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The Social Gospel is Political

Tommy Douglas said, ”Social justice is like taking a bath. You have to do it every day or pretty soon you start to stink.” Who is Tommy Douglas? In 2004, he was “named The Greatest Canadian of all time by voters across Canada.” A Baptist minister, he provided pastoral care for people who died because they could not afford medical care. This injustice led him to enter politics, believing strongly that “the role of government” was “to improve the lives of ordinary people.” He became the premier of Saskatchewan, and then “forever known as the father of socialized medicine in Canada.” (“History Idol: Tommy Douglas, ’The Father of Medicare’ turned a Tory on her head,” by Neil Babaluk, www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine; “Tommy Douglas: The preacher turned politician fights to bring a socialist government to Canada,” www.cbc.ca/history; see also Dr. Vincent Lam’s biography, Tommy Douglas, www.amazon.ca)

Tommy Douglas provides a timely example for American Christian faith leaders, their seminaries and related Clinical Pastoral Education training centers. Many of them need to take a “social justice” bath — regularly! They often live off the reputation of the great prophets of their past, while mass- producing chaplains of the status quo. They tend to vicariously identify with the heroes of their faith, turning their prophetic movements into monuments and worshipping them. Stature is found in the statue. The power is in the prayer. The right is remembered in the rite. The movement is worshipped as a memory, and thus avoided as a model for continued moral risk-taking on behalf of oppressed people. In the face of the 2016 presidential campaign, their long avoidance of speaking reality and moral truth to political power has contributed to the rise of immoral candidates who stink up the place.

The social gospel is political. I’m not talking about the politics of those evangelical Christians who give a bad odor to democracy, by using politics to impose their discriminatory homophobic “freedom of religion” beliefs on other citizens. I’m not referring to the politics of predatory Christians, who like the smell of America’s pre-emptive imperialistic wars in pursuit of world domination — wars against Muslim countries that allow them to pursue their own imperialistic mission of “mak[ing] disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28: 19)

Nor am I referring to the politics of those chaplains of the status quo, who perform much needed pastoral care for their members and communities, and also address certain political issues. But when it comes to confronting American imperialism and the reeking militarization poisoning our country, they hold their nose and accommodate our bipartisan government’s criminal wars in their name — wars that destroy countless millions of human beings, violating the very essence of these faith leaders’ professed Christian beliefs.

It is impossible, for example, to ignore or rationalize the criminality of the pre-emptive war against Iraq – the reported “shocking human toll: about 1 million killed, 4.5 million displaced, 1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans” — unless you don’t take a “social justice” bath regularly. (“Iraq’s Shocking Human Toll,” By John Tirman, The Nation, www.alternet.org, Feb. 1, 2009) There is also the immoral stench of America’s so-called “global war on terrorism” — actually in pursuit of world domination — with its drone warfare that kills innocent children and women and men, creating countless enemies and blowback violence against our citizens.

For chaplains of the status quo, religion has become a business enterprise to protect and promote. It is about making a profit, more than being prophets. Thus their denominational bodies and seminaries readily provide the recruits and their affiliated Clinical Pastoral Education Centers the specialized training required of military chaplains. While these chaplains provide critical spiritual care for military personnel in crisis situations, their very presence helps to legitimize the criminality of wars that should not be sacrificing the lives and limbs of America’s sons and daughters in the first place.

Sadly, the bottom line of chaplains of the status quo is protecting their privileged position in society — no matter how bad our bipartisan government smells. They don’t bite the political hand that feeds their entitlement. They reveal that it is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics – out of risky domestic and foreign policy issues.

But political leaders have little to fear. Many bishops and denominational executives, who wield power over their clergy, are very “political.” These superiors, themselves, excelled within the status quo to get where they are, going along to get along, being creative in ways that maintain and advance their denominational enterprise, without threatening the existing political and denominational order.   Thus their own conditioning has prepared them to use their power to censure and punish those of their clergy who deviate from the status quo. The chaplains of the status quo can be counted on to give the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power, not confront power with its immoral foreign and domestic policies.

The politics of the social gospel is about empowering people, not gaining power over them. About empathizing with people, not evangelizing them. About connecting with people, not converting them. It is about commitment to peace and justice, not allegiance to “God and country.” It is about the inherent worth and rights of every human being, not “American exceptionalism.” A former Army chaplain shows the way.

