profit.
- Cut off all aid to Israel until it complies with repeated U.N. mandates to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it has illegally occupied. This would take seriously bin Laden’s claim that solving the Palestinian problem would also solve the problem of terrorism.
- As a good-will measure and for the sake of justice, indict, try, and punish George Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others responsible for the Iraq War that gave rise to ISIS.
- Divert the billions now invested in failed wars against terrorism into reconstruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other countries devastated by Western wars.
- Similarly use those billions to provide constructive employment not only for ISIS fighters, but for U.S. soldiers who find themselves armed and in uniform for reasons similar to the young militants referenced in Scott Anderson’s essay.
- With good will demonstrated in these ways, summon a Peace and Reconciliation Conference to include all stake holders in Middle East conflicts including ISIS..
- Comply with the decisions of the conference.
That such common sense measures probably seem impossible and completely off the table for most of our diplomats (and readers of this essay!) represents a sad comment on our limits of perception. It exhibits a lack of genuine will on the parts of our “leaders” to solve the problem of global terrorism. It also demonstrates the need for a revolution of our own.
These last three weeks I’ve been trying to show how critical reading of biblical texts is connected to critical reading of every other text — including that of my own life. In all cases, “ideological suspicion” Is central.
It alerts readers to the fact that vested Interests tend to distort analysis — but mostly in conservative ways Intent on supporting the status quo. That’s the way as well with most extra-biblical texts like the mainstream media, best-sellers and school text books.
By way of contrast, readings issuing from the viewpoints of the socially-conscious dispossessed tend towards subversion of the status quo. That’s significant for Bible reading because (as I was saying last week) the Bible largely represents the memory of poor and oppressed communities. As such, books within the biblical cannon are nearly unique in history whose records normally preserve the memories of the rich and famous.
So with that in mind, here are twelve more conclusions I’ve drawn about the Bible. Notice the connections to politics and the very complex question of violence so pertinent in a world characterized by a permanent war against terrorism. Again, I present this second list of 12 conclusions to expose the way biblical studies have influenced my political leanings and the ideas that seem so strange to my adult children. .
- The experience of the socially activist poor and oppressed leads them to discover a liberating God in the Bible. He habitually overturns political, economic and social structures oppressive of people like themselves.
- In other words, the God of the Bible is not a neutral God. The biblical God is a class-biased God who has made a “preferential option for the poor.” Similarly, Jesus is class-biased, not averse to making sweeping statements about “the poor” and “the rich” as groups without specific reference to individuals within those groups.
- Neither is the Bible a neutral text. In fact, there are no neutral texts at all. Any text, biblical or otherwise, either supports the status quo or it attempts to subvert it. A text which does not subvert supports. There is no third position. By and large (though not universally) the biblical texts predominantly produced in situations of persecution, attempt to subvert the order of the world; they support God’s order often described in terms of “the reign of God.” Once again, it is an order which as the antithesis of the world’s present order favoring the rich and powerful, favors instead the poor and oppressed.
- Similarly, there is no neutral exegesis of the sacred texts. Every reading is done by a person of a particular gender, race, nationality, and creed, with a particular personal history, and located in a given historical era. Inevitably such readers possess more or less definite political commitments, and have predetermined understandings of the world. Each of these elements as well as others inevitably bias his or her exegesis of the text. Each interpretation facilitates some insights but excludes others. With this in mind, it is revealing to note that almost invariably respected mainstream exegesis has been done by rather comfortable white males of European background. This means that the vast majority of believers, women, people of color, the poor, the illiterate, as well as Christians of the Third World have been left voiceless. All of these have been forced to accept as normative well-off European, white, male biblical interpretations. And once again, these interpretations almost universally have supported maintenance of white male euro-centric privilege.
- Today our Third World brothers and sisters are asking us to open ourselves to the levels of meaning they are discovering. They do not claim these are the only possible meanings; for clearly there are others. Neither do they hold that those who make diametrically opposed interpretations are insincere; for such a claim would obviously be false. They do, however, observe that these latter interpretations are extremely partial, for normally such readings take no note of their contradictory alternatives produced for example by unlearned people in the Third World. Meanwhile, the exegesis of the poor and oppressed is normally more comprehensive, for it is well aware of the mainstream interpretation and usually spends a good deal of its time contesting such understandings as ideological.
- Meanings uncovered in this way lead to judgments about the structures of poverty and oppression experienced in the world, and to action towards changing those structures. Here the emphasis is on judgment of sinful structures rather than on sinful human beings. For although personal sin is a painful reality, it is not up to Christians to judge how others stand in God’s eyes. Nevertheless, God’s word can shed light on the human institutions which victimize both oppressed and oppressors by facilitating and often appearing to necessitate injustice. An example of such an institution is international capitalism particularly as it impacts the Global South. Institutions of this kind must be eliminated by Christian action in the world.
- Unfortunately, those who profit from the world’s sinful structures do not usually allow them to be changed willingly; instead their more frequent response to movements for change is one of extreme violence often directed towards the most vulnerable, children, the elderly, women, the sick.
- As a last resort, defense of these “least of the brethren” may demand that Christians take up arms and give their lives on behalf of the otherwise defenseless. Here other Christians, especially those outside the violent and threatening context in question must exercise extreme caution in judging such actions as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. This is especially true if those tempted to judgements of this type are among those whose taxes and/or silence enable their own government to sponsor the violence which prompts assumption of arms in defense of the otherwise helpless.
