Preventing a Fourth Reich
Back in March of this year, Phil Donahue did an interview on Democracy Now in which he said, . . . I could never understand how we could put 120,000 Japanese behind a fence in World War II. I remember being bewildered, how could the United States haveI dont have any more confusion about that. I realize what you can do when you scare the population and how media contributes to that.
What isnt perhaps as clear is that there is a second source of propaganda we need to deal with: religion. Or rather, it is the headwater of propaganda, the emotional undercurrent that gives a Fox News its authorityand one that is more likely to infiltrate the left.
Our obvious enemies are the pseudo-religious rightwingers plotting the overthrow of our secular constitutional government in order to replace it with a fundamentalist theocracy. The Dominionists. They can call it religion, but I call them American Nazis. They have their own ideas about the kind of purity that is fundamental to any fascist organizationas in purging.
But our second enemy is the use of religion on the left. A current example is the tension between
Louis Farrakhan and black gay activists. Farrakhan and Reverend Willie Wilson reached out to queer activists, only to renege the day of the Millions More paradenot a surprise. After all, Keith Boykin, the disinvited speaker, had very recently challenged Willie Wilson on his homophobia.
Funny word, homophobia. Anti-semitic, racist, misogynistic, all these words convey anger and hatred; homophobia, uniquely, connotes fear. Homophobes are afraid, very often, because theyre secretly gay themselvesemphasis on the secretly.
Boykin suggested as much about Wilson after the Right Reverend delivered a sermon in which he described gay sexual acts. Just a little too much information, especially from a pulpit, dont you think? Boykin and Jasmyne Cannick are profiling a series of black religious leaders who may or may not be living behind stained-glass closets. They are actively soliciting information from the gay community via emails in order to substantiate certain persistent rumors. Boykin says he doesnt like doing it, but he has no choice. Nothing else has worked. I think this will change their [clergy] behavior, if not their opinion. A lot of them spew hate for the money.
Lets think about that last remark: for the money. Where might at least some of that money be coming from? That good old faith-based money.
The rift between evangelical African-Americans and queers is about as counter-productive as it gets. We dont have time to f*ck around with this sh*t. Let the outing begin. Because the fact of the matter is, the worst thing we can do is ignore this.
Even though the world is incredibly unequal and that is the harsh reality, there is nothing naïvenor, indeed, easyabout insisting on equality within our own political coalition. In fact its a necessity, because there can be no true cooperation without the trust that comes from equal treatment. (I speak, of course, about behavior, not emotions.) Anything else is simply what James Baldwin called believing the lie, and its painful to watch, let alone participate in. Dont tell me about dignity when youre out to humiliate others.
The Reverend Al Sharpton [The Advocate, 10-11-05] is stepping up to the plate in this effort, thank god, in large part because he has a lesbian sister.
We must also confront the religious feelings surrounding the state of Israel. I bumped up against that recently, to my very great shock. It seems obvious to me that questioning the actions of radical rightwing Israeli leaderseven on the part of a Muslimis not at all the same as anti-semitism. The opposite seemed equally obvious to a couple of progressive Jewish friends of mine, who told me so. Fireworks ensued. But fireworks are good and necessary. We have to establish ways of working out our differences that everyone can trust and believe in, or the right will continue to exploit our divisions. You dont stay married unless you can learn to fight fair.
Beyond that, we need to realize that this kind of competition and game-playing can only distract us in the absence of a unifying vision thats as deep and strong as the religious dogma that unites the right. It has been done. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for one, found a way to project a secular humanist worldview that was invincible in its time. It encompassed religion but included so much more. Its basic premise was a belief in joyno a need for joy. That need is so great that it creates the willingness to fight through grief and pain and loss to win it back.
A pre-condition of joy, joys essence, is freedom. Freedom of the mind.
If you cant believe in joy in this world, then you either look for it in another or give up on life altogether. Our problem is that the people whove given up on life altogether are in charge, with help from believers in another world.
The challenge of the left in confronting absolutists predates the Third Reich, of course. In fact, it goes back to the foundations of the organized Christian church. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Politics.
Elaine Pagels describes the early history of the church and the political fight over the structure of the church in books like The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief. She says that during the first couple of centuries after Jesus death, the Christian faith spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire because of Roman persecution. People watched Christians look lions in the eye and keep on singing. The wonder wasnt that their god saved themHe didntbut the singing.
In the face of that persecution, an organizing structure was necessary to keep the early followers of Jesus from being hunted to extinction; they needed to expand very quickly. Those who believed in an immanent authority, the Gnostics, ultimately lost the fight to those who put in place a dogmatic structure that people could simply affirm in order to become part of the church. The authoritarians wrote the Creeds that churchgoers still recite. They established the canon of four gospels. Believe this and youre in, no special grace need be demonstrated.
Not surprisingly, they rejected books written by the Gnostics, including the Gospel According to Thomas, one of the original twelve. Prior to this official expulsion, so-called Thomas Christians were extremely powerful. It is even likely that Thomas was the disciple whom Jesus loved. But Thomas was the victim of a smear campaign. His rival, John, who probably never knew Jesus, is the one who came up with the epithet doubting and stuck it on Thomas.
Isnt that still the rap on liberals? That we only believe in what we can see and touch and understand? That we are, as a result, indecisive and incapable of real loyalty? That, when you get right down to it, liberals, whose standards are always shifting, lily-livered moral relativists, cannot be trusted?
The Book of Thomas was not only expelled from the canon but ordered destroyed. Some Thomas priests in Egypt, acting, naturally, on their own consciences, buried these banned books in earthen jars in the desert, where they turned up again in the middle of the last century at a place called Nag Hammadi. Letters in a bottle at the bottom of a Dead Sea.
These preserved letters from the past remind us that the lifeblood of any real religion, as of secular humanism, is not dogma, with its easy absolutes and certainties, but a search for the truth in a life that is fragile, painful, and temporary. That takes guts.
Cindy Sheehan wrote recently: I know why some people kill themselves: it is the lack of hope. When she decided she couldnt do that to her other children, she started to speak out against the war and found that her actions created the hope she needed. Shes glad to be alive again. Living with the hope that our world will one day exist in a paradigm of peace, love, and non-violent conflict resolution is a very good way to exist.
Thomas put it this way: If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you, but if you do bring forth what is within you, it will save you. Time to trust ourselves.