David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

This is the second review I have come across of my book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. It was written by an adjunct lecturer at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD, Sayyed Hassan Akhlaq (received his PhD in Philosophy in Iran). It was published in Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations 31:461-463 (January 2021).

14 January 2021

God and Covid-19

For over a year now, those of us living on planet Earth have not been able to escape the powerful tentacles of the coronavirus. As of this writing, about 1.9 million people have died from it, just yesterday 4,408 died of it in the US, and with at least one new strain of Covid-19 that is doubly contagious, the pandemic will be with us for a while, vaccines notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, such a widespread “natural” disaster has caused many of us to do some soul searching.

I taught Comparative Religion to two sections of thirty undergraduates at St. Joseph’s University this last semester. One of the two textbooks I use for this course is authored by four colleagues in the Religious Studies Department of a smaller Jesuit college than ours in Syracuse, NY (Le Moyne College). Introduction to the Study of Religion (by Nancy C. Ring, et al., in its 2012 second edition) defines religion as the human attempt to find meaning in this life beyond the day-to-day preoccupations of family, work and social interactions. It is also about tapping into the power of life while battling aging, disease and death. In their words,

 

“Religious communities grapple in their teachings and practices with the paradox of life and death. Religions express the human desire to understand and to engage the powers of life. They speak of the power of life in terms of the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the absolute, the good, the beautiful, the true, the energy to effect change. The religious imagination gives the powers of life location and character” (41).

 

They then go on to provide examples like the Aztecs “looked to the heavens whence the sun and the rain sent their warmth and moisture to the earth”; “Confucianists, Shintoists, and many indigenous communities turn to the ancestors . . . to give them wisdom and strength”; “The Plains peoples of North America imagine the powers of life to be dispersed throughout nature”; Zen Buddhism advocates “living intensely in the present.”

But what about the power of death always crouching at the door, ready to pounce? Buddhism frames suffering as the central reality of a human life subject to ceaseless change and the vicious cycle of karma and reincarnations. Nirvana can only be attained through a resolute commitment to the “Eightfold Path.” In this tradition, wisdom has everything to do with non-attachment to this world of illusion. By contrast, the three theistic religions (or Abrahamic faiths) posit a good Creator God who offers a path to some kind of blissful existence after death but stumble when it comes to the reality of evil. Any theory attempting to explain the existence of evil in a world created and managed by a god who is both all-good and all-powerful is called a theodicy. Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologians have all offered some version of why freedom of choice is crucial to the moral and religious life, and why suffering is a necessary test of our submission and obedience to God. Still, if one factors in the unspeakable suffering visited on the human race by wars and the cruelty of dictators, terrorists and abusers of all kinds on the one hand, and of natural disasters on the other, such theories fall far short of what we know and experience. Evil, whether at the hand of people or of nature, is pervasive and perplexing, to say the least.

I do not intend to solve this riddle here. Instead, I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and explain to you why my wife and I found so much comfort in reading a little 60-page booklet written in a week this past April entitled Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The author is John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known speaker defending the Christian faith on university campuses around the world. And though Muslim, Jewish, and readers of other faiths (or no faith) will disagree with some of his points, I offer this post as food for thought and a contribution to our collective soul searching in this numbing covid season. I hope this will motivate you to get your own copy, read it, and pass it on to friends.

After sharing a few facts about pandemics in historical perspective and about the dead-end of atheism when it comes to the problem of evil, I’ll summarize Lennox’s views on the Christian approach to theodicy.

 

We’ve been here before

What are some of the known pandemics of the past?

  • The Antonine Plague (or Plague of Galen, 165-180 C.E.): perhaps measles or smallpox, 5 million dead
  • The Plague of Justinian (541-542 C.E.): bubonic plague, i.e., spread from animals (rats) to humans, 25 million dead
  • The Black Death (1346-1353), bubonic plague, 70-100 million dead, or 20% of world population
  • Several cholera pandemics in the 19th and 20th centuries: over a million dead
  • The 1918-1920 flu pandemic: 20-50 million dead
  • Asian flu (1956-1958), 2 million dead; Hong Kong flu (1968-69), one million dead
  • HIV-AIDS pandemic (reaching its peak in 2005-2012), about 32 million

More localized, there have been recent epidemics, like SARS and Ebola. But think about people in the West before the early 1900s and how epidemics like typhus, tuberculosis, cholera and others, were seen “as part of normal life” (10).

Another aspect of this issue we need to keep in mind is that pain – both the physical sensation and the psychic pain resulting from loss and suffering in general – can have a beneficial side to it. Physical pain warns us of danger. If your hand is too close to the fire when roasting marshmallows, for instance, the pain caused by the heat warns your brain and you respond by pulling your hand further back. A second beneficial role pain plays in our lives, Lennox reminds us, is that “a certain amount of pain is involved in physical development” (18): athletics, gymnastics, contact sports, etc.

Finally, pain in a wider sense can be used to deepen our character and teach us valuable life lessons. It can build “resilience and fortitude” and allow people to develop “characters of great quality.” Lennox himself was rushed to the hospital with a massive heart attack. He was only saved because a very skilled surgeon caught it just in time. This experience changed him:

 

“For me, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I was mortal and that I was vulnerable; and I now feel that my life was given back to me as a precious gift to be treasured. I brought more urgency into my sense of purpose and calling” (19).

 

Yet his joy at being saved was immediately tempered, because at about the same time his sister “lost her (just) married 22-year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumour.” As you can imagine, this brought to the fore the larger question of human suffering and its profound injustice on many levels.

 

Can atheism help?

That is the title of his third chapter. He begins by noting that in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, suffering is the result of bad karma, or of bad deeds one had committed in the past. In fact, bad behavior is the cause of a seeming endless chain of reincarnations. For Hindus, moksha is the deliverance from that vicious cycle, achieved either by a life of asceticism or by devotion to particular deities. Buddhists, for their part, see this suffering as coming from a warped understanding of life. The solution is to see rightly (the Four Noble Truths) and live rightly (the Eightfold Path).

The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, for Christians) contains the book of Job which is a protest against the common idea that one’s suffering results from sins previously committed – our own or those of our forebears. Jesus agreed. He “explicitly denied that suffering was necessarily connected with personal wrongdoing” (23). One example is in Luke’s gospel:

 

“There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

 

To focus on the question of who is a greater sinner worthy of harsher punishment is wrong for at least two reasons, Jesus teaches here. First, from a human perspective, we cannot know why people suffer in specific instances, either as a result of moral or natural evil. Second, no one is innocent in God’s eyes. As Paul wrote, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, Jesus calls us to repent and turn to God’s mercy and grace.

Lennox unpacks that last statement further on in his booklet. But here he is concerned with debunking the atheist’s argument. This is a task he has done very publicly, by the way. You can watch his debates on YouTube with Richard Dawkins and with the late Christopher Hitchens, both leading atheist writers and propagandists. The other popular atheist debater, Sam Harris, illustrates well how the problem of evil is their favorite (and likely most potent) argument.

Lennox quotes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1992 book, River Out of Eden:

 

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. If there ever was a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

 

Notice, first of all, that in a morally blind universe there is no room for categories such as good or evil. Things just are the way they are. Period. Lennox quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” But second, this theory should give us pause, in that “terrorists and the architects of genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda were simply carrying out their own inbuilt genetic programmes: likewise Stalin, Hitler and Mao in their horrific crimes against humanity” (28). The problem with such a statement is that it is hard to live by. Dawkins himself was far from consistent. He and other atheists, in their zeal to debunk all forms of religion, have spilled a good deal of ink denouncing “Islamic terrorism” as dangerous and yes, evil. If you want to be a full-blown rationalist, you cannot have it both ways!

It is not by chance that I chose God Is Not One as my second textbook for Comparative Religion. Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s main thesis in this book is that each major religious tradition has its own definition of the human dilemma, its own solution, its own techniques (rituals) for attaining this solution, and its own exemplars. But what does unite all these paths (which for him do NOT lead up to the same mountain summit!), is the existence of some fundamental ethical principles attached to human dignity. Hence this quote Lennox offers from one of the most influential Christian philosophers of our time, Richard Taylor:

 

“The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well . . . Educated people do need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion” (29).

 

How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?

First, we have to look at human nature and reckon with how we got to a world where so much evil has corrupted the goodness with which it was created. Then Lennox talks about how the Christian message brings justice and love together in the person of the crucified and risen redeemer.

 

Human nature and the fall

I have dealt in detail with the qur’anic story of “the fall” in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. One difference has been highlighted by Muslim feminist interpreters, namely that in the Qur’an Eve bears no more responsibility for the disobedience than does Adam: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it” (Q. 20:120-12, Abdel Halim). Another difference, quite similar to the Jewish reading of Genesis 3, is that there is no “original sin” in the sense of a curse placed on humankind banishing it from the presence of God forever. Put otherwise, there is no need for divine redemption.

The words of God to Satan in the Qur’an are similar to the Genesis account, at least the promise of hostility between him and the woman’s offspring. But the next phrase is not picked up by the Qur’an and becomes central in the Christian reading of this passage. Speaking of the woman’s offspring using a masculine singular, God announces: “He will strike your head, and you (the serpent) will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). For Christians this is a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be crucified as a result of Satan inciting the crowd against Jesus (“Crucify him! Crucify him!”). It also states that this victory of Satan is completely overshadowed by the complete and final victory achieved by Messiah’s cross and resurrection. In his obsession to destroy God’s incarnate Son, Satan unwittingly signed his own death warrant. More on that below.

 

Creation and the fall

The physical world as well was directly affected by Adam and Eve’s sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3: 17-18, NIV). Paul, the rabbi who met Jesus in a dramatic vision while on the way to Damascus in a mission to persecute followers of Jesus, writes that “creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). The Greek word (mataiotes) translated here by “ineffectiveness,” says Lennox, means something that does not reach the goal for which it was designed.

On the one hand, we cannot deny that humanity has developed impressive ways of managing and developing the natural world for its benefit. On the other hand, “Over and over again, nature has fractured and impeded human progress with thorns and thistles, backbreaking labour, pests, disease, epidemics, droughts, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on – coupled, sadly, with the destructive forces unleashed by selfishness, greed and moral corruption” (40).

 

We are all part of the problem

None of us can pretend we have no part in the moral evil that is at the root of this broken world. Lennox offers this moving quote from the Russian writer who spent years in Stalin’s Siberian gulag camps:

 

“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being . . . But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil” (40-41).

 

What if the Good News Jesus and his followers preached is true?

Here I diverge a bit from Lennox’s book to offer some common ground between the Abrahamic faiths. All three (though not all Jewish branches subscribe to this) teach that God will preside over a final judgment in the Hereafter. This is a very relevant point to our discussion: there will be justice in the end, and our despair over the abuse, torture, and killing of so many victims over the centuries will turn to resolution and comfort. In this scenario too we will presumably find closure in witnessing untold millions of children who were killed by abortion, disease and natural disasters finding peace and a beautiful life in God’s presence.

But justice by itself doesn’t take us very far – for two reasons. First, Judgment Day isn’t just for the serial killers, or human traffickers, or brilliant white-collar criminals. It’s for you and me too. As mentioned above, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Many Christians wrongly believe God will give them a pass based partly on their good deeds and partly on his mercy – a view shared by most Muslims in my experience (good deeds include obedience to the Five Pillars, while hoping for the Prophet’s intercession on the Last Day).

The Good News (or “gospel”), however, is that “God is love,” as John puts it in his first epistle. John records in his gospel that Jesus explained it this way: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT). Jesus, the only sinless human being, sacrifices himself to fulfill the justice that was coming to all of us (“You must not eat [of the tree] or even touch it; if you do, you will die,” Gen. 3:3) and demonstrate God’s boundless, infinite love for humankind.

Lennox explains that for Christianity, the solution to an unbridgeable chasm between God and humanity lies in the cross and resurrection of Jesus:

 

“These events do not simply give us a way into the problem of evil and pain, and a resolution to the problem of justice. They show us what the name ‘Jesus’ means – ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means ‘turn away from’) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering – those who trust Jesus as their Lord – receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (47).

 

Parting words

Lennox’s last chapter is “The Difference God Makes.” Here we come back together as members of the Abrahamic family, but too as people of faith in general and people of no religious persuasion. We are all suffering together through a pandemic most of us never imagined was even possible anymore. In bullet form, I offer his last thoughts for your consideration:

  • Heed advice: follow the health and safety protocols issued by the authorities. So much medical research has already been done globally. Get vaccinated as soon as possible!
  • Maintain perspective: we’ve been through this and much worse before as a human family; we will get through this!
  • Love your neighbor: Lennox quotes from a March 13, 2020 Foreign Policy “argument” piece by Lutheran researcher Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years.” The church grew the fastest during the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century and the Cyprian Plague of the next century, because people saw how sacrificial Christians were in caring for the sick and in providing “a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”Millions of people, including healthcare workers, so-called essential workers,and many others, have demonstrated selfless and sacrificial care. Unfortunately, there have been many Christians -- many American evangelicals in particular -- who have flouted wearing masks, ignored social distancing, and have bought into destructive conspiracy theories. That is NOT loving one's neighbor!
  • Remember eternity: if you believe and wholeheartedly trust in God’s gracious provision through Jesus, you can experience the peace Jesus promised his disciples in the upper room the night when he was arrested:

 

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT).

Katherine Bullock teaches political science and Islamics at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This is the first review I have seen of my new book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2020). It was published in The American Journal of Islam and Society (37:3-4, 2020). I emailed her to thank her for a review that is both "fair and encouraging." I hope that as you read this review, you will also want to read the book and make up your own opinion about it. I can certainly think of several weaknesses in my work, but I also firmly believe that it is an important and timely contribution to a very timely conversation between Muslims, Christians, and all people who want to see and help bring about a more just and peaceful world.

The author I use most in this book to frame and define the idea of justice and how it relates to love from a Christian perspective is Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. His commendation was late because of family issues and so did not appear on the book's jacket. I paste it here (it's also on the Equinox page for the book):

 

"David Johnston sets himself two important, interconnected, projects in this book, and brings them off superbly. One is to show that both love and justice are fundamental in both Christianity and Islam, contrary to the common stereotype that Christianity is all about love and Islam is all about justice. The other is to show that love and justice are not in tension with each other, as is commonly assumed, but, when rightly understood, are in harmony. I anticipate that the eyes of many readers will be opened, as were the eye of this reader, to Johnston’s demonstration of this fundamental affinity between Christianity and Islam. A valuable feature of Johnston’s presentation is that each chapter opens with a description of systemic injustice in some part of the world. The scholarship is impressive; but this is not just about scholarly texts, it’s about the real world."

