Watching the PBS series on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I realized how much my mind has been changed by YDS, my career with Africa, the turbulence of our world, and our national fixation on “our enemies.” Coming out of a childhood in a coal-mining and hard scrabble farming town in Southern Illinois, where most whites were poor and blacks knew their place, and followed by a pre-med BA in a politically conservative all-male college in Indiana, I was changed by the Rockefeller trial year at YDS, the student Christian movements, the New York Times, and a sudden engagement in civil rights work.
Directions at YDS: At YDS, I was mentally and emotionally captured by the contextual ethics of Niebuhr, the ‘Christ transforming society’ of Gustafson, and the empirical focus on the nature of the university by J. Edward Dirks. I heard their consistent messages that we, like Jesus, should take the world seriously and, as citizens of “a different kingdom,” should not be captive to our race, ethnicity, material comfort, or nationality. We talked a lot at YDS, as the sixties engaged us, about being a “chosen people” for progressive social change, about forming the new University Christian Movement to that end, about worker priests and “intentional communities,” and about a “world in revolution.”
Jon Oliver Nelson completed the process with my first global experience by funding Lou Marsh and me to spend the summer of 1958 in the USSR on the first Eisenhower-Khruschev youth exchange. Then, two years of campus ministry fieldwork at Yale out of Dwight Hall and Battell Chapel and a one-year stint as Presbyterian campus minister intern at University of Delaware completed the YDS experience.
Delaware and Africa: This Delaware internship sent me in new directions when I landed in a house in the African American community in Newark, Delaware and, shortly thereafter, became campaign manager for George Wilson, who was elected as Delaware’s first black city councilman during the heady days of JFK’s election campaign and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Then after YDS, the Presbyterian Church founded a new international program of “living on the frontiers” rather than as traditional missionaries and sent a number of us abroad in the 1960s, in my case as a race relations worker in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
I was “captured” by Africa – by the immense openness, acceptance, and kindness of the African communities of Southern Africa, both Christian and Muslim, even while they lived under the violence of white racism. I was struck by their urgent need for liberation from white rule, the impacts of globalization, and especially by the reshaping of even the most distant villages by colonial and U.S. foreign policies in Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa where I lived and did research over the years. After being declared persona non grata (an informal deportation) by the Rhodesian government and wanting to understand better this continent and its peoples, I applied for graduate school in sociology. Yale’s acceptance letter was lost somewhere in the African mails, so I landed at Princeton to do a joint sociology/sociology of religion PhD at the university and seminary. It was a rich program including seminars with Sam Blizzard and Richard Shaull and at Columbia and New School with Immanuel Wallerstein and Peter Berger. After a year of dissertation research in Zambia on social class and denominationalism (upper class Anglicans and lower class evangelicals and adventists, much like the U.S.), I landed a job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching sociology of religion, social movements, African development, and race and ethnicity.
Across these experiences, it seemed to me from an African and sociological perspective that I learned that what Christians and their churches did was much more important than what they said. As a result, over the years my focus in the church became much more on ethics than on theology, still influenced by the Richard Niebuhrian view of the work of Christians as agents of “transforming culture” and the hope for a prophetic voice for justice from the churches.
A career in sociology and African studies: From 1972-2008, I taught sociology half-time and directed the Title VI African studies centers at Wisconsin and then at Michigan State, the larger program, now with 160 Africanist faculty. I was seeking to strengthen PhD and BA programs for studying Africa with African languages, better education about Africa in U.S. schools and colleges (esp. with film and video), deepened partnerships with African universities to train their faculty and ours, and work for African “development.” At the dawn of the 1970s after the collapse of the University Christian Movement that many of us had worked to found, we watched the major churches turning away from a progressive campus ministry that had built a vital and politically-engaged student movement. I focused my continuing activism on anti-apartheid, African liberation, and U.S. foreign policy. Within African studies, I sought to bend programs of NSF, NEH, the disciplinary associations, and foundations to support African needs, especially in higher education, and to internationalize U.S. colleges and universities. Since 1982, I have worked with colleagues in the African Studies Association and the African centers nationally to reject military or intelligence funding for African studies programs or research.
Now I am out of administrative responsibilities and am back in sociology full-time, trying to complete some long-postponed writing on the militarization of Africa and the erosion of civil society there under authoritarian regimes of dictators. This has given me some margins to be in more contact with my four sons in Raleigh, New Haven, Seattle, and one still at MSU in East Lansing…as well as their six children and spouses and partners.
