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The Test of Being Prophetic: a Critique of the Boston Declaration

Last November, over 300 Christian leaders (theologians, seminary professors, bishops and other denominational heads) issued The Boston Declaration, which challenges “the corruption of US Christianity.”  Especially corrupting, they point out, is the white supremacy of evangelical Christians, which leads them to support politicians whose promotion of policies of “exclusion, exploitation, and hatred” promises to maintain white privilege and “the normalizing of oppression.”  This distortion of Christianity is contrary to one of Jesus’ fundamental teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (‘PRESS RELEASE- THE BOSTON DECLARATION,’ thebostondeclaration.com, Nov. 20, 2017)

The Boston Declaration’s condemnation of white evangelical Christianity’s support of exclusionary nationalistic policies is laudable as far as it goes.  A litany of “false ideologies” are rightly rejected, including: “the false ideology of empire building and the myth of racial laziness and substance abuse that harms the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the US territories;” peace and security “through military strength and . . . violence;” “the corporate ruling class that services . . . the US military” and marginalizes “poor communities of color;” “American exceptionalism and the evil of political corruption;” equating “whiteness with Christianity, true humanity, and United States citizenship;” “antisemitism, which is driving much of white Christian nationalism;” “patriarchal and misogynistic legacies that subject women to continual violence, violation, and exclusion . . . including sexual abuse in the highest offices of power;” stripping the resources of the Earth and polluting it; economic policies that favor the wealthy and deny the many; “Islamophobia and  anti-Muslim bigotry;“ “homophobia and transphobia and all violence against the LGBTQ community;” and “all anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that fail to recognize the contributions of immigrants . . . [that] strengthen the fabric of this nation.” (‘THE BOSTON DECLARATION,’ thebostondeclaration.com, Nov. 20, 2017)

The Boston Declaration’s “Call to Action” is also admirable up to a point.  Following “the Jesus Way” is about “reject[ing] all political and social movements that do not lead to life.”  Positively, following Jesus is about “welcoming the stranger and ‘treating the foreigner with love, for we were once foreigners in Egypt’ (Deut. 10:19).”  It is about bearing witness to a “God who is neither male nor female and who embraces all people regardless of their identity.”  About “discover[ing] the gift of being creatures not as something to be overcome, but embraced, discovering the fullness of our humanity in the flourishing of all women.”  “Embrac[ing] a future where the legacies of white supremacy are dismantled.”  Orienting “our power . . . toward mutual community,” not “empire.”  Making “love and mutuality be the marks of our lives together, our community building, our budgets, and our public policies.”  Caring for the earth and all of creation.  “Stand[ing] in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers and all immigrants, fighting against Islamophobia and Xenophobia.”  And the Declaration’s final vow: “May we continue to stand with anyone who calls for justice, mercy, and love in the world.” (Ibid)

The Boston Declaration’s “Prophetic Appeal to Christians in the United States” cites numerous critical justice issues, but suffers from vagueness and generalizations, stopping short of naming names, of identifying and elaborating on specific oppressive governmental policies, and of proposing concrete actions.  In this respect, it is evident that the ecclesiastical superiors of a number of the Declaration’s signatories are casting a shadow over their deliberations.

The test of being prophetic is whether faith leaders speak reality and moral truth to political power —  and not just bind up the wounds of those fallen victim to that power, which is also critical.  The test is great because some members of a faith leader’s own congregation may have voted that political power into office.  An even greater challenge is that prophetic-minded faith leaders must also deal with their own religion’s superiors, many of whom serve as guardians of the status quo, and disapprove of political friction that could disaffect certain complaining and influential congregants and also create conflict in the larger community   A great fear of many superiors is the loss of members and thus money and status.  And the cardinal doctrine dictating the behavior of many clergy is not faith in the grace of God, but fear of falling out of the good graces of superiors who have power over their employment.  You can’t have a hierarchy without a lowerarchy.   Clergy often get ahead by going along.  Thus, for self-protective reasons, “Keep religion out of politics!” is deeply embedded in the spiritual psyche of numerous clergy.  The Boston Declaration is to be lauded as far as it goes, and is instructive because of where it stops.

Certain of the Declaration’s statements are inspiring, even courageous, but lack grounding.  Such as “the Jesus Way,” which calls for “confronting evil wherever evil exists, to combat ignorance wherever ignorance has led people astray and to place our lives and our bodies on the line with whoever is being threatened, beat down, or oppressed in any way, anywhere.” (italics added)  Also, “We declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression (italics added) from the deepest wells of our faith.” (Ibid)

“All forms of oppression” is an example of a number of generalizations found in the Boston Declaration. The signatories rightly “stand against the manufacturing and proliferation of weapons which continue to drown the planet in the blood of millions through global war and the terrorism of domestic mass shootings.” (Ibid)  But the Boston Declaration signatories say nothing about the worst war crime of the 21st Century, committed by a United Methodist: former president George W. Bush’s unnecessary, falsely-based pre-emptive invasions of defenseless Afghanistan and Iraq.  The invasion of Iraq alone drowned that country in the blood of over one million civilians killed, uprooted millions more, sacrificed the lives of thousands of America’s young men and women military persons on the altar of capitalistic greed, and gave rise to the brutal ISIS.

