The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an op-ed piece I submitted. I discuss the importance of acknowledging the role race continues to play in American society in light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It is the last article on the page.
I write this post not to express any theological perspective, but simply a political and historical one about how the message of Jesus has been corrupted by conservative Christians in the United States. I am not writing to debate whether Jesus was the Son of God, a prophet, the messiah, a miracle worker, or anything of the sort, but I just want to point out what he was and stood for in comparison to what he has been made to stand for today.
Today is Good Friday, the day Christians mourn the crucifixion of their spiritual leader, Jesus Christ. On Sunday, Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christians, at least in the United States, celebrate a very different Jesus than the one who lived a couple thousand years ago. If Jesus returned to Earth, as many Christians believe he will, the shock and disgust that he would have towards the majority of those who consider themselves his most devote followers.
Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, as long as you believe Jesus existed (I am somewhat surprised by how many people doubt his existence, which to me makes little sense — more evidence points towards his existence than his nonexistence, and what would the point of making him up be? But I digress…), it is difficult to deny the radical beliefs of Jesus. Living under the mighty Roman empire, one of the most powerful empires in world history, Jesus saw how the Romans exploited the poor for their own wealth and manipulated religion to subdue the people and maintain the status quo. Jesus had no intention of creating his own religion; he simply wanted to use religion as a political vehicle to rebel against the Roman Empire. Jesus knew that humans were not meant to be pitted against each other, but to cooperate and help each other; he knew that religion was a way to reach people and to motivate them, and a just religion had no place for the injustices in the Roman Empire. So Jesus rebelled: he told other oppressed people that the meek shall inherit the earth, and he condemned those who profited off the labor of others and those who persecuted others. Indeed, Jesus was a revolutionary and radical figure of his time, and he pursued a liberal agenda that promoted equality and justice in the face of classical imperialism and oppression.
The crime that Jesus committed– “The Cleansing of the Temple” — that led to his crucifixion was that he overthrew tables of money at a temple in Jerusalem to protest Roman and Jewish rulers who were charging the people during their worship of God. In current studies of Christianity, this fact seems practically forgotten. Religious leaders constantly tell Christians that “Jesus died for us” while simultaneously ignoring the supposed crime that he committed that led to his execution. If “Jesus died for us,” he sacrificed his life to protest the ruling class’s exploitation of those who less fortunate. The Cleansing of the Temple is a clear act of political subversion and rebelling against the oppressive status quo.
How have we gone from the point where the subversive political activist Jesus who preached equality and stood up for the poor has been transformed into a vengeful Jesus that rejects any social change and seeks to limit the rights of some? Those in the United States who claim to best represent Jesus ignore his most essential beliefs while emphasizing viewpoints that Jesus never mentioned. While many Christians believe the most important issues in the United States are abortion and homosexuality, Jesus never said or did anything that suggested these issues were important to him. In addition, many conservatives believe that free market capitalism is essential to Judeo Christian ethos (one example here), but to scourge the bible to find particular passages to stress a certain ideology ignores all of the passages that contradict that ideology and the passages that argue for something that is completely absurd in contemporary society. If Christians want to follow Jesus’s message, they would not follow a free market capitalist ideology that promotes greed and consumption, and they would leave it up to Jesus to decide whether homosexuals are sinners. It is not up to Christians to judge who Jesus would resent, especially considering everything that Jesus said leads one to believe that Jesus would dislike those who are judging and oppressing rather than those who are striving for equality and justice.
Whether one believes in Christianity or not, this Easter let us remember what Jesus truly taught. He died as a result of his fight against exploitation and injustice. Those who use his name to promote exploitation and injustice are the ones who would be judged so harshly by Jesus, just as he criticized the Roman rulers who oppressed the laboring class that he defended. Instead of relying on a corrupted and manipulated theology to enforce an oppressive ideology, pay attention to what the historical Jesus truly said and did and then ask if would approve of how American Christians are using his message.
For some Americans, especially conservatives, the election of Barack Obama was proof that race no longer mattered. Sure, these same conservatives often conspired that Obama was not legally the president because he was not a real American, and his birth certificate was fake. They questioned if he was actually born in Kenya, which was such an absurd topic, yet one that Obama was required to address on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, the race problem was solved as evidenced by the election of a black president, according to many conservative pundits.
For those of us who realized the absurdity of white Republicans celebrating the end of racism, the murder and lack of immediate charges against George Zimmerman prove that racism continues to exist. Racism changes, as society does, and so racism is not the same today as it was in the 1960s, and advances have been made, but that does not mean the race problem is solved.