Looking back at this half-century since we left YDS, I am astonished at the changes we have lived through – the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis followed by detente and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the deaths of King and the Kennedys – and later the election of Obama, and the incredible technological advances from that old Smith-Corona to MSWord, the Internet, and Google. And there was the civil rights, women’s, and LGBT movements, the birth of dozens of independent African nations, the end of apartheid and white rule, the growth of world hunger (one billion now living in critical poverty), and the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing and Rust Belt industry (along with some of our middle class); the growth of great wealth disparities in our nation and the disdain for helping the poor at home or abroad; the growth of great poverty among U.S. blacks and Hispanics (median household net worth of $9,000, compared to that of whites $144,000 in 2007), the globalization of trade, music, culture, and consumption; and the incredible growth of information so that we have no excuse for not knowing.
Moving to the “dark side“: In the last decade of turbulent socio-economic and political change, I have grown increasingly disappointed with who we have become as an American people even as we live at the global heights of privilege. That disappointment applies to myself, my discipline, and our churches too who have “been busy” and “looked the other way” much too often and have not challenged our support of repression and dictators. From those days in the 1960s of improving civil and gender rights and standing globally for the rule of law, justice, and democracy, now this nation has been tarnished around the world by our fixation on our own homeland security, our privilege, and on misguided military “solutions” over our “enemies.” That aggressive military and intelligence protectionism began early, I have come to understand. Even as JFK was raising the vision of Camelot, founding the Peace Corps, and enlarging aid to the developing countries, there now is clear evidence that our government simultaneously was cooperating with others to assassinate or replace foreign leaders (Nkrumah, Castro, Allende, Obote, Lumumba, and others) whose only “sin” often was to advocate for non-alignment with East-West, a kind of Scandinavian socialism, or to call for all-African unity. Many of these African dictators were installed or supported during the Cold War by the colonial powers and the U.S., along with Israel and the Eastern Bloc too. And the U.S. fomented civil wars and insurgencies that killed and injured millions – undermining civil society and development in Africa and Latin America with deep impacts that persist even today. Then, beginning in the 1980s our government began its continuing campaign against the UN, UNESCO, FAO, ILO, and all those multinational organizations that the U.S. pushed to found after WWII to seek democracy and development for all the world. Now, the new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has taken the “Global War on Terror” to Africa, focused on U.S. “security,” and ramped up exports of arms and training with an interest in Africa primarily for its oil, minerals, and “terrorists.”
Who was injured by 9/11?: But it has become so much worse since 9/11 when we have focused far more on the 2,819 lives lost in the U.S. 10 years ago – a tragedy indeed for each and every person and family – than on the 3,000 African children who die every day of malaria or the 4,430 African women who die each week at pregnancy and childbirth.
And the largest loss of lives resulting from 9/11, we now know, occurred when the Bush-Cheney Administration took us to war in Iraq to find the alleged “weapons of mass destruction.” And little mention is made of the enormous human losses in Iraq and Afghanistan from our 9/11-initiated wars there – at least 150,000 Iraqis killed and even more injured (2003-11) and more than 10,000 Afghani civilians killed and more injured – plus the more than 7,000 U.S. and coalition troops killed and 40,000 seriously injured, not counting the post-trauma injuries and suicides now emerging at home. The human tragedy is multiplied by our military and security fixations, spending more on our military than all other nations combined – with 737 American military bases occupying 50,000 square miles of other peoples’ lands in 150 countries. And, for homeland security, we have 850,000 new employees in 2,000 contracting firms at an overall cost that is classified for what the Washington Post terms “Top Secret America.” We have become the Romans … the empire.
Where is the prophetic voice?: In this new century, my great disappointment is how our mainstream churches have backed away from a prophetic challenging of the U.S. militarist solutions to the problems of a turbulent and globalizing world that actually create more enemies. I keep hoping for a “Christ transforming culture” church like those French, Danish, and Bulgarian Christians in WWII who risked life to rescue Jews, but I find only faint traces of that concern in our nation and in almost all of our churches, even as we grow poorer from our fear-based military and intelligence fixations. (Impoverished Michigan alone sends circa $50 billion in taxes annually for the DOD, more than all the state’s combined expenditures for health, education, welfare, transportation, prisons, and police.)
Some in the Canadian churches are attempting to build a pan-Canadian, ecumenical Christian response to some of these crises in their Kairos Canada movement (www.kairoscanada.org). They organize across their nation seeking to speak truth to power on issues of sustainability (climate justice, resource extraction, corporate accountability, global finance), dignity and rights (indigenous rights, women, trade and rights, human rights, migrants), and specific countries (currently Congo, Colombia, Sudan, and Palestine-Israel). We need a similar ecumenical prophetic response to our militarized foreign policy and nation.
In retrospect, I am struck that it was a Presbyterian-baptized General, head of our military in World War II, and our President who, in January of the year we graduated from YDS, warned us:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” [Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Speech, January 17, 1961]
He was right about the military-intelligence-industrial complex, and this is our kairos.
October 3, 2011