Wednesday, January 19, 2011

We, the Living, Uphold This

I went to Ghana January 3-18, 2011, to fulfill the Drew Theological School Cross Cultural requirement. It seems that my trips have led into each other, into this one to Ghana. Venezuela and South Africa--- these pilgrimages began in a small way to force me to recognize my race privilege. This pilgrimage to Ghana is yet another step, a bigger step, for me on the journey to understanding my race privilege and working against racism. This is my reflection from January 6, one of the most powerful days of the trip.

When I walked down into the dungeon for men in Cape Coast "Castle," there was just this horrible weight that pushed me down so much that I thought I would scream under the weight of it. The dungeon was designed to be a place of terror, a place where 1500 men were packed in and abused like livestock on factory farms are today, while so-called Christian missionaries lived in the apartments above them. In reflection later Jessica asked, how can a merciful God love us when this is what we do to one another?

Today began with a lot of apprehension on the part of our group. Most of the other students dressed up, knowing that this place they were visiting is a grave and trying to show respect. Then they sang gospel and praise songs on the bus on the way there, which Garrett broke into to read from Genesis 50:15-20:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, 'Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today."

I shivered as he read it. Shivered to realize what it was my African American classmates were facing as we journeyed ever closer to those forts on the coast, looking out over the sea where so many died in the Middle Passage.

As soon as we arrived to the Elmina Dungeon--- castle is not an appropriate term here as it signifies to me Disney princesses, rather we must find a name that better captures the horror of it like dungeons or concentration camps--- one woman began crying, overwhelmed by just standing on these steps, stones soaked in death and brutality.

At Elmina, our guide told us the story of the systematic dehumanization of the slaves, the rape of the women, the slow starvation of resistors, the deprivation of light, air, food. The stench of death and dying still lingers in the poorly ventilated women's quarters, almost two hundred years after its use, while the sea air caressing us in the officer's quarters was a slap in the face. Particularly as we stood in the Dutch church above the women's dungeon, or the Portuguese church in the center of the fort (different churches for different occupiers), feeling sick to our stomachs to think people could worship God on the very spot they committed atrocious crimes against humanity. We walked from the men's dungeon into the transition room, into the Room of No Return, where an opening barely big enough for me was the only way out into, in those days when the water was higher, the sea, into boats that would take them to those ships of death that would take the Middle Passage.

In the face of walking over this space where such atrocities, people, particularly white people I think, link this horror to others we know. The horror of Elmina reminded me of the orderliness of German-run concentration camps during the Holocaust. Systematic, orderly destruction. Here bodies had to be kept weak to avoid revolt, so they practiced a business model that caused the death of countless unknown. A business model. Cape Coast Dungeon, though, that reminded me of the sheer brutality of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Out of control brutality rather than orderly brutality. We walked down this slope into the male dungeon, stones worn by the feet on men, the filth of their humiliation now fossilized on the stone floor so no amount of sandblasting or excavation could remove it. This serious of dungeons for men had tiny oles way at the top of the walls for slivers of light and air. When our guide shut off the already pitiful lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, added for the tours, I couldn't breathe. It was like being in a cave.

Beside this first room was one in which resisters were chained and starved--- crucified--- in sight of the others, a primitive drain for this blood, urine, and shit to run off. Then we continued to descend into a sorting room where men were sorted by the merchants who bought and branded them. The tunnel--- through which the men would be forced down another, agonizingly long, that led to the Door of No Return--- has now been sealed and blocked by an Akan shrine that had been in that spot long before this place of death and returned to educate and I think try to drive the spirits of that place home to rest.

The women's prisons were not like the men's, down a tunnel through which no guard or officer would go even to feel the men--- no, the women's dungeons had to be more accessible to satiate the white monsters'--- for there is no way men working in these places could be anything but monsters--- lust for power, control. And these women's fates, like those of the men, led out of that Door of No Return just the same.

Both our guides in these places ended with hope. At Cape Coast, you leave through the Door of No Return, look out over the sea, but when you turn back around the door has been labeled the Door of Return as the remains of those who had been slaves in Haiti and the USA have been exhumed and returned through that door, symbolizing the right of return for all whose ancestors were victims of that place.

