Our Agenda is Justice
David Phillips Hansen
Our agenda is justice. When the political, economic, and spiritual life of the nation moves toward justice there is joy in the land and the whole body politic is healthier. But today we are confronted by a system of growing inequality and naked injustice. Wealth and power are increasing concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people and corporations. Oppression and exploitation act with impunity. There is work to be done.
At the moment the future is unclear. Will we become a kleptocracy, as many fear, or a democracy? Will we have a government of the wealthy, for the wealthy, by the wealthy? Or, will we be able to defend, preserve and protect a government of the people, for the people, by the people? The answer to these questions may come sooner than we expect. Government and legislative leaders across the land are telling us that children do not need quality public education, health care is not a right but a privilege, and national parks and monuments are not a treasure to preserve but an economic resource to exploit. We are being asked to believe that people are expendable and the earth is a commodity.
But in town hall meetings, congregational gatherings and union halls people are standing up and fighting back. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Resist have taken to the streets and to capital steps. People's courage and commitment is breathtaking. Each of these struggles is necessary. Each is important. What is missing is adequate theological analysis. Our theology is not as helpful as it could be. We need a more adequate understanding of our history. We still want to believe that the United States is "the land of the free and the home of the brave." We want to sing, "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. . . .Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light."
We have yet to grapple with the darker side of our nation's history. We cherish the words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." These are powerful words that cause emperors to quake and empires to crumble. But we have forgotten that this same document, the Declaration of Independence, labels American Indians "merciless savages," and it goes on to say that their "known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." We want to forget that many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence also bought and sold human beings in the slave market.
We have not yet come to terms with this side of our history. We have forgotten that there were 70 to 80 million Indigenous Peoples in the Americas when Columbus "discovered" America in 1492. Native People lived here for 20,000 years or more before the dawn of the European Age of Discovery and Domination. We have not yet come to terms with what historian Charles Mann describes as the largest deforestation project in the history of the world, which happened as Euro-Americans moved from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River.
Only recently have we, white people, been willing to acknowledge that Indian boarding schools were by design what historian David Wallace Adams calls, "education for extinction." The motto of these schools was "Kill the Indian, save the man." Today some Native Peoples call Indian reservations "extermination centers." Extermination centers in the heart of the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have not yet come to terms with this side of our history.
The United States today is a house divided. We have two histories that are met in a single document, the Declaration of Independence. One side extols our virtues, the other side reveals our shame. We have yet to come to terms with the fact that the United States is and was from the beginning a settler nation. White people suffer from what Navajo scholar Mark Charles calls "white trauma." White people are shamed by our history of Indian genocide, Black slavery and ecocide. Because we cannot accept responsibility for our history, we project the myth of American exceptionalism. We tell ourselves that the United States is the last best hope for freedom. We extol the virtues of rugged individualism and the free market. Because we deny the truth about our history, we justify colonial wars in distant lands, and label movements like Black Lives Matter and Resist as terrorist organizations.
Because white people suffer historical trauma, we gave tacit assent to then FBI Director James Comey when he formed an Interagency Terrorism Task Force to investigate and interrogate water protectors, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies who tried to block the North Dakota Access Pipeline. It is not by accident that 480 people were arrested there. Indigenous People were protecting their water and defending the land guaranteed to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. In that treaty the U.S. government promised the Indians that the land would be theirs as long as the sun rises in the east and the rivers flow. The Fort Laramie Treaty is one of 370 treaties ratified by the United States Senate. It is noteworthy that the United States has unilaterally violated every one of these treaties. Yet, it was the Native Peoples and their allies who were sprayed with mace, attacked by dogs, shot with rubber bullets, locked in cages, and arrested. What we witnessed at Standing Rock is the increasing militarization of law enforcement and the criminalization of dissent.
We are a nation divided. Lincoln warned long ago that a house divided cannot stand. But there is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. Jesus promised that if we tell the truth, the truth will set us free. The prophet Isaiah told us, "beautiful upon the mountain of care are the feet of those who bring good news to the captive." President Obama said that if we love our country we have a responsibility to change it. Dr. King reminded us that "the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for the right."
