Saturday, June 10, 2017

American Fascism

Since Donald Trump became the 45th American president, we hear a lot of talk and hinting about Fascism in America. It is important for us to be as clear as possible about our current condition.
Fascism is a form of authoritarianism. The government's powers have no limit. Popular opinion carries no weight. All power is in the hands of a fascist party. There are no elections. What laws there are, are decreed by different government officials. Citizens may not appeal the orders of the government to an independent judiciary. Citizens do not have any protection against the government police power. If the government believes you to be a threat to its power, they can arrest you and if they so choose kill you. You may disappear and never be heard of again.
In a fascist society there are no rights to privacy. Any organization you may belong to, is organized and run by the government. With the rise of a facist government, labor unions are turned into branches of the government as are other previously voluntary organizations. Clubs of stamp collectors, clubs of genealogists, garden clubs-- all become official state-sponsored organizations.
Fascist governments tend to be paranoid. They have their spies everywhere. Families are disrupted when some members belong to the official fascist party and spy on other members of the family who may be less enamored with the new government. It is not safe to make negative comments about the government in your workplace; someone may report your jokes to the police and you may find yourself arrested in a concentration camp before you know what hit you. The government controls education. The government takes books off library shelves that it regards as hostile to its own mission. The government decides that certain kinds of art and music are unacceptable. They may not be performed in public. Private performances expose the performers to government suspicion. The government declares certain groups of the population to be no longer legitimate citizens. In extreme cases, such as Nazi Germany, these select groups consisting of Jews, of homosexuals, of communists were slaughtered in large numbers.
The government institutes a reign of terror. Citizens who are disaffected will be very careful not to voice their criticisms for fear of disappearing in prison camps. The new fascist party and its government are in complete control.
Fascist governments are wild eyed nationalists. They incline towards military adventures in order to expand the nation's territory and power. They do not tire to boast of the superiority of their nation and its culture over other neighboring nations.
Can Americans in 2017 recognize themselves in this portrait?
Yes and no. We may point to President Trump’s "America First" rhetoric. But we need to acknowledge that American nationalism has been in the ascendant for a long time. We have invaded and bombed foreign countries in order to promote our particular form of government which we call "democracy." The belief that our institutions are superior to those of other countries has dominated American foreign policy for at least a century.
But our politics, you say, is not dominated by one party. After all we have the Democrats and the Republicans and they are at each others’ throat quite regularly. But this two-party system does raise interesting questions that need a lot more reflection than is possible here: it often seems to many people that we really have only one political party – the party of the rich and that those of us who are not rich are not represented.
We do have, we think, an independent judiciary. There are constitutional protections of citizens against the government. The government cannot just make you disappear and even kill you if that's what they feel like—unless you are undocumented.
The government cannot freely censor literature and art. It is not free to determine what children will learn in school. It is not independent of popular opinion about schools or cultural matters. It cannot simply cleanse libraries of books it considers a threat to its own power.
We do have private organizations that are not arms of the government. The local kids sports or poetry organizations are not under government or fascist party control. It would be completely illegal for the government to try to take over those private groups.
Moves in the direction of fascism are always a threat. Since 9/11 Congress has allowed the government new forms of supervision of private communications by citizens. It has allowed government police forces such as the FBI or CIA to interfere with private citizens and their property in ways which are of dubious legality. The freedoms we brag about are much more precarious than we are willing to admit and their defense is a continuing effort – an effort that is not always successful.
But none of that makes the US a fascist country. For most of us fascism is a constant threat, but not a reality.
Fascism is a constant threat but not a reality if you are a middle-class white person, especially if you are a man. Your world is very different if you are a black youngster or even a black adult – man or woman.
In 2016, long before Pres. Trump got elected, more than 250 black persons were killed by police. 34% of unarmed people killed by police were black men. Black men constitute 6% of the population of our country. Very few of the police involved in these killings were indicted. Even fewer were convicted.
If you are black in America your government resembles a fascist government much more closely. You may be arrested and killed pretty much at the discretion of the police. You have no recourse to the court system to protect you.
