Truth Teller: “Justice Is A Verb”

I’d heard about Wendell Griffen well before I met him. On more than one occasion the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper, The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, took him to task for a number of legal/bench matters. And in this case the term Democrat is a misnomer; for even though it has somewhat ameliorated its editorial diatribes against anything liberal or Democrat, the paper’s editorial pages are still mostly hardcore conservative views. Occasionally Paul Greenberg, its former editorial page editor and Israel’s apologist in Arkansas, had taken Judge Griffen to task in an unprofessional ad hominem manner.

Greenberg, AKA Voice of Israel, is known for his trademark caustic and xenophobic attacks on anything Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim.  And, if one were to parse Greenberg’s comments on racial matters, one is likely to note distaste for the Other, and there plenty of Others in this, a nation of Others/immigrants.

Some four years back I met Judge Wendell Griffen for the first time at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He was present in his capacity as the minister of the Little Rock, AR-based New Millennium Church. A year later I would serve alongside Wendell on the board of said progressive Baptist organization.

A towering 6.6 ruggedly handsome African American, Wendell and I became friends and have been exchanging emails for a good while. Because of my 5.7 height, I look up to Wendell in the literal as well the metaphorical sense of the words.   His Honor, Wendell Griffen, is the presiding judge for Arkansas’ Sixth Judicial Circuit Court. To honor his military service, on November 11, 2015, the Arkansas Veterans Hall of Fame inducted 1st Lt. Wendell Griffen into its august annals of honorees. And earlier this year the Arkansas Community Institute awarded Wendell Griffen The Truth Teller Award.

It is fair to say that because he brings dignity, wisdom, fairness, inspiration, and excellent judgement to his Truth Telling in his weekly sermons (sent to me via email) and because he bases his professional decisions on morally and judicially sound rulings, he is highly regarded by the fair minded. Our friendship has grown to include our spouses. Suffice it to say that Wendell Griffen does not shy away from speaking and testifying to the Inconvenient Truth, and that in all his emails he includes the following Truth-ism as a preamble:  “Justice is a verb.”

On December 6, 2015, I sent the following message to Judge Wendell Griffen:

Dear Wendell,
R [La Belle Femme] tells me that you are in Palestine. I have a rather unusual request to make. Will you please smell, deeply, the air, grab the soil and let it filter and sift through your hands and fingers, view the beautiful landscape that is slowly giving way to monstrous high rises, and pray that one day God will not only listen, but also hear my people’s pleas for dignity and freedom.

In Jerusalem you will see the sites that nurtured me spiritually, culturally, emotionally, and socially. My father is buried in the Antiochian orthodox cemetery just outside the southwest Jerusalem Old City Walls. If you look in that direction, he will be communing with you. When you view the YMCA building you will see the locale where I spent my childhood summers. And across the street you will see the King David Hotel which was blown up in 1947 by Jewish terrorists, killing 47 people, one of whom was my father’s cousin. His surviving daughter lives in Idaho, she was an infant when the crime was committed. Please see, feel, touch, smell, and hear on my behalf.
Have a safe trip, Dear Friend and Man of Peace.
Fondly, Raouf

Within hours I received Wendell’s response:

Thank you for your message and requests. I pledge to honor your requests and thank you for entrusting them to me.

I spent last Sat. night and Sunday morning in Haifa, and am now in Tel Aviv. I will be mindful to honor your requests, as I am sensing the pain and cries of those who no longer speak, and those who speak but are treated as if they cannot or will not be heard.
Salaam, Wendell

On December 16, 2015, Wendell Griffen sent a report to his email list on his pilgrimage to Palestine, that Holy Land where unholy brutality are a yearly, monthly, weekly, and hourly events. Wendell granted me permission to include his observations on what he witnessed in the land of the prophets where wailing, misery, racism, violence, occupation and the rancid smell of death are the norm. Seems to me that God’s Chosen have chosen to inflict the same misery on the indigenous natives of Palestine as was inflicted on them in Europe.

The text reads:


©Wendell Griffen, 2015

I recently spent eight days visiting Israel and Palestine—the place called “the Holy Land”—as part of a group that included progressive faith leaders, from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, activists from the Dream Defenders human rights movement, progressive-minded religious scholars, and a journalism professor.

Our group enjoyed sunny days, visits to sacred sites on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Shiloh, a visit to a small community of activists struggling to preserve their religious community in Iqrit, and stops alongside the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

We traveled through fertile agricultural land.  We enjoyed delicious meals in popular restaurants in Haifa, Jaffa, and elsewhere.  We shared meals and listened as Israeli citizens and Palestinians in various locations gave us eye-witness insights about life beyond the customary religious tour group destinations.

