SOA 43 in Columbus, GA in the summer of 2002" /> A Black Man's Look at Faith Activists | SOA Watch: Close the School of the Americas
A Black Man's Look at Faith Activists Print
Let me say that I’m not writing this because I wanted to do an exposé. I didn’t want to criticize anything or infiltrate anything. This is designed to be therapeutic for me and if it happens to become something else then, so be it.

As I write this I find myself in the Deep South, Georgia to be precise. I’m not far from Ft Benning, the site of the School of the Americas. The ghosts of slavery and the feeling of being behind enemy lines are making me very skittish and introspective. I had promised myself that I would NEVER come to this part of the country but I had no choice. My new fiancée is scheduled to go on trial for her participation in an act of civil disobedience last November on the base. She is charged with criminal trespass and faces six months in jail or up to five years probation.

She is part of a faith-based movement for social justice called the Catholic Workers. Most of the other people on trial would also identify themselves as faith based activists although they represent different organizations. What I'm writing is partially a response to her movement, partially a response to the circles that she surrounds herself with.

There are several faces of the movement for social justice and I have to say that anything that is able to move white people out of their ivory towers is a good thing. The fact that these people are willing to sacrifice ANY privilege is more than most are willing to do. I recognize that these protestors have it harder than I do in some ways because they are probably more of the ‘black sheep’ in their families than activists from Black or Hispanic backgrounds. I suppose that in some ways it can be scarier to step down from greater heights. I guess my message is that one can recognize the distance traveled on the journey but it is not helpful (and frankly offensive to those that didn’t have that
to begin with) to feel like you have come far enough to feel righteous about it.

I come from a different perspective in relation to the ‘system’ than many of the people here and I’m having difficulty with some of the things I’ve seen. I am a black man from Philadelphia and my path is that of a non-violent activist as well. Over the last several years I’ve been involved with environmentalism, gay rights, anti-racism, anti-globalization and more recently some of the organizing that’s been going on around music in the inner cities. I find myself struggling with balancing the many good things in this movement with various aspects that I see as white privilege. At this point I have gone to several events with my fiancée who, by the way, happens to be white. At every one, no matter how many times I hear Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Gandhi quoted, I look around and there are never any people of color present. I am always the only one in sight. Maybe this has something to do with my experiences with racism but it makes me deeply suspicious when a group that says that they are for equality, human rights, and justice seems blind to the fact that something is wrong when no one looks like any of the people you say you want to help. It seems easier to make excuses as to why there are no people of color around than to take responsibility for the fact that the current demographics are unsatisfactory.

This is made doubly troubling because of the amount of suspicion I’ve been confronted with at these events. From what I’ve been told at various points in the past the government has taken it upon itself to investigate various Catholic Worker houses and perhaps many of the people now awaiting trial. Whatever the rationale, I’m sick of hearing stupid jokes about potentially being the FBI or a Fed. They are always taking the form of seemingly innocuous wise cracks but they always seem to happen. It strikes me as hypocritical because I’m sure they would be the first ones on the protest line or to organize a boycott if they heard about a corporation that was 95% white and wasn’t welcoming to others. Why not take responsibility for their movement doing the same thing?

How can you expect people from the outside to be your allies? If you want to make sure that no one that doesn’t look, act and sound like you becomes a part of your movement, be aloof, suspicious and act like you think they are the government. You will never have to worry about seeing another non-white face again.

One major difference I have with the people here is that I never had any faith in the system. I don’t trust it and expect nothing but evil from it. They have lied to the world and lied to their own people for the benefit of the rich and powerful since the very beginning. However, nearly all of the people that are part of this movement come from the middle and upper classes. They are also, as I’ve said above, all white. As such, they once believed that they could trust the system. My girlfriend told me that part of her, no matter how much she knows, wants to believe that it can work. I find it hard to reconcile how people that seem to know so much about how corrupt this government and military is on one hand, could seem to be so confused at how it treats them when they actually have to be ‘in’ it. Doesn’t the fact that the SOA exists tell you that going to the system to ask for justice are folly? There seems to be a lot of talk about ‘grass roots’ but if you believe in this then why the hell would you go to the courts instead of the people’ It just bothers me that they seem so naive. ‘Of course they are denying your motions and making it hard on you. Of course they are prosecuting you for bullshit. They are corrupt and have been for centuries.’ In my moments of frustration I want to scream at them, What the hell did you expect!? I realize that no one here thinks they are going to get off but the seeming surprise at how the system screws them over bothers me. I think ‘how lucky you are to never have had that faith shattered when you were a child and to have a group of people coddle you and caress you as you go to trial. How nice is must be to be able to tell yourself that you are going to jail for a good cause. How lucky you are to have grown up thinking the system was designed to help you.’