The Constitution protects citizens very unevenly. White middle-class citizens live in a more or less constitutional democracy. The country in which black Americans live resembles fascism a lot more closely.
And God help you if you are undocumented.
Is America a fascist country? There is no unambiguous answer to that question. The answer you get depends a whole lot on whom you ask and who you are. Sadly, white citizens do not frequently enough recognize that Black citizens live in a very different America from that inhabited by Whites.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Memorial Day 2017

Remembering the dead and maimed of our many wars is always a somber occasion. If our leaders – politicians, generals, business tycoons – had any wisdom, they would be content to remember. But that wisdom is lacking and so the Memorial Day speeches not only remember but also engage in lavish myth making about the reasons we were involved in all these wars. The myth is always more or less the same: we went to war in Europe, in South East Asia, in the Mideast, in Latin America in order to protect our freedoms and our democracy.
The wars we fought since 1940 were of different sorts. Not one of them was unquestionably inevitable in order to defend our freedoms.
What about World War II, you will say. Surely Nazi Germany was a threat to freedoms not only in Europe but perhaps also on our continent. While that is no doubt true, no Memorial Day speech will mention that World War II also saved the harsh dictatorship in the Soviet Union for another 40 odd years. World War II did not preserve the freedoms in Russia or in Eastern Europe satellite countries. Instead it preserved the brutality of Stalin's government and that of his successors.
               The role of World War II in defense of American freedoms may be ambiguous. There is no such ambiguity about any of the wars we have been embroiled in since.
In Vietnam, as Martin Luther King explains in his Riverside Church speech of April 1967, the Vietnamese were defending their freedom against being colonized by the French and then by us. The eventual victory of the North Vietnamese did not deprive any Americans of their freedom to speak their mind, to assemble, to campaign for office and to vote. The Vietnamese were not a threat to our freedom. We were the threat to their freedom in that war.
In his 1995 memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara– Secretary of Defense during much of that war – said he and his senior colleagues were "wrong, terribly wrong" to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.” (Washinton Post, 7/7/2009)
The war in Iraq was justified in a number of different ways by the administration of Pres. George W Bush. First we were told that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction." When that turned out to be a pure fabrication, we were told that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack of 9/11. That, of course, was also a lie. What was not mentioned as often was that the majority of the 9/11 attackers were born and raised in Saudi Arabia, still our firmest ally in that region. The justification of the attack on Iraq still remains to be given. Was it really just about controlling the oil?
The Memorial Day speeches do not usually mention that Saddam Hussein was our ally in the 1980s when he attacked Iran. We supported him then. Presumably that alliance was not a threat to our freedoms. How did Saddam Hussein become a threat to our political institutions in the few years between 1980 and 1991? The answer is not at all obvious.
President Obama was more forthcoming than many others when he explained repeatedly that we needed to send our troops to all four corners of the earth in order to maintain our position as the most powerful nation in the world.
But even that explanation for our continued war making is implausible. It is true that we have troops everywhere in the world. But it is also true that we have been loosing all the wars we have been involved in since World War II – except for the invasions of Grenada (by President Reagan) and of Panama (by the elder President Bush). We lost the Vietnam war. We have not managed to bring peace to Afghanistan after 16 years of fighting there. We have not brought peace to Iraq. We are not playing a dominant role in Syria. Our intervention in Libya has left that country in political chaos.
In its early days, Osama bin Laden's Al Quaeda was armed and supported by our government. Since then Islamist movements have spread, expanded and become more destructive in their terrorist attacks. They have not been defeated by the most powerful military in the world.
The "most powerful nation on earth" continues to be on the losing end of its wars. Not an impressive record.
We are still waiting for a plausible explanation for fighting all these wars and demanding all these sacrifices from Americans and from the peoples of many other countries.