—Nicholas Wolterstorff

   Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University

   Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

In the first installment, I told the story of how St. Francis of Assisi was able to cross enemy lines in the Fifth Crusade in order to share his faith with Egypt’s ruler, Malik al-Kamil. In fact, the latter graciously received him and his fellow monk, Illuminatio, for three or four days. This sultan was in the habit of meeting with Islamic scholars, including some spiritual masters (or Sufi shaykhs, in Islam’s mystical tradition), so he invited them for an extended interfaith conversation with the two monks. From various sources, I concluded with Paul Moses (The Saint and Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace) that they separated as friends, both remaining in their respective faith traditions, yet enriched spiritually by the other.

Did Francis go with the intent to preach to Sultan al-Kamil so that he would embrace the message of Jesus and receive God’s eternal salvation? There is no doubt about that. But Paul Moses main objective is to trace the spiritual pilgrimage of St. Francis from a nobleman’s son who fights in a couple of battles, yet whose religious conversion transforms him into an indefatigable advocate of Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolent resistance to evil. Francis of Assisi very likely deplored the notion of bringing war to the “Muslim enemy.” Clearly, for him to seek a meeting with al-Kamil was a stunning act of love for enemy since he was risking his life, and, as it turned out, he too was blessed and changed by that encounter. There must be reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, Francis felt God saying, and this was indeed a mission of peace.

For obvious reasons, in an age when the vested interests of popes and European Christian kings were in pursuing crusades, this is not a message that the powers-that-be could tolerate. After his death at age 44 (1226), therefore, direct pressure was put on official biographers to delete any reference to his message of peace and reconciliation with Muslims. That is the subject of this post.

Part III of Paul Moses’ account of this historic encounter, “Uncovering the Story,” opens with this illuminating paragraph:

 

“The true story of Francis, the sultan, and their peaceful exchange was buried. It did not serve the purposes of popes who continued to drum up support for a string of ill-fated Crusades. Nor did it fit the needs of Francis’s order at the time when it had to fight off a heresy scandal. As the story was retold in the Christian world, Francis’s thirst of peace and the sultan’s noble treatment of the Crusaders at the close of the Fifth Crusade were downplayed and then forgotten; Francis was turned into a soldier who used the gospel as a weapon. The sultan became a malevolent foe” (197).

 

Specifically, there were two main phases of biographical writing that shaped the image of St. Francis until the modern period. To these we now turn. I will end with some remarks on the contemporary period.

 

Thomas of Celano’s two biographical works

Cardinal Ugolino was elected as Pope Gregory IX in 1227. A hardliner by any account, he is remembered for putting the Inquisition into overdrive. Those the Church deemed “heretics” were hunted down, summarily tried, imprisoned and/or executed. He waged another Crusade against Muslims, and, like his predecessors, he led battles against Emperor Frederick II to recover lands in Italy he considered his own. Not under his watch was any biographer going to portray St Francis (canonized in 1228) as a friar seeking peaceful relations with Muslims.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Franciscan he charged with writing the biography of his order’s founder, Thomas of Celano, dutifully excised from his text any reference to the friar’s desire to live peacefully among Muslims or even to “Francis’s vision for a life of radical poverty lived in strict adherence to the gospel” (200). Gregory from the beginning had forcefully imposed on the Friars Minor (what Franciscans were called at that time) the duty to recruit for his Crusade. As a corollary, he encouraged them to send missionaries into Muslim lands, stating in a 1338 document that “converting Muslims by preaching was akin to subduing them with weapons” (199).

Meanwhile, the order of the Friars Minor was multiplying exponentially, with members in the tens of thousands by the 1240s. Pope Gregory died in 1241, but the order’s leader at that time (“minister general”), Brother Crescentius, was very much in agreement with his perspective on St. Francis. Still, he had to deal with a vocal minority faction, known as the “Spirituals,” who from the beginning wanted the Friars Minor to return to their founder’s original vision for the movement. Yet when in 1244 the order asked Thomas of Celano to write a new biography, leaning much more this time on the treasure trove of anecdotes recalled by the brothers who had accompanied him from the beginning, Celano still had some choppy political waters to navigate.

That tome, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, completed three years later, brought to light for the first time the story of Francis’s fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia and his subsequent imprisonment. It recounted as well the dream he had on the way to fight in southern Italy and how he subsequently returned, gave up military service, sold all his wealth to the poor, “and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself” (201). That was the beginning of his conversion. Still, in the story of the looming great battle between the Crusaders and Sultan al-Kamil, Celano writes carefully that Francis’s prophecy about the Crusaders’ defeat and his insistence that they forgo the battle was not an indictment of the Crusade as such. This is  likely Celano bowing to his superior’s direction. We know from so many other early documents that Francis loathed the use of war to further Christ’s purposes.

 

Bonaventure’s landmark biography

The year 1247 saw two events that impacted the future direction of St. Francis’s legacy. The first was Brother Crescentius’s stepping down from his minister general role. The second was the publishing of Celano’s second biography of St. Francis. That book at least had the merit of showing Francis of Assisi turning his back on the trappings of the nobility he was born into – wealth and military service. That was particularly significant in a year when King Louis IX of France was organizing another crusade, this time targeting Damietta, where Francis had met with Malik al-Kamil. Yet Crescentius’s departure provoked a chain of events that eventually all but buried Celano’s work.

In fact, the leadership transition that ensued poured fuel on the embers of dissent within the young order, because the man chosen to replace Crescentius, John of Parma, despite being a “gentle, articulate, and pious man who was a learned theologian but lived in simplicity” (202), was also an avid follower of mystic, monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). On the one hand, Joachim was seen by popes and kings of his time as “gifted with divine illumination” and the founder of a small monastic movement in Italy. On the other hand, he was branded as a heretic by many others, and in particular because of his commentary on the book of Revelation in which he prophesied that after the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (New Testament), the new Age of the Spirit was about to break forth. This view in particular was one of the factors that led to the spectacular growth of both Dominican and Franciscan orders after his death.

In the late 1240s, however, John of Parma’s ties to Joachim of Fiore’s apocalyptic teachings spelled trouble for the order. Worse than that, around this time a treatise, Super Hieremiam, was circulating under the pen name of Joachim of Fiore (though it was a forgery), roundly criticizing the popes for their crusades. The “Spirituals” faction, which was at this stage growing exponentially, were reading this treatise with great enthusiasm. As Paul Moses has it,

 

“Some friars came to believe that Saint Francis was the angelic herald of the new age of the Spirit, his arrival foretold in Revelation 7. It was thought to be the time of peace the prophet Isaiah predicted, when swords would be beaten into plowshares . . . Salimbene [a Franciscan chronicler of the time] wrote that two fellow friars who followed Joachim had predicted to him in 1247 that the Crusade of Louis IX in Egypt would end in disaster, as it did three years later when Muslim forces captured Saint Louis and much of the French nobility and massacred many soldiers” (203).

 

These issues, meanwhile, were hotly debated at the University of Paris and turning a growing number of church leaders against the Franciscans and Dominicans, and they even called on the pope to dissolve them. This is when Brother Bonaventure, a respected Franciscan friar and professor at the university, took on the task of defending his order. His colleague and friend, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, stood with him in the defense of their orders. Bonaventure (yes, the future St. Bonaventure), who had just been named minister general of the Friars Minor, succeeded in rehabilitating his order’s reputation through two spectacular moves. Now as judge of his predecessor, John of Parma, he proceeded to convict him of heresy. Fortunately for the latter, his life sentence was overturned by two cardinals who arranged for him to spend the rest of his life in a hermitage.

Bonaventure’s other action was to write a new biography of St. Francis, The Major Legend of Saint Francis. It was in fact mostly taken from previous accounts, but he added his own theological insights, spiritual meditations, and his own solutions to what he saw as his order’s political divisions. Beautifully crafted, it was nevertheless a text that “virtually wiped out Francis’s activities as a peacemaker who challenged the powers of his day to forsake violence. It did not even hint at the cheeky friar who warned ‘the rulers of all the people’ to shape up or face damnation” (206). Bonaventure’s The Major Legend in fact became the classic reference book on the life of St. Francis until the 20th century.

 

The trial by fire legend

Of the encounter between the Sultan and the friar, Celano highlighted Francis’s unadorned preaching, adding that the sultan “was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly” (144). This account, as you know, was by the first Franciscan tasked with writing their founder’s biography.

By contrast, even in the early text (a decade after the Fifth Crusade) of The Chronicle of Ernoul, the scene is fraught with tension. Francis from the beginning claims that if his arguments against the validity of Islamic law are not convincing, “then you can have our heads cut off” (132). In fact, this is exactly what the Islamic scholars declared upon discovering Francis preaching to their ruler: “We command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands.”

It is likely, then, that by the 1260s when Bonaventure writes his account, multiple stories had been circulating about this encounter, all of them painting in one way or another a confrontational scene between saint and sultan. Bonaventure seized on one of them. As he tells the story, Francis asked the ruler to build a large fire and then declared, “I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy” (132). The sultan answered that his priests would do no such thing. Then “Francis supposedly offered to walk into the fire himself if the sultan and his people converted to Christianity, but the sultan refused that as well.”

That of course is the scene depicted in the above image, which inspired dozens of paintings and accounts in the following centuries. But it has no basis in fact. First, argues Paul Moses, Celano and the other early chroniclers would have mentioned this incident if it had actually happened. Second, we know that since his conversion Francis was deeply marked by Jesus’s command, “Love your enemies,” so much so that he quotes it five times in his writings. This legend of the trial by fire goes against everything Francis stood for in his mission of peace. Finally, Francis would have known and respected the edict of the Fourth Lateran Council that all trials by ordeal were forbidden.

 

Contemporary echoes of the saint and sultan

Charles de Foucauld (d. 1916) was a Frenchman whose life paralleled that of St. Francis. From a wealthy family in Strasbourg, he served in the French military in Algeria where he was impressed with the people’s Islamic spirituality. He later returned to North Africa as an explorer, during which time he experienced a deep spiritual conversion. He joined a Trappist monastery in the Holy Land, became a priest, and later came back to live to Algeria as a hermit among the Tuaregs in the Sahara. He learned their language and culture and engaged in religious dialog. Sadly, he was killed while witnessing a confrontation between some tribesmen and the French. Paul Moses touches just the surface of Foucauld’s profound influence on so many people, including myself during my nine-year stay in Algeria:

 

“Foucauld’s dream of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians did not die with him. Today eight spiritual associations and eleven religious orders trace back to him, including the Little Sisters of Jesus. Moreover, his legacy was kept alive by Louis Massignon, often described as the most prominent Western scholar of Islam. Foucauld was a mentor to Massignon, who was born in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, in 1883” (218-19).

 

I have so many wonderful memories of sitting in the simple apartments of the Little Brothers of Jesus having a meal or drinking tea or coffee with them, often with Algerian Muslims. I also got to know some Little Sisters of Jesus, because of activities we had in common, including some retreats sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement. If you read my second blog post on Cardinal Duval, you will understand how deeply we, a handful of Protestant clergymen, were involved with our Catholic colleagues. I can testify that the influence of Charles de Foucauld is still pervasive in the lives and ministries of these Catholic brothers and sisters, starting with the late Cardinal Duval and the now elderly archbishop Henry Teissier.

Paul Moses draws out in great detail all the high-level, high-visibility initiatives by recent popes reaching out to Muslims in various settings (see also my friend Mohamed Arafa’s post just before this one, “The Imam and the Pope”). But I would like to end with the Franciscans, who in Damietta, Egypt in 1969 celebrated the 750th anniversary of St. Francis’s visit there by holding a joint prayer service with Muslims, first in a Catholic church, then in the city’s ancient mosque. In the next decade, Father GianMaria Polidoro founded Assisi Pax, a peace organization best known for its attempt to reconcile the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1984, they met Ronald Reagan in Washington and Mikhail Gorbachev while he was visiting Italy.

Two years later Pope John Paul II called for a World Day of Prayer for Peace to be held in Assisi, the occasion when he coined the phrase “the spirit of Assisi”:

 

“Representatives from twelve religions visited Assisi’s many sanctuaries to pray for peace, then gathered to pray side by side in the piazza outside the basilica of St. Francis. A blustery fall wind and chilling drizzle blew through the town, which was warmed with the colors borne by a multitude of religious leaders, from feather-bedecked Native American shamans to African witch doctors to saffron-robed Buddhists” (222).

 

In the online Catholic journal Crux in September 2016, the editor anticipates Pope Francis’s visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first World Day of Prayer for Peace, which he then repeated in 1993 and 2002. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI did the same in 2011. I must also mention the Community of Sant’Egidio, founded by Andrea Riccardi in Rome in 1968 on the heels of the Vatican II council. It is now a network of 70 communities worldwide committed to interfaith dialog, care for the poor and active conflict resolution. They have organized yearly meetings “in the spirit of Assisi,” ever since the historic 1986 global prayer gathering.

It was not surprising that Pope Francis, whose devotion to St. Francis and his spiritual ideals are well known, would use this platform now organized by the Sant’Egidio community to mingle with religious leaders from around the world and join with them in praying for peace. True peace, he declared, are not the result of “negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining, but the result of prayer.” He also emphasized that “Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.” To the contrary, religious leaders “are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Paul Moses, then, rightly closes his book with these observations. It is true, he wrote, that the story of Francis and the sultan “was buried ever deeper in successive biographies of Francis and the artwork they inspired.” He goes on:

 

“The church Francis served is now cultivating the political implications in the long-buried story of his nonviolence and radical love. Francis continues to return Christians to their roots, nudging them to reject violence and to approach enemies with love. Though he is dead for close to eight centuries, the story of his encounter with the sultan is blossoming” (228).

The painting of St. Francis embracing Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil is on the first page of my website. It graces my Twitter handle. After nine years, I finally get to explain it, and this with the help of acclaimed 2009 book by journalist and professor of journalism Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace.

I’ll do this in two installments. Here, I lay out the story according to the best historical sources, mostly uncovered and critically evaluated in the 20th century. Next, I’ll take us on a short historical journey to illustrate how religious narratives are driven by people with power, and in this case, by popes who were determined to continue the Crusades against the Muslim Other and crush dissenting voices.

 

Francis of Assisi’s conversion

Francis’s father, Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy silk merchant from Assisi, Italy, was in France where he conducted much of his business (his mother was a French noble woman from Provence) when his son Giovanni was born. But Pietro called him Francesco (“Frenchy”) from the start. French troubadours’ songs and chivalry were popular in his family.

This was in 1181, when the old tug-of-war between the Holy Roman emperors and the popes over control of Italian cities was beginning to turn to the advantage of the popes. The election of the young and energetic pope Innocent III sealed that trend as he was a spiritual leader who took his temporal duties seriously. Besides organizing the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), he initiated military campaigns against the Albigensians and Cathar “heretics.” Closer to home for the young Francis, the angry merchants of Assisi saw the opportunity to storm and destroy the castle of the Duke of Spoleto, the hated general put there by Emperor Frederick. Francis as a teenager likely fought with them.

This signaled the beginning of a local civil war between Assisi’s merchants and the noblemen who finally had to take refuge in its rival city, Perugia. The latter had been grabbing more land and power and saw this as an opportunity to attack its rival, Assisi. Under “the honor-bound codes of chivalry” Assisi considered its own honor threatened and the merchants prepared to send out their troops to meet them.