If Trayvon Martin was white, would George Zimmerman have been arrested? Certainly he would have. The police would not have believed that an unarmed white child attacked an armed man who was much larger than him, causing Zimmerman to shoot him out of “self-defense.” Zimmerman’s family has defended him saying that he is Hispanic and not racist. The fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic does not disprove the accusations that he is racist; Hispanics can be racist. Zimmerman saw a black kid in his upper teens in a hooded sweatshirt in his neighborhood and immediately reported him as “suspicious” and “up to no good.” What was so suspicious about the kid? Would a white kid have had the police called on him for acting suspicious? I am white, and I have never had the police called on me for acting suspicious.
Zimmerman is not the Ku Klux Klan type of racist that burns crosses in black people’s yards if they enter their neighborhood. But Zimmerman craves authority and power and believes that he needs to police the neighborhood for himself, and he also believes it is suspicious if young black males are in the neighborhood. Race still matters in that Zimmerman’s reaction to seeing a young black male in his neighborhood is different than his reaction would have been if it was a young white male. Race still matters in the police’s reaction to seeing a dead black male on the ground was different than if it was a dead white male. The police would not have immediately believed Zimmerman’s account if the races were different, and Zimmerman would not have been immediately suspicious of Martin if he was not black.
The other unsettling aspect of the murder of Trayvon Martin is the legal challenge that the “Stand Your Guard” law poses in Florida. The law was first passed in Florida in 2005, and has since been passed in 16 other states. This law is what Zimmerman will cling to as his defense, and it allows one to use force if they feel threatened in a public situation without needing to flee. Unless there are key eyewitnesses to the murder to contradict the murderer’s account, the murderer can easily say they acted in self-defense, and then how do you convict the person? In 2010, the Tampa Bay Tribune found how often this law has been used as a defense in murder charges, and justifiable homicides were definitely up. If an unarmed kid can be chased and then shot and killed, and yet the child is considered the provocateur by the police since they had nothing to contradict the murderer’s story, it shows how flawed the law is. It becomes extremely difficult to prosecute a murderer without key eyewitnesses because how can the jury be convinced that the killer was not acting out of self-defense if no one saw it? It opens a slippery slope of how one defines self-defense then. Hypothetically, one could harass someone at a park, follow them around, spit on them, push them, and refuse to leave them alone, then once the person has had enough of the harassment and fights back, the provocateur could shoot and kill the person and then simply claim self-defense to the police. People need to be required to attempt to flee what they perceive as a threatening scene instead of provoking them if they are going to claim self-defense. But the “Stand Your Ground” law does not require this and it sets up the potential for these violent incidents. Clearly Florida needs to revise their gun laws, as well as the other 16 states to have since passed them.
The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin is so unfortunate that one has to feel horrible for him and his poor family and friends. The only way that any good can come out of this killing is if it sparks a much needed renewed conversation about race in the United States and it also makes states reconsider these “Stand Your Ground” laws. Both of these issues need to be addressed, and hopefully this tragedy can make Americans reconsider these topics. In addition, Watch Groups need to have careful guidelines of what they follow. Watch Groups are not meant to be police officers without a badge or training. They should not be trying to enforce the laws themselves, but to watch for laws being broken, and then call the police to take action without getting involved themselves. Trayvon Martin will never get his life back, but we can at least learn something from his unfortunate murder by taking action and learning lessons from it.
(Update: Since originally writing this, I have also come across this: Ugandans are suspicious of the video as well. If you took the time to watch the 30 minute Kony 2012 video, you need to also watch this 6 minute response, which is a brilliant critique that makes many of the same points I attempted to make, but more eloquently and better informed.)
If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you probably have seen someone post the “Stop Kony 2012” video by now. At the time of writing this, the official video has almost 39 million views on YouTube, and #StopKony has been trending on Twitter for the past couple days. If you bothered to watch the video, you will see a well directed 30 minute video by a not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children demanding the arrest of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, who is accused of using children as soldiers and raping women. The directors requested everyone share the video on social media sites, in particular targeting celebrities and policy makers, and as a result the video has gone viral. While Joseph Kony deserves to be arrested, this organization and its method also deserves to be scrutinized.
Several other blogs have raised criticism of the Invisible Children organization, and I encourage you to read them (1, 2, 3, 4). Many point out the poor financial record of Invisible Children, which only provides 32% of its donations to the active cause. Certainly there are better not-for-profit organizations that one could donate to if they want to make a difference in central Africa. The video and its directors deserve further criticism though. I am not an expert on Uganda, Joseph Kony, or central Africa, but the fact that I felt just as comfortable talking about the situation before watching the video than I did after watching it raises serious concerns about its educational value. True, the video raised my awareness of Kony, and as an interested person, I will research it for myself, but the majority of viewers will not do the same, and therefore will learn little from the increased awareness of Kony.