In the end we need to admit that our leaders are victims of their own myth making. After telling the nation every year on Memorial Day that our military interventions were glorious defenses of freedom and democracy, it appears that they themselves have forgotten that this story is made up. It has no relation to reality. The loss and bitter pain our wars have inflicted on the families of its victims did not in any way safeguard our institutions. That story simply cannot be supported by what actually happened. The enemies we have fought in all these different wars in did not threaten our institutions to begin with. When we lost those wars we did not in any way secure our freedoms for future generations.
The losses imposed on so many American families by these wars only show that lies repeated often enough will finally confuse the liars. The victims of these lies are the families whose members died far from home and, more broadly, all the Americans whose health and welfare would have been so much better if we had not wasted trillions of dollars in needless wars.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rule of the People or of Majorities

We say two things about democracy. Both of them are sort of true. But it is easy to see that they cannot be true at the same time. And that creates a problem for our understanding of what democracy is.
The first thing we say is that in a democracy the people rule. To be sure, we do not govern. We do not issue executive orders, issue driver's licenses, or building permits. The government does that. But we always have a supervisory role because we elect representatives to the legislature and we elect the head of the Executive, the president. Persons to fill many other important jobs in the executive must be approved by the elected representatives. All of this is familiar.
We also say that our democracy is an electoral system where there are periodic votes, with every vote having the same weight and getting counted only once. Votes are secret so that no one is exposed to political pressure for the vote they cast. When not everyone casts votes for the same candidate, for instance, the majority wins. Where two or more candidates compete the one who has more votes gets elected.
The people who vote for the majority, whose candidate gets elected thereby gain some influence over the next government and thus may be said to rule.
But what about the minority? What about the people who work really hard for their candidate who is, for whatever reason, less popular and does not win? They have no influence over the government. They have no influence at all. They cannot really be said to rule.
Here is our problem then. When we practice electoral democracy with majority rule only the winners of elections maybe said to rule and the other people do not. When we say that democracy consists of an electoral system with majority rule, we seem to contradict the other thing we say, namely that in a democracy, the people—meaning all the people—rule.
Many people are fully aware of the tension between the different ways in which we describe democracy. If it were easier for us to come to agreement on different things or on who is the best candidate for a particular job, obviously this would not be a problem. The people would make their choices by "consensus" as it is called. They would discuss a matter, consider alternative proposals for resolving an existing problem and then figure out the best resolution of the problem and adopt that. Once everyone agreed, the only thing remaining to do would be to execute the policy agreed on.
That scenario would obviously be lovely but it is, in our world quite unrealistic. In almost any situation we are unable to reach agreement. To this many people say: “Yes, majority rule is a second best arrangement but it's really not so bad.” Electoral systems with majority rule are widely accepted as an acceptable form of democracy. 
But to do so is a mistake. Decisions are made only by a portion of the citizenry. The minority has nothing to say and it is not  accidental who belongs to the winning majority. The people who can pay for expensive lobbyists,who can afford to hire high-class advertising agencies to promote their perspectives  win most elections; the people who are poor, who work more than one job and therefore have no time to agitate on behalf of their points of view usually lose. Electoral systems with majority rule are not democratic. They produce oligarchies, the rule of mere portions of the population, of the wealthy, the owners, the employers.
The defenders of electoral democracy will argue that we have no choice because people just cannot agree and therefore we need to fall back on majority rule. But this defense of majority rule completely ignores the fact that there are a whole lot of trained and highly skilled people in our country at this time and, in fact, all over the world who know how to get people who have different perspectives on something to agree in spite of their differences, but many of these people make their living helping different groups to overcome serious disagreements and forging agreements that everyone is pretty happy with.
This sort of technique is called alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Thousands of practitioners of ADR all over the world have training institutes, trainings and conferences. They have different domestic and international organizations that accredit practitioners. Their members write many books and pamphlets. The different versions and techniques and theories of ADR are readily available to anybody who wants to know anything about it.