We are now in 1202 and Francis is about twenty-one. As a member of one of Assisi’s wealthiest families he had no choice but to join the expedition. It’s likely too that, as a knight wearing the finest fabric over his shining new armor, he was just as eager as anyone to kill the enemy – which he likely did in the ensuing battle that, however, quickly turned into a hasty retreat for the Assisians, and a massacre. But because of his wealth, he was not hunted down and killed as were the commoner soldiers. He was ransomed and put with others in a temporary prison, probably “an underground vault in the depths of Perugia’s Etruscan ruins” (25).

Francis suffered a whole year in that dark dungeon and “left captivity a shattered man.” He had been ill, most likely from malaria, which would follow him for the rest of his short life; and the “sensory deprivation” of living in the dark for so long only added to the despair of his own survivor’s guilt: “Francis had seen the enemy cavalry rip apart other men on the ground while he was permitted to survive because of his family’s wealth” (26).

Yet it was as a man struggling with illness and depression that Francis gradually experienced his conversion. His “spiritual awakening” came about most notably in three steps:

 

    • Though he was beginning to practice generosity with the poor, he was still tempted by the process of engaging in battle and earning knighthood. Innocent III dubbed a military campaign near Apulia in southern Italy against the emperor to regain his papal lands as a “crusade” with all the attendant privileges. Moreover, it was led by Count Walter of Brienne, “the flower of French chivalry,” and so Francis set off on horseback “in the best armor and weaponry his father’s money could buy” (29). Yet two days into his journey a voice in the night asked him where he was going. He replied that he was going to meet a count who would knight him. “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” continued the voice. “The Master,” answered Francis. As the voice addressed him again, he knew it is Jesus: “Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?” He turned around the next morning, traveling back. Just before arriving in Assisi, he sold his military gear and horse. He left what must have been a large sum of money with the priest of a church in need of repair near his home.
    • As a leper held out his hand for alms one day, Francis “kissed the leper on the hand and the mouth and was overwhelmed with a sense of peace as he turned away from his own inner struggles and focused more on the needs of others.” From then on, he frequently visited a hospice caring for lepers. In his Testament he recalled, “What had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul” (33).
    • Now came the most famous and decisive step: “when he prayed on his knees before a painted crucifix late in 1205 in the broken-down, century-old Church of San Damiano.” He then heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him from the cross, “Francis, go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely in ruin.” He then understood that God was calling him to repair not just a physical building but the entirety of the Christian church.

 

The Franciscan order is born and a new Crusade is announced

Francis came out of this awakening a radically transformed individual, immediately attracting mockery and abuse. Walking around in rags, he was pelted with mud and stones, and his father beat him mercilessly, then imprisoned him. Yet while the former was back in France on business, his mother freed him. But the father wasn't giving up. Incensed about the shame Francis was bringing on his family, Pietro brought charges against his son before the authorities. Now a “religious person,” it was Bishop Guido who judged the case: “There in a famous scene, Francis handed back to his father not only all his money but also his clothing. He stood naked before the bishop, father, and gaping townspeople. The bishop then wrapped Francis in his cloak” (36).

The young men who started to follow Francis in his life of poverty met with the same persecution. Yet, like their leader, they never fought back or even ceased from blessing people and seeking peace. In fact, in his Testament, Francis says that early on God had “revealed” the greeting the brothers were to use: “May the Lord give you peace.” Though this might seem trite today, in an age when Crusades and violence were the norm, only “the heretical Cathars embraced the pacifism of early Christianity and opposed the Crusades.” Spreading peace to everyone “struck people who encountered him and his followers as amazing, even subversive” (37).

As his movement spread quickly, Francis kept peacemaking on top of his agenda and promoted it through his own example and words. In the Third Order which he circulated in 1221, he urged his followers “to be reconciled with their neighbors and to restore what belongs to others . . . They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.” Paul Moses comments that this in effect barred any of his followers from entering military service. The same can be said for his ban on making oaths: “lords, vassals, and their underlings all swore oaths to go to war when called, perpetuating the violence that dominated Europe in the thirteenth century” (47).

Meanwhile, Pope Innocent III sounded the alarm. The dwindling Latin Crusader Kingdom in Acre (Akko today, on the Mediterranean north of Haifa), he warned, was on the verge of being attacked by the Muslims from their new fort on Mount Tabor (where tradition places Jesus’ transfiguration). In 1215 he launched the Fifth Crusade. He died a year later and it was left to a much older pope, Honorius III, to delegate “the influential Cardinal Ugolino, the late Pope Innocent’s nephew” to lead the effort.

 

The Muslim side of the story

Now for some background on the Muslim side of the story … Sultan Malik al-Adil, upon the death of his brother, the famous Saladin who founded the Ayyubid dynasty, managed to take the throne in 1200, and he appointed his oldest son who had just turned twenty, Malik al-Kamil, as the viceroy of Egypt. Both father and son were well acquainted and generally well-disposed toward Christian leaders in the region. Yet there is likely another reason the son was inclined to respect Christians. As the Third Crusade was winding down in early 1192 – King Richard the Lion Hearted, who had won several victories and put Saladin on the defensive, was now falling ill and seeking an honorable exit from the conflict. He offered a gesture of goodwill: to knight Saladin’s eleven-year-old nephew Malik al-Kamil. Years later the latter could not have forgotten some of the religious aspects of that ceremony in addition to the honor of publicly receiving the sword and belt.

A Coptic chronicle of the time also tells of a friendship al-Kamil developed with a Christian hermit, whom he once met on a hunting trip near Alexandria. While conversing with him (remember that the Qur’an speaks respectfully of Christian monks, e.g., Q. 5:82), al-Kamil tells his of a pain in his gut. After the monk prays for him, he feels better. He later sent him a gift.

Malik al-Kamil by 1215 had ruled Egypt with a skillful hand. Besides building dams and improving the needed irrigation for its agriculture, “he created more schools for the study of Islam, and resolved internal disputes before they spun out of control” (74). He also signed treaties with Italy in order to promote greater trade. In fact, in the very year the Fifth Crusade was declared, he signed a trade pact with Venice.

 

Francis at the front line of the Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade’s first troops materialized in Acre two years later and its strategy was to conquer Egypt and then attack Jerusalem from the south. At the end of May 1218, the crusaders arrived in Egypt with the goal of taking the heavily fortified city of Damietta, “gatekeeper of the Nile.” By August they were scoring some victories, and al-Kamil’s woes only increased as news of his father’s (natural) death in Syria reached him.

Yet by year’s end disease was beginning to weaken the Christian camp. Meanwhile, Francis had been able to secure the patronage of Cardinal Ugolino and around this time obtained permission to travel with eleven brothers and join crusaders headed to the Egyptian front. Arriving in the brutal heat of August, Francis could witness the increase of exhaustion and discouragement on both sides as they experienced heavy losses. He also would have heard of the plight of the besieged inhabitants of Damietta –with a number of Christians among them – dying of disease and hunger.

Sultan Malik al-Kamil had made a peace offer that the military leaders favored (giving them Jerusalem in return for leaving), but it was rebuffed by the hawkish Cardinal Pelagius, the pope’s envoy. This tension between the two sides in the Christian camp only increased over time. And then, maybe two or three weeks into the Franciscans’ stay at the front, Pelagius announced an all-out attack by land and sea planned for August 29, 1219.

Paul Moses describes Francis’ reaction: “Deeply distressed, he prayed through that hot night . . . Deep in prayer, Francis believed that Jesus spoke to him. And by morning on the day of the planned battle, his prayer experience had led him to conclude that the Crusaders would be making an enormous mistake if they attacked” (110).

After consulting with one of his brothers, he decided that, indeed, God was calling him to follow his conscience and spread the word he had received in prayer. He then began to preach with great energy and passion against the battle. The angry foot soldiers, however, would have none of it. But news of the commotion must surely have reached both military and religious leaders. What is more, they would have known that Francis and his brothers stayed behind.

The battle did in fact turn into a disaster for the Christian side. Several thousands were killed, including some prominent knights. Other knights were made prisoners and as al-Kamil continued negotiations, he would send two of them to the Christian camp to present his offers. Now Francis realized that the time for him to act had come.

 

Francis and al-Kamil’s meeting

Francis could perhaps have snuck into enemy territory with his close brother Illuminato, but according to Paul Moses, he “felt a deep loyalty to church authority and decided to seek permission for his journey from the cardinal, whose bejeweled clothing and hunger for power were the antithesis of the friar’s humble way” (122). That encounter is described in the chapter, “The Saint and the Cardinal.” I’ll only say here that Pelagius allowed him to leave on the condition that he go bearing the full responsibility of his decision. In fact, he would be carrying no official letter to al-Kamil, for Pelagius was certain that Francis would never return alive and he wanted no responsibility for his death.

As they approached the Muslim garrison town south of Damietta, the Muslim sentries, likely assuming they were messengers, took them to the sultan. Al-Malik was then thirty-nine and Francis about a year and a half younger. Once they were brought into his presence, Francis gave his usual greeting, “May the Lord give you peace!” This of course put the ruler at ease. It’s virtually the same as the common Arab greeting, “Peace be with you!” One of the earliest sources indicates that al-Kamil added, “Do you wish to become Saracens or do you have come with a message for me?” We know from other sources that he had met more than one Christian monk who wished to convert to Islam.

The first standard life of Francis (by Thomas of Celano) tells us that in his response Francis told the Sultan that “they would never want to become Muslims, but that they had come to him as messengers on behalf of the Lord God, that he might turn his soul to God” (130). From the start, Francis stated that his authority was God and not Cardinal Pelagius or Jean de Brienne, thereby implying that he had no sympathy for the violent ways of the “Christian” camp.

In the above-mentioned early source (The Chronicle of Ernoul), Francis says the following:

 

If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God, because we are telling you in all truth that if you die in the law which you now profess, you will be lost and God will not possess your soul. It is the reason that we have come. But if you will give us a hearing and try to understand us, we will demonstrate to you with convincing reasons, in the presence of the most learned teachers of your realm, if you wish to assemble them, that your law is false” (131).

 

If this is close to accurate, you would worry that al-Kamil took this as an insult (“your law is false”) and that he would now call for his soldiers to come and imprison them. Quite the opposite! Another early French source (Bishop James of Vitry) says the sultan, upon hearing this, “became sweetness itself.” But why then would this Muslim head of state hold court with two Christian monks? After all, this war was heavily weighing on him day and night. Intellectual curiosity may well have been a factor, but that is plainly insufficient here.

The truth is that al-Kamil closest and most respected advisor, Fakhr al-Farisi, was both a Sufi shaykh (a mystic who trained others under him in the spiritual disciplines) and an Islamic legal expert. In fact, al-Kamil was a fervent admirer of Ibn al-Farid, whose poetry sang the praise of divine love. Sufis in general admire Jesus and imagine him “as a wandering preacher dressed in a wool tunic, accompanied by John the Baptist” (138). [See this classic work, Jesus in the Eyes of Sufis, by Javad Nurbakhsh, for 55 years the shaykh of the Nimatullahi Sufi order].

Furthermore, he loved to learn from and debate with an entourage of scholars, often Friday nights till the morning light. For this purpose, he had some of them lodged at his residence in Cairo (the Citadel). It is not surprising, then, that he kept Francis and Illuminatio for some three or four days to dig deeper into their conversation with a number of participants. No details have transpired from those exchanges (yes, it was an interreligious dialog!), but as Paul Moses muses, “What can be said for sure is that in the worst of times, a Christian and a prominent Muslim engaged in reasoned public discussion about their religious differences” (141).

Think about how desperate this war was becoming for both sides. Yet in the midst of that horror, these two friars were treated like honored guests for several days or more, and James of Vitry even mentions that Francis was allowed “to preach to Muslim soldiers.” Five times in his collected writings, Francis mentions Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. There is no doubt in my mind that he was doing that here – responding to the sultan’s hospitality by discussing common ground and respectfully explaining differences without in any way insulting the Prophet of Islam. Clearly, the two men had become friends. Neither converted, but both grew in their respect for the other’s faith and spirituality. It was iron sharpening iron, as we read in Proverbs (27:17).

We also know that before escorting the two men back to the Christian camp, al-Kamil offered Francis lavish gifts, which he turned down again and again, even when it was conditioned upon helping poor Christians. In Celano’s official version of the life of Francis (vetted by another crusading pope), we read: “But when he saw that Francis most vigorously despised all these things as so much dung, he was filled with admiration, and he looked upon him as a man different from all others” (143). That rings true: 1) with all the pressure on Celano to paint Muslims in the worst light possible, this was a bold statement; 2) it shows that the two men had indeed became friends.

In the second installment we will dig into some of the layers of historical distortions that explain why this story never came out as it really happened until recently.

This comes on the heels of a substantive critique of America’s Christian nationalist movement. Now I offer one possible Christian response to it, one that I believe is particularly potent and relevant.

One of the most influential Old Testament scholars and theologians of our time, Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) has written nearly fifty books, hundreds of articles, and participated in dozens of wider cultural projects as a public intellectual. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC), he has preached and published many sermons and poetic prayers.

It would be easy to pigeon-hole Brueggemann as a “liberal Protestant” – after all, the UCC is one of several “mainline Protestant” denominations (include the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others). These are the churches that originally came from Europe and exercised enormous cultural and political influence in the US until about the mid-1960s (see this 2018 Vox interview about these white Protestants’ voting patterns). Since then, partly because these mostly upper middle-class Protestants were having fewer children, partly because each new generation was a bit less practicing, and mostly because of the rise of more conservative evangelical churches, their numbers have declined, though not necessarily their influence in the public sphere.

Brueggemann does not identify as a “liberal Protestant.” In fact, one of the themes that excited me in reading his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination (1978, now with a special 40th Anniversary Edition), was his deep appreciation for the whole church, all historical and theological distinctions aside. In particular, writing in an American context, he consistently challenges “liberals” and “conservatives” in the same breath.

I chose this book too because it feeds directly into my book project about human flourishing as a central theme of Christian mission. Then as I read it, I realized it plays two other functions: Brueggemann provides a wonderful counterpart to the Christian nationalism I just analyzed in my two-part piece, and he conveniently opens a window into the kind of racial justice Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about and embodied in his activism. So I first summarize his book as a lead-in to my brief introduction to Kelly Brown Douglas’ article on the issue of reparations.

 

Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination

I don’t claim to do justice to this classic book (even though it’s only 119 pages) in just a few paragraphs. But I do hope to whet your appetite so that you will read it for yourself.

Let me also say from the outset that Brueggemann’s focus on the Bible’s prophets and their message is a theme that nicely opens up common ground for discussion and shared activism between Muslims and Christians. But that will have to be pursued elsewhere.