What exactly does wearing “Kony 2012” bracelets and hanging up posters do to solve the conflict in central Africa? There is a difference between bringing awareness to the serious issues in Africa and making it a trendy movement that will fade away as soon as 2012 ends or Kony is captured. The film does not explore the roots of the problem or how large the problems are in Africa. Kony is not the only African warlord, and if he is captured the problem is not solved as another one will simply replace him. Yet the video presents it as a single issue that Kony needs to be stopped, and that is the solution to the problems in central Africa. It simplifies the problem to such an extent that the viewer learns little from it, and hence there is no educational value to it. Nothing is mentioned about the diversity of Uganda, which contains many different ethnic groups without any one being the majority. Nor is anything mentioned about Uganda’s colonial past, which continues to shape the country which only gained its independence fifty years ago. When a country consisting of such a diverse population gains its independence, wars between different ethnic groups are not uncommon. Invisible Children seems to ally itself with the Ugandan government against Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the Ugandan government is not free from human rights abuses itself. The Ugandan government has considered passing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish those convicted of homosexual acts with the death penalty. Is this the government that an organization for peace should be allying itself with? Arresting Kony certainly will not improve the government’s human rights record. To understand the problems in Uganda or central Africa, one has to know at least a little about the background of the country or the region. In fact, the viewer learns more about the director and narrator’s five year old son, who is vital to the video, than anyone else, including Kony.
The fact that the narrator and his son play such a major role in the video romanticizes their role in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of the White Man’s Burden. I do not believe the narrator had bad intentions while making the video, and I believe he thinks his organization is truly helping, but the fact that he can create a video with his five year old son pointing to a picture of Kony as saying he’s “the bad guy” that needs to be stopped without recognizing the inherent cultural imperialism behind it demonstrates how clueless the organization is. The idea of the White Man’s Burden is that it is whites noble mission to uplift other “uncivilized” races. It makes me very uncomfortable to watch a video where a white narrator talks to and about his son and how he wants to raise him in a world where (black) children in other countries are not forced to serve in a military. His plan to make sure his son does not grow up in such a world is simply to make videos such as this one, have people share them, spread “Kony 2012” posters and bracelets, and press lawmakers to make sure Kony is arrested. White Americans need to realize that the best way to help solve a conflict in Africa is not to make it into movement using social media. If people want to become true activists and raise awareness of complex issues, they need to first fully understand them themselves (which I do not, nor do I claim to) and second they need to educate others so they understand the problems at hand.
Instead of a video about “Kony 2012” that ignores the complexities of the problem and focuses on his (white) five year old son, the narrator would be better suited to make a video about the war torn region and poverty in it that educates the viewer instead of telling the viewer it is our duty to rescue them.
Israeli and American rhetoric condemning Iran’s nuclear ambitions is rising. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will not discount preemptively striking Iran, and he is currently seeking American support for an attack. With the exception of Ron Paul, who has no shot to win the Party’s nomination, the Republican presidential candidates are all competing to use the most hostile rhetoric possible against Iran, which is reminiscent of 2008 Republican candidate John McCain’s “Bomb Iran” Beach Boys song. But an attack seems much more likely this time around. Since the Republican candidates are too busy competing to be the least rational of the candidates, it’s difficult to imagine any of them gaining the support of more moderate Americans, and likely Obama will get reelected in the fall. Would Obama support an attack on Iran? I do not believe Obama would want to strike Iran, but the pressure of Israeli and Zionist lobbies may be overwhelming. Hopefully Obama and Americans can resist the drum beat for a war before it leads us into another disastrous foreign invasion of a Muslim nation.
If Iran did not feel the only way to protect itself from an American and / or Israeli invasion is by possessing nuclear weapons, perhaps it would not feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons. The rhetoric needs to be cooled down or else Israel and Iran will be staring into a new Cold War in the Middle East.
How is it possible that members of the U.S. military are not trained, especially in after Abu Ghraib, to know that urinating on corpses is completely unacceptable? Treating foreign victims or even enemies with the utmost humanity as representatives of the United States should be something hammered home to every soldier from day one when begin serving active duty.
P.S. Yes, I intend to resume my blogging once again.
There is no excuse, none, for a state to kill someone when there is ANY reasonable doubt whether he committed the crime. You have blood on your hands tonight.
Rest in peace, Troy Davis. I hope you didn’t commit the crime that you were accused of, and I hope your death represents a change in the U.S.’s idea to execute people. Maybe then your death won’t be for nothing.