ADR differs from the typical political. In ordinary political conversations people debate with each other and are at pains to win and to show that the other is mistaken. Businesses cannot afford to waste time on debates that do not reach a speedy and mutually acceptable agreement. In the business world, the conversations between groups of people who disagree are often facilitated by trained experts. These experts learn to remain neutral. They do not take sides. Their only interest is in getting the conflicting parties to come to some desired agreement, be that about a policy, or about the possible candidate for an important position, or about some more general principles of politics. The facilitators have many tasks. Often political debates go round and round because people misunderstand each other. A facilitated debate will make quite clear what they disagree on.
In a political debate each side is wedded to their particular proposal; in contrast, facilitators will encourage parties to be creative and find new solutions that both parties might accept gladly. Political debates are often hard to close because the parties make assumptions that they have not really examined or fact-checked. Facilitators will probe gently to encourage each party to examine any unexamined assumptions. That process will often open up new conversations.
Using such techniques, facilitators, mediators and others resolve problems every day --often problems that have festered and have created serious hostilities. Testimonials to that accomplishment come from large corporations, important law firms, and other powerful people whom we can trust not to spend money for help with their disagreements unless that help is indubitably worth its price.
If we applied these techniques to our political disagreements many of those would disappear and our decisions would more often be based on consensus and not exclude electoral minorities from ruling. Using the skills of various professionals in facilitating agreement and consensus, we would be able to turn our back on the injustice of majority rule. Using the techniques of facilitation and mediation, democracy resting on consensus may well be possible.
But this will take too long” the defenders of majority rule will tell us. However, the reality is that mediation and facilitation have not so far being used to any extent  to settle political disagreements. We do not know how difficult  or time-consuming it  would be to apply these techniques in politics. A lot of experimentation will be needed before we are in a position to have reliable opinions on the feasibility of resting consensus democracy on mediation and facilitation techniques. The encouraging results in various business situations should encourage us to engage in that kind of experimentation.
We do not know today how well a mediated and facilitated democracy would function. But we do know that it is a real alternative to our present. The insistence that majority rule is the optimal procedure is clearly mistaken, given the positive experiences many enterprises are having with mediation and facilitation. Electoral techniques and majority rule  or not unavoidable. Using electoral systems and majority rule is a choice we make. It is, as we saw above, a choice of oligarchy over genuine democracy.
The dogma of the inevitability of majority rule is being promoted by the winners in existing oligarchies. It is in their interest to make everyone believe that there are no other options. But there are. We should take back our democracy by trying large-scale experiments with mediated and facilitated democratic conversations.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bogeyman Foreign Policy

In an article in the Boston Globe Stephen Kinzer rehearsed the history of the current crisis with North Korea which not only has an arsenal of atomic weapons but is coming close to developing intermediate range missiles which, armed with nuclear warheads, could reach the United States. There is a great deal of huffing and puffing on the part of the Trump administration but not much action because there is not a lot they can do. Kinzer believes that we could only persuade the Chinese, who have a great deal of influence in North Korea, to put pressure on that government if we were willing to withdraw all troops from the Korean Peninsula thereby ensuring the Chinese that they would not have possibly hostile soldiers on their borders.
Kinzer traces the current crisis to the Carter administration when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The US wanted to base military units to fight the Soviets in Pakistan and the Pakistanis were willing to allow that. But their price was the permission to develop their own atomic weapons. The US had previously made major efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. That involved the US making sure that Pakistan would not be able to have its own nuclear weapons program. We had been very serious about that all along but being in a complete tizzy about the Soviets in Afghanistan, we reversed policy and allowed the Pakistani nuclear program to go forward.
Contrary to what had been agreed, Pakistan shared its nuclear technology with the North Koreans who then also became an atomic power. We see now that that was a disastrous choice on our part. We had been right to resist nuclear proliferation. Changing policy on that was a serious error that led us to the present impasse with North Korea.
At the same time, of course, we armed the mujahedin, the guerrilla fighters against the Soviets who, after the American invasion of Afghanistan, turned against us and morphed into Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.
Our near hysteria about the Soviet Union led us to arm countries and guerrilla movements against us. The serious troubles we have in the Middle East and in North Korea are largely self created and self-inflicted.