When we "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," let us remember that those words were written by Edward Bellamy in 1890. He was a Baptist preacher and a Christian socialist. He wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in the Gilded Age in the hopes that it would spark a moral vision and reign in rampant materialism and excessive individualism. Katherine Lee Bates penned, "My country tis of thee sweet land of liberty," in 1893. She was a lesbian and a Christian socialist.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. In March of this year the Jesuits returned 525 acres to the Lakota Sioux Tribe on the Rose Bud Reservation. More recently Andover Newton Theological Seminary reached out to 396 Indigenous tribes and nations with an offer to return stolen items that are housed in its museum. These may seem like small steps but they are important steps. Returning stolen property is an act of justice. It is a sign of hope. It is a healing balm.
It is a sign of hope when people and institutions withdraw funds from banks and financial institutions that seek to profit from pain and injustice. To date more than $5 million has been withdrawn from banks and financial institutions as part of a global effort to defund DAPL. It is a movement that must continue and spread. Energy companies are building pipelines in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Florida. In all these places Native Americans are protesting these developments as violations of treaty agreements.
We must connect the fight for interracial justice to the fight for economic justice. We cannot have one without the other. Institutions like the Native American Bank are investing in economic development in indigenous communities. In many states there is renewed interest in public banking and co-operatives. There is growing consensus among economists that the present neoliberal economic system will not last another 40 or 50 years at most. If we want to create a more transparent and democratic economy the time to act is now.
Saint Augustine said long ago that God has given us a world in which there is enough to meet everyone's need, but not enough to satisfy one person's greed. Yet, greed has become the basis for global economic growth. The World Council of Churches reports that every day private financiers exchange $1.5 trillion worth of currency. Less than five percent of that vast sum goes to the creation of actual goods and services.
A rising economic tide does not lift all the boats. It does not end poverty. It exacerbates poverty. The gap between the rich and the poor is as great as the chasm that separated Dives and Lazarus in the parable of Jesus found in Gospel of Luke. It is the power of the wealthy and the weakness of the poor that perpetuates poverty. But there is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. The World Council of Churches has produced important study documents we need to use in our churches. The WCC has identified global capitalism as an idolatry. Market Fundamentalism is a misguided faith in the sanctity of private property and power of the so-called "free market." It is a system that privatizes wealth and imposes the burden of cost on the public, while at the same time stealing vital and necessary resources and reserves from the public purse.
To help us better understand what is happening the World Council of Churches proposes that in addition to talking about the poverty line, we also need to talk about the "greed line." When one person's annual income is measured in terms of millions and billions of dollars, when most of a person's income comes from favorable tax codes, royalties and rents, dividends and deferred payments, when those in the front office are earning on average 471 dollars for every dollar paid to the person on the shop floor, we need to talk openly about the connection between greed and poverty.
As a justice-seeking, justice-loving people let us counter the Gospel of Prosperity for the few with a Gospel of Good News for all. The measure of the economy is not the GDP, or the S & P, or the DOW. The true measure of healthy economy is the well-being of the people. We need an economic measuring stick that values access to health care, decent housing, safe communities, good schools, and jobs that pay a living wage.
As a justice-seeking, justice-loving people we need to cherish this good earth. A Native American scholar told me that the difference between white people and Indians is that white people think the earth belongs to them, Indians think they belong to the earth. Caring for the earth is what makes and keeps us grounded. Our watchwords for the future are cooperation and balance, not competition. We can learn to respect boundaries without making them barriers. Faith communities can be, must be, pioneers in creating a civil society.
In Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Bible, in the Sermon on the Mount the words of Jesus are unmistakable and clear: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; for they will be given plenty to chew on." My friends, God has given us plenty to chew on.
Dr. William Barber challenges us with these words: "It is time to dig a little deeper, work a little harder, organize a little better." In the words of Isaiah, "Those who wait on the Lord shall mount up on eagle's wings. " We shall run and not grow weary. We shall walk and not faint. With heads held high we shall sing, "My country 'tis of thee sweet land of liberty."
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