Both ended with a hope that such sites and the education that is their purpose are a call that Never Again will something like this happen. Yet I am always disturbed by this call because too often we think that if slavery has ended in that form the brutality has also ended. Our guide at Cape Coast boasted that the "castle" is more than a site of terror but, because of how it was used afterward, a site that helped bring Ghana into the new international economic order. I agreed: it is a site that is representative of an economic system that still exists today in which people of color are exploited so a small number of whites (and those who share white hegemonic power) can get rich. One of the realizations I had standing there as he spoke was that today I stood in slave dungeons. On January 31 I will stand in a prison to take a course with women on the inside. Just another way that this system in which we live enslaves people of color.

Yet these sites have forced us to ask questions, critical questions about the way the slave narrative has been fed to us (in text books written by white men, as Dr. Naana Opoku Agyemang talked about in a lecture we went to later that night). We saw in the structure of the building that these dungeons were intended as sites of terror from the laying of their foundations NOT as places to trade gold and ivory that evolved into the trade of human beings. We saw the resistance that must have been, despite their absence in the history books, in the very shape of that building, cannons not only facing the sea but the surrounding village. And we heard a few stories of walled communities to protect from kidnapping, people hiding from slavers in the immense hollow center of a baobab tree. We heard of the white merchants creating tribal warfare to benefit their trade as continues to be common economic and political practice in the two-thirds world today.

And I am an inheritor of these white merchants, as I am white, middle class, and a citizen of the U.S.A. I came to Ghana to continue my journey to understand my race privilege and unlearn racism and these slave dungeons now sit on my heart with the weight of the crimes against humanity. Too long have I thought, "My people"--- which as a construction in and of itself is problematic--- "have never been slave owners. We were busy being colonized by the British ourselves.---" as though I have any kind of cultural memory of that event--- "We came over after the Civil War because of the Famine, and we once classified as people of color too." This delusion denies the fact that when the Irish became white, I became an inheritor of a system in which because of the color of my skin I have opportunity, guarantees, safety, education, wealth, and other privileges I take for granted that some of those African American students with me in Ghana have not had. And this means it is my responsibility to acknowledge my inheritance of this racist system and work against it.

So when I, like Joseph's brothers, say,

"I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and sisters and the wrong they did in harming you...please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your parents."

I have felt the weight of those crimes, breathing in the putrid air in the women's dungeons in Elmina. And I know it is not enough to ask forgiveness, so I must seek ways to act to erode racism, to atone.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

These "Fear-Infested Times": The Christian Advocate's and Social Questions Bulletin's Coverage of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Methodism 1951-1953

This post is adapted from a presentation I did from my research in the Methodist archives at Drew University for a United Methodist history class taught by Dr. Kevin Newburg.1


In the 1950s in the USA, the Methodist church was a powerhouse. Though beginning as a church of the poor and working class, in the almost 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the 1950s, the church had steadily moved from the periphery to the center. Yet, in reading the national Methodist publication the Christian Advocate and the publication the Social Questions Bulletin (SQB) (now The Progressive Voice) of independent social justice Methodist group Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), there was a tension, a hysteria embodied in the investigations undertaken by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

I chose to look at 1951-1953 to cover the General Conference of 1952 in which MFSA was instructed to change its name and move out of Methodist offices and to cover the HUAC hearings of both Rev. Jack McMichael of MFSA and Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam. The media I chose to look at were the Christian Advocate (the national publication out of New York) and the SQB. The Christian Advocate was a much more widely read as well as much more politically moderate publication than was the SQB. I wanted to compare coverage in these publications to understand what it was Methodists understood a Christian economy to be and how they were affected by the hysteria surrounding communism.

What I found, though, was a church so afraid of splitting that prophetic voices were silenced by the mainstream church.