We watched Israeli military forces shoot tear gas at young people in Bethlehem.  Our eyes burned not only from the tear gas, but also from remembering how peaceful protestors and journalists were similarly attacked in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after Michael Brown, Jr. was killed by former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.

We met and spoke with a young veteran of the Israeli military who told us about how Israeli military occupation of Palestine (commonly known as “the West Bank”) is producing deep emotional and moral wounds to members of the military and to Palestinians.   We listened as he talked about being ordered to protect illegal Jewish settlements and attack Palestinians who dared to even approach settlements, but was not authorized to take action against settlers who attacked and terrorized Palestinian farmers.

We took a field visit to Shiloh Valley, viewed an illegal Jewish settler outpost, and heard settlers speak of their community as a “homeland” for Jewish returnees while they stereotyped Palestinians as a group as “terrorists.”  After one settler had the audacity to declare that there has never been a Christian religious terrorist organization in the United States, I politely told him that his assertion somehow managed to ignore or trivialize the hateful and deadly history of the Ku Klux Klan.

We met with village leaders and family members who face ongoing harassment, violence, and threats of violence because of the illegal settlements condoned by the Israeli government and defended by the Israeli military.

We spoke with visionary-minded and determined physicians, entrepreneurs, educators, lawyers, mental health professionals, and community organizers and learned about their efforts to resist despair in the face of ongoing injustice from the Israeli military and civilian regime.

We spoke with parents whose children have been detained for days without being allowed to see their relatives.  We saw a military court order a young Palestinian man who had been detained for several days without being charged with any crime to continue being detained.

We met and spoke with the grieving father of an unarmed Bedouin teenager who was shot to death last year by Israeli police.  The cop who killed the man’s son is back on the job and has not been charged with committing a crime.

We listened as women told about trying to protect their families from abusive and homicidal conduct by Jewish settlers, Israeli military personnel, and Israeli police.  We met boys who had been detained for days on suspicion that they had thrown stones at Israeli security forces.

We toured Dar al-Kalimah University College of Arts & Culture and met with Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb who told us about the challenges he and his colleagues are facing and determined to overcome.  We saw how the spirit of resistance is honored, portrayed, and courageously affirmed by people from various generations, locations, and ethnic backgrounds.

We saw Bedouin communities and met a Bedouin family affected by decades of Israeli policies aimed at displacing Bedouin people from the land they have lived on for generations and pushed into “unrecognized” villages not served by municipal services.  Meanwhile, the Israeli government funnels money, resources, and military protection to Jewish settlements in the Negev.

These and other experiences have left me with the following impressions.

First, the Israeli government is plainly carrying out a systematic, calculated, and oppressive program that smacks of all the vestiges of the immoral regime of apartheid in South Africa and the equally wicked history of Jim Crow segregation and genocidal manifest destiny perpetrated against Africans and indigenous native people in the United States.

Second, that program of injustice is financed by U.S. tax dollars.  It is carried out by people armed with weapons supplied by the United States.  Even as I write these words (and you read them) the candidates who aspire to become the next President of the United States are trying to out-do each other in pledging continued and greater support for this program of injustice.  Yes, that includes whoever may be your favorite (or disfavored) candidate.

Third, a well-financed and multi-faceted Zionist propaganda program now targets black and Latino communities.  It involves recruiting students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and indoctrinating them to support Zionist claims.  It involves lobbying and financing Holy Land tours for black and Latino faith leaders and their congregants.  Zionist notions of manifest destiny are contributing to flawed theology, principles of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), and ethics being preached from black and Latino pulpits and other evangelical positions of influence.

Fourth, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like other tyrants of manifest destiny, segregation, apartheid, fascism, racism, and genocide before him, is leading a government that deserves to be condemned as unjust, not supported and defended.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, although the moral arc of the universe is wide, it always bends towards justice.  My pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine inspires me to declare that the wickedness the world witnessed surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. and the ensuing injustice in Ferguson, Missouri does not become sanctified when Arabs and others are killed and otherwise mistreated by government sanctioned actors in what is commonly called “the Holy Land.”

I am a survivor of the U.S. version of such wicked policies and practices.  In the name of all that is just, honorable, true, noble, and hopeful—and inspired by the courageous people we encountered over the course of eight busy December days—I will use whatever strength and moral authority I can summon to join the people I met in denouncing the wickedness I saw during my trip to “the Holy Land.”

We shall overcome.

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