Historian Ken Burns’ new CNN series on the Viet Nam war opens many old wounds as we review its horrible history. We talk about the 62,000 Americans who died in that horrible war, but we never mention the one million Vietnamese who died in that war, and the utter devastation that we released on that part of the world through our bombings and chemical warfare. Agent Orange was an environmental catastrophe. Many of our own veterans were casualties of this. Viet Nam is still enduring the effects of Agent Orange as is evidenced by the cancer rates and birth defects, even among our veterans. And then there was the napalm.
America entered the Viet Nam war to defend the fruits of French imperialism. Also, because our government lied to us, claiming the war to be a superpower contest between the godless communists and the free world. But in truth Viet Nam was more of a tribal war between factions of the Vietnamese people. The corpses were Vietnamese and not Chinese or Russian. And finally we were there to project American power and influence abroad.
While we should always show respect for our military personnel and veterans, those who are willing to serve and even die for their country. But we should never respect or defend our nation’s pointless and often catastrophic militarism that has wreaked havoc around the world. We must always remember that it is the politicians and not the soldiers who decide which wars that we need to fight.
One sad legacy from Viet Nam is that our country has proven time and time again that it has no memory. We have been fighting for 16 years in Afghanistan for no apparent purpose. We have spilled our precious blood and wasted our treasure in an endless tribal conflict wherein we have no legitimate role to play. We cannot even articulate what “victory” would look like and we have no exit strategy.
George W. Bush started a post 9-11 war with the wrong country. Attacking Iraq after 9-11 was like bombing China in response to Pearl Harbor.
He lied to us saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He lied to us by saying that we would pay for the war by taking Iraqi oil. The Bush family wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left our nation broke and divided. He destroyed the Iraqi government and infrastructure and left chaos and disorder in its place. He disbanded the Iraqi army which then became the core of ISIS. How much better both America and the Middle East would be if only we had stayed out of this futile and destructive conflict.
Our militaristic propaganda says that our military is there to protect our freedoms. I find such an assertion to be utterly ridiculous. All too often our country goes to war not for freedom, but to intervene in tribal disputes that need to be settled by the natives, and to impose our values, form of government, and economic system on the rest of the world. We fight to make the world “safe” by making it look more like us.
Ronald Reagan conducted a terrorist “war” against the duly elected government of Nicaragua. But the origins of the mess in Nicaragua goes back to the Eisenhower administration when we sent in troops to protect the United Fruit Company from the local efforts to unionize the workers. In those days it was easy to denounce anyone who stood for unionization, land reform, or economic security for the starving masses as communists. We must never believe that our own commercial interests trump the rights of indigenous people for political rights and economic participation.
We must never believe our own propaganda. We have no right to talk of freedom when unarmed people of color are being routinely tyrannized, brutalized, and even murdered by police officers for no reason. This is what the Colin Kaepernick protest was all about.
We must never equate patriotism with flag waving or outward patriotic displays when many of our own are denied security and full economic participation. We must never say, “America, right or wrong.” We must never assert our moral supremacy, when prisoners in Iraq were subjected to torture and abuse. That part of the Bush wars will always be a stain on our national character.
During the Third Reich, the nice people made the best Nazis. These nice people were not diabolically evil, but like sheep the allowed and even supported the diabolical evil that surrounded them. America must never become a nation of sheep that believes its own propaganda and confused true patriotism with flag waving support.
We must learn to face our nation’s history with honesty and self-reflection. We must begin to learn from our past and seek to build a better future.
Conservative Christians, especially those of the biblical fundamentalist variety, will tell us that America is a theocracy under their God’s rule. They will tell us that America is a Christian nation, born of a divine covenant. They will attempt to use government and civil authority to compel us to live according to their God’s design. They will proclaim that if only we will follow their God, their God will bless us and our nation. But if we should stray from their God’s ways we shall be destroyed.
There is also a Roman Catholic brand of fundamentalism that finds its foundation not in the scriptures, but in Roman Catholic doctrine on such issues as reproductive freedom. Often biblical fundamentalists will unite with doctrinal fundamentalists to impose their social agendas upon society.
The conservative Christians will attack modern science, and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology. They oppose the teachings of Darwin, even though Darwin’s work has prevailed against more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific challenge. If these biblical literalists were consistent, instead of just opposing evolution and Charles Darwin, they would need to oppose Copernicus, Galileo and all that those who have followed for the last five hundred years.
The biblical world view consists of a flat earth covered by the firmament, which was an inverted dome, and separating the waters from above the firmament from the waters below the firmament (Genesis 1:7-8). This view of the earth can be envisioned as a dinner plate covered by an inverted salad bowl. Furthermore, the earth was created in 4004 BC according to Bishop Ussher’s literalist chronology.