Prophets speak truth to power. Moses confronted Egypt’s Pharaoh for his enslavement of the Israelites. Jeremiah spent his whole life rebuking the kings of Judah and its religious leaders for their willful neglect of God’s commands. He foretold the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, lived to see it as an old man, and was finally dragged off to Egypt (where he died) by the puppet ruler who rebelled against Babylon. Finally, Jesus in his prophetic role leveled “radical criticism” at the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and not just for their legalistic interpretation of the Mosaic law and the Temple worship system, but because the law had become a tool to protect their own economic and political power at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

At bottom, prophets call their people to inhabit God’s values and practices so that they truly live as “an alternative community” to the dominant culture of their day. Moses, in conversation with the God of freedom every step of the way, deals a blistering blow to Pharaoh’s empire, to its consciousness and culture, and to its mute, unchanging, and status-quo obliging gods. Prophetic criticism is both radical criticism and the energizing of hope: “From beginning to end the narrative shows, with no rush to conclude, how the religious claims of Egyptian gods are nullified by this Lord of freedom . . . how the politics of oppression is overcome by the practice of justice and compassion” (10).

As the plagues unfold, Israel gradually disengages from the empire, because she realizes for the first time that she owes nothing to it. That is “criticism which leads to dismantling” (13). Criticism continues to build, and importantly, it includes the cries of the Hebrew slaves. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant” (Exodus 2:23). These cries of lament, please note, are not about resignation. Rather, they cry out for freedom, for leaving behind the numbness and dullness of the oppressive regime that enslaved them.

Out of this matrix of primal cries for freedom comes the energy of hope – in three dimensions:

 

    • Brueggemann notes that “energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness” (14). Yahweh brings Pharaoh’s empire to its knees by progressively hardening his heart. Israel doesn’t understand the darkness either, but her people are beginning to trust the God of the covenant and are finding new energy in sensing that his power is much greater “than the one who ostensibly rules the light” (15).
    • Exodus 11:7 reads, “But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel.” From then on, the Israelites were spared the plagues: “The God who will decide is not the comfortable god of the empire, so fat and well fed as to be neutral and inattentive. Rather, it is the God who is alert to the realities, who does not flinch from taking sides, who sits in the divine council on the edge of his seat and is attentive to his special interests” (15). God is for them! This reality is beginning to energize his people!
    • Pharaoh’s army is destroyed under the sea and Israel bursts into song – a song of praise, a doxology that sets bodies to dance and hearts to celebrate. Doxology is powerful, because it evokes an alternative reality in language: “The language of the empire is surely the language of managed realities, of production and schedule and market . . . Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality, and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible” (18).

 

Moses’ radical prophetic consciousness only lasted for about two hundred and fifty years, and much of that time was chaotic, with the Israelite tribes often the prey of their marauding neighbors and with their gods a constant temptation for them. Only a few judges were able to remind the people who there were and keep their enemies at bay. Then the prophet Samuel finally hears God say, “Anoint a king who will rule over them.” Yet it was plainly a divine concession to Israel’s hunger for stability and national pride. King Saul was certainly a mixed bag, but in David, the good seemed to prevail.

Then came Solomon, and Brueggeman’s second chapter, “Royal Consciousness: Countering the Counterculture,” is mostly about the decline that tragically starting with him:

 

    • a huge harem, to guarantee fertility;
    • a configuration of tax districts meant to dismantle the tribal ties and better control the population; a bureaucracy “which . . . served to institutionalize technical reason;
    • a standing army at the king’s beck and call;
    • a cult of wisdom, “an effort to rationalize reality”;
    • forced labor conscripted from the peasantry to carry out the king’s ambitious building projects” (24).

 

One scholar called the Jerusalem Temple complex the “‘paganization of Israel,’ that is, a return to the religious and political presuppositions of the pre-Mosaic imperial situation … a knowing embrace of pre-prophetic reality” (24-5).

With the affluence came exploitation and oppression of the majority of the population (the peasants). No more politics of justice and compassion. But too, this marks “the establishment of a controlled, static religion . . . in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king . . . Now God is fully accessible to the king who is his patron” (28, his emphasis). We call this "religious nationalism." Gone is the Lord of freedom who called his people out of Egypt! This is what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” (which he today prefers to name “totalism,” using Robert Lifton’s expression).

Admittedly, it could have been otherwise, but human nature seems irresistibly drawn to the power of wealth and politics. Now God had to send prophets to remind people of the alternative community proclaimed and nurtured in the Mosaic law.

This is where the Hebrew Bible inserts the prophetic ministries of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (who wrote Isaiah 40-66). They represent two sides of one coin – prophetic ministry as grief and prophetic ministry as amazement and hope. Jeremiah’s role is this: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering to death” (41). Jeremiah grieved throughout his long career on two levels: 1) he grieved the suffering of his people he saw coming so clearly (and they did not) – the mass killings and deportation, and Jerusalem’s destruction; 2) his own grief because no one listened to him for over four decades.

Royal consciousness also leads to a despair that banishes all hope. Second Isaiah emerges from the second generation of  Babylonian exiles and salutes God’s sovereign hand in Persian King Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. I have to admit that these chapters in Isaiah are some of my favorite in the whole Bible! Brueggemann is right: they burst at the seams in amazement at what God is doing and will do in the future. Second Isaiah penetrates the despair of the people brought low by announcing “God’s radical freedom.” The One who seemed to have been defeated and distant in the exile is now claiming his throne: “The poet brings Israel to an enthronement festival, even as Jeremiah had brought Israel to a funeral” (70). He is “reclaiming Israel’s imagination”:

 

How beautiful upon the mountains

            are the feet of him who brings good tidings . . .

            who publishes salvation,

            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

 

Now to Jesus . . . Just like the Second Isaiah whose joyous message “evoked a community not derived from the Babylonian reality,” “Jesus is able to articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present” (111). Those who latched on to that future could now sing and dance, and forgive those who would persecute them. Moreover, as Jesus stood in solidarity with the poor, the grieving, the oppressed (especially the indebted peasants of Galilee), they saw in him God’s power and authority as firmly exercised “for them”: “The authority of Jesus, his power to transform strangely, was found in his own poverty, hunger, and grieving over the death of his people.” In his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, Jesus weeps over the city, foreseeing the city's tragic destruction some forty years later at the hands of the Romans.

Less than a week later, “the slain Lamb . . . stood outside the royal domain and was punished for it” (113). As he had warned his disciples repeatedly, Jesus was crucified. But what about his resurrection?

 

“The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future. The wrenching of Friday had left only the despair of Saturday (Luke 24:21), and the disciples had no reason to expect Sunday after that Friday. . . . The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (112).

 

Notice here how Brueggemann handles the resurrection. It’s “not to be understood in good liberal fashion as a spiritual development in the church [i.e., it didn’t happen literally]. Nor should it be too quickly handled as an oddity in the history of God or an isolated act of God’s power [as conservative are wont to treat it].” He goes on, “Rather, it is the ultimate act of prophetic energizing in which a new history is initiated. It is new history open to all but particularly received by the marginal victims of the old order” (113).

Let’s be clear: “The resurrection is a genuinely historical event in which the dead one rules.” In fact, the political implications are manifest: “[Jesus] is now the king who displaces the king. His resurrection is the end of the nonhistory taught in the royal school and a new history begins for those who stood outside of history. This new history gives persons new identities (Matt 28:19) and a new ethic (28:20), even as it begins on the seashore among the dead enslavers (Exodus 14:30)” (113).

As I sum up this main section, let me note that Brueggemann indicated at the very beginning that the dominant culture (Pharaoh’s oppressive empire, or America’s market-dominated, consumerist, and callous ignoring of its huge underclass culture) “is grossly uncritical,” and “wearied.” The prophetic task “is to hold together criticism and energizing” (4). But liberals and conservatives (this is about theology, not political parties) are equally inept at tackling this mission: “Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming” (4).

In his 40th anniversary postscript (“In Retrospect – PI at 40”), Brueggemann looks back and points to what he now sees as his two best articles (out of hundreds). The first is “The Costly Loss of Lament.” Here looked at “the bourgeoisie church” immersed in “bourgeoisie political culture” [mainstream Protestantism with its still commanding political influence]. He explains:

 

“In civic culture, the loss of lament invites denial and so enhances the dominant social system as though it were beyond failure or critique. In the church, with such a loss, the gospel becomes one of unmitigated happiness where ‘never is heard a discouraging word. Many pastors, moreover, are paid to sustain exactly such a practice. But, of course, in prophetic realism (as with real life realism), such an illusion is unsustainable because there is much about which to lament, protest, and complain. The ‘costly loss’ is to sign on for the illusion of well-being, or a ‘Theology of Glory’ to the disregard of a summoning ‘Theology of the Cross’” (130).

 

Here is the other article he feels was most important: “The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity.” It turns out that “scarcity” is part of a strategy to justify injustice: “A regime that operates with a claim of scarcity can legitimate hoarding, accumulation, and eventually monopoly to the disregard of others, even when such strategies evoke and legitimate the violence of the strong against the weak” (131). Psalms 104 and 145, by contrast, sing the praises of a God who packs abundance into his creation and who generously shares it with everyone. In our American context, then, “the endless frantic acquisitiveness evoked by market ideology (our specific form of totalism) serves to counter the claims of faith in a way that has real life parallels” (131).

That struggle between the prophetic imagination and totalism has never been so starkly urgent as it is now in the presidency of Donald Trump, Brueggemann declares (writing in December 2017):

 

His mantra “Make America Great Again” is a heavy-handed ideology with a validation of racists accents and an uncritical embrace of the exceptionalism of ‘the American Dream.’ President Trump, however, did not create this ideology, which is very old in the lore of Euro-American exceptionalism, operative already in the early Puritanism of Cotton Mather. The outcome of that unapologetic ideology is the monetizing of all social relationships, the commoditization of all social possibilities, and the endless production of dispensable persons who have no legitimate membership in the totalism. One may quibble about detail, but the main thrust of the market ideology among us is beyond dispute” (131, emphasis his).

 

Kelly Brown Douglas and reparations

I end this post with an example of what Brueggeman’s prophetic imagination could look like concretely. Next to me is the latest issue of Sojourners (July 2020) with on its cover a haunting artistic rendering of two young black slaves, man and woman, with excerpts from a slave’s bill of sale inscribed on their skin. Anxiety is written all over their eyes and posture. Above them is the title to the lead article, “A Christian Case for Reparations,” by Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Douglas, an African American woman (see above picture), is an Episcopal priest, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and holds an endowed chair in Theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. A recent book of hers is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The opening paragraph of her current Sojourners article is worth quoting in full:

 

“To the best of our historical knowledge, in August 1619 a ship named the White Lion landed at a coastal port near Point Comfort, Virginia, carrying 20 to 30 captive Africans to be sold into slavery. This landing symbolizes the construction of race as a defining and indelible feature of America’s core identity. It stamped black bodies with the ineradicable identity of subhuman chattel. As such, it signaled the white supremacist foundation upon which America’s capitalistic democracy, with all its sociopolitical systems and structures, would be built.”

 

There is no doubt that the legacy of slavery still weighs heavily over African Americans in the form of “poverty, mass incarceration, and substandard schools.” She quotes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the sweeping New York Times 1619 Project: “there has never ‘been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed,’” although writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article in The Atlantic (“A Case for Reparations”) eloquently brought the topic back into the national limelight.

This issue is worth pondering now more than ever from a theological perspective in the wake of massive protests calling for racial justice and the glaring disparities that have made people of color much more vulnerable to the coronavirus, argues Douglas. The fact that Princeton Theological Seminary and a few other seminaries have set up endowed funds to give scholarships to descendants of slaves and support black ministries is a good start. But, she adds, “inasmuch as faith is about partnering with God to mend an unjust earth, and thus to move us toward a more just future, then faith communities are accountable to that future.” In that light, reparations should not just seek to redress past harms but they should aim to build “a future where all human beings . . . are free to live into the fullness of their sacred creation.”

Hence, any form reparations might take should include these four elements:

 

    • Anamnestic truth-telling: faith communities should confront “the ways in which the past remains alive in the present,” and for instance, how “ecclesial and institutional systems, structures, and cultural norms reflect white supremacist narratives, ideologies and constructs – then intentionally working to dismantle them.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, it requires “an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts,” to make sure they will no longer haunt us. This paragraph in his long, 2014 article on The Case for Reparations expresses well what Douglas is after here:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

    • Fostering moral identity: that is to intentionally denounce white supremacy, to refuse to benefit any longer of white privilege, but following Jesus who emptied himself of all divine privileges in order to bear on the cross the sins of all and especially the suffering of all human victims of oppression. There has to be lament and repentance before energizing and hope can appear.
    • Proleptic participation, or acting as if the future is now: as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, churches may not remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
    • To repair means first dismantling structures of injustice: journalist Adele Banks reported on a landmark study led by sociologists Michael Emerson (U. of Illinois-Chicago) and Glenn Bracey (Villanova). They found that in response to the question “Do you think our country has a race problem?” 78 percent of “practicing black Christians” answered “yes,” and only 38 percent of “practicing white Christians answered “yes.” When it comes to “systemic racism,” white evangelicals are much more likely to acknowledge personal prejudice than unjust structures:

 

“When respondents were asked whether systemic racism or individual prejudices were the bigger problem in the country today, two-thirds of African Americans pointed to systemic racism while the same proportion of whites blamed individual prejudices. Among evangelicals, 7 in 10 (72%) faulted individual prejudices, 12% said systemic racism and the rest answered ‘I don’t know.’”

 

A question on this survey nicely wraps up this post. We’ve seen how Brueggemann’s “prophetic imagination” always dismantled the dominant structures and ideologies of the day. In this question about biblical interpretation, it becomes crystal clear how a demographic that most benefits from the sociopolitical status quo naturally reads the Bible from that perspective. In Acts 6:1-7 we read that after the explosive growth of the early church after Pentecost, the Greek-speaking Jews who had come to the festival from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) began to complain that their widows had been neglected in the daily distribution of food. This prompted a discussion among church leaders and they instituted the office of deacons, or people tasked with charitable duties.

The question prompt summarized the passage “as a description of early Christians reacting to complaints of an ethnic minority group and empowering leaders of that group to address the problem.” It then offered this interpretation: “Therefore, it is good to listen to the complaints of ethnic minority groups and empower leaders within those minority groups to correct injustice.” The question finally asked, Do you agree or disagree with this interpretation? In this case and in two other passages with similar implications, “the majority of people of color strongly agreed with the interpretation. Less than one-third of whites came to the same conclusion.”

Brueggemann is right. As Christians, and in our context, European Americans in particular, we seriously need to pay attention to the prophetic imagination in our scriptures.

At the turn of the new millennium, David Kuo was rapidly climbing the ladder of influence in the Republican party. He had come ten years before at age 24 to work for the most powerful pro-life organization, the National Right to Life Committee. Yet when he graduated from college, this could not have been farther from his mind.