Last April, Christopher John Antal, an Army chaplain and Unitarian Universalist minister, whose tour of duty included Afghanistan, resigned his commission “because,” as he wrote to President Obama, “I refuse to support the U.S. armed drone policy, with “the Executive Branch’s . . . unaccountable killing . . . of anyone, anywhere on earth.” He resigned “because I refuse to support U.S. nuclear weapon policy . . . this policy of terror and mutually assured destruction.” Antal also wrote that he “refuse[s] to support U.S. policy of preventive war, permanent military supremacy and global power projection.” He cited “the Executive Branch continu[ing] to claim extra-constitutional authority and impunity from international law.” The closing paragraph of his letter to President Obama embodies the integral relationship between the social gospel and politics:

I resign because I refuse to serve as an empire chaplain. I cannot reconcile these policies with either my sworn duty to protect and defend America and our constitutional democracy or my covenantal commitment to the core principles of my religious faith. These principles include: justice, equity and compassion in human relations, a free and responsible search for truth, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person. (“Army Chaplain Resigns over Drone Wars.” By Ann Wright, consortiumnews.com, May 12, 2016)

Rev. Antal’s example challenges people of faith to examine their participation in the American empire’s criminal pursuit of world domination. Those faith organizations that endorse and train military chaplains need to engage in moral conversations on the U.S. government’s illegal, falsely-based pre-emptive wars of choice and military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, and the resulting horrible deaths, diminishment and dislocation of countless millions of human beings. America desperately needs prophets of the people, not merely spiritual chaplains of the status quo.

Nor is it enough to train hospital and other chaplains in cultural competency in their spiritual care of patients, though such diversity training is very important. Chaplains should also be trained in political competency. They need to be aware of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic, political and legal power, and how that hierarchy adversely affects the health of people of color and their communities. Such political competency also includes an awareness of and engagement with communities of color, with community-based organizations and leaders, who are addressing the inequities undermining the health and pursuit of happiness of the residents in those communities. (For a discussion of the important relationship between structural inequality and ill health, see Dr. James Jennings, “Community Health Centers in U.S. Inner Cities: From Cultural Competency to Community Competency, Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World,” Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World: A Review Journal, Winter 2009)

Another person provides a courageous example of political involvement for faith leaders. He plans to give inspiring Sunday sermons, not in the pulpit, but on the playing field. He is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is refusing to stand with his teammates for the national anthem. In an interview, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. . . . To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” He became specific: “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (“Colin Kaepernick protests anthem over treatment of minorities,” ESPN.com news services, www.espn.com, Aug. 28, 2016)

Colin Kaepernick’s protest is all the more admirable in the face of the pervasive militarization of America, seen especially at football games, with military planes’ flyovers serving as the Invocation to games, military personnel front and center in the stands as honored guests, and announcers’, wearing American flags on their lapels, thanking the troops in far-away, occupied, countries for protecting our “freedom and democracy.”

The 49ers quarterback speaks to the inner struggle of many chaplains of the status quo, including their denominational leaders. When asked, “Why do you think you’re the only one doing this?” Colin Kaepernick replied, “I think there is a lot of consequences that come along with this. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to have this conversation.” He then said why. “They’re scared they might lose their job. Or they might not get the endorsements. They might not be treated the same way.“ But, “See[ing] people die in the street . . . I can’t live with myself . . . if I just watch.” (“Transcript: Colin Kaepernick addresses sitting during national anthem,” By Chris Biderman, nonerswire.usatoday.com, Aug. 28, 2016)

Colin Kaepernick has addressed another political issue that greatly needs the attention of faith leaders: the 2016 presidential campaign. As reported, “Last December . . . he began posting criticisms of Donald Trump and his call to ban immigrants from entering the country.” (“Colin Kaepernick Explains Why He Won’t Stand for The National Anthem,” By Kevin Draper, deadspin.com)

When asked if his current refusal to stand for the national anthem has anything to do with the election year, Colin Kaepernick responded, “It wasn’t . . . planned. But I think the two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issues that we have in this country right now.” He explained: “You have Hilary who has called black teens or black kids super predators, you have Donald Trump who’s openly racist.” He continued, “We have a presidential candidate who has deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me,” he added, “because if that was any other person you’d be in prison. So, what is this country really standing for?” (“Transcript: Colin Kaepernick addresses sitting during national anthem,” Ibid)

So, what are Christian faith leaders really standing for? In the face of Jesus’ recorded admonition to welcome strangers (Matthew 25: 35, 36) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” f (Matthew 22: 36-40), Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promises to ban Muslims from entering the country, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, “bring back torture and a hell of a lot more,” kill family members of ISIS, and beef up “law and order” to cure the violence – but — not address the glaring inequality that besets the inner city neighborhoods of black residents. The xenophobia he shrieked in a speech on immigration in Arizona last Wednesday is enough to have the Statue of Liberty run back to France.