I grew up with people that went to jail because they had a little bit of a plant that makes people laugh in their pocket. I grew up with people that got harassed by the police everyday just because they exist. I’ve been stopped by the police just for having a white woman in the car so he could ask her if she was ‘alright.’ My friends did a hell of a lot more time than six months and couldn’t tell themselves that god was with them. All they could do was ask ‘how did god let such a system do this to me?’ They didn’t have meetings and support people. They didn’t have workshops and insight from former ‘prisoners of conscience.’

I realize that all suffering is relative and that the decision to renounce the system takes strength. But goddammit I cant stand the self-righteousness I hear in their voices sometimes. Don’t wear your jail time like a fucking badge - be happy that you don’t have to live your life scared shitless of the system so they won’t find a reason to chew you up and spit you out. Be happy that you have the choice to go back to your nice privileged life if you want to. Remembering my friends back home I want to say ‘Stop bragging about your war stories. You chose to have them. You had networks and letters and all the things that poor people don’t have.’ I realize that it took a sacrifice but it’s hard for me to swallow a group of formerly oblivious white people being ‘literally’ holier than thou.

If they did it and said, ‘I’m doing this to draw attention to the School of the Americas’ and left it at that, it might feel different. But they seem to feel so much pride because of it which, from what I know about the teachings of Jesus, is something he spent a good deal of time preaching against. ‘Have we not cast out demons and performed miracles in your name...and he said to them that he never knew them.’

Many of the younger ones lord it over each other and make it an initiation rite of the ‘hardcore’ club. Jail becomes almost the litmus test of how ‘committed’ you are. I’m sure this is some of MY race stuff but how dare you? How dare a group of educated, formerly privileged white people judge ANYONE’S commitment? Many of the younger ones seem to have joined the movement to be a ‘part of something’ and I’m certain that at least some of the motivation is relieving their own guilt. A few of the more candid ones have admitted that ego is also part of the equation but all you hear talked about openly is religious terminology such as ‘witness,’ ‘testimony’ and ‘conscience.’ Even my own fiancée occasionally forgets where she came from and starts preaching to ME about the poor or about the criminal justice system as if she’s earned an honorary ghetto pass.

We were standing outside the courtroom today and they started singing an old civil rights song that talks about ‘having come so far’ and how ‘we can’t stop now.’ I almost screamed! How dare you come down here and sing that in the middle of the south! YOU have come so far? YOU came from white privilege. And no matter how well intentioned your climb down from the heights is, or your acts of disobedience are, they are NOT the same as four hundred years of slavery. I watched the local black folk shake their heads across the street and although I’m not certain that the song is what they were responding to, I felt ashamed for even being associated with it. These educated white people from the north seemed completely unaware of how inappropriate it was and all I could do was wonder at how righteous they all must have felt to feel justified in singing that. Many, I’m sure just sang along because everyone else was singing and that was part of what pained me so much - the blinding cloak of righteousness.

I recognize that there is a lot of good that comes out of such movements whether they are all white or a mixed group but I’m scared of anyone that justifies what they do solely with the bible. I know that this is some of my stuff with organized religion. My ancestry is African, Cherokee and German Jewish. The churches or the world stood by when my ancestors were being enslaved and some excused it in order to ‘save the souls of heathens.’ The churches of the world persecuted my Jewish ancestors because they were the ‘killers of Jesus.’ The churches of the world participated in the annihilation of the western hemisphere and the decimation of native culture, religion and life itself. Some of my ancestors walked the "trail of tears." This was done to ‘save them’ from their ‘godlessness,’ clear the land for the European nations as well as to expand the power of the church. All this was done in the name of god. All this was done to just one man’s ancestors.

On a greater level people are still justifying their actions by claiming that they are doing things ‘for God’ all over the world. All you have to do is look at the Middle East to see an example of this. To be honest I’m a little apprehensive about anyone that does this even if I agree with most of what they are trying to do. I fear the slippery slope into fanaticism and I must admit that it is a little harder for me when it’s a group of educated white people.

Part of this same concern for me is an argument that is called is these circles as the ‘faith vs. effectiveness’ debate. I view us as the soldiers in a war against an unjust system. It can either be reformed or must be overthrown. People in this movement seem to want to do this but they are too stubborn do it in a strategic way. On one hand they want society to be different but on the other they say, ‘‘ You can’t worry about the effect, just be faithful.’ I just find this infuriating. What do you mean you can’t be connected to the effect?! Don’t you realize that it’s a sign of privilege to be able to do this mental tap dancing!? If you were as ‘committed’ as you like to think you’d take the action most necessary to change this murderous paradigm. If you say you are in this because you feel like you have some responsibility as a citizen of the oppressor - you don’t have the right to decide to worry about your faith more than changing the system that’s killing gods children. They are suffering.

