Obama’s Road to Damascus

On Sunday, August 25, 2013, First Baptist Church, Arkadelphia, Arkansas preacher Lee McGlone delivered his morning sermon under the title “The Reluctant Witness” and used the text from the Book of Acts, Chapter 9, verses 10-22, as the centerpiece around which he wove his exemplum. In previous chapters from the same book Saul is portrayed for what he is: a belligerent fanatic whose zealotry earned him a reputation for harassing, bullying, and hunting down newly converted Jews. As a Pharisee and spiritual enforcer, Saul was an unwavering defender of the faith whose mission in life was to deliver converts into the hands of rabbinical courts. Armed with the sword of religious piety and zealotry in one hand and warrants in the other, Saul embarked on his journey from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Damascene converts. Somewhere on the plateau overlooking Damascus Saul is blinded and has a life changing experience that has been celebrated in art, literature, speeches, homilies and exempla – so much so that the phrase “On the road to Damascus experience” has become an aphorism for life changing events. For me the most iconic representation of this experience is Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul, a composition that graces the walls of the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, Italy.

In the form of Devine rebuke for his zealotry, Saul is blinded. His meandering path into Damascus leads him to the neighborhood where Ananias, a convert living in fear of Saul, is led by grace to seek out Saul and “to lay his hand on him.”  Not only is Saul’s sight restored, but in this metamorphosis, Paul (now his new appellation) converts to Christianity and channels all his energies into an exemplary discipleship that has been celebrated for two millennia. Referring to Ananias as the Reluctant Witness, and emphasizing the fact that except for this very brief appearance in the Holy Text, the preacher highlighted and utilized Ananias’ moral fortitude to draw a parallel to a historic 1962 decision made by the congregation of First Baptist Church Arkadelphia only one year before tens of thousands of people converged on the D.C. Mall to participate in the historic 1963 Freedom March. The church’s location is some 70 miles south of Little Rock, the site of the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident.

Even though I’ve heard first hand narration of what transpired before, during, and after the discussions and the historic 1962 vote taken by my church, including a personal recounting of events by Daddo,  my wife’s grandfather who was serving on the board of deacons at the time, I am going to draw on historian Ray Granade’s narrative because of its succinct and eloquent recounting of these events.

Some of the church’s story for the early 1960s would not fall under the heading of “business as usual.” The deacons recommended showing the Billy Graham film “Shadows of the Boomerang” at the end of April, 1962, no doubt on the new 16mm sound projector the church had bought in mid-1959. But the great story of 1962 for FBC was the church’s acceptance of their first black members since November, 1868. Mike and Mary Makosholo of Rhodesia had been converted to Christianity… .  Mike had entered OBC, and since [missionaries associated with FBC were instrumental in helping the Makasholos  attend Ouachita Baptist University],  Mike and his wife desired to become members too.

When the church discovered the Makosholos’ intentions, the deacons took up the matter. They voted twelve to eight against permitting them to join, but the issue persisted. On February 4, OBC psychology professor Kenneth Moxey brought a recommendation from the International Students Committee to a called Sunday morning business meeting at which the deacon Chairman moderated. Notice had been given in a pulpit announcement the preceding Sunday and in letters mailed to all members stating the purpose of the meeting: to vote on the motion “That the Church look with favor upon the application for membership of foreign negro [sic] students of Ouachita Baptist College who are recommended by two or more Southern Baptist Missionaries.”

Deacon O.J. Seymour requested that the church vote by signed secret ballot, a procedure which had been used for potentially divisive issues for over a decade. The ushers passed out ballots. At the motion of OBC Academic Dean J.W. Cady, the church recessed until the votes were counted. At the close of the evening service, the moderator reconvened the meeting to hear the report. Richard Ewing, deacon secretary, reported that 606 votes had been cast, with 304 necessary to approve the recommendation. The results were 419 for the motion, 182 against, with 1 ineligible and 4 irregular votes.

On Saturday morning before the Makosholos were expected to join, a group of deacons asked the chairman to call a special deacon’s meeting. When it convened at the church that night, a spokesman for the petitioning group stated that if the Makosholos were truly Christians, they would not ask for membership and cause dissension in the church. The spokesman then requested that pastor Reeves and the deacon chairman visit the Makosholos that night and explain to them the considerable opposition to their joining the church, and that the positive vote had resulted only from the presence of large numbers of OBC students.

As soon as the spokesman had finished, Reeves [the church’s minister] took the floor. “During my entire years in the ministry,” he stated, “I have always assumed that the membership of a New Testament church was its final authority. Since the membership of this church has voted to allow these people to join First Baptist Church, any action of this type would be nothing short of insurrection against a New Testament church. You may fire me on the spot, but I will not be your messenger.” Then he sat down. The meeting adjourned. On March 11, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Makosholo joined FBC on promise of their letter from Sanyati Baptist, Gatooma, Southern Rhodesia, Africa. (Samuel Ray Granade,  An Enlarged Tent: Arkadelphia FBC, 1851-2001, 2001, pp. 146-147.)

In August of 1965 I joined First Baptist Church and, upon being welcomed into the church membership by Sam Reeves, he put his arm around me and stated the following: “Young man, my wife and I would love to have you join us for lunch.”  The southern style fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and peach cobbler I had that day were the first real taste of southern cuisine.