David’s father fought the Japanese for eleven years after they invaded Shanghai in 1937 and then emigrated to the US. He never associated with religion, but his European American wife was a church-going mainline Protestant who read the Psalms to young David before going to bed and told him Bible stories. While David was in high school, his United Methodist church just north of New York City hired an evangelical youth pastor. As a result, he and several friends had personal and life-changing encounters with Jesus. But David at that stage was just as passionate about politics as he was about his newfound faith. And like his parents, he was a staunch Democrat. In fact, he interned with his idol Bobby Kennedy for a summer in college.

Abortion turned out to be the issue that drove him into the Republican Party. He and his college girl friend had an abortion and he came to regret it. With time this became one of two burning issues for him. The other was caring for the poor, a passion he inherited from his mother, so he jumped at the opportunity to become deputy-director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the first term of President George W. Bush. Yet the initial rush of power that comes from working in the White House soon turned to frustration, as the “compassionate conservatism” of the president got whittled away almost from the start. And no, you can’t blame it on the 9/11 aftermath either. You can read about this in his New York Times Bestseller, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (watch him explain it in October 2006 as it was coming out).

A friend sent me this book over a decade ago and because of the present topic, I finally read it last week. It was hard to put down. Fourteen years later, it’s just as relevant today. Because of his reputation as a speech writer, George W. Bush had invited Kuo to his ranch in Texas when he was contemplating a presidential run. Then during his presidency, Kuo became Special Advisor to the president from 2001 to 2003. Nowhere in the book does he say or imply that the president was insincere in his promoting “compassionate conservatism,” and he plainly liked him as a person. But he became increasingly upset that the Bush administration used conservative Christians (evangelicals and Catholics) for political gain and that even money earmarked for the faith-based charities found its way into the 2004 campaign coffers.

I will come back to Kuo’s misgivings and theological lessons at the end of this piece, but in the meantime, allow me to highlight just a few of Katherine Stewart’s main themes in her 2019 book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

 

Stewart’s qualitative and longitudinal study

Katherine Stewart, an acclaimed journalist, first started researching the Religious Right in 2009 after she discovered her children’s elementary school sponsored an after-school club meeting dubbed a “Bible study.” As the book cover to her 2012 book The Good News Club puts it, “Stewart soon discovered that its real mission is to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity.” That the Supreme court could deem such religious activity in public schools legal is what sent her to investigate the wider political implications of this.

By now, some readers might be thinking, “Here’s a flaming secular liberal on a witch hunt.” Clearly, Stewart is not sympathetic to the political agenda of the Religious Right. But nor is she on an angry campaign to smear these people. They have a right to free speech as everyone else, but she strongly believes that their goal continues to be the gradual erosion of the First Amendment which guarantees the separation of church and state in America. Her book, then, is a wake-up call to take this movement seriously because it threatens our democratic freedoms as a nation.

For those of you who want more details from her book, watch John Fea interview Katherine Stewart in an online discussion sponsored by a bookstore in Harrisburg, PA (March 25, 2020). This also conveniently pulls together the two parts of this blog post on religious nationalism.

In my subtitle I called her study “qualitative.” By this I refer to how many anthropologists and sociologists spend time embedded in their subjects’ lives and context. Stewart has been going to several Christian Right conferences a year since 2009. She not only knows the issues debated first-hand. She’s also made quite a few friends in those circles. I’m sure she’s made some leaders wince when they see her coming too. Yet several times she insists that these are good and sincere people for the most part. Furthermore, the book documents her own feelings as she went through this process, with detailed descriptions of personalities she interviewed and leaders she has observed.

I also put “longitudinal” in the subtitle. That refers to time, of course (ten years of immersing herself in this evangelical Christian milieu), and also to the breadth of the movement. At 277 pages of text, she covers a lot of ground. I will only highlight four points, since there is necessarily overlap with Fea’s book.

 

It is all about power

The first chapter introduces the main themes by describing a “Pastors’ Briefings,” not coincidently a month before the 2018 elections in a swing-state, North Carolina. Traveling to this church near Charlotte with a friend who was a Southern Baptist pastor, Stewart describes this one-day conference sponsored by “one of the most powerful and politically connected lobbying organizations of the Christian right,” Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, D.C. More specifically, the event is organized by its affiliate, Watchmen on the Wall (referring to the book of Nehemiah when the first returnees from exile rebuild the wall of Jerusalem). Apparently, Watchmen claims nearly 25,000 pastors as members. Vice President Mike Pence declares on their website, “Keep being a ‘Watchman on the Wall.’ Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.”

Perkins himself was speaking that morning. “Folks, we’re headed in a new direction as a nation. And that’s what this battle over the court is about.” Then he lists some of the common themes of the movement: “the Court has been used to impose a godless set of values on America”; they took the Bible out of schools and in its place called for “abortions on demand”; it “made us all complicit with the taking of innocent life”; “Folks, is this an evil day?” (15)

Then Perkins gets to the reason for the gathering: “Christians need to vote. The members of your congregation need to vote. As pastors, you need to – I’m not going to say ‘challenge them’; you need to tell them to vote.” And though the word “Republican” is never uttered, Perkins leaves no doubt what he means. On one side is the “party of life”; on the other is controlled by “the rulers of the darkness.” His parting challenge, then, is this: “My question to you this morning is: What will you do? What will you do with this moment that God has entrusted to us?”

But how do these organizations get around the ban on clergy using their pulpits to promote political candidates if their churches want to keep their tax-exempt status? The FRC created an “elaborate architecture of Culture Impact Teams” (CIT) who then set up in each participating congregation a “Cultural Impact Center” (notice the smart switching of “political” to “cultural”), whereby a congregation takes the initiative to inform itself politically. Each of these CITs is given close to 200 pages of information in a three-ring binder. Stewart notes some of its talking points:

 

      • “Scripture opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle – unless the money passes through church coffers”;
      • Environmentalism is an anti-Christian movement, a “litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today”; it recommends the resources supplied by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which on its website tells us that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming”;
      • The Bible opposes gun regulations;
      • The Bible “favors privatization of schools through vouchers”;
      • It teaches that “same-sex relationships are an abomination”
      • It teaches that women should not “have access to comprehensive, twenty-first-century reproductive medical care” (17)

 

Additionally, the FRC has two red-and-blue “Values Buses” crisscrossing the country, and one of them was outside the church that day. As Stewart puts it, it obviously serves as a “mobile get-out-the-vote unit.” There were North Carolina voters guides on every seat at this event, dispersed throughout the fellowship hall, and thousands of them neatly stacked in the middle of the room for pastors to load up their trunks upon leaving.

What fuels this grassroots activism, besides its Christian veneer? Looking at some of the afternoon speakers and their extreme social conservatism, Stewart offers this hypothesis: she senses “an undercurrent of rage,” which speakers can adroitly channel into “a kind of political therapy.” She goes on:

 

“Here the anxieties over shifting gender roles and the resentments over fading economic privilege are transmuted into personal salvation – and political gold. Setting aside the big money, the key to hard-right Republican power in this state is an army of volunteer activists, people with the time and energy to canvass voters, run for minor political offices, and do whatever it takes to save the country from ‘the humanists’ and ‘the ‘homosexual agenda’ and take it back for God” (21).

 

I cannot move on from the power topic without mentioning perhaps the most dramatic speaker – retired Lieutenant General William Boykin, the famous commander of the raid in the movie Black Hawk Down. I mentioned him in one of my first posts on my human trustees website (August 2011, “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”). In the late 2000s he was one of the prominent communicators in the lucrative network of American Islamophobes. Besides his multiple speaking engagements, he contributed to a book with several other security analysts at the conservative Center for Security Policy in 2010, Sharia: The Threat to America. As I wrote in my blog, his views showed more penchant for conspiracy theories than any knowledge of Islam.

Here I invite you to connect the dots. One of President Trump’s signature immigration policies was the “Muslim Ban,” in its several iterations, forced on his by the courts. But this high-level military officer had also come “close to the heart of American military power” (24). From deputy director of special activities at the CIA, to a similar post in the Army, to deputy undersecretary for intelligence and war fighting in 2003 under President Bush, it was Boykin’s experience with the military in Iraq that colored his views of Islam.

Yet there is another layer here, one that touches me on a personal level. Stewart notes that in his work in Iraq “he worked with contractors with strong links to dominionist groups, who believe that Christians should seek to occupy all positions of power in government and society” (24-25). Though the indisputable theological father of the Christian Right is R. J. Rushdoony (1922-2001), starting in the late 1990s one influential thinker promoted the idea that Christians are called by God to influence all seven areas of civilization, “including government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family, and religion” – the seven “mountains” (25).

It turns out that this person, C. Peter Wagner, was a former missionary to Bolivia who taught mostly “church growth” at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was there working on my PhD there from 1997-2001, in Pasadena, CA. Besides taking a class with him in that area, he was the teacher of an adult Sunday School class my wife and I attended at Lake Avenue Church (6,000 members at the time). While we were there, he taught mostly from the book of Acts, since he was writing a commentary on it at the time. It was only near the end of our stay that he started to mention his new project of linking together various “apostles” worldwide to form a movement called “the New Apostolic Reformation,” based at the Wagner Institute he was founding in Colorado Springs.

From his 2008 book, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Stewart quotes Wagner’s teaching that apostles (influential, Holy Spirit-empowered leaders) are responsible “for taking dominion” over “whatever molder of culture or subdivision God has placed them in,” which he casts as “taking dominion over Satan.” Knowing Wagner personally as I did ((he died in October 2016), I doubt he would approve of Paula White-Cain’s role of “personal pastor” to President Donald Trump, though her neo-Pentecostal theology has some clear affinities with his (here's an amazing OpEd in Chrisitanity Today explaining the unlikely support for her by virtually the male leaders of the Christian Right). If you listen to Wagner's 2011 interview with NPR Fresh Air hostess Terry Gross, you realize that “dominion” for him is more about influence than power, more to do with spreading the love of Jesus than with political power. He’s very clear that the pluralistic, democratic nature of the US is something Christians, along with all other US citizens, of whatever religious or non-religious background, should respect. Of course, that doesn’t stop others from interpreting “dominionism” in more aggressive and authoritarian ways.

 

Add deceit to the power mix

Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at the Massachussetts think tank Political Research Associates literally hit the jackpot in early 2018: following a tip, he “went fishing in a conservative website and reeled in a 116-page manual for a campaign called Project Blitz” (153). This discovery laid bare “the movement’s legislative strategy,” which is “to flood the zone with coordinated, simultaneous bills in the hopes that they will, eventually, become law” (read his article in Religion Dispatches here)

And all aimed to further “religious freedom.” Launched in 2015, the steering committee of four is led by a woman, Lea Carawan, who obtained a master’s in theology from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), cofounded and directed the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer” (154). The interviewer of a Christian TV show in 2018 said to her, “Our country was founded by Christians on Judeo-Christian principles, and they intended for this to be a Christian nation.” “That’s right,” she replied. “It simply means that our laws will reflect Judeo-Christian or biblical values and concepts” (155). Apparently, this restricts “religious freedom” to Christians (and perhaps Jews).

Another steering committee member, Lindy M. “Buddy” Pilgrim, is the founder of Integrity Leadership. Stewart quips, “Pilgrim is an avid proponent of the merger between the Christian far right and the economic far right.” Quoting from an interview with him, Pilgrim stated that the “only way to make freedom work,” [is to have] “Godly men and women assuming positions of power and authority in business (and politics)” (155). Pilgrim does indeed know about business. He served as president of his uncle Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim’s firm, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, listed in the Fortune 500. He later “worked as CEO of Simmons Foods and founded start-ups in residential housing, food distribution, and agribusiness. He also established businesses in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia” (155-6).

You should also note that Buddy Pilgrim has been on President Trump’s Evangelical Leadership Council, a name often given to the circle of evangelical leaders who regularly meet with him. Let me quote Stewart on an interview Pilgrim gave in a Point of View radio interview in November 2018:

 

“Pilgrim glowingly recalled a dinner he attended at the White House for evangelical leaders, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Kenneth Copeland, and Franklin Graham. ‘And here’s what was so special about it,’ he said. ‘This was the first ever dinner like this, and the dinner was literally named, “A celebration of Evangelical Leadership.”’ Not ‘a celebration of faith leadership in general,’ with a mix of Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and all these other groups” (156).

 

The next person on Project Blitz’ steering committee is David Barton, whom Stewart dubs the Where’s Waldo of the Christian Right” (173). He has his hands in literally dozens of keys projects and institutions, including the Washington Museum of the Bible. His epiphany came at age 33 (1987), while a math teacher and principal of a small Christian school in Aledo, Texas. He sensed God telling him to research the connection between the Supreme Court’s decision to ban prayers in public school and the drop in SAT scores. It turns out, those scores were rising steadily until 1963, a year after the case of Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that prayers offered in public schools violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This was followed the next year by the case of School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp, “in which the Court declared that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional” (130).

Stewart is right: to argue for a causal relationship between the two events while totally disregarding “the massive changes” occurring in US education in that decade and ignoring the social scientific research on the issue is irresponsible. Besides the fact that whole sections of disadvantaged and marginalized populations were integrated in the school system at that time, “the majority of the nation’s school districts had minimized or ceased the practice of school-sponsored, sectarian prayer” long before this.

Since then David Barton has made documentaries and written books about American history that have been forcefully rebutted by secularist and evangelical historians alike. For instance, in a 1990 video, he recognizes that in Jefferson’s own words the First Amendment erects “a wall of separation between Church & State.” But then he argues “that Jefferson meant only to prohibit ‘the establishing of a single denomination,’” and that the wall was only to be “a one-directional wall protecting the church from the government” (133). His definitive work on the subject (recall that he has no training as a historian) is found in his 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. The History News Network called the book “the least credible history book in print” (134). John Fea’s 2016 revised edition of his book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, was partly a rebuttal of Barton’s shoddy, and frankly, deceitful work.

I don’t have the space to mention the fourth player in Project Blitz, Bill Dallas, a man who did prison time for embezzling money but who found God in his San Quentin prison cell and later founded a state-of-the-art “data firm that turns out the conservative Christian vote” (156, see her Ch. 8, “Converting the Flock to Data”).

What I can say is that these four highly connected individuals have crafted a tool of enormous reach and success. Only three bills found their way in 2017 in state legislatures seeking to put to use “In God We Trust” in various public forums. But then by April 2018, over 70 bills churned out by Project Blitz appeared across the country. Many were defeated, but in at least five states some were adopted. Stewart comments, “‘It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,’ David Barton explained on a conference call about Project Blitz with state legislators from around the country” (157).

How is this strategy deceitful? On the surface it just seems like normal politics, albeit with a lot of money and grassroots support behind it. Stewart argues that the documentation of Project Blitz that was uncovered “shows that Christian nationalists have self-consciously embraced a strategy of advancing their goals through deception and indirection.” There are three phases: 1) introduce “symbolic or ceremonial gestures that can be fairly easily passes; 2) with their foot in the door, so to speak, phase II “consists of bills that propose to inject Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities; 3) phase III will seek “to legalize discrimination against those whose actions (or very being) offends the sensibilities of conservative Christians” (160). Declaring “Christian Heritage Week” in public schools, for example, accompanied with the appropriate Barton-inspired teaching on American history, is a recipe for “spreading the message, among children especially, that conservative Christians are the real Americans and everybody else is here by invitation.”