Christianity and the Isms

There was close to one article a week, or one article every other week in the Christian Advocate that centers around some aspect of communism--- which alone indicates the great anxiety that came with the Cold War. However, I was surprised at the multiple opinions and nuanced opinions published by the Advocate in this period, having expected to see much more conservative and univocal articles on the topic. Perhaps the best overview of what the Advocate published concerning economic systems was a series they ran called "Christianity and the Isms" in 1951. An editorial explaining the series called "Christianity and the Isms," indicated that the editors found it important to be in dialogue, and important to understand as Christians. They had pastors, not professors, write each piece.2

The first, over the week of April 19, was "Christianity and Capitalism" by Charles M. Crowe.3 Here, he argued that not only was capitalism not contrary to the teachings of Jesus, but, as you see in the picture, it is based on and honors biblical values. He writes, "It is time the church quit holding up to scorn the one system that has done more in more ways for more people than any other economic program. It needs to be said, without equivocation, that the free enterprise program of private ownership best supports and affords the chance to realize basic Christian ideals."4 This article interests me for two reasons in particular: 1. the focus on values, and 2. the direct address to those who disagree. The values focus, we will see later, is one the Advocate relies on most when discussing economic systems. The direct address is intriguing because it tells us that there are those who are loud and who have power to speak for Christians who disagree that capitalism is the economic system of Christians.

"Christianity and Socialism" by Edgar N. Jackson ran the following week.5 I was surprised here at the fact that the Advocate would publish something so open about supporting socialism, so often seen as a dirty word today. The beginning of the article deals with disentangling religion from economic system (i.e. capitalists can be atheists too). Then, he explained that fascism, communism, and socialism are not the same thing, a battle we still fight today. The whole article had a calm, reasoned, teaching feel to it. He corrected misconceptions, pointed out that Jesus would not support one particular economic system, but rather argues that all economic systems must be judged based on the gospel standards. He writes, "Socialism would seek to free society from the economic motives that place a premium on money and selfishness, and in their stead place the value of the human person and the common desire to serve human needs..."6 Thus, he tries to paint socialism as common sense, and as democratic, and so American.

But ultimately, the most important part of this article is at the end. He writes, "Socialism asks of people a maturity of spirit that can pass judgments on facts, free from unreasonable bitterness and blinding emotion."7 This is important because it foreshadows the coverage of the HUAC hearings. The Advocate in publishing this piece is ultimately asking for reason, for acceptance or at least tolerance to reign in confronting communism. They are putting themselves firmly against the anti-communism that support the HUAC. Now, of course, Jackson, does receive many such anti-communist reactions to this article published in the Mailbag at the end of May.8

The last installment was "Christianity and Communism" by Clarence Seidenspinner.9 The article on communism basically argues that Christianity and Communism are completely incompatible because both are evangelistic religions:
The Christian can never be happy until the words of Jesus are fulfilled, "Go ye therefore, and teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The Communists can never be happy until the words are fulfilled which were set forth in the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels back in 1848: "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. The openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!"10
This is the basic argument throughout the three years I looked at: Christianity and Communism are by definition incompatible. And those articles like this one that are more anxious about it also have an urgency to them--- that if Christians don't evangelize more and soon, they will lose.

All in all, I think my surprise at these say more about my prejudices than about life for Methodists in the 1950s. However, with these articles, we have a foundation for not only the different arguments, but we also see how the Advocate invites the different discussions.


I want to take a moment here to highlight what I mentioned with Jackson's "Christianity and Socialism" article. In August of 1951 with L. Harold DeWolf's article, we see yet again the concern of the Advocate of countering the hysteria of the Red Scare. DeWolf writes, "The pressure of all this Red-hating hysteria is so strong that it is hard for Americans who love their historic freedoms to keep from being swept into it. But we must keep our heads is we are to protect our liberties and win the peace. Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco all rode to power on anti-communist, patriotic slogans. Such patterns, must not be repeated here."11 When publishing against hysteria, most piece have this form, focusing on what it means to be American and what it means to be free. The argument here is about reason, about the ethics of the constitution. And again and again, the Advocate cautions against Red-hating hysteria, often profiling the words of bishops, particularly Bishop Oxnam,12 who I could write an entire paper on. He is the champion of anti-hysteria in the Advocate.13

Of course, the Advocate's message against the hysteria of the HUAC makes sense given the fact that freedom of the press would be important to a weekly publication. But the anti-hysteria message is important because it becomes the Advocate's official position of sorts when it comes to discussing communism and the economy.

