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All religions, said Simone de Beauvoir, have “embarrassing flexibility on a basis of rigid concepts.” Practitioners and believers who swear to core principles find themselves fighting each other from opposite extremes of the political spectrum.
At the time she said it, in the second chapter of The Second Sex, Beauvoir had three great religions in mind: Christianity, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis. In each case there were right wingers and left wingers then, and in each case there are right and left wingers still.
Today, as we blow out 76 candles to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am thinking that in a nation where 79 percent of the people believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, there is no good reason not to imagine the possibility of a revived and renewed Christian left.
My thoughts today are drawn to fresh reflections on the New Year’s day activism of Chicago trainees for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), who challenged a toy store on the question of marketing violent video games. The activists are training to go to places like Hebron, Colombia, Iraq, and Grassy Narrows, Ontario, where epidemics of violence rip through bodies and forests alike.
But the CPT action is less than half of what’s on my mind this morning. I’m more concerned about what happens in a country that is 80 percent Christian when left activists refuse to pay attention to the Christian left, simply because it is Christian. In terms of hardball shrewdness, if nothing else, a leftist rejection of the Christian left in America is a certified guarantee of defeat.
As King once warned bourgeois America that we must not be afraid to say that Du Bois was a Communist, so we might warn the American left: we must not be afraid to remember that King was a Christian.
Paco Michelson, a CPT trainee from Huntington, Indiana, tells me by telephone that he has played “all the games” that he was protesting against on New Year’s Day. He was the one who pretended to play video games upon a coffin, as activists read the names of Americans and Iraqis killed in war.
“I still think the games are fun,” says Michelson. But as a matter of social conscience, he also thinks it would be better if these killing games, rated M for Mature and singled out for violent content, were not sold as toys.
Michelson understands how the image of Christian inspectors is bound to make folks wary. What CPT did in Chicago, taking things off shelves, looks a lot like censorship. But on this birthday of King, our great national icon of nonviolence, we have to demand an answer to the question: so what are we doing about our cultural addictions to violence? especially as the consequences of that sickness are so clearly played out in the body counts of Iraq?
“It’s a conflicting issue for Americans, our addiction to violence,” says Michelson. “I don’t think it’s a very popular thing to think about.” He wrote the CPT press release that claimed a “direct connection between ongoing violence in the Middle East and the impact of violent toys on children.”
Amy Knickrehm served as emcee for the street theater, orchestrating readers who called off the names of people killed: three Iraqis for every American. Knickrehm explains that the ratio of Iraqi to American casualties of war is actually closer to a hundred to one, but the group wanted to cover the names of Illinois natives killed, and if they had read 100 Iraqi names each time, it would have been a very long day.
Although Knickrehm has many friends who play the video games, and although she sees no effects that the games have on her friends, she thinks that keeping the more violent games away from kids is something that her friends would support.
Seven years ago, Knickrehm joined one of the peace churches, the Church of the Brethren, partly because she kept seeing the red baseball caps on the heads of Brethren activists at Chicago street actions. For peace churches such as The Brethren, Anabaptists, Mennonites, or Quakers, a commitment to pacifism goes back to the time of Menno Simons (1536-1561) for whom the Mennonites are named. But that is another story.
What’s crucial for today, King’s birthday, is a reminder to the American left that there are some Christians who have been persistently organized against war for more than 400 years, and they have often been as isolated as they were two weeks ago when they asked a toy store to stop selling war games to children.
When the living King talks about nonviolence, he has a radical and comprehensive vision about a global way of life. For King, the education of our children is seamlessly connected to the violence of our war zones. Toy stores are socially and morally intertwined with Falluja and Hebron. And King often expresses that vision in the language of his Christian faith.
Today, on his birthday, as we survey the eighty percent of Americans who subscribe to Christian concepts, the left cannot afford to ignore those who have never just paid lip service to King.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org