Both are due to the peculiar characteristics of the Cold War. Today we have serious disagreements with the Chinese and we try to resolve those as best as we can, using threats as well as promises as one does in foreign affairs. But in the Cold War there were not only disagreements between us and Russia, there was a whole other issue: Communism.
The Chinese call themselves Communists but that does not bother anybody, probably because they are the most unlikely Communists anybody has seen in a long time. But Russian communism was used to whip up intense hysteria in the United States. In the 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had the entire country believing that communist agents had infiltrated many public and private institutions. State employees and employees of many universities were forced to sign loyalty oaths, attesting to their firm belief in capitalism.
The country survived and Sen. McCarthy died soon afterwards but the fear of communism did not abate. We were willing to do anything whatsoever to fight the Communists. Russia was not just another country, a developing country at that, Russia was the "Evil Empire." It was the dark opponent of Star Wars and other movies. Rational policy considerations were not enough to defeat it.
This sort of magical thinking, "Bogeyman Foreign Policy" has caused serious problems for us and continues to do so. Our conduct in Vietnam, supporting French colonialism until 1954 and then refusing to deal with North Vietnam, whose founding document quoted our Declaration of Independence, because they were “Communists” laid Vietnam to waste and took the life of 54,000 American soldiers. We were blinded by the myth of evil and intransigent communism. We were not fighting a real government—North Vietnam-- but a myth—International Communism.
The “Evil Empire” collapsed in 1989. It was immediately replaced by international terrorism, and now by immigrants demonized like communism and terrorism before them. Immigrants are criminals. Immigrants are a shady presence; they take jobs away from Americans at the same time as they drain government coffers by drawing on social services. Immigrants are not like us, they are a threat to our way of life and our traditions. We must protect ourselves against immigrants at all costs, even if that means radically scaling back services for Americans who are poor and sick, or for the elderly who, after a long life of hard work find themselves in poverty.
Citing facts against the myth of the immigrant threat is useless. The immigrant bogeyman is too real in people's mind. It cannot be chased away by ordinary facts.
But the conclusion is only too obvious: once we indulge in Bogeyman Foreign Policy we encounter serious and perhaps irreparable losses. We should think twice about letting ourselves be terrified by imaginary threats. But in the clutches of Bogeyman Foreign Policy we cannot think straight. We frighten ourselves with bogeymen of our own invention.
Politicians encourage the creation of  bogeymen. Voters terrified of communism or immigrants  choose representatives who are "tough" on communism or immigration. They do not pay attention to the political candidate's other qualifications, or lack thereof. Fairly incompetent candidates get elected simply because they never stop talking about bogeyman threats.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Why don't they want join us?

I have belonged to a number of all-white organizations. These were different kinds of groups. Some were progressive political groups whose commitment to opposing all racist distinctions was an important plank in their platform. Others were groups of retired people trying to continue their education, or they were neighborhood groups trying to maintain their neighborhood and in the process having occasional social events. From time to time these group would notice and deplore the absence of members of color. There would be some discussion of ways of recruiting African-Americans and other persons of color. Some members of the group would make recruitment efforts but the group remained as white as before. We would end up disappointed, shaking our heads, not knowing what to think.
Why did African-Americans not want to join our group? Because we could ask the question and be at a loss for an answer. Because we had no clue about life for African-Americans in these United States.
Let me explain this in three steps.
1. Whites do not understand the reluctance of African-Americans to join white organizations because they are oblivious to the history of African-Americans on this continent. The first black people came to this continent in 1609. For the first few years they were treated no differently from other servants. But when at the end of the 16 hundreds white and black servants together joined an uprising of farmers oppressed by their debts, the white people in power decided to sow enmity between white servants and Blacks by turning the Blacks into slaves. For the next 200 years Blacks in America, with very few exceptions, were slaves. The Civil War put an end to slavery but very soon afterwards black Americans found themselves in pretty much the same condition. They worked for very little. They had no citizen’s rights. They were in no rrespect equal to whites. When a white man or woman came down the sidewalk they had to step into the gutter to make way for them. It was not worth a black man's life to look at a white woman in any way. They were pariahs.
