Denial is a powerful defense. People go to amazing extremes to avoid and reinterpret any reality that threatens their idealized self- and group-image or exceptionalism. A defense especially seen in American Christians and status quo patriots. It was on full display at, and in the aftermath of, the recent National Prayer Breakfast. When President Obama talked about how “we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another” and “make peace where there is strife.” Or, “we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge or, worse . . . as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.” Like “those who . . . professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it” with “violence and terror.” With “ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” (“Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast, www.whitehouse.gov, Feb. 5, 2015)
It was here that President Obama committed the unpardonable sin of challenging his audience to engage in soul-searching—a noble religious trait professed by his listeners especially. He stressed the importance of people of faith possessing “humility” as they seek to “reconcile” how religion can inspire “love” or be “hijacked . . . for murderous ends.” (Ibid) As reported, it was his next words that “ignited a firestorm on television and social media about the validity of his observations and the roots of religious conflicts that raged more than 800 years ago.” (“Obama, Trying to Add Context to Speech, Faces Backlash Over ‘Crusades,’” By Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2015) Words that also evidently gave heartburn to many among the 3600 predominately evangelical Christian leaders, interfaith clergy, politicians and diplomats at the Prayer Breakfast:
And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
President Obama’s comment led various persons to get on their “high horse”—and actually join him in galloping away from America’s sinful present, with the blessings and accommodation of many faith leaders. Denial took over, with its obliviousness to America’s unnecessary, preemptive criminal war against Iraq. Launched by a “Christ changed my heart,” “I pray daily for peace,” United Methodist, evangelical Christian, President George W. Bush. A war based on lies, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, to over a million, Iraqi civilians, and the uprooting of several million more. A war of unimaginable violence and terror, turning some four million wives into widows, and five million children into orphans. A war decimating of the country’s life-sustaining infrastructure. A war that continues in the form of ISISD’s brutal rise.
The National Prayer Breakfast, which served up denial, was the last place one would hear about “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” With the overthrow of the minority Sunni rulers, replaced by the Shiite majority. Followed by intense sectarian violence, and the Shiites joining the Americans in marginalizing, persecuting and imprisoning many Sunnis—giving rise to ISIS, the Islamic State. A war, as reported, welcomed in 2003 by “an astonishing 87% of all white evangelical Christian evangelicals in the United States, including their leaders, like Rev. Franklin Graham, who “claimed that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting prospects for proselytizing Muslims.” ( “Wayward Christian Soldiers,” By Charles Marsh, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2006)
Rev. Graham’s welcoming and exploiting of the Bush administration’s brutal, unjust war against non-threatening Iraq did not give him pause. Instead of reflecting on the present American-created debacle of violence in Iraq, Graham criticized President Obama’s comments on Facebook: “Today at the National Prayer Breakfast, the President implied that what ISIS is doing is the equivalent to what happened over 1000 years ago during the Crusades and Inquisition. . . . Mr. President– Many people in history have used the name of Jesus Christ to accomplish evil things for their own desires. But,” he continued, “Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness.” (“Franklin Graham Responds to Obama’s ISIS-Christian Prayer Breakfast Comparison: Jesus Lived for Peace, Mohammad Killed Innocent People,” By Samuel Smith, The Christian Post, Feb. 6, 2015) These words from an evangelical minister who believed a criminal war held “exciting prospect”– to convert its victims to Christ.
While “Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness,” Rev. Graham needs to be held accountable for the hatred of Muslims he is spewing forth. On Tuesday, February 10, a front-page New York Times story reported that three Muslims—a young married couple and the wife’s 19-year-old sister—were shot in the head and killed by a middle-aged white man. The Times story raised the question of “whether religion was a motive.” The fatal shooting occurred in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an area where “many Muslims . . . said they have been on edge in recent weeks. . . . Tensions have been rising since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, according to several Muslim leaders.” The story’s next words: “Last month, Duke University [11 miles from Chapel Hill] abruptly cancelled plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer on Fridays, citing security concerns, after Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, raised vehement objections on Facebook.” Graham opposed “broadcasting the call to prayer from a church bell tower,” which was “intended as a symbol of religious inclusiveness,” but, “instead became a source of religious division.” (“Chapel Hill Shooting Leaves 3 Muslims Dead,” By Johathan M. Katz and Richard Perez-Pena,” Feb. 12, 2015)
Rev. Graham can remind President Obama that “Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness.” But Graham himself needs to be held accountable for his hateful attack against Duke and its Muslim students—and his ongoing Islamophobic rants—which have contributed to the tensions of Muslims and provide a hostile atmosphere that encourages incitement to violence.