 

The Libertarian gospel

I mentioned that the master thinker behind today’s Religious Right was R. J. Rushdoony, a prolific writer who had graduated from UC Berkeley fully disgusted with his study of classical literature. It was all “humanistic garbage,” “classics of depravity,” he said. Stewart summarizes his mindset from the beginning: “a resolutely binary form of thought that classified all things into one of two absolutes; a craving for order; and a loathing for the secular world and secular education in particular. He promoted the pro-slavery writings of 19th-century theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, agreeing with him “that the Union victory was ‘a defeat for Christian orthodoxy’” and emphasizing that “Dabney’s adversaries, the abolitionists, were the archetypes of the anti-Christian rebels – the liberals, the communists, the secularists, the advocates of women’s rights – who continued to wreak havoc on the modern world” (112).

One wonders how the son of Armenian refugees who had escaped the 1917 genocide could hold such racist views. In his magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, you can read, “Some people are by nature slaves and will always be so” (113). Yet this racist screed also had economic policy implications. The post-Civil-War Christian South, gradually coming under the new slavery of an atheistic federal government ended up advocating a “social gospel,” that is, the view that the state is delegated by God to take care of the poor, and in this case the Blacks. Whites should never should have had to pay taxes to uplift them economically, he opined.

David Barton liberally quotes from Rushdoony in his writings and aligns himself also with James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregational minister who in 1935 cofounded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. It was laser-focused on dismantling the New Deal. As Stewart has it, the message was simple: “business has a friend in Jesus, and government is the enemy of God and man,” and theologically, the welfare state violates God’s Ten Commandments, and especially, “Thou shalt not steal.” To have the government muzzle business and “take from the rich to give to the poor” is stealing, plain and simple. Thus, Rushdoony wrote, “capitalism is supremely a product of Christianity,” and “socialism is organized larceny; like inflation, it takes from the haves to give to the have-nots” (118).

I cannot respond to this here, but I posted a three-part Lenten series in 2012 on Muslim and Christian poverty alleviation that attempted to cut through right and left ideological lines and show that the mainstream in both faith traditions is surprisingly aligned on the issue of social justice. ["A Muslim and Christian Holistic Approach to Poverty"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?; "Zakat and Poverty Alleviation"]

Nowhere is this libertarian gospel more in evidence than in the Christian nationalist view of the role of government in education. I do not believe Stewart’s characterization of the movement’s goal is exaggerated: “to convert America’s public schools into conservative Christian academies, even as they weaken or even destroy public education altogether” (186). As I write, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose marriage cemented the union of two like-minded billionaire families from Holland, MI (DeVos and Prince), has managed to handsomely further her movement’s misleading slogan, “school choice” (195, see above photo with the Texas Capito in the background).

You can catch a glimpse of what our national education would look under such policies by observing what has happened in Michigan “with the DeVos money flooding the arteries of the state’s political system” (196). It has now become “a paradise for for-profit charter operators, most of them concentrated in urban areas.” Amazingly, over “half of Detroit’s children now attend charters – second only to New Orleans (and possibly Flint, MI) – and 80 percent of these are for-profit.”

The first element in this winning strategy is to establish for-profit charter schools. The second is that this multiplication of charter schools is fueled by “lucrative tax breaks.” How so? “Charter operators who own the property that they lease to their own schools demanded – and received – a tax exemption on that property, an arrangement that has become increasingly common around the country” (197). Finally, this boom could never be possible in Michigan without state laws that “are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics.” “School choice,” in the end, is a race toward the bottom, especially for minority children.

 

The global conservative movement

Katherine Stewart attended the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy in March 2019. In its thirteenth iteration, this congress gathers pro-life, “pro-family” (meaning anti LGBTQ rights) Christian Right supporters mostly from Europe and Russia. The worldwide enemy is “global liberalism,” a hydra with “multiple faces,” in the words of Ignacio Arsuaga, “founder and president of the ultraconservative Christian activist group CitizenGO” in Spain. In a familiar refrain he lists the enemies: “radical feminists, the abortion industry, and the LGBT totalitarians” (249). Migrants are the other enemy. As several speakers intoned at the congress, with these hordes breaking down our borders, “soon we will be extinct.”

As you might suspect, President Trump is revered by all in this gathering. In the words of a Georgian leader “who doubles as a private equity investor with interests in Russia,” Trump has marked “a turning point in the march against the global liberalism” (250). Then too, the interests of the religious Right and the Alt Right have converged, mostly in the person of Steve Bannon (251). As Ed Martin, one of the coauthors of the book, The Conservative Case for Donald Trump, put it in his speech, the vision can be summarized in three points: “Brexit, border, and Bible.”

Possibly the most worrisome development is the aura that Russia’s Vladimir Putin holds for this movement. The same Republican leader who in 1979 successfully urged an undecided group of religious and political leaders huddled around Jerry Falwell to form the Moral Majority to choose abortion as their central issue (62-64), Paul Weyrich was “among the first to grasp the potential for an alliance with religious conservatives in Russia and Eastern Europe” (270). But as the 2015 Republican nomination was heating up, “Russian oligarchs, having effectively deployed religious nationalism to gain control over their own populations, readily grasped that it could be used to shape events in other countries too.” They realized that these “pro-family” issues could be leveraged to mobilize religious nationalists elsewhere, “an excellent way to destabilize the Western alliance and advance Russia’s geopolitical interests.” Maria Butina’s arrest in the wake of the FBI’s scrutinizing the Trump campaign is now history, but Russia is already trying to use the current racial protests in the US to advance its own agenda and is poised to try and tip the balance in the 2020 election as well.

 

David Kuo’s important lesson

Ten years into his political activity in Washington, DC, Kuo found himself for the first time with a job at the White House – only a summer job, he had said to himself. Yet on his first day, after listening to the head of the White House Political Affairs brief the Domestic Policy staff on how they were “to understand the political world,” he had a sinking feeling. In his words,

 

“Listening to all of this I realized I had passed to the other side. I wasn’t just a Christian trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking for ways to recruit other Christians into politics so that we would have their votes . . . In my best moments I feared I wasn’t representing Jesus. Now it was different. Now I had to ask if I was a corrupting force in other people’s faith. Chuck Colson inspired me to tackle the great moral issues. Was I doing that, or was I part of an effort to get people to support a political leader? There were enormous differences between the two possibilities. One sought to serve Jesus’ concerns for people through political ends. The other sought to serve a political end by using Jesus’ concern as justification” (Tempting Faith, 168-9).

 

Kuo ended up staying three more years in the White House, doing his best to suppress this internal tug-of-war. A brain tumor in April 2003, which the doctors said would probably kill him, became the occasion for some soul-searching. Yet, miraculously, three weeks after brain surgery he returned to work, but in a different frame of mind. He was now telling himself the truth: the faith-based project was a “sad charade,” a ploy “to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as a political tool” (242). He soon left politics, followed his dream for a while to become a professional bass fisherman (he still does this on the side). He’s now a contributing editor for beliefnet.com to the beliefnet.com website.

I kicked off this two-part post on Christian nationalism by framing it within the wider question of religion and politics. For Christians and Muslims, and by extension for people of any faith, this American Christian movement from 1979 to the present should cause all of us to take a deep breath – at least those of us who believe that democracy, human rights, human dignity, and the equality of all before the law are values worth fighting for (peacefully!). Today, Juneteenth 2020, is also the 23rd day of street protests across this nation for racial justice. Multigenerational crowds from every race and creed are marching with increasing determination to end the structural injustice that has oppressed African Americans for 400 years in America. And it looks like this time, substantial change will take place. Right now the people are voting with their feet. In November they will vote with their ballots. And that gives me hope.

I hope this infamous image will go down in history as a cautionary tale: President Trump’s photo-op brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, minutes after the police and national guard teargassed the demonstrators that had stood in his path, including at least one Episcopal priest and a seminarian in the church courtyard. They were cleaning up after a day of providing water and other help to the protesters. Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde of the Diocese of Washington registered her “outrage” at the event, mostly because of “the president’s use of the Bible and the backdrop of St. John’s Church for his political purposes.” Had he opened the Bible, she mused, he could have read aloud about love of God and neighbor, about seeking “God in the face of strangers,” about the call “to the highest standard of love, which is justice.”

Leave Trump aside now. Focus instead on what happens when religion mixes with politics, and here specifically, when religion gets hijacked to bolster the power of a particular regime. As most of you know, I’m a Christian theologian and an Islamicist (Islamic Studies scholar). One of the topics I’ve written about is twentieth-century Islamism, or political Islam. From the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a grassroots revival movement that quickly got involved in politics – to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to the Taliban and all manner of Islamic parties worldwide, the temptation to mix religion and politics in Muslim-majority nations has seemed irresistible over the last hundred years.

You might object, “But haven’t Islamic polities always espoused some version of mosque-state integration since the Prophet Muhammad ruled in Medina (622-632)?” That is certainly true, just as it has been for Christians, from the Emperor Constantine until the modern period. In fact, the UK and Germany, among others, still have state churches. But for both Muslims and Christians, the God and politics formula has spawned authoritarianism. As Emory University professor Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im argued in his classic book, Islam and the Secular State, if they care about democracy and the equality of all before the law, governments in Muslim countries must be secular so that one version of Islam is not weaponized to oppress citizens of another religious school or persuasion.

That is what we had on display near the White House. An American president who was elected largely because he managed to secure 81 percent of the evangelical vote used tear gas to clear a path to a church from which he could remind his base that he was their champion in their fight to make America “Christian” again (note that his approval rating among this group has recently slipped from 80 to 62 percent). Trump was appealing directly to the nationalist ideology of the Christian Right that has been with us since at least Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979.

I hope to unpack this notion of Christian nationalism following historian John Fea in this post, and in the next, I’ll lean on Katherine Stewart’s acclaimed book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Both books are finely researched and argued. In this instance I look at the phenomenon from the perspective of an evangelical historian. In the next, I dive into a wide-angle study of the movement here and abroad.

 

John Fea’s historical perspective

Professor of American history at Messiah College (an evangelical liberal arts college), Fea has bravely waded into political waters before. In 2011 he wrote a book that pushed back against the view that the United States was “founded as a Christian nation” (see the second edition here). He comes back to this theme in his 2018 book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. That theme resurfaces in the third part of this book. Fea’s overall thesis is that starting with Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1979, the so-called Christian Right hitched its wagon to the Republican Party and unashamedly pursued political power. In several instances, it did gain access to the Oval Office, though never as completely as in the Trump administration. Yet that is precisely what allows Fea to show why this is a fool’s errand: the edifice is built on three pillars that go against the way of Jesus: a) fear instead of hope; b) power instead of humility; c) nostalgia instead of historical truth.

Let’s start with fear, which is no stranger to American politics since the beginning:

 

“In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery. In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration Party, commonly known as the ‘Know-Nothing Party,’ was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words ‘Native Americans, Beware of Foreign Influence’” (15).

 

Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was in large part due to ads painting the latter as likely to drag America into a nuclear war. Sometimes, the fears are pure fabrications, like the “Pizzagate” incident when some Republicans alleged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC pizzeria. Fortunately, the three shots fired by the man with an assault rifle who had traveled from North Carolina to exact justice didn’t harm anyone in the restaurant. Clearly, fear can be a strong trigger.

The same applied to Barack Obama, “the perfect foil for the evangelical purveyors of the politics of fear.” He embodied pretty much all that made white evangelicals tremble:

 

“. . . he grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country; he was the son of a white woman and a black man; he not only had a strange name, but he had the same middle name as a well-known Muslim dictator whom the United States had waged war against. Obama’s embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation with a pastor who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins. But most importantly, Obama embraced policies on a host of social issues that alienated him almost immediately from most American evangelicals” (18).

 

Those kinds of fears naturally give rise to conspiracy theories. The so-called “birther controversy” (stating that Obama was not born in the USA) took hold of the Republican electorate to such an extent that still in July 2017, 72 percent of registered Republicans doubted Obama’s citizenship. Many of them believed he was secretly a Muslim too.

But they also feared plenty of Obama policies: his pro-choice stance, and especially his signature health care plan, which for them infringed upon their “religious freedom” – namely, that Obamacare “required employers, even religious employers, to provide coverage for preventative care that included abortion-inducing contraceptives.” Here, most evangelicals made common cause with conservative Catholics. Then the final straw in the culture wars was the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage (which was legal in 36 states already). More than ever, this landmark case galvanized the Christian Right’s opposition.

The politics of fear were also evident during the Republican debates in 2015-2016. “People are crossing our borders,” one could hear, “and the media won’t talk about how they’re security threats, carrying Ebola and bringing in ISIS terrorists – people who will steal, rape and kill.” Trump learned quickly how to tap into evangelical fears. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at Messiah College in September 2016. Fea remembers, “In one of the more stinging lines of the talk, Douthat suggested that evangelicals seem to need Trump, a man with no real Christian conviction to speak of, to protect them in the same way that Syrians needed the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad to protect them against the threat of ISIL” (39). Have no fear: Trump, the strongman, is in the wings.

Another common fear of Americans, and evangelicals in particular, relates to Islam and Muslims. A Pew Research Center report in July 2017 found that “72 percent of white evangelicals believed that Islam and democracy were in conflict, prompting Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of anti-Trump white evangelicalism, to run an article entitled ‘Most White Evangelicals Don’t Believe Muslims Belong in America’” (39-40). Speaking in the spring of 2016 at Liberty University (Jerry Falwell Jr. remains its president), Trump promised to “protect Christianity” and to dismantle the policies of President Obama.

These, then, are some examples of the legacy of fear still very much in evidence among American white evangelicals. The second pillar on which Christian nationalism rests is hubris and the pursuit of political power. I will have much more to say about that in the next installment, but suffice it for me to mention here historian Daniel Rodgers’ analysis. He calls the 1980s the beginning of “the age of fracture”: the Reagan era was friendly to evangelicals while at the same time a chasm was forming between conservative Christians (including many Catholics) and the courts that seemed to move ever farther to the left. The former saw these fractures “as a threat to the nation’s moral core”:

 

“After they awoke to these changes, they organized politically and sought to put the American Humpty Dumpty back together again, with their own religious narrative at the core of the national origin story. Newly awakened to their political power, feeling spurned by the progressive policies of Jimmy Carter [ironically the first self-proclaimed “born-again” president], and deeply afraid of the direction the national culture was going in, they abandoned their earlier reluctance to become involved in politics and mobilized to fight back via politics. The political attempts to mend these fractures are still with us today. Evangelicals voted for Trump because they have been conditioned to a way of thinking about political engagement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct response to these cultural changes” (47).