Significant change occurred in the 1960s. There are now some African-Americans who are wealthy, who have positions of power and respect in our society. Many earlier forms of segregation – separate restrooms and water fountains – are a thing of the past. African-Americans attend and graduate from the best white schools. White patients are attended to by black physicians; white clients have black lawyers.
A second reason why black people, most of the time, refuse to join white organizations is that whites, seeing the changes that undoubtedly have taken place, believe that racism is a thing of the past. "We even had a black president" they say. But it does not take much to see that viewpoint to be a major error.
Yes, slavery where some human beings own other human beings is dead. Gone are the slave markets. Gone are the families broken up when some members were sold off to other owners. But unpaid or unusually low paid work still remains. Forced work, work that one cannot refuse to do, continues to exist. In one way or another significant numbers of incarcerated African-Americans (and whites) work in prisons for no pay at all or for somewhere between $.93 to $2.40 an hour. This forced labor is not that different from slavery. Prisoners are forced to work; refusers end up in solitary confinement for long periods. The work is unpaid or barely paid.
The main victims of the system of quasi-slavery are African-Americans. Lynching has ceased to be a regular occurrence. But African-Americans are still not safe. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson brought to national attention the fact that African-Americans, both men and women, are in danger of being killed by police and that local district attorneys and grand juries ignore these as crimes of murder and fail to seek appropriate punishment. Killing African-Americans remains unpunished. Slavery and lynching have not disappeared. They have been transmuted into more modern kinds of maltreatment.
There is a third reason why African-Americans stay away from white organizations. Most white people are willing to acknowledge that racism persists in the United States. It would be hard to deny that when the President appoints an avowed racist as one of his closest advisers. But many whites draw a sharp line between themselves who oppose racism, who seek to build mixed organizations, and who profess to oppose racism wherever they encounter it and avowed white supremacists. We think of ourselves as well meaning whites opposed to whites who remain racist and full of hate. We are good whites; they are bad.
But in drawing that distinction, we good whites are being much too easy on ourselves and take credit for an opposition to racism which we do not deserve. Most whites, however well intentioned, harbor often not quite consciously white supremacist attitudes. I myself again and again catch myself in those attitudes. As a Jew who suffered serious losses during the Holocaust, I have good reason to be dead set against any kind of racist beliefs or behaviors. But very recently when I attended a convention of philosophers, I met a man whose books I had read and admired and discovered that he is African-American, which I had not known. I was just about to say "I did not know that you are a black" but fortunately caught myself at the last moment. Since he did very good work which I admired, I had of course assumed that he was white because deep down I believe that black philosophers were not good philosophers. I obviously know better because there are a number of black philosophers whose work is clearly superior to anything I myself have written. I admire their work tremendously and so does almost everybody else. I know for a fact that there are black philosophers whose work excels. But the deeply ingrained distrust remains untouched by actual experience, untouched by fact.
It was this distrust I was about to express to this man whom I admired. Did he notice my hesitation? Did he think to himself "here it comes again”?
I don't think that I am that different from many other "well-meaning" whites. We harbor serious anti-black prejudices so deeply ingrained that we don't always notice them. That allows us to deny their existence and think of ourselves as good white people. But they make black people unwilling to be around us because these prejudices are extremely hurtful.
To sum up: why don't African-Americans want to join organizations of well-meaning whites?
For three centuries African-Americans were treated with exemplary cruelty by whites. While those forms of oppression have disappeared they have been transmuted into other equally hurtful and inhumane forms. Racism is not dead it has just changed how it manifests itself. Even those of us who oppose racism sincerely cannot always stop ourselves from being seriously offensive, from giving voice to prejudices we abhor but nonetheless are host to.
And finally we are so inattentive that we do not know any of this. We do not understand significant facts about African American lives in the US. How can we say that we really care?
It is no wonder that African-Americans are very hesitant to join white organizations.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Moses and Jesus

This year, as happens occasionally, Passover, the Jewish festival, coincides with Christian Holy Week.