The other problem I have is the focus on conversion experiences for other middle-classed whites. The goal seems to be to make the other people like them become ‘aware.’ On one hand I don’t blame them for caring about the people back home but I have a tactical problem with this. There are vast numbers of people that already know that the system is a lie and that they are being victimized. It’s the same group that has been the foot soldiers in every social movement in the history of the world. The answer is the poor and the oppressed. Exploited whites, blacks and browns know instinctively that what the media and the government are telling them is bull. They know that they’re being lied to but don’t know how to get the truth. These activists have the knowledge and awareness to arm them but they’d rather stay in the same comfortable white circles and sit in jail rather than take it to the people that would be most receptive to their message. The underprivileged are waiting for the knowledge necessary to fight the system but these people are more interested in ‘being faithful.’

I have a question for all these people that seem so concerned with confronting the judges and the government. Where was Jesus? Did he spend all his time talking to the Pharisees or the Romans or out there among the ‘salt of the earth?’ It’s great to work in soup kitchens or offer hospitality to a few people in dire straights - but there seems to be a great deal of reticence about seeing the poor being allies as opposed to subjects to be acted upon in order to live out ones holiness. No matter how polite everyone they might be and how they fight the urge to be condescending, it seems that they are scared of rejection and too saddled with 'white guilt' to trust that they can and should find allies among them. Oh, they’re willing to do ‘jail witness,’ but it seems to be less for creating change than making the best of a bad situation.

We need to come together to overcome great forces aligned against us. If we can’t even make alliances among our various communities then the world will never change. Individuals can be ‘faithful’ but masses will continue to die if someone doesn’t start doing things with the ‘effect’ in mind and with an awareness of tactical necessity. None of us can afford to surround ourselves only with people that look, sound, and act like ourselves.

I realize that I have my own issues and much of this is written through a colored lens. I’m aware that much of this is my own self-righteousness in response to the self-righteousness I’ve experienced. The fact however, is that there is a ‘war on terror’ and a blind patriotism that makes it too easy for ‘the powers that be’ to run roughshod over civil liberties at home and human rights all over the world. Things are getting worse, not better, and maybe Jesus would want you to try to change that and not be so sure of your righteousness.

Over the week I spent in Georgia I met some great people and a few even understood why I seemed so upset at the naiveté that I witnessed. A few of the old nuns that I met told me "these people have to go through this because they never actually knew how corrupt the system was except in an intellectual way." I’ve seen many people go through conversion experiences of their own as the system chewed them up just like the poor they spend so much time talking about. Many have finally come to understand that justice is not to be found in the courts although many will probably still put themselves in the way of the criminal justice system for a number of reasons. I still believe most of what I wrote above although now that the trial is over much of my anger has abated. My fiancée got six months’ probation after a long a very difficult week for our relationship.

My point in writing this was to help me deal with things that were going through my head but if anyone does ever read this perhaps this will give them some food for thought.

I know that this week has taught me a lot.

Fight the power!

I want to say that I realize that the emotion expressed could be off-putting to a mostly white audience.... in several places. All that I can say is that it was written from the belly of the whale so to speak. I would literally sit outside on the lawn and write during the times that I couldn't get into the courthouse and be with my fiancée.

I sent it out largely unedited because I wanted to express the hurt that I was feeling and allow people to see that there are interpersonal as well as organizational consequences to exclusion and white privilege and that it isn't just a matter of political correctness or multiculturalism. I also wanted them to see that the things I was exploring led to a process of questioning.... although I'm not sure how well this comes through the emotion.

I have one thing that I would like to clarify because its the point that in retrospect was the least clear. Its the one about people doing things because of their faith. It came across I think as my railing against Christians because of the evils of the past which leads me to believe that I didn't do a good job of expressing myself... likely because I was too caught up in what I was feeling.

The point I was trying to make was that humans need to do a better job of exploring whether our motives are for God or ourselves. I was attempting to point out that often actions are taken for selfish.... or at least self-interested reasons and then attributed to a faith in God. I wanted to say that this dynamic is dangerous because it can lead to a passion that can easily get out of control and lead to undesired consequences. Without proper discernment it is easy for people to believe that they are doing things in the name of God all the while producing altogether unholy results. It is my deeply held belief that this is what Jesus was talking about in MT 7:21 when someone asked him "Lord, Lord have we not prophesied in your name......?" and he answered that he never knew them. Put holy can you be when you are excluding someone thats different from you and accusing them of collaborating with the government all the while claiming to be acting out of a faith in God?

I would also like to say something about the divide caused by race privilege. To be honest I feel like without the help of white progressives it will be impossible to create a sustained movement for social change (that has a chance to actually DO SOMETHING) because given the current political situation there are too few people from underserved communities that are able to get the education and awareness to effectively lead it. Fundamentally I don't think that it serves anyone to allow the government or corporate America to continue to divide us by convincing us that we all need to find "our own" leaders.....especially when they make it largely impossible for those who are so inclined to receive the training necessary.

Whites will continue to yell at a largely indoctrinated populace of other whites that are too invested to change the system and the few black, latino, etc. leaders will be drowned out by the din of tv's and radioplay because their numbers are too small. I honestly believe that the government is playing divide and conquer as they have since the beginning and doing a masterful job of it.