The signatories’ abstract reference to “global war” also fails to identify the “evil” that spawned the criminal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan: America’s so-called “global war on terrorism,” launched by President Bush, ostensibly to avenge the horrible 9/11 attacks against America.  In reality, those attacks served as a cover for our bipartisan government’s capitalistic pursuit of world domination.  The fact that Iraq’s tremendous oil reserves are now controlled by Western oil companies is not about freeing the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator — Saddam Hussein who was once America’s ally — as Bush repeatedly claimed, but about freeing up their energy resources for the profit of Western firms, lining the pockets of the military, industrial, intelligence complex, and paving the way for white evangelical Christian carpetbaggers to convert Muslims to their Christ.

The signatories could have faulted white evangelical Christians for supporting President Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq.   A high majority of them saw it as an excellent opportunity to convert Iraqi Muslims to Christ.

It is assumed that many of the signatories themselves, and their denominations, strongly opposed invading Iraq.  But once American military boots were on the ground in Iraq it would have been quite risky to continue to forcibly speak reality and moral truth to political — and denominational — power about that war.

The Boston Declaration signatories’ “prophetic appeal” includes a confession of their own shortcomings.  Their sins, however, consist of detached theological generalizations: “We acknowledge the manifold and complicated ways we participate in these systems, even as we are often complicit in them.”  They “confess that the Church, in a variety of forms, has too often failed to follow the way of Jesus and perform the good news.”  And, “We are people who are still discovering the ways we participate with death and evil, even while we continue to seek the good, to choose life again and again” (Ibid)

A representative group of the signatories “put on sackcloth and ashes to dramatically grieve over the corruption of US Christianity and to call the country into a time of reflection and action to end oppression.” (‘PRESS RELEASE – THE BOSTON DECLARATION,’ Ibid)  Timely also would have been a call for specific national soul searching.  Much “oppression” could have been exposed and addressed by such examination.   Beginning with former President Bush’s explanation of the motivation of those who attacked America on 9/11: “Make no mistake about it,” Bush declared, “these are evil doers.  They have no justification for their actions.”  The self-appointed theologian-in-chief then doubled down: “There’s no religious justification, there’s no political justification.  The only motivation is evil.” (“International Campaign Against Terror Grows: Remaks by President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan in Photo Opportunity,” The White House, Sept. 25, 2001)

The motivation for the 9/11 attacks against America is not about “evil” — if one dares to really examine the “death and evil” caused by our own bipartisan government.  The Boston Declaration signatories would have done well to call for a national confession based on the Pentagon’s own advisory panel’s report, whose findings were revealed after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  According to the report, “Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies.”  Those policies include America’s “one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, ever-increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf States.  Thus,” the report continues, ”when American public policy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.” (“U.S. Fails to Explain Policies to Muslim World, Panel Says,” By Thom Shanker, The New York Times. Nov. 24, 2004; “US ‘alienating world’s Muslims,” BBC NEWS, Nov. 25, 2004)

Contrary to President Bush justifying his criminal wars by saying that “freedom is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world,” the Pentagon’s advisory panel found “no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies – except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.”  The report’s bottom line: “In the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.” (Ibid)

President Bush’s bipartisan-supported “global war on terrorism” continues.  A war seemingly against much of the world, violating countries’ national sovereignty, killing “whoever,” “wherever,” “anywhere.”  President Barack Obama followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps, pursuing the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and reportedly “launched airstrikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.” http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-obama-at-war/ By Christi Parsons and W. J. Hennigan,  Los Angeles Times, Jan. 13, 2017)  Obama intensified the use of drone warfare that killed countless innocents.  He also created a “kill list,” giving himself executive power to identify and assassinate so-called “terrorists,” including Americans, without due process.

Donald Trump succeeded President Obama, promising to kill the family members of ISIS.  He kept that promise, outdoing Obama.  As reported, “According to the research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration.” (“Under the Trump administration, US airstrikes are killing more civilians,” theconversation.com, Oct. 13, 2017)

A psychopathic and delusions of grandeur-driven President Trump is just getting started.  Last August he said that nuclear weapons-pursuing “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” (“What Donald Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea might signify,” By Chris Cillizzi, CNNPolitics, Aug. 8, 2017) Then, two months before the signatories issued The Boston Declaration, Trump said, in a United Nations speech:“ If the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” — a country of over 25 million people. (“Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea in First U.N. Speech,” by Ali Vitali, nbcnews.com, Sept. 21, 2017)

Never mind that North Korea is building nuclear weapons to defend itself against the United States, having witnessed the grisly murder of Col. Muammar Gaddafi and the US-led military destruction of Libya after Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapon.  Also witnessing Trump’s trashing of the nuclear weapons freeze agreement President Obama made with Iran, and calling Iran “a corrupt dictatorship” and “murderous regime . . . whose main export is violence.” (“Trump calls Iran a ‘corrupt dictatorship’ and exporter of violence,” Middle East Eye, Sept. 20, 2017)  And witnessing what happened to Iraq after being falsely accused of having weapons of mass destruction.