 

“The earlier [white evangelical] reluctance” Fea mentions here can be illustrated by their aloofness, at the very least, to the 1960s civil rights movement. More than anything at the time, “they were far more concerned about – and opposed to – the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelical critique of government” (54).

Shamefully, it was the 1972 Supreme Court Green v. Connally decision that spurred the creation of the “Christian Right.” The court ruled that private schools and colleges that discriminated on the basis of race would lose their tax-exempt status. In 1975, the high court removed the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical school in the South, which had “banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans.”

In hindsight it seems surprising that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to allow specific kinds of abortion (Roe v. Wade) did not provoke much reaction in evangelical circles. As Fea puts it, “Most evangelicals thought abortion was a moral problem, and they believed that the pro-life movement was a distinctly Catholic crusade” (55-6). More than anything, they were irked by the rising tide of feminism and the attempt the year before to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. A woman’s choice to abort was both to endanger the child in the womb and to threaten the patriarchal structure of the family they assumed was God-given.

Influential Republican operative Paul Weyrich, a close friend of Jerry Falwell, told Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer in 1990 “that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts of the IRS to desegregate Christian academies” (59). In the next blog post, we will see how effective they were. The likes of Falwell thankfully lost on the issue of segregation (see the two images above), but as we are now witnessing in the federal courts and the Supreme Court itself, Trump has now amply fulfilled his promise to the “court evangelicals,” as Fea calls them. In his first three years in office, he has appointed 194 federal judges and two Supreme Court justices, all apparently to their liking.

Clergy were often seen in the courts of medieval monarchs, but Pope Pius II admonished his clergy to stay away from the kings’ courts, because it would be difficult for them to “rein in ambition, suppress avarice, tame envy, strife, wrath, and cut off vice, while standing in the midst of these [very] things” (117). Fea gives an example of how court flattery was on “full display” when President Trump invited his evangelical courtiers to the Oval Office on the occasion of the announcement of “a National Day of Prayer for the people of Texas and Louisiana who were hit by Hurricane Harvey”:

 

“Those in attendance used the opportunity to praise Trump for all he was doing for evangelical causes. Ralph Reed commended him for ‘acknowledging that God is our source of unity as Americans.’ Gary Bauer compared Trump to Washington and thanked him for defending the Judeo-Christian roots of America, alluding to the passage in the Declaration of Independence about rights coming from ‘our Creator.’ He then proclaimed America to be a ‘shining city on a hill.’ Paula White expressed gratitude for Trump’s practice of ‘calling our nation to God’ and for ‘always’ putting ‘God first.’ Trump sat at his desk, occasionally nodding his head in approval, and soaked in the adulation. [Robert] Jeffress closed the meeting in prayer. He described Trump as ‘a gift to the country’ raised up by God to bring ‘healing’ to a divided America” (119-120).

 

The last pillar of American Christian nationalism is its goal to “make America Christian again,” which nicely dovetails with Trump’s slogan to “make American great again.” In both cases, you might ask, why the nostalgia? My family and I, along with many members of our congregation, joined a crowd in front of our county seat in Media, PA, for a vigil lamenting the brutal killing of George Floyd and dozens other people of color killed by racist police brutality in our nation. The hour-and-a-half vigil was sponsored by the local chapter of the NAACP and the Media Fellowship House, an interfaith initiative founded in 1944 in reaction to a local restaurant refusing to serve two African American women and a baby. One black speaker expressed perfectly the sentiments John Fea reports in his book when he attended an evangelical conference on racial reconciliation as a keynote speaker. Having listened to a number of black pastors, he admitted, “I came face to face with the reality that African Americans have very little to be nostalgic about.” He explained,

 

“When African Americans look back, they see the oppression of slavery, the burning crosses, the lynched bodies, the poll taxes and literacy tests, the separate by unequal schools, the ‘colored-only’ water fountains, and the backs of buses. Make America great again?” (155).

 

John Fea’s theological perspective

Once those pillars are laid out in this fashion, it isn’t hard to imagine how Fea might critique them from a Christian perspective – or from any other faith perspective, for that matter. When it comes to fear, throughout the Bible God calls people not to be afraid but to trust in his love and care for them. Though God nowhere promises us a safe and prosperous life (contrary to what the purveyors of the prosperity gospel might teach), he does promise to always be with us, particularly as we follow his call to bring his love and peace in areas of conflict, poverty and pain.

Put otherwise, “The ‘proper conclusion’ to the Christian story – the direction in which history is ultimately moving – is the return of Jesus Christ amid the new heaven and the new earth. But in a world filled with distractions, it is easy to let this glorious hope become smothered by fear” (43).

With regard to political power, besides the fact that, as seems the case with the Trump administration, access to power gives little opportunity to actually influence policy, it is a weapon that often comes back to strike the people trying to wield it. Two of the Moral Majority’s most influential agents in time became disillusioned with the project. Journalist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson co-authored a scathing book in 1999 about their experience: Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? The answer was a definitive no. Power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” It’s seductive, and it clouds a person’s judgment. Worst of all, for Christians it hinders them from spreading the love of Christ, as they are called to do.

Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter put to pen his own vision for how the church should seek to impact the world (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). In an “exclusive” interview with Amazon, he explains the reason why he wrote this book: “I saw a disjunction between how Christians talk about changing the world, how they try to change the world, and how worlds—that is culture—actually change. These disparities needed to be clarified.” In his conclusion, Fea quotes Hunter as he articulates his own prescription, “faithful presence.” Yes, we can and should be concerned with issues across the globe. He goes on:

 

“But with that said, the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us – community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which they are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation – family, neighbors, co-workers, and community – where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible in which Christian holiness is forged” (253 in Hunter, 186-7 in Fea).

 

John Fea’s book ends with lessons learned in June 2017 as he led his family and several colleagues from Messiah College “through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.” In the eight cities they visited they were able to interview a number of personalities who had been involved in this movement during the 1960s. Theirs was a message of hope, not fear; of humility, not power; finally, they had “a clear understanding about the difference between history and nostalgia” (188). In fact, “History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction of their republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis [the day before he was killed], ‘All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you say on paper’” (188-9). King was well acquainted with his nation’s checkered history. But he and his followers “desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story” (190).

In the second half of this blog post I will fill out in more detail a couple of the points made here, but I will especially highlight what for me constitutes this religious nationalism’s most destructive aspect – its early alliance with the libertarian political ideology at the heart of the Reagan administration. If anything, the current coronavirus pandemic and the wave of anti-racist protests demonstrate how unfortunate those directions were. Racial injustice is plainly exacerbated by the rising economic inequality that has its roots in the early 1980s.

This concludes a trilogy of blog posts on the 2019 global street protests. In the first one, I focused particularly on Sudan, where women had been in the forefront. Then I moved to Algeria, where a year of bi-weekly protests produced spectacular results, at least on the surface: toppling a president, imprisoning many of his cronies for corruption, postponing a presidential election twice, and mostly boycotting said election while shouting to the army, “You are no longer in charge!” For the time being, that’s wishful thinking, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the last post, I offered a synopsis of Algerian history and emphasized the crucial role the army has played even before independence. Then the year 1999 marked a turning point in two ways. First, the army-picked candidate for the presidency (a civilian, for only the second time), Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was elected and managed to mostly put an end to the 7-year-old civil war. A second element is related to the first one. The Algerian-French political scientist I’m consulting for this analysis, Amel Boubekeur, called this the 1999 “tacit social contract”: the army promises to fend off the terrorists, as long as the people rally behind President Bouteflika and the political status quo, while the state promises to expand social benefits.

What I haven't mentioned yet is that Algeria is one the top oil and gas producing nations (11th for natural gas, and 16th for oil, both representing 80% of exports). That explains why the leaders of the war of independence (1954-62) were able to manipulate the political cards to their advantage for over 40 years and divide among themselves much of the spoils of this lucrative industry. It explains too why the army has been the “big brother” behind the scenes pulling the strings to make sure the military and political elites remain on top. Bouteflika, as noted in the last post, had a nasty record of corruption himself but knew how to open the state’s financial spicket enough to create new jobs, embark on ambitious infrastructure projects and build a million housing units.

Meanwhile, Bouteflika was amassing more power: he had named himself editor-in-chief of the state television station, and Algeria’s state of emergency dating to the beginning of the civil war (1992) was not lifted until 2011. And yet street demonstrations were still banned (though a bit of Arab Spring fever briefly touched Algeria in Feb. 2011 with 2,000 protesters clashing with police). An Algerian blogger who had taken part in the demonstration told Al Jazeera that hundreds had been arrested, mostly “human rights activists and syndicate members.” He added that “this is a police state, just like the Egyptian regime,” and that it’s “corrupt to the bone.”

But it would be eight more years before the Algerians exploded en masse, as the Egyptians had done in 2011 – eight years during which the president was largely absent from the political scene, either being treated for illness in France or very debilitated after his 2013 stroke. Understandably, when he announced he would run for a fifth term in February 2019, civil society now coordinated a nation-wide movement of protest that only the coronavirus could interrupt a year later.

 

Snapshots of the hirak movement

Much as it was the secular, social media-savvy youth who started the protests downtown Cairo in January 2011, the hirak (“movement,” referring to the 2019 wave of protest movements from Morocco to Lebanon) was launched by the youth. In his lengthy piece in Le Monde Diplomatique, Arezki Metref quotes a reporter for an Algerian paper in French, Mustapha Benfodil: “Young people had just one word on their lips, ‘humiliation.’ They could no longer tolerate the image of Bouteflika, a man close to death, being used as a puppet by what has since been referred to as the essaba or gang.”

On the Tuesday before the first mass protest on Friday, February 22, 2019, the students staged a demonstration downtown Algiers, angrily reacting to General Gaid Salah’s morning speech. That sequence became a pattern. Students would march on Tuesdays in protest of official speeches and actions, and on Friday afternoons throngs of people stream in from several corners of the city to its center, raising signs and chanting slogans like, “Civil state, not military state,” “By God, we will not stop,” “No dialogue, no elections with the mafia,” “Cowards, free our children,” “Throw out the generals, Algeria will have independence,” and the like. Metref gives an idea of a typical Friday protest:

 

“The night before there will be a pot-banging protest in support of detainees, then in the morning the first groups assemble around the Place Maurice-Audin or the Place de la Grande Poste. In the early afternoon, after Friday prayers, marchers converge on the city centre — the group from Bab El Oued is one of the biggest — and the city resounds with protesting voices. In the evening, the media, lawyers and NGOs count the arrests, some of which last only a few hours, and the disappearances. Demonstrators are often taken away by men in plain clothes and their location and charges only revealed days later.”

 

Algeria has known riots and protests over the decades, but this is a completely different phenomenon. First, it spans the political spectrum: islamists, seculars, socialists, feminists, Berbers and Arabs – everybody comes out. In June, in an attempt to divide the civil protests, General Gaid Salah banned the raising of the Amazigh (Berber) flag. A veteran journalist told Metref, “That touched a nerve. It could have caused clashes between Berber and Arabic speakers, but it did the opposite. In Arab-speaking towns, people you’d never suspect of having Berber sympathies have been waving the outlawed flag.”

Second, the protests are peaceful. Ali Brahimi, “a Marxist activist and Berber advocate,” told Metref that if the youth are tempted to respond violently to police provocations, the crowd immediately reminds them, “Silmiya!” (“peacefully”), or “Khawa!” (“brothers”). ‘In 2017 the official figures recorded 13,000 riots across Algeria. We’ve gone from violent demonstrations to a calm, self-disciplined movement. That’s because of regular discussions about rejecting rioting and the uselessness of violence to oppose a regime that is itself violent.”

One of the giants of the 1980s Afghan jihad against the Soviets, the Algerian Abdullah Anas, who after spending twelve years assisting its leader Abdullah Azzam, found refuge in the UK from where he has been broadcasting on satellite TV a message of peaceful resistance and dialogue to his fellow Algerians and Arab brethren throughout the Middle East. Carlotta Gall of the New York Times caught up with him in January 2020. He declared, “Really, I can say with full confidence, it is a new chapter for the Algerian people. In one year not one drop of blood was lost, praise be to God.” Throughout 2019 he used his satellite channel Al-Maghribia TV to livestream the protests, adding his own commentary.

I should mention a third unique feature of the hirak, and that is the decisive appearance of the Algerian Arabic dialect, the derdja, as a symbol of national unity. Middle East Eye, French edition, did a fascinating interview with an Algerian social scientist and linguist, Mahdi Berrached, who published a dictionary of the specific Algiers version of this dialect. On the streets, one could see signs in English, French and classical Arabic, but the slogans that stuck with the crowds over time were in derdja – as were the songs mostly composed for the movement. As a sociologist pointed out, this comes directly from the chanting of the poor suburbs’ youth at popular soccer tournaments. It’s like the social outcasts have been ushered to center stage!

To sum up these different snapshots of the hirak movement, let’s turn again to Amel Boubekeur’s analysis. Though the protesters themselves call this a “revolution,” it actually builds organically on years of opposition to the regime:

 

“It is also the product of past political and social movements’ techniques for pressuring and constraining the regime. By gathering several generations of frustrated citizens, demonstrations every Tuesday and Friday (as well as Sunday among the Algerian diaspora) have created an independent political space in which non-violence and popular unity come before ideology in the push for regime change (p. 11).”

 

The hirak boldly pointed to the real power center of Algerian politics, that is, the army, and it exposed the unspoken deal represented by Bouteflika’s 1999 election. Instead of the people blindly and powerlessly submitting to a rule that guaranteed the political elites’ perpetual hold on state levers, they stood up and said, “Enough is enough!! We want a true democracy!”

 

Who leads the hirak, and with what agenda?

As mentioned above, this is a very broad-based initiative that also “extends beyond the demonstrations: workers and executives at public companies, students, academics, journalists, and lawyers have refused to follow instructions from ministers and disturbed their public appearances, regarding them as illegitimate because they are overseen by a government not chosen by citizens (p. 12).” Thus, a number of civil society organizations which specialize in highlighting injustices in order to redress them have joined the hirak: unions representing public servants, students and the unemployed; human rights organizations, including those that represent victims of the security forces in the civil war (including families of the 20,000 disappeared persons); and a variety of marginalized people who have “personal experience of the state’s abuses,” as Boubekeur has it.

Here I must interject a related issue, but also one dear to my heart. In my nine years of residence in Algeria (1978-87), I was assistant pastor in the only English-speaking Protestant church (Holy Trinity Anglican) and then for five years in the Eglise Protestante d’Algérie (EPA). I witnessed a growing number of Algerian young people interested in Christianity. Since Algeria is 99 percent Muslim, this is unusual, to say the least. Much of this interest, at least at the time, was in the Berber mountainous region south east of Algiers (Kabylia, capital Tizi Ouzou).