In the same manner as these fundamentalist attack science and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology, these fundamentalist endeavored to stifle our democracy and to replace it with a fundamentalist theocracy which they would control. If any American really believes that they would like to live in a theocracy, they should live for a while in a country such as Iran or Israel just to see what that would be like.
The conservative Christians will tell you that America was founded by Christians for Christian purposes. But the part that the conservative Christians will not tell you is that America was settled by religious dissidents who were seeking religious freedom. The Reformation in Europe brought in its wake centuries of religious warfare and persecutions.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “enforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
“America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).” America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition). Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html>.
Many conservative Christians seem to have forgotten the lessons learned in this violent and painful era of European history and seek to impose a new era of religious subjugation, domination and persecution. They have forgotten that religious warfare and persecutions in Europe were the result of heavy-handed governments trying to impose uniformity in religious faith and practices by force.
The freedom of religion is a core American value, born out of the lessons learned in centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Freedom of religion is essential to our democracy. It is also freedom from religion. Every American is endowed with the inalienable right to worship God in a way that they choose, and/or to avoid religion all together.
America, and its great democratic traditions, was, is and always must be, a land of religious freedom, free of religious oppression and tyranny. It must also be free of any coercive religious doctrine imposed by the government upon its citizens.
The Declaration of Independence contains these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This great expression of human rights contains the mention of the Creator. But what people often fail to realize is that this statement is Deist and not Christian in its tone and content. Deism, as defined in Wikipedia, is,
”a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator.”
Note that this passage from the Declaration of Independence contains no appeals to religious affiliations, religious doctrines, or sacred scriptures of any type. Rather, it is born out of the Deist notion that God can be perceived through logic and observation of the world. The Deist God of American civil religion is much like the “higher power” in a twelve-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The Deist God of American civil religion exists without sacred scriptures, creeds, sacred history, or religious affiliation. The God of the Deists is abstract, formless and devoid of doctrine. Therefore, no one may presume to speak for God, or to cite divine sanction for their own personal political agenda in the public life and governance of our nation.
We are a free people, free to worship God in our own way, or not at all. We do not need “permission” from religious zealots or ecclesiastical authorities to make our own religious or spiritual choices. Our government must, under the constitution, be neutral on all religious questions, and must always defend our religious liberties against all oppression, either civil or ecclesiastical.
NOTE: The recent political campaign by Rick Santorum, wherein he tried to deny reproductive services to workers at Roman Catholic related institutions was not an act of “religious freedom” for the Roman Catholic Church, but rather would be an act of religious oppression by the Roman Catholic Church against its non-sectarian workers. The Roman Catholic Church has the right to create any rules it wants for those under religious orders. It also has the right to encourage various religious practices to its membership.
But it has no right to dictate the reproductive choices for a any workers not under religious orders. For example, a Methodist or non church going accountant working at a Roman Catholic Church related hospital must not be denied the right to a vasectomy or an abortion because such practice might run counter to Roman Catholic doctrine. And the Roman Catholic Church has no right to deny health insurance coverage to this hypothetical employee for these purpose. If the hospital is hiring from the general public, then it is operating in the public domain, and therefore must follow all of the rules for all public employers.
United Church of Cloverdale
Sermon: The Theology of Liberation
Amos 2: 6-8
Before there was a Thomas Jefferson, before there was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, before there was a John Locke, there was John Calvin. John Calvin, the progenitor of the Reformed Tradition, of which we are a part, first propounded the modern notion of freedom and democracy that has been an ever growing force in western culture since the Sixteenth Century. Although Calvin was a pastor and theologian, his writings did much to shape the modern world, and by the term “Modern World,” I mean everything since the year 1500.
Calvin opposed tyranny in all of its forms, whether it was the ecclesiastical tyranny of the popes and bishops, or the civil tyranny of the kings and feudal lords. The Reformed Tradition, true to its Calvinist roots, has always been a political institution. We are concerned with social justice, the ordering of society, the restraint upon tyranny, the recognition of divine dignity which is the birthright of every human being regardless of her or his worldly condition.
The birth of our nation was deeply and profoundly rooted in Calvinism. Calvinism was brought to our shores by:
- English Puritans
- Scottish Presbyterians
- Dutch and German Reformed
- French Huguenots.
The Declaration of Independence was the annunciation that the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA could no longer live under British tyranny. This document was a bold expression of pure Calvinism, and a guiding force to shape the great American experiment is democracy for centuries to come, both at home and throughout the world.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But the democracy being created was not for all. At least not back in the Eighteenth Century when these glorious words were written. These “self-evident” truths applied only to land-owning, white males. The sexism in this glorious document was quite intentional. “All MEN are created equal.” Women were excluded from the political process. Also excluded were slaves and Native Americans. These were considered to be less than human, and therefore were not considered to be endowed with “inalienable rights.” In the counting of population, for example, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a man.
But these high and noble words have grown beyond their original meaning. Having once articulated these lofty sentiments our nation has been propelled to extend their meaning.