"Can't We Leave Jesus Out?"14

While the SQB certainly agreed with the Advocate in terms of opposing the anti-communist hysteria, what I found most striking about the way economic systems are discussed in the SQB was the Jesus-language used. By Jesus-language, I mean that everything MFSA published was underscored with scripture, particularly the Gospel.15 Part of the reason for this constant use of the Gospel and scripture is that it is a defensive tactic. Everywhere we see assurances that MFSA's message is Gospel-rooted.1617 For this reason, their discussion on economics is one not that says we must be open to see positives and negatives in capitalism, as publications of Christianity and the Isms seemed to say, nor is it one that focuses primarily on fighting against the anti-communist hysteria as the Advocate messages, but rather the SBQ's message is praxis based, saying that it is the responsibility of Christians to find alternatives to Capitalism and Communism.18

And while the anti-hysteria expressed in the Advocate is based on ethics and reason, in the SQB, it is very much based on the idea that Jesus would directly oppose McCarthyism. It was not just an ethical, but a spiritual issue. Rev. Jack McMichael writes, "When this crucial period is recorded, persons may be judged by what Jesus called fruits, not by labels propagandists threw their way. Glory will be assigned courageous words and deeds to which conscience drove Christendom and others--- to end hysteria and defend the spiritual freedom and democratic rights which made America great."19 This quotation again directly links the work of MFSA with the Gospel, but also assures the reader, reminding them that even through MFSA's problems with the HUAC, they are doing the work of Jesus that will be judged as fruits in the end.

These articles place the work of MFSA directly in the sandals of Jesus himself. They even draw a parallel between the crucifixion and the HUAC under the heading "Jesus and the UnRoman Activities Committee": "Have we forgotten the stand taken by Jesus when quizzed as to his alleged UnRoman activities by investigators and courts in his day who were bent on sending him to death on a cross?"20 Those are powerful words with which to scold the HUAC, and distinctly places MFSA as direct inheritors of Jesus' work.

The 1952 General Conference

So we come to the 1952 General Conference with the understanding of the gospel-rooted message of MFSA and the multivocal economic opinions of the Advocate that ultimately seem to settle on an anti-hysteria message. So I can't help but be confused when we see in 1952 such fierce opposition to the MFSA in the Advocate. You can see the preparation for General Conference with the increased focus on MFSA, driving home the opinions of the editors to those readers who will also be delegates.21

In May of 1952, we read that MFSA is responsible for a breach between lay and clergy.22 The editorial about social action and General Conference was triumphant:
The Conference's expected rebuke to the Methodist Federation for Social Action was based on the unrepresentative character of this group that had often been thought to be speaking for The Methodist Church when it actually was doing no such thing. So the majority report, which was adopted by a large vote, requested the federation "to remove the word 'Methodist' from its name" and "to terminate its occupancy" of the building at 150 Fifth avenue, New York, N.Y.23
This particularly quotation is edifying in its naming of the Advocate's problem with MFSA: they do not want MFSA's message to be confused with that of the whole church. But, as the SQB points out, the MFSA had its name before the Methodist church even had its present name.24 Similarly the SQB points out that MFSA is specifically targeted in ways that conservative papers like One (Methodist) Voice is not. Why are the facts not talked about in the Advocate?

The Social Questions Bulletin recounts the ruling in this way:
In retrospect, there is a striking thing about the General Conference debate. Federation opponents admit that their majority-adopted proposals (requesting the Federation to change its name and office location) can only be implemented by Methodist Federation for Social Action members themselves...and only when and as Federation members determine...From such considerations many at General Conference concluded that the most vigorous Federation opponents were not primarily concerned with the Federation's name or its office location, but rather with telling constituents (stirred up by secular and other misrepresentations)--- that the 45-year-old Federation had been properly spanked.25
It is very interesting that despite the care with which the Advocate presents differing economic opinions, it so thoroughly backs the "spanking" of MFSA and does not provide space for any rebuttals by MFSA.