And, now, Donald Trump is appealing to black persons to vote for him, disparaging their lives and communities with racist appeals, and then repeatedly asking them, in front of mostly white audiences, “What the hell do you have to lose?” All anyone has to do is to look at his racist history to know that what black persons have to lose is everything. As Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrisse Cullors has said of Trump, “His doublespeak belies his true nature: a charlatan who will embolden racists and destroy communities of color.” (“Black Lives Matter on Trump: ‘He is a Disgrace,’” By Kenrya Rankin, www.colorlines.com, July 22, 2016)

So, what are Christian faith leaders really standing for? In the face of Jesus’ prophetic Sermon on the Mount teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5: 9), Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, then senator, voted for President George W. Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. Nine months later, in December of 2003, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton said, “I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that was the right vote. . . I also knew that our military forces would be successful.” She also told the Council, “Turning to Iraq, yesterday was a good day. I was thrilled that Saddam Hussein had finally been captured. . . . Now he will be brought to justice, and we hope that the prospects for peace and stability in Iraq will improve. (“Remarks by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Transcript),” www.cfr.org, Dec. 15, 2003)

The rest is history. The Bush administration’s falsely-based, criminal war has created immeasurable destruction suffering and death, turning Iraq into a failed state and providing the fertile ground for the rise of the vengeful Islamic State.

Last year, as Hillary Clinton began her campaign for president, she dismissed that history, saying her vote for the war against Iraq was a “mistake.” By then, the vast majority of voters knew it was a “mistake” — while more and more are seeing it as a major war crime.

Never mind reality and moral truth. The opportunistic nature of Hillary Clinton is seen in her recent speech accusing Donald Trump of a “steady stream of bigotry.” Pandering to moderate Republican voters, she said, “The Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Trump.” Then these words: “The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims ‘love America just as much as I do’ . . . We need that kind of leadership again.” (“Transcript: Hillary Clinton speech accuses Donald Trump of ‘steady stream of bigotry,’” www.vox.com, Updated by Jeff Stein on Aug. 25, 2016)

President Bush went to a mosque a week after 9/11, and then proceeded to use false pretenses to invade the defenseless Muslim countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. He cloaked his warmongering on bended knee. At his March 6, 2003 news conference on Iraq, Bush said, “I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. . . . I pray for peace.” (“Transcript of Bush news conference on Iraq,” www.cnn.com, March 6, 2003) Two weeks later he launched his pre-emptive war against Iraq. America does not “need that kind of leadership” again! Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are wedded to corporate wealth and power and perpetual war, while promising to make life better for ordinary citizens.

What America needs to hear are the voices of two other presidential candidates: Green Party candidate Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, who should be included in the 2016 presidential debates. The reported mission of the Republican- and Democratic-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates is “to insure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” (“Jill Stein Should Be Part of a Four-Way Presidential Debate,” By John Nichols, www.truth-out.org, Aug. 22, 2016)

“Provid[ing] the best possible information to viewers and listeners” cannot possibly be achieved by limiting the 2016 presidential debates to the two most unfavorable candidates in decades. According to a recent Fox News poll, Clinton is rated unfavorably by 55% of voters and Trump by 63 percent. (“Fox News Poll: Clinton and Trump disliked by voters,” By Dana Blanton, www.foxnews.com, Aug. 4, 2016)

Since a majority of voters despise both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, excluding Gary Johnson and Jill Stein from the debates would smell to high heaven. Stein and Johnson would provide an informative reality check to the two militaristic candidates, and also offer creative alternatives to perpetual war abroad and poverty and blowback violence or worse at home.

One “social justice” bath people of faith can take immediately is to sign this petition calling for opening the debates to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. (“Open the Debates!” www.jill2016.com) Inspiration for “social justice” baths is also found in the examples of former Army chaplain Rev. Christopher John Antal and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — and of course the life of Tommy Douglas.

And for Christian faith leaders, their seminaries and affiliated clinical pastoral training centers there is also the example of Jesus. He is recorded as saying, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 17-19)

It is the political structures that determine who shall be rich and who shall be poor, who shall be free and who shall be oppressed, who shall live and who shall die. Thus the social gospel is very political.

 

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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 wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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