- The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
- The Fourteenth Amendment broadened the understanding of citizenship, to include freed saves, Native Americans, and people of foreign birth. It also established the doctrine of Equal Protection Under Law, a principle that we continue to struggle to implement.
- The Fifteenth Amendment gave the right to vote to all males, regardless of race or color. It specifically extended the right to vote to former slaves.
- The Nineteenth Amendment gave WOMEN the right to vote.
- The Twenty-Fourth Amendment ended the poll taxes that had previously prevented many poor, especially minorities, from voting.
- The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. [Eve of Destruction: “You are old enough to kill, but not for voting. You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’.”
- The proposed Twenty-Eighth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, has only been ratified by 35 states, and it requires ratification by 38 states to become part of the constitution. Congress passed the ERA in 1972. Because of the time delay the ratification process may be voided, even it this amendment were to be approved by three more states. There are many who believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is actually unnecessary, as the issues addressed in it were already settled by the Fourteenth Amendment under the “Equal protection” clause.
One of the great realities of life is that we EVOLVE towards what we ENVISION. Even if our view of democracy in the Eighteenth Century was less than adequate, the mere fact that we embraced democracy in PRINCIPLE has meant that we have been driven to an ever deepening understanding. Where we focus is where we end up going.
The forces of democratization, launched by John Calvin centuries ago, continue to impact the world and its people. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest has been instrumental in developing Liberation Theology. Although Gutierrez is a Catholic, his theology includes much of Calvin’s teachings, particularly about the dignity of all people.
Liberation Theology aims to lify the poor and downtrodden out of their lives of poverty, misery and oppression. It teaches that each person has value as a child of God, regardless of her or his worldly condition. It teaches that all people should have access to the necessities of life, and to participation in the political process. It tries to form community among all peoples and nations, all races and tribes, and all economic strata of every society. It speaks to the yearnings of the poor and oppressed wherever they might find themselves.
Living in this country makes it hard to understand the poverty that passes for normal in much of the world. I had some interesting discussions with the poor of many lands during my travels. I was once asked by some church people in Mexico if poor people in the United States had cars and owned refrigerators. I told them that this was mostly true. They were shocked and amazed, for to them, owning a car and a refrigerator would make them wealthy.
Once I toured the garbage dump in Mexico City. Many families and their children, literally hundreds of people, lived in the dump, and survived by scavenging materials to be sold for recycling. The parents and children would walk barefoot on mountains of broken glass and rusted cans to find salvageable materials for sale. Shelters consisted of tin and cardboard shacks, or even lean-tos, erected on top of the garbage heaps. There were no schools, no sanitation, no clean water, and no medical care available. And the worst part of this deplorable situation was that there was a long waiting list of families who were waiting to GET IN to the dump, because it offered them the prospect of a BETTER life.
I have worshiped with members of Christian Base Communities. Such groups often meet in people’s houses to study the scriptures and pray. In Christian Base Communities it is required that each meeting end in some action item that will improve the lives of the people attending. This might be planning a community garden, or finding a way to tutor the children, or providing for one of their members who are even more destitute than the rest.
These people learn from the scriptures, and from their prayers and meditations, that they are Children of God, and worthy of respect.
When I was in college, preparing to enroll in seminary, I studied German and Greek. German has long been the language of choice for all budding theological students. German has been the language of theology for the past five hundred years. Or, perhaps a better way to say this is that German has been the language of EUROCENTRIC theology for the past five hundred years. But the Eurocentric model has become old and stale. New voices from the Third World are now changing the axis and focus of Christianity. If I were preparing for the ministry today I would study SPANISH instead of German. This would be to read the emerging works of people like Gutierrez, who have brought freshness and urgency to theological studies that has been lacking in the old Eurocentric model.
The old, Eurocentric establishment, and especially the Catholic Church, is deeply fearful of the new liberation. In 1984 and 1986 the Vatican issued edicts condemning the Liberation Theology movement as being Marxist in orientation, and therefore dangerous to the established order. We need to remember that the previous pope, John Paul II, was a person who fought communism in his homeland of Poland.
But the Liberation Theology movement is anything but Marxist. It is religious and not atheistic. It stands for human dignity and freedom, and not political subjugation. And when the movement advocates for such economic necessities as land reform and workers rights, it is grounded in prophetic Christianity and not Marxist ideology.
The irony for the Roman Catholic Church is that there are vastly more Catholics in Latin America as there are in Europe. The three largest Catholic nations on Earth are:
But is will be a long time before we find a Latin American pope, or any significant Catholic leadership from Latin America. The old order will be slow to change, and resistant to the end of Eurocentrism.
But the winds of freedom and democracy are still blowing. And this spirit cannot be held back. In Christian Base Communities I found people who had discovered their worth as Children of God, and who had come to understand that they were worthy of full participation in the human community. And once this message got loose, there was no way to stop its spread.