Covering Rev. Jack McMichael's Hearing

Jack McMichael in seminary
Rev. Jack McMichael of MFSA's hearing before the HUAC is treated in much the same way. Though very little is said about McMichael's hearing in July of 1953 in the Advocate, the whole attitude of the short article is very negative towards him and towards MFSA. It is covered in a short piece from the segment News of the World Parish entitled, "Congressional Hearing: McMichael Says No."26 The title alone is bizarre, implying that the story here is not that McMichael, like Bishop Oxnam, was wrongly investigated, but that rather he finally denied being a communist. The article went on to talk about how McMichael was "evasive" and "contemptuous" throughout the hearing. It ended conceding that McMichael must not be a communist despite everything: "Mr. McMichael had gone into the hearing with assurance of support form a number of Methodists who, whether agreeing with him or not, did not want him considered guilty without proof."27 Such language undercuts those who support McMichael, MFSA, and their cause but implying that the only reason McMichael could have support is for a fair trial, not because people supported his work itself.

An older Rev. McMichael
McMichael himself frames his hearing as one on religious freedom, and he does so in much more religious terms than the Advocate does,28 but it is interesting again that the Advocate, rather than returning to its framing of anti-hysteria demonizes the work of the radical left in its coverage of McMichael's trial and its coverage of all things MFSA. Why the vastly different treatment between McMichael and Oxnam?

I argue here, that this can represent the beginning of the effects of the limits of tolerance. Certainly, the Advocate itself in the early 1950s seems to learn more left than right, but even with that lean, it does an impressive job at including voices for and against capitalism in ways that could be subversive. However, their demonization of MFSA to me is an early example of today's construction of a general public that does not include anyone who engages in radical political advocacy, or, in church language, a general public that ignores the prophetic voice. I am referring here to the work of Janet R. Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance. They argue that tolerance, listening to both sides of the story without evaluation, "sets up a political culture in which extremism, rather than injustice, is the major problem to be addressed in public life."29

Thus, in this case, the Advocate presents MFSA as threatening to Methodism because of their unapologetic position on the Left. It positions itself for this particular issue as existing above politicization, offended that MFSA chooses sides. But this positioning is also necessary in these early years after the 1939 Methodist merger when the north and south (which split just before the Civil War) became one church again. There was still a strong memory of that split in the 1950s. Taking the side of MFSA could alienate conservative church members and cause a split there, which was unacceptable for the Methodist church then and today. Unity, it seems, is everything.

Perhaps there is a place for such tolerance of both sides. I did appreciate the range of views the Advocate offered on economic systems throughout 1951-1953. However, demonizing MFSA seemed completely unnecessary to holding that position of "neutrality" because in demonizing MFSA, the Advocate in fact demonized all those who felt compelled to take a side based on their rootedness in the Gospel.


And what about this "fear-infested time" we live in today?

I have been interested in the anti-communist, anti-leftist sentiment expressed particularly in the 1950s because I see some similarities with the hysteria and fear I have seen in my own lifetime as I was born in the 1980s, during the backlash against the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s, and I became an adult post 9/11, in this only-getting-worse anti-terrorist hysteria.

Today, we are influenced by media that is incapable of analyzing the ethics of the politically active. And our church allows itself to be bullied for fear of being labeled as too politically active, and especially as too Left. Just this past October, the General Board of Church and Society withdrew its participation from the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington, DC, citing the fact that they did not want to be part of an event that was divisive, and since the August Glenn Back rally, it had came to be seen as the anti-Beck rally.30 This happened after a New York Times article (incorrectly) citing (former MFSA staff member) Rev. Amy Stapleton as speaking for the UMC--- and political pundit Glenn Back picked up on it. He cites other organizations involved and then says, "If you're a Methodist, you should demand: Do you [the church] stand with all of these communist organizations?"31

After receiving angry messages from Methodist Glenn Beck fans, GBCS caved and withdrew its endorsement. It did not want to seem threatening, did not want to rock the boat too much for fear not of being "too divisive" but for fear of being seen as "too radical." It abandoned its prophetic message for fear of causing division.

MFSA at the One Nation Rally

Fortunately there continue to be prophetic voices speaking loudly within the church when even the General Board of Church and Society caves in fear of division. They remind us, as was published in preparation for the 1952 General Conference in the Social Questions Bulletin, that "Some who whip up the great hysteria in America today do not really fear capture of this country by the small Communist minority. They do fear dissent, free and independent thinking, and prophetic religion and action--- for all of which the Methodist Federation for Social Action has stood for 43 [now 103] significant years. They were never more needed than today."32