In the face of all of this criminality, the original architect of “the global war on terrorism,” the one who said, “Christ changed my heart,” is not only walking around free, but admired by many people of faith.  The United Methodist Church also named a library and museum after him at Southern Methodist University.  And he even shows up in newspaper headlines, with stories quoting his moral advice for President Donald Trump: “We’ve seen the return of isolationist sentiments, forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places.” (“Without Saying ‘Trump,’ Bush and Obama Deliver Implicit Rebukes,” By Peter Baker, The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2017)

Never mind “the chaos and despair of distant places” that George W. Bush sowed — that continue to fester, and to cause blowback violence against America and its allies.  For the Boston Declaration, it is as if the “death-dealing powers” the Bush administration unleashed don’t count.  A number of the signatories are United Methodist seminary professors and other of the denomination’s leaders.  It is assumed that including the above history on President George W. Bush in the Declaration probably would not have gone over well with the ecclesiastical superiors of these signatories – nor probably with the denominational superiors of certain other signatories.

The same evasive dynamic appears to have guided The Boston Declaration’s statement on the Jews and Palestinians.  The signatories state, “May we stand in solidarity against anti-Semitism and the use of any  language and actions that threaten the lives of our Jewish sisters and brothers while standing with the plight for human rights with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.” (“The Boston Declaration,” Ibid)  However, the signatories do not address Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians — with US government support — which is the cause of the Palestinians’ human rights plight.

Renowned political analyst and activist Noam Chomsky has stated that Palestinians in Gaza are “subject to random terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade,” turning Gaza into “the world’s largest open-air prison.” (“Noam Chomsky: My Visit to Gaza, the World’s Largest Open-Air Prison,” By Noam Chomsky, www.truth-out.org, Nov. 9, 2012)  The building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank continues, shrinking any viable Palestine nation in the long proposed two-state solution.  And President Trump’s recent unilateral selection of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — in the face of the Palestinians’ claiming east Jerusalem as their future capital — further undermines any real two-state solution.  The Boston Declaration signatories avoided these moral realities, perhaps out of fear of being called “anti-Semitic” or of alienating certain would be signatories or of rocking their denominational boats.

The Boston Declaration’s political references are characterized by safe generalizations. Such as, “Death and evil seem to reign supreme in the United States, when those with the power of a uniform or the president’s pen or a position of authority or fame or economic tricks of capitalization and interest of sheer brute force . . . again and again choose death rather than life.”  And, “When many who confess Christ advocate evil, we believe the followers of the Jesus Way are called to renounce, denounce, and resist these death-dealing powers . . . not to embrace or promulgate them.”  Also, “As followers of Jesus, it is vital that we take action when our government seeks to continuously harm life made in God’s image by cutting social safety-nets and forcing the poorest and most powerless among us to spiral into an abyss of desperation.”  Finally, “We reject the false ideology of empire building.” (‘THE BOSTON DECLARATION,’ Ibid)

Relevant would have been The Boston Declaration specifying the $700 billion budgeted for the military to continue America’s “global war on terrorism” — this amount is more than seven times that of the next eight countries combined.  Also pertinent are the tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, with an eye down the road to pay for the deficits incurred by cutting the Medicare and Social Security benefits of millions of Americans.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a model here.  In a speech on ‘THE CAUSALTIES OF THE WAR IN VIETNAM,’ he was very specific and inclusive about government action that “harm[s] life made in God’s image.”  He expressed empathy for the Vietnam people, declaring, “Whether we realize it or not our participation in the war in Vietnam is an ominous expression of our lack of sympathy for the oppressed, our paranoid anti-Communism, our failure to feel the ache and anguish of the Have Nots.”  He said the Vietnam War “reveals our willingness to continue participating in neo-colonial adventures  . . . and turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism.” (AFRICAN-AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN THE VIETNAM WAR, Feb. 25, 1967)

Dr. King connected the Vietnam War to the quality of life in America, saying that “the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”  He became specific: “The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.”  King then provided a prophetic statement for us Americans today: “The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities.  The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.  They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” (Ibid)