Denial makes the horribly evil reality of Iraq remain invisible in most evangelical Christian circles. On bended knee, “Providence”-following President George W. Bush justified America’s horrible war crimes against the people of Iraq with: “The road of Providence . . . leads to freedom, . . . freedom’s power to change the world. We are part of a great adventure. . . . to spread the peace that freedom brings.” (“Transcript of State of the Union address and cleared by The White House,” The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2005, tape of address) This “I pray for peace” president also justified America’s brutal war against the people of Iraq to applauding Republicans with, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, freedom is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world.” (Acceptance Speech to Republican Convention Delegates,” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2004)
The unjust, blatant war crimes America has committed against Iraq remain oblivious to numerous evangelical Christian leaders. Even to a specialist in morality like Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Commission head Russell Moore, who “called President Obama’s comments ‘an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded comparison.’ What we need more is a ‘moral framework for the administration and a clear strategy for defeating ISIS,’ he said.” (“Critics pounce after Obama talks Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast,” By Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2015) Moore suffers from “wrongheaded” denial, which prevents him from constructing a moral framework based on the reality of cause and effect.
There would be no ISIS if America had not invaded Iraq. (See, for example, “ISIS: the inside story,” by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, Dec. 11, 2014) The Obama administration’s strategy is to bomb ISIS, which will only create more enemies and recruits for ISIS. The “moral framework from the administration” should come from Christians like Moore and Rev. Franklin Graham, who profess to believe that “Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness.”
Other defenders of the status quo got on their “high horse,” avoiding cause and effect in challenging President Obama’s remarks. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer did violence to reality in reacting, “Mr. President, the Crusades were 800 years ago and the Inquisition 500 years ago. What is happening now,” he added, “is not Christians on the march, it is radical Islam.” (“White House defends Prayer Breakfast remarks about the Crusades,” By Jesse Byrnes, TheHill, Feb. 6, 2015) “What is happening right now” is that an American Christian president started the “march,” invading Iraq and then proclaiming, “By our efforts we have lit a fire . . . and one day that fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” (“President Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, prepared text from The White House, NPR, Jan. 20, 2005)
The reactions to President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast comments reveal how defensive, anti-introspective, Christocentric, and ethnocentric certain critics are. Like former Republican governor Jim Gilmore, who declared, “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve heard a president make in my lifetime. . . . He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This,” he went on, “goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we share.” (“Critics pounce after Obama talks of Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast,” Ibid)
The denial of many Christians, and status quo-accommodating Americans, enables them not to see, for example, how Biblically-blessed slavery in Christ’s name shows up in the present: in the form of today’s discriminatory white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic and legal power. Here, again, Southern Baptist ethics specialist Russell Moore is found wanting. His put down of President Obama’s comments about slavery and Jim Crow is defensive: “The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” (Ibid)
Columnist Jonah Goldberg, like Russell Moore, is in denial about the roots and present branches of racism in America. He tries to counter President Obama’s comment about slavery and Jim Crow this way: “While some rationalize slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. by invoking Christianity, it was ultimately the ideals of Christianity that dealt the fatal blow to those institutions. Just read any biography of Martin Luther King Jr. if you don’t believe me.” (“Obama’s Comparison of Christianity, Radical Islam Defies Logic,” townhall.com, 2/6/2015)
That is not the message Dr. King wrote to clergymen critical of his behavior, in a April 16, 1963 letter, from a Birmingham jail, where he was confined after being arrested following a nonviolent disobedience action. Calling Birmingham “possibly the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” King wrote that with “some notable exceptions . . . so often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church,” he continued, “the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often vocal—sanction of things as they are.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center-University of Pennsylvania)
“Just read any biography of Martin Luther King Jr. if you don’t believe me.” How about Dr. King’s own words on April 4, 1967. At New York City’s Riverside Church, during a Clergy and Laity Concerned peace rally, where he said, “I knew I could never raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government. (“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Stanford, The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute)
“Just read any biography of Martin Luther King Jr. if you don’t believe me.” The year before he was assassinated Dr. King told Sander Vanocur of NBC News about his 1963 “’I have a dream’ speech: ‘That dream that I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare. . . . I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching . . . and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a little solid realism. And,’ “ he continued, “’I think the realistic fact is that we have a long, long way to go.’ He also added that he felt that the Vietnam War, if not stopped, could ‘poison the very soul of our nation.’” (“King in 1967: My Dream ‘Turned into a Nightmare,’” www,nbcbayarea.com, Aug. 27, 22013)
Dr. King’s same words from that Birmingham jail apply today to contemporary churches in response to Washington’s criminal wars in pursuit of world domination—under the pretext of waging a “global war on terrorism” to protect Americans. With a few notable exceptions, faith leaders are chaplains of the status quo: instead of confronting political and corporate power with reality and moral truth, they provide the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power.
Unseen, but very much present in the room at the National Prayer Breakfast, were an elephant, a donkey and a “high horse.” And none of them was receptive to having truth and morality on the menu. That is why the closest President Obama could come to the present was to cite America’s past evils of slavery and Jim Crow.