In the post 1963 March on Washington people from all walks of life came face to face with the ghosts of the past and joined the march for a better and more equal American society. And, because of their own experiences with anti-Semitism in America, many voices of conscience in the American Jewish community locked arms with and joined in the march and ensuing struggle for civil rights and human dignity. While some might argue that self-preservation might have been a motive for these Jewish voices to be in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, I believe that because of the ancient and rich Talmudic injunctions and admonishments for and about justice that are part of the fabric of Jewish lore, many American Jews committed themselves to this just cause. As testimony to this struggle, fifty years later a black man resides in the White House.

And, while fifty years ago this month America was a segregated society and life for African Americans, especially in the south, was fraught with challenges and the scourge of racism was a way of life, in 1963 life for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza was better than it was for their African American counterparts.  In a reversal of social, economic and political conditions, fifty years later life for Palestinians is a living hell on an even greater scale than that of 1963 life for African Americans.

Whether it is to attend school, go to work,  market or seek medical treatment,  on a daily basis the Palestinians experience indignities that include check points where they are herded like cattle through narrow metal guards and have to stand in long lines for hours to go just a few miles  from one part of the West Bank to the other.  Interrogations and strip searches are routine practice. Mass arrests at all times of the day, especially under the cover of dark, are the norm. Children as young as 5 have been arrested, and a revolving door of arrests and releases are the practice de jure.  Live ammunition is used on peaceful demonstrators (see the Oscar-nominated documentary Five Broken Cameras  by Imad Burnat), and just this week three residents of the Qalandia Refugee camp were shot dead under the cover of dark by Israeli soldiers. Churches and mosques are vandalized and torched by settlers with one church having its façade defaced with graffiti that read “Jesus is a monkey.”  The expropriation of lands and demolishing of houses on a weekly, if not daily basis is routine. Some forty thousand Bedouins are in the process of  being ethnically cleansed from their tribal lands in the Negev so as to build a new Jews-only city.  Jews-only busses and highways crisscross the West Bank; housing policies and legislation that deny Palestinians access to housing in Jewish neighborhoods have been enacted, and marriage laws forbidding Arabs and Jews from marrying across national, ethnic,  or religious lines have been sanctioned as unlawful  by rabbinical courts and are currently debated in parliament.  I wonder why it is that  mainstream American media has not reported on the recently instituted policy of segregating pre-school Tel Aviv children in separate schools. Turns out that by the color of their skins Sudanese, Eritrean and other Sub Sahara African children are forced to attend pre-schools designated for dark skinned Africans. For those interested in the latter, read Lisa Goldman’s 8/23/2013 report in the Daily Beast under the title Israel’s Most Liberal City Introduces Racially Segregated Kindergartens.

Some of the most rabid racist sentiments were expressed in 2010 by Sephardic high rabbi Ovadia Yosef who stated that “Goyim were born to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel.  Why are gentiles needed? They will work for us, they will plow, they will reap.”  (Mary Oster, JTA, 10/18/2010, Sephardic Leader Yosef: Non-Jews Exist to Serve Jews).   Equally rabid are the statements of Colonel Eyal Qarim, IDF’s military rabbi, who told Israeli soldiers that during war it was o.k. to rape gentile girls. Do these utterances sound familiar?

It gives me great pride to know that Daddo voted his conscience, and I distinctly remember his comments: “This was the right thing to do, the only right thing to do.” And Sam Reeve’s decision to put his job on the line was an act of moral fortitude at its very best.

In like manner, there are many voices of  conscience in the American Jewish community and Israeli society that include Noam Chomsky, Barbara Lubin,  Elmer Berger, Norman Finkelstein, Adam Shapiro, Anna Balzer, Amira Haas, Gideon Levy, Mati Peled, Jeff Halper, and  Uri Avnery, to name but just a few, who have taken a principled stand on Israeli policies and the myriad violations of  human rights, policies of  apartheid, and the continued dehumanization and abuse of Palestinians.

It is ironic that on August 28, 2013, Barack Obama waxed platitudes about the 1963 historic march and on the tremendous impact the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had on setting America on the right course and the right side of history using peaceful and non-violent means, while at the same time he and his European cohorts have been drawing up plans to bomb yet another Arab country in which innocent civilians will suffer the most. That Syria is ruled by a dictator is a given, that Arab and Israeli dictators (the latter vis. a vis. Palestinians) — to whom America has cozied up during the past 50 years –rule from Morocco to Saudi Arabia is also a given. That, to do Israel’s bidding and use Syria and its people as a launching pad on the way to Iran is also a given. That Obama’s legacy is going to be one of continuous wars, I hope, will not be a given.

It appears that in his rush to judgment Barak Obama is no different from his predecessor and from Saul. Armed with drones and cruise missiles in one hand and the egging and backing of the military industrial complex in the other, Obama is poised on the plateau that overlooks Damascus. It behooves Barak Obama to take note of Paul’s on the road to Damascus experience.  And it behooves members of the clergy, people of conscience from all walks of life,  and especially the complicit media that has gone AWOL, to become  Reluctant Witnesses,  witnesses that will lay hands on the trigger happy leaders of the so-called free world.

Raouf J. Halaby is a naturalized US citizen from Jerusalem, Palestine. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. halabyr@obu.edu

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com