When Dr. King globalized the civil rights movement, connecting  the “Have Nots” of Vietnam to the narrowing of “welfare programs” at home, he became an even more dangerous, politically-focused, prophet of all the people.  As he said in his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  . . .  I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.” (“Martin Luther King Jr: Top 100 Speeches,” www.americanrhetoric.com)

The Boston Declaration itself is modeled after a declaration that confronted the state and the church: the Barmen Declaration of 1934, formulated by German faith leaders to challenge the complicity of German Christians with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.  Faith leaders, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller, called out the false “pro-Nazi” doctrines of Christians that “glorified Adolf Hitler as a ‘German prophet’ and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible.” (“The Barmen Declaration, 1934,” clclibrary-org,tripod.org.)  The Berman Declaration not only challenged the accommodation of German Christians to the “death-dealing powers” of Adolf Hitler; it confronted the Nazi regime itself, which led to the execution of Bonhoeffer and others, and to the imprisonment of Niemoller and many clergy and laypersons.

The Boston Declaration’s “prophetic appeal to Christians of the United States” should focus on political leaders, who wield power, not just on white evangelical Christians, who seek access to that power to impose their exclusionary, oppressive Biblically-based beliefs on society.  A risky, and crucial, prophetic imperative is calling into question America’s endless “global war on terrorism,” and demanding that diplomacy, not military force, guide U.S. foreign policy.  To be challenged here is the militarization of America, magnified by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, and continued by President Obama and, now, President Trump.  It is about following the money from the militarization of America to the “global war on terrorism” to the military/industrial/energy, intelligence/religious complex.  Militarization that fuels America’s imperialistic “global war on terrorism” in pursuit of global domination, normalizes the killing of innocents abroad, and justifies the neglect of our own “Have Nots” at home.  Militarization that merges “God and country.”

The Boston Declaration leaders’ press release states that they “will strategize throughout the United States to interrogate both Democratic and Republican 2018 candidates on their commitment to concerns addressed in the pronouncement.” (‘PRESS RELEASE – THE BOSTON DECLARATION,’ thebostondeclaration.com, Ibid))  That strategy is a much needed action.

Along with focusing on political leaders, the Boston Declaration signatories should also be speaking reality and moral truth to their own denominational powers, i.e., to their council of bishops, conference of bishops and other executive ecclesiastical leaders.  The signatories should demand that their own bishops and other ecclesiastical superiors state the specific reasons for and demand the removal from office of a psychopathically lying, omnipotence-deluded, capricious, racially divisive, president.

It is important, but not enough, to condemn President Trump’s blatant racist statements about immigrants.   Like his reported “referr[ing] to Haiti and African nations as ‘shithole countries,’” which “included El Salvador” as well.  And his, “Why do we need more Haitians, take them out.” (“Trump referred to Haiti and African Nations as ‘shithole’ countries,” by Ali Vitali, Kasie Hunt and Frank Thorp V, nbcnews.com, Jan/ 12, 2018)   Such obvious racism is safe to criticize.

The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops condemned President Trump’s racist comments in a statement that is timely.  The Bishops “call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.”  They remind everyone: “We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape the wrath of King Herod.  Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events.  Hence,” the bishops declare, “we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.” (“United Methodist bishops condemn President Trump’s ‘offensive’ remarks against immigrants,” Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church, www.umc.org, Jan. 12, 2018)

But the bishops do not identify today’s “King Herod”.  Nor do they specify and challenge the “despicable and life-threatening events” caused by our own government that have contributed greatly to uprooting citizens and causing them to flee their countries.  Being prophetic is about opposing war-making policies that cause people to “flee political, cultural, and social dangers in their native homes,” along with “support[ing]” those who flee.

At this moment, The United Methodist Church is threatening to split over its decades-long discriminatory position on homosexuality.  Hopefully, the Council of Bishops will help enable the Church to remove from its Book of Discipline the “despicable” words about and discriminatory practices against LGBTQ persons.  Specifically: “Para 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (“Homosexuality: Full Book of Discipline statements,” The United Methodist Church)  Also “Para 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (“What is the denomination’s position on homosexuality?,” www.umc.org)

Day after day the danger authoritarian President Trump presents grows.  He promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington.  Instead, with his barriers, bans, budget and nuclear button, he is turning America into a white supremacy “shithole.”

Calling for the removal of President Trump from office would no doubt alienate some church members, who would jump ship and join more conservative churches.  That should not be seen as a bad thing.  Because, other, more “love your neighbor as yourself”-motivated people may find churches guided by reality and moral truth more prophetically appealing.

The test of being prophetic is that of speaking reality and moral truth to both political and religious power on behalf of the “Have Nots.”  For Christians, it is about being “followers of the Jesus Way”: welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 35-37, preaching good news to the poor and setting at liberty the oppressed (Luke 4: 18), and being peacemakers (Matthew 5: 9)  It is fundamentally about empathy: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)

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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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