During Passover Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt where they had been laboring making bricks and building pyramids to glorify the Pharaohs. But, so the story goes, Moses with the help of God persuaded the Pharaoh to let the Jews go after every firstborn Egyptian child died through divine intervention.
Liberation is the key word in this story about the exit from Egypt. This story is a political one about the founding of a new nation, the Jews, with the help of their divine patron.
The Christian story, as usually told, appears to have little in common with that of the Jews. In the Christian story Jesus is revealed to be, indeed, the son of God whose resurrection and later appearance to his disciples testifies to his divinity. The person who had seemed to be so very human, as he walked humbly among the poor and outcast he had chosen to be his companions, was now revealed to be not only human but also divine, clad in mystery demanding from us that we accept what we cannot understand, the mystery of the Trinity.
But from the perspective of Passover we can see a different story manifest in the Gospels--Jesus as a social revolutionary. He was harshly critical of the religious authorities that governed the Jewish people. The Gospels reproduce long sermons of condemnation of the Pharisees and other tribes of rabbis whom Jesus condemns as hypocrites, as men who take advantage of the privileges of their position to benefit themselves and lay heavy burdens on ordinary Jews.
Over and over Jesus praises the poorest and most downtrodden people in the Jewish community. He associates with prostitutes, tax collectors--widely hated because they collected taxes for the Roman occupiers--he stays in the house of a leper. Almost every move is a protest against the social and economic distinctions in the existing Jewish society. Over and over he preaches equality, that every person is of equal value, that every person deserves respect and considerate treatment. Wealth was not to determine how neighbors spoke to or regarded one. One’s position in the society was not to be determined by how one made a living and what work one did in the day to day. The chief command in Jesus's ethics was "love your neighbor like yourself."
In the political vocabulary of our day Jesus would surely be a socialist. We might even say that Jesus was the Bernie Sanders of his day.
That man fired up ordinary Jews. When he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey crowds lined the streets and cheered for him. The hard-working, the downtrodden understood his message that they too were to be treated as important persons who did their part to keep the society operating. They should not be exploited and disrespected because their hands were calloused and their backs bent.
Not surprisingly the authorities felt threatened by what seemed to be an impending revolution of some sort. They feared that Jesus would overthrow existing authorities and declare himself the new King of the Jews. The SWAT teams of Homeland security were called out to arrest Jesus.
"Are you the King of the Jews?" They kept asking him. Jesus refused to answer.
What was he going to say? He was not the King of the Jews in that he did not aspire to the power and position of the Pharisees or of the colonial governor, Pontius Pilate. But of course he was the king of the Jews in so far as the people revered him and heard in his speeches a renewal of the Jewish people and the beginning of a new era of equality.
The competing stories of Passover and of Easter illustrate for us the profound ambiguities of our histories – the histories of Jews and of Christians. Their traditions celebrate freedom and human equality. The Jews get to leave Egypt and after 40 years to find their own land and construct their own people. And later there comes the prophet Jesus who steadfastly proclaims a gospel of human equality.
But hierarchies of Jewish rabbis or Christian priests and of Roman colonial authorities continually push the message of freedom and equality into the background, concealed behind the mysticism of Christian theology and the complexities of Jewish dietary laws. Jews gave excessive authority to their rabbis and now, when they are citizens of liberal democracies, many of them support the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians and many of them support conservative and reactionary governments in their own countries. The message of freedom and equality is almost forgotten buried under hierarchical religious and political organizations. Social distinctions based on income are revered. Freedom becomes very limited.
The Catholic Church concealed the message of freedom and equality, proclaimed so eloquently by Jesus, under a hierarchy which to this day regards women as second-class citizens, which is unable to make a clean break with the abuse of children, and reluctant to give up the benefits of political power for the sake of being true to the Christian message of loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself. Instead of promoting peace, they went on Crusades, fought bloody religious conflicts and legitimated the imperial wars of kings and emperors.