Nor did most mainstream media coverage of President Obama’s remarks deal with the reality of racism today in America—never mind the evil created in Iraq and beyond. However, there were important exceptions. Like Chauncey DeVega, who wrote in the Daily Kos, “American politicians and other opinion leaders have denounced ISIS and the death by fire meted out to Muadh al Kasasbeh. Would they apply the same standards to white Americans who committed mass violence against African-Americans through lynchings, racial pogroms, and other like deeds? Would they,” he continued, “support reparations as a material gesture of apology for such crimes?” DeVega then directs his commentary to the present: “Will white America ever be willing to fully own its ISIS-like behavior against African-Americans and other people of color, and how such violence created the present, where neighborhoods are hyper-segregated, there exists a huge wage and income gap along the color line, and by almost every measure, black and brown Americans have significantly diminished life chances relative to white people?” (“Yes, ISIS Burned a Man Alive. White Americans Did the Same Thing to Thousands of Black People,” Feb. 4, 2015)
President Obama emphasized the importance of humility in seeking to understand why some people use religion for good, and others for evil. A current story in The New York Times by Campbell Robertson contributes to the need for humility—the pre-requisite for soul searching. Robertson writes that the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, just issued a report of a five-year study, which reveals that “3959” black persons were “victims of ‘racial terror lynchings’ in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.” (“History of Lynchings In the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” Feb. 10, 2015) And certain of these black victims were set on fire as they were hanging, or murdered in another way.
Equal Justice Initiative director Stevenson points out the crucial role of the “terror lynchings”: “’These brutal deaths were not about administering popular justice, but terrorizing a community. Many of these lynchings,’” he added, “’were not executing people for crimes but executing people for violating the racial hierarchy’ . . . offenses such as bumping into a white woman or wearing an Army uniform.” (Ibid) The report states that lynchings attracted large crowds, as “the public extravagance of a lynching was clearly intended as a message to other African Americans.” (Ibid)
A New York Times editorial on the Equal Justice Initiative report states that “the racial terror lynchings’ . . . were used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation.” The editorial then describes how “the racial terror lynchings” relate to the present: “The report argues compellingly that the threat of death by lynching was far more influential in shaping present-day racial reality than contemporary Americans typically understand.” The editorial explains:, the report “argues that The Great Migration from the South, in which millions of African-Americans moved North and West, was partly a forced migration in which black people fled the threat of murder at the hands of white mobs. (“Lynching as Racial Terrorism,” Feb. 11, 2015) Many of those mobs burned Christian crosses on the lawns of victims and other black persons.
Denial is powerful indeed. It was the main course at the National Prayer Breakfast. The closest most could come to confronting evil “in Christ’s name” was the distant past. Actually, it took courage for President Obama to even bring up slavery and Jim Crow—for which he was thoroughly criticized in self-justifying white evangelical and conservative political circles. Obama’s problem in these circles is being black—and accurate about the past.
But President Obama himself has good reason to avoid the present by focusing on America’s past sins. It is amazing that no one was reported to have gagged on his or her breakfast when Obama declared, “Our job is to . . . be true . . . to God’s commandments . . . and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror.” (“Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast, Ibid) These words from a president who refused to prosecute the Bush crowd for the horrible war crimes against Iraq, and for “illegally detaining and torturing suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks, and lying about it to Congress and the world.” (“A Record of Torture and Lies,” Editorial, The New York Times, Dec. 10, 2014) A president who has continued the “Global war on terrorism” by intensifying drone warfare, which violates the national sovereignty of other countries, fills their skies with constant fear, terrorizing and bringing sudden death to innocent children, women and men. A president who has created a “kill list” of enemy combatants, including Americans, to be assassinated without the due process of a trial.
“No God condones terror.” Obviously, Noam Chomsky was not at the National Prayer Breakfast. In an interview, he told RT, “The US war on terror is in fact the most massive terror campaign ever, and the invasion of Iraq was the worst crime in recent history,” and “he wants to see Bush, Blair and Obama tried at the ICC [International Criminal Court].” (“Obama muat be taken before ICC for the war on terror- Chomsky to RT,” May 23, 2013)
Those who attended the National Prayer Breakfast did hear wise counsel from President Obama, especially when he urged “humility,” saying, “The starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” (“Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast,” Ibid) These are incisive, challenging words, especially spoken to an audience with a predominant number of Biblical truth-possessing evangelical Christians present.
There was another speaker at the Prayer Breakfast, who was overshadowed by President Obama. A speaker who actually gave the keynote address. He is born-again Christian, NASCAR driving hall-of-fame champion Darrell Waltrip, who presented an inspiring personal testimony of being saved by Christ from a sinful self-absorbed life. His words are assumed to have resonated far more than Obama’s with many of those in attendance. “If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your lord and savior,” he testified, “if you don’t have a relationship, if he’s not the master of your life, if you’ve never gotten on your knees and asked him to forgive you of your sins, or if you are just a pretty good guy or a pretty good girl, you’re going to go to hell.” (“NASCAR Legend Delivers Pointed Message About Jesus and Salvation at National Prayer Breakfast,” by Fred Lucas, www.theblaze.com, Feb. 5, 2015)
Believing that people become The Other and will burn in hell hereafter, if they don’t believe in Christ alone, makes it easier to support governmental policies that create hell on earth for them in the here and now– in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The National Prayer breakfast was hard to stomach because it served up denial, which is the defense of those who espouse American exception and Christocentricism. Sadly, soul-searching, which is the door to reality and human solidarity, was not on the menu.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.