In the mid-1980s, I would often travel to an EPA compound near Tizi Ouzou with my head pastor, Hugh Johnson, to teach Bible courses to these new Christians. Soon after we left Algeria in 1987 (my wife and I were married just the year before in Algiers; see this post for more details), and especially during the “Black Decade” of the 1990s, this variegated movement of Muslims embracing Jesus multiplied from several hundred to somewhere between 50 to 80,000, mostly in Kabylia, but also among "Arabs" in various parts of the country. One article put the total of Algerian Christians at 125,000 (including Catholics). The majority of congregations joined the EPA, now completely run by Algerians and officially recognized by the government in 2011. Its current president, Salah Chalah, pastors the largest church in Tizi Ouzou (over 1,000 attend services).

The link here with the hirak is that a number of churches were closed by security forces in October 2019. Chalah’s church organized a peaceful sit-in which was violently broken up. He himself was literally beaten with a stick and a video shows the police violently pulling people away (see the video in this article). In the end, 17 people were arrested and no one fought back. The vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights had this to say about the regime:

 

“The regime chose the most dangerous path in stigmatizing this Kabyle region. It started in June with the arrests of those who carried Berber or Amazigh flags. This attack on churches is part of the same strategy that stigmatizes minorities, particular regions, and divisions among the Algerian nation. And all of this to weaken the national protest movement.”

 

In the case of this high-profile church, it was the local Muslim population that stood up to defend them. The Algerian writing this article for a news outlet in Paris sees this attack in the same light as the human rights activist above. In his words, “this regime is maliciously exploiting everything it can to remain in power. Divide and rule is the only motto recognised by Algeria’s military regime!” But his other point was this: “For the first time in Algerian contemporary history, Muslims support Christians.” This was in evidence when several Muslim lawyers went to the police stations where these Christians were being held and they succeeded in freeing all of them. Then in the afternoon a crowd of Muslims “reopened the church.” Finally, on the Facebook page of these hirak activists on could read,

 

“We will not forget the main demands of the People's Revolution; we will not accept to deviate and focus on other business. At the same time, we have no right to be fooled by the actions of those in power who deprive our fellow Christian citizens of their right to individual freedom and worship.”

 

Clearly, the hirak is a deeply democratic movement, but as mentioned above, it is not entirely new. Drawing from past movements of resistance, “Participants in the hirak have gradually tailored it to not only their need for a way out but also the reinvention of channels of political participation – outside those the regime uses to dominate state institutions and marginalise ordinary citizens.” For this reason various political opposition parties have also joined the hirak, hoping along with the other demonstrators that this “will produce new mechanisms that allow citizens to weigh in on genuine negotiations (p. 15).” Boubekeur sums up the positive role of the hirak in these words, “In just a year, the Hirak has deeply transformed the country’s political culture, remodeling Algerian society’s post-civil war dividing lines [between the islamists and the military regime] and reducing the regime’s control over citizens’ participation in politics (15).”

But that is the movement’s weakness as well. By virtue of its great diversity, it has produced “dozens of road maps for a transition” but none of these factions claim to speak for the hirak. And then there is the fact that perhaps a majority of Algeria’s forty plus million people are afraid of state repression and reticent to openly support the hirak. The next and last section looks at where all this might go.

 

What are some likely post-covid scenarios?

First, Boubekeur’s analysis offers three obstacles that the hirak must overcome in order to be even considered a valid negotiation partner by the military regime:

 

  • agree on a transition road map and a redistribution of responsibilities that plays down divergences between them”; there seems to be “an emerging consensus” that includes replacing parliament, the current government, the FLN and its state-sponsored union (UGTA), and forming a High Council of Transition, which would then supervise the work of a National Constituent Assembly that would in turn write a new constitution aiming to “reduce the power of the presidency and create greater political and media freedoms”;

 

  • reflect on the kind of concessions they will accept from the military, as well as the conditions required to demilitarise the state”; this has been complicated by General Salah’s death in December 2019; his replacement, General Said Chengriha (also implicated in some of the army’s worst brutalities during the civil war) has kept a low profile and seems reluctant to speak to Hirak representatives;

 

  • create a plan for gaining the support of the parts of society who fear political change”; over a hundred leaders of the hirak have been arrested and many fear the regime’s continuing repression; it will be difficult to convince them to join a movement that appears leaderless at this point, and especially now as the country is in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The current stalemate, therefore – between a military-backed regime that has systematically barred the people from any meaningful engagement with the existing political institutions and a broad-based civil society now supercharged and eager to cast it aside in favor of a true democracy – cannot go on forever. The best-case scenario, of course, is that General Chengriha and President Tebboune agree to negotiate with the hirak and begin to lay out a road map for a transition to civilian rule. In the worst of cases, the army, taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, re-applies a form of martial law that forbids any kind of protest, including via the internet. As we have seen in many other parts of the world, autocrats have been using the pandemic to further their grip on power (see this VOA article on Algeria during the pandemic, and how the hirak is using it to its advantage). One thing is certain, though. However long it takes to return to some version of normalcy, the hirak as a movement has already exposed the illegitimacy of the postcolonial regime still in place. It’s just a matter of time before some form of civilian rule overthrows the old political elites and seriously refashions state institutions to make them accountable to the people. This seems to be the refrain of many grassroots protest movements worldwide these days.

As a follow-up to my last post, “The Rise of Global Protests,” I begin a more in-depth look at the phenomenal street demonstrations that lasted just over a year in Algeria before they were halted by the coronavirus. Perhaps this OpEd in the Washington Post (Feb. 2, 2020) by M. Tahir Kalavuz and Sharan Grewal is the best summary to get us started:

 

“Over the past year, the leaderless protest movement (known as the Hirak) succeeding in toppling [President] Bouteflika and triggering the imprisonment of major figures from his regime, including several prime ministers. Peaceful mass protests have continued across the country every week even in the face of provocation and repression from the regime.

The Hirak is entering its second year with a new president, a new prime minister, a new parliamentary speaker, a new cabinet and a new army chief of staff. But Algeria’s political system remains fundamentally unchanged.”

 

That’s because the army is still in charge, and not the people. That said, Algeria is not unique in this regard. James Dorsey begins a recent blog post on this theme with a provocative statement, arguing that the 2011 “Arab Spring’s” resurfacing in 2019 showed us that this bubbling of discontent under the surface has actually achieved more than meets the eye:

 

“A decade of anti-government protests in the Arab world have thrown popular trust in the military into the garbage bin and undermined the military’s position as one of the most trusted institutions.”

 

This represents a sea change in the composition of the postcolonial states, not just in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) but in South East Asia as well (see my 2016 post, “Comparative Politics: From Juntas to Democracy”).

The first big crack in the army-led state, as we saw in the last post, came in 2011 when the wall of fear created by Middle East’s autocratic rulers started to come down. But then new boldness suddenly appeared and multiplied in 2019. Dorsey adds, “In 2019 and 2020 those barriers have been further reduced with protesters refusing to back down despite the use of brutal force by law enforcement and security forces in Lebanon and Iraq and occasional violence elsewhere in the Arab world.”

What is new is the realization that, far from being an ally of the people as was still believed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the military has become the biggest obstacle on the road to democracy. Again, as Dorsey puts it, “Increasingly, the military is seen at best as positioning itself to salvage what can be salvaged of an ancien regime and at worst the enforcer of a hated regime.”

For instance, a protester in Baghdad had this to say this the day after hundreds of protesters (mostly young men) were killed, “Iraqis broke the shackles of fear and reached the point of no return. The movement will not stop, and the Iraqi people will never be silenced.” Beirut protests too were becoming increasingly violent in February, yet they were not able to persuade the security forces that it was in both of their interests to get rid of Lebanon’s political elites, whether they be Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. For them, behind these corrupt politicians stands the army, and in this case the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. As a masked protester exclaimed to a journalist, “Our backs are against the wall. We have nothing more to lose. We are fighting a regime with a history of 40 years of corruption and their armed defenders.”

Yet despite the similarities across the MENA region, each context is unique. And in the case of the Algerian Hirak movement, what I say in the next and last post will not make any sense to you unless you first have a crash course of Algerian postcolonial history. To that we now turn.

 

The one-party ball and chain

The modern story of Algeria, until then a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire mostly ruled by the “Barbary Pirates” (who profoundly impacted the young American state, as I described in this blog post), really begins with the 1830 French invasion. Here we had colonialism on steroids. The French were not content to make Algeria a protectorate, which typically gives indigenous puppet rulers a bit of power while from behind they pull all the strings that guarantee maximum financial benefits for themselves. No, the French simply annexed the whole northern provinces of Algeria and laid their hands on the most fertile and productive part of this vast land.

This resulted in five or six generations of French colonists who skimmed the wealth off this bountiful soil with impunity. I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

 

“French colonists modernized Algeria’s agricultural and commercial economy but lived apart from the Algerian majority, enjoying social and economic privileges extended to few non-Europeans. Ethnic resentment, fueled by revolutionary politics introduced by Algerians who had lived and studied in France, led to a widespread nationalist movement in the mid-20th century.”

 

That ticking bomb did in fact explode, and the 1954-1962 war of independence was incredibly fierce, leaving over a million Algerians dead in its wake. The negotiated settlement in the end was made possible because of international pressure bearing down on the French. The combined political and military forces that had guided the Algerian resistance was called the National Liberation Front (FLN) and it represented Algeria in the negotiations that led to the Evian Accords in 1962.

But because independence came as a result of eight years of bloody conflict, it had two other consequences. First, just about all the European colonists left, and in particular a million “French Algerians,” dubbed “les pieds noirs” (“the black feet,” presumably because they mostly worked the dark, fertile soil), relocated to the French mainland – a trauma that is still not entirely healed today. Second, the FLN was a fairly diverse coalition of revolutionaries who had fought the guerilla war against France, and at independence, it had to settle its internal differences, which could often turn violent. In 1965 Colonel Boumédienne toppled President Ahmed Ben Bella by means of a coup d’état. He ruled mostly by decree until his death in 1978 (right when I settled down in Algiers). His successor, Colonel Chadli Benjedid reorganized the FLN party, but it amounted to no more than window dressing. The military retained its strong presence in the FLN Central Committee.

Then in 1988 the façade of a stable regime, in fact held together by its one party under the firm tutelage of the army and the security forces, started to crumble. Massive crowds poured into the streets protesting the price of bread and other daily commodities and calling for political participation. Benjedid grudgingly accepted a multiparty system. To the shock of many observers, the political opposition coalesced for the most part under the islamist banner. The largest and most influential party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won spectacular results in the 1990 municipal and provincial elections.

The next year, the FIS called for a general strike to protest the government’s redrawing of district lines in favor of the FLN. As civil unrest grew in the capital Algiers, the regime arrested and imprisoned the two FIS leaders, Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj. Despite this and other acts of political repression (or maybe because of them), the FIS handily won 48 percent of the popular vote in December’s first round of parliamentary elections. The FLN and other parties were left far behind. The army, however, saw this as a red line and decided to intervene. It canceled the election and forced President Benjedid to resign. Moreover, it arrested 40,000 FIS militants and elected officials and guarded them under tents in the Sahara Desert. Unsurprisingly, this sparked a brutal civil war, as thousands of young men took to the mountains to fight their own guerilla war against the regime. With over 200,000 people killed and 20,000 disappeared, this is now referred to as the “black decade.”

 

The tacit 1999 social contract

Lasting eight years just as the war of independence had, the 1990s civil war, however, did not end with negotiations. Rather, its end was dictated by the army through a clever political maneuver. President Liamine Zéroual was in his second term but apparently had a falling out with the military brass, likely due to his desire for reconciliation with the islamist insurgency, and he resigned in April 1999 and called for early elections. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an army officer in the war of independence serving as top aide to Colonel Boumédienne and later Foreign Minister for many years, was seen as the army’s choice to replace Zéroual. Despite his early army ties, his long career was as a civilian FLN politician, and this fact made him a good choice for the powers-that-be. Winning 74 percent of the vote in an election many considered fraudulent, he came to embody what Algerian-French political scientist Amel Boubekeur calls “the tacit social contract [the Algerian people] established with the army in 1999.” In a 21-page paper, “Demonstration Effects: How the Hirak Protest Movement Is Reshaping Algerian Politics” (Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2020). She introduces it in these words,

 

“The arrangement that emerged in 1999 involved informal power-sharing between a president chosen by the generals (and endorsed through a sham election), a security service (Department of Intelligence and Security, or DRS) that was determined to check the influence of the regime’s civilian clientele, and a military that claimed to be above politics but largely controlled the distribution of economic and institutional resources” (3).

 

This tacit agreement, argues Boubekeur, is between the army and the people: the state (via the army) protects the people from further terrorism in exchange for political quietism. The following points help to unpack this formula.

    • The military and the DRS leverage the president’s civilian status to quiet any political opposition from the various parties to the civil war (especially the islamist-leaning ones) “through a narrative centering on the relaunch of the electoral process and a transfer of authority to a supposedly civilian president who had restored peace and security” (3). Other tools in the military’s tool box: rigged elections and a muzzling of parliament and other representative bodies.
    • The other goal here is to avert any investigations in the war crimes committed by the army and DRS in the 1990s; these allegations were made by several international bodies.
    • Prime Minister Ali Benflis takes advantage of a large protest movement in 2001 in the Berber (Amazigh) province of Kabylia to forbid all demonstrations. Algerians in general, still very nervous about the extreme violence of the 1990s, mostly fall in line.
    • The FLN/army rule from the beginning was based on corruption. Bouteflika had been convicted of embezzling around 60 million dinars during his years as a diplomat. He had repaid 12 million, but he was now forgiven of that debt in order to run for president. Then Bouteflika returned the favor in 2005 (his second term): he “enacted a presidential ordinance of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation that repealed or blocked prosecution – and criticism – of members of the security forces for their role during the civil war.” (10). She then explains that this is a much wider pattern:

 

“Since then, the army, the security forces, and civilian members of the elite have mainly bonded over not a shared ideology but the mutual neutralisation of judicial cases and fear of prosecution. The regime mainly distributed rents through its patronage networks to tamp down any kind of conflict within them and avoid discussions on the need for reform” (10-11).

 

The Hirak is born

With this background in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the pent-up anger many Algerians entertained with regard to the Bouteflika regime was about to boil over during his fourth term in office – especially considering he had been mostly bedridden since a stroke in 2013! However, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement on February 9th, 2019, that he was seeking a fifth term. Arezki Metref, writing for Le Monde Diplomatique, notes, “Social media exploded and on 16 February 2019 the Hirak began.” He describes what followed:

 

“Young people in Kherrata — a small town in northeast Algeria where the French army and its European auxiliaries massacred the Muslim population on 8 May 1945 — took to the streets to protest against Bouteflika’s re-election bid. On 19 February a crowd destroyed a giant portrait of the president displayed on the front of the town hall as part of Algeria’s enforced personality cult. On Friday 22 February, in response to an anonymous call on social media to demonstrate, a countrywide movement began that reached even remote villages and led to Bouteflika’s resignation and the cancellation of the election scheduled for 18 April.”

 

This is where we will pick up in the next post to analyze the Hirak protest movement and ponder what is likely to follow.