The belt buckles of Nazi soldiers proclaimed “Gott mit uns. (God with us)”
The history of Passover and of Easter is a sad testimony of humanity's unwillingness to take seriously what the best of us have always insisted on, namely that human beings be equal, equally free and equally respected.
These two celebrations challenge us to remain faithful to the central values of our tradition – freedom and equality – and to keep challenging illegitimate hierarchies of political and religious power. Today that means that we support the slogan that “No Human Being is Illegal.” It means that we commit ourselves to combat the gross economic inequalities everywhere. We must be serious about our basic principle that “All Men are created Equal.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Crimes against the innocent

It is Passover season again. Jews everywhere remember the flight from slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh finally let the Jews go after God killed every Egyptian firstborn. The Jews left Egypt in a great hurry but then found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in pursuit. Once again God came to their rescue. The waves of the sea parted so that they could walk on solid land. When they reached the other side, the sea closed up again drowning the pursuing Egyptian soldiers.
During Passover we remember this history of our ancestors and rejoice about our liberation and about all the liberation struggles since then.
A short while ago we were reflecting about this history and about Passover and my partner, Lucy, observed that amid all the rejoicing we do not to pay attention to the deaths of all Egyptian firstborn children or the drowning of the Egyptian army. The liberation of the Jews came at a very high price.
You might say that the soldiers who died should have been prepared because soldiers die as a part of the life they chose as soldiers. The death of some is the price for the glory of others. But no such excuse can be provided for the death of firstborn children. They were indeed innocent victims.
As we see every day, military actions have innocent victims. The bombs that we drop in Syria in order to combat Isis quite regularly kill women and children who are not only not connected with Isis but who are not connected at all with the whole Civil War. The women just wanted it to stop. The children are too small to have a choice.
Recent reports about the massive destruction in Syria note that many schools have also been reduced to rubble. More than 1 million children have never been to school. They cannot read or write. They cannot add and subtract. What kind of future are they looking forward to? Once grown up, what work will they be able to do in these highly technological societies? The countries bombing Syria, including the US, bear responsibility for lives bound to end in poverty and utter misery.
Our leaders, throughout our history, do not understand that. Laying a wreath in Italy at the site of a Nazi massacre during World War II, the Secretary of State , Rex Tillerson, vowed that we, the United States, would "punish those who commit crimes against innocents anywhere in the world." Since our armies in Afghanistan, in Iraq and now in Syria, daily harm innocents, we would have to begin by punishing ourselves if we took this threat seriously. But it is only political propaganda.
Wars have always inflicted great suffering on civilian populations. Before there was artillery that destroyed the houses in the country and the cities, Before there were airplanes that drop bombs from high altitudes or guided missiles that come from far away, there were troops that, once victorious, pillaged and plundered and raped, and burned down houses and barns. In the ancient world conquering armies would massacre entire populations. During World War II both sides tried to win by methodically bombing each other's cities and killing civilian populations. The same tactics are still being used every day by us.
Harming innocents has always been a legitimate tactic of warfare. Promising to protect innocents is hypocritical unless the government that makes that promise suspends all military activity.
Last year the body of a drowned child washed up on the coast of Greece. His family had tried to cross the Mediterranean in an un-seaworthy boat. The picture went viral and there was a wave of sympathy for refugees from Syria, from Libya and elsewhere.
No one observed that refugees from Libya are reacting to the United States bombing a number of years ago that killed the dictator and left the country in political chaos. Instead of pitying this child, people would have done better to protest against the military actions of the United States that were the direct cause of this boy drowning. Pity that does not impel us to action is useless and insincere.
This is the deeper message of the Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery. The price for violent liberation is often paid by those who have nothing to do with the conflict that takes their life. We should not rejoice over liberation and forget the victims who die through no fault of their own.
This is a hard lesson to learn because it is so universally ignored and because it makes clear that we can only protect the innocents by strictly adhering to a policy of nonviolence. Promising to protect the innocents through violence is to promise the impossible. Through violence some innocents will be sacrificed to protect others. Who is in a position to decide which innocent will live and which will die?
We can only protect the innocent by being nonviolent ourselves.