21. Likewise criticism of Christians who take up arms in defense of “the least of the brethren” must be restrained since the Gospel is by no means clear consistent in its judgment about such action. In fact, historically speaking, most Christians who read the Bible in good faith have found that it does not require non-violent resistance. A close reading of the biblical texts, and an examination of church history seems to reveal that highly contextualized considerations rather than some unchangeable principle of non-violent resistance have dictated the responses of Christians in situations of persecution.
- In addition, it must be admitted that not all violence is the same. There is a real difference between (a) the violence of the unprovoked attacker (This is clearly against Gospel teaching); (b) the violence of one defending himself or herself against unprovoked attack (This is less evidently against Christian belief); and (c) the violence employed in similar circumstances by one risking his or her own life in defense of the lives of the otherwise defenseless such as children or the elderly (Arguably this may represent a positive response to the Gospel). To neglect such distinctions is to obscure questions of violence and non-violence.
- For these reasons, advocates of non-violence for others must humbly examine their consciences to see if their advocacy is not unwittingly supporting the interests of those oppressing the defenseless. Here it must be noted that most robbers and perpetrators of other forms of violence are quite enthusiastic supporters of “peace” which takes the form of non-violent response on the parts of their victims. It should also be observed that in this case those upon whom the strategy of non-violence is so enthusiastically urged are the least able to defend themselves. In fact, historically speaking, the poor and working classes of the world who for the most part are the victims of oppression, stand virtually without means of self-protection, having no armies of their own. They are the only ones to whom both state and church authority have forbidden violence as a legitimate means of defending their loved ones from their oppressors of the propertied classes who have huge armies and defense budgets at their disposal.
- Perhaps in view of all this, the most that some North American Christians can say is that they themselves are hearing a vocation to non-violent resistance, and that Christians in other very different situations are being called to determine how best to defend the “least of the brethren.” in their own contexts. No doubt some Christians there will choose to arm themselves on behalf of their families, friends and fellow citizens. Others will choose non-violent resistance. Still others will choose a combination of the two approaches. A great deal will depend on the context in question. Christians living in the U.S.A. must overcome the affliction of tolerating violence in service to U.S. corporate interests while condemning the violence of those who resist such oppression. “I would assert that people who have not actively opposed the violence of the powerful against the poor, at some cost to themselves,” writes Philip Berryman, “have no moral authority to question the violence used by the poor.” (Jack Nelson Pallmeyer. The Politics of Compassion.” Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books 1986, 87.)
Realizations like the ones I’ve noted here — all of them faith-based have inclined me to:
- Understand world events in ways that privilege the viewpoints of the world’s poor.
- Side with them in their conflicts with the rich and powerful.
- Acquaint myself with the reasons for what the privileged habitually describe as the unprovoked “violence” of those they habitually oppress.
- See that the violence of the rich and powerful dwarfs that of the poor they exploit.
- Perceive that since World War II all of the U.S. wars have actually been fought against the world’s poor and oppressed to keep them in that condition.
Here are the first dozen of the twenty-four conclusions I’ve drawn after my years of biblical study. As the cartoon above indicates, what I gained from Eamonn O’Doherty at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, MA was an introduction to the historical/critical approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It provided a foundation that was deepened and developed by the scholars I mentioned in my last posting.in this series.
The historical/critical approach acts as a corrective to misreadings that emerge from the naive literary/confessional approach that had previously been mine. I learned that the latter is too open to ideological manipulation at the hands of the dominant culture anxious to secure divine support for a status quo favoring the rich and powerful ruling classes..
Accordingly, those more conventional approaches must be treated, I realized, with “ideological suspicion” which methodically doubts the veracity of conventional interpretations.
Such doubt made me suspect of any interpretation issuing from the United States and Europe. There analysis tended to remain largely apolitical and by that very fact ended up supporting the socio-economic status quo.
That was not the case in the underdeveloped world. (I use that term deliberately. Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, I found, have been deliberately under-developed –robbed of their resources by over-developed nations.)
Scholars in the Global South saw clearly and articulated connections between the biblical texts and imperial exploitation. The texts of both the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart are unique in the ancient world in that they were largely produced by victims of imperialism at the hands of Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. To ignore that fact and to interpret them apolitically is to impoverish them and rob them of their critical power vis-a-vis contemporary imperialist situations.
I’m sure such remarks make it clear how the biblical studies I’ve pursued have sensitized me to the dark realities of empires and the intolerable situations they have produced in the past and continue to produce in the present.
In any case, the twelve conclusions I share here unveil my gradual progression towards critical consciousness engendered by biblical studies. As you’ll see, they inexorably become less general and more sharply political. Judge for yourself:
- For the Christian Bible reading is extremely important. In some sense, the Bible is the word of God. However its many separate texts were produced by very human authors concerned with addressing highly politicized situations.
- But living is more important still. After all, even in the Bible itself, life and history constitute the primary vehicle of God’s revelation. In fact, it was out of reflection on these basic elements that the sacred texts themselves arose. In other words, the main purpose of the Bible is not preservation or study of tradition for its own sake, but to help believers make faith-full sense out of the lives they are actually living.
- Therefore, as important as it is, Bible reading for the believer is a secondary activity, carried on “after the sun goes down.” It illumines life’s primary activity and vocation, living itself.