Sermon for Gaza 

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This is a sermon Chris Hedges gave on Sunday April 28 read by Eunice Wong. It was delivered at a service held at the encampment for Gaza at Princeton University. The service was organized by students from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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Transcript:

Staying Power – by Mr. Fish

In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead. Some of them are forgotten. Most of them are unknown.

These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits—a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence and a deep empathy that was extended to people who were different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent. I set my life by the standards they set.

You have heard of some, such as Vaclav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met most evenings, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, in the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague. Others, no less great, you probably do not know, such as the Jesuit priest Iganacio Ellacuria, who was gunned down by the death squads in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those “ordinary” people, although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, no people are ordinary, who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity being persecuted and hunted. And to some of these “ordinary” people I owe my own life.

To resist radical evil, as you are doing, is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It is to defy injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency and at times your life. It is to be a lifelong heretic. And, perhaps this is the most important point, it is to accept that the dominant culture, even the liberal elites, will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do, but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at The New York Times after being booed off a commencement stage in 2003 for denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded by the paper for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I had known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby. They did not want to be contaminated by the same career-killing contagion.

Ruling institutions — the state, the press, the church, the courts, universities  — mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status and authority. All of these institutions, including the academy, are complicit through their silence or their active collaboration with radical evil. This was true during the genocide we committed against native Americans, slavery, the witch hunts during the McCarthy era, the civil rights and anti-war movements and the fight against the apartheid regime of South Africa. The most courageous are purged and turned into pariahs.

All institutions, including the church, the theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, are inherently demonic. And a life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is often temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience will not allow you to make.

The theologian James Cone in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” writes that for oppressed blacks the cross was a “paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.”

Cone continues: “That God could ‘make a way out of no way’ in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of this world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”

Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ ” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”

The prophets in the Hebrew Bible had this sublime madness. The words of the Hebrew prophets, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, were “a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” The prophet, because he or she saw and faced an unpleasant reality, was, as Heschel wrote, “compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what their heart expected.”

This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that when you stand with the oppressed you will be treated like the oppressed. It is the acceptance that, although empirically all that we struggled to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.

The radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan —  who was sentenced to three years in a federal prison for burning draft records during the war in Vietnam — told me that faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good. The Buddhists call this karma. But he said for us as Christians we did not know where it went. We trusted that it went somewhere. But we did not know where. We are called to do the good, or at least the good so far as we can determinate it, and then let it go.

As Hannah Arendt wrote, the only morally reliable people are not those who say “this is wrong” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.” They know that as Immanuel Kant wrote: “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.” And this means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act, and given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason, but by faith.

I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith, which lies outside any religious or philosophical creed. This faith is what Havel called in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” living in truth. Living in truth exposes the corruption, lies and deceit of the state. It is a refusal to be a part of the charade.

James Baldwin, the son of a preacher and briefly a preacher himself, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship.

This is not to say that the church does not exist. This is not to say that I reject the church. On the contrary. The church today is not located in the cavernous, and largely empty houses of worship, but here, with you, with those who demand justice, those whose unofficial credo is the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus, if he lived in contemporary society, would be undocumented. He was not a Roman citizen. He lived without rights, under Roman occupation. Jesus was a person of color. The Romans were white. And the Romans, who peddled their own version of white supremacy, nailed people of color to crosses almost as often as we finish them off with lethal injections, gun them down in the streets, lock them up in cages or slaughter them in Gaza. The Romans killed Jesus as an insurrectionist, a revolutionary. They feared the radicalism of the Christian Gospel. And they were right to fear it. The Roman state saw Jesus the way the American state saw Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, like now, prophets were killed.

The Bible unequivocally condemns the powerful. It is not a self-help manual to become rich. It does not bless America or any other nation. It was written for the powerless, for those James Cone calls the crucified of the earth. It was written to give a voice to, and affirm the dignity of, those being crushed by malignant power and empire.

There is nothing easy about faith. It demands we smash the idols that enslave us. It demands we die to the world. It demands self-sacrifice. It demands resistance. It calls us to see ourselves in the wretched of the earth. It separates us from all that is familiar. It knows that once we feel the suffering of others, we will act.

“But what of the price of peace?” Berrigan asks in his book “No Bars to Manhood.”

“I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm … in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans—that five-year plan of studies, that ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise. “Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs—at all costs—our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost—because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war—at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”

Bearing the cross is not about the pursuit of happiness. It does not embrace the illusion of inevitable human progress. It is not about achieving status, wealth, celebrity or power. It entails sacrifice. It is about our neighbor. The organs of state security monitor and harass you. They amass huge files on your activities. They disrupt your life.

Why am I here today with you? I am here because I have tried, however imperfectly, to live by the radical message of the Gospel. I am here because I know that it is not what we say or profess but what we do. I am here because I have seen that it is possible to be a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu or an atheist and carry the cross. The words are different but the self-sacrifice and thirst for justice are the same.

These men and women, who may not profess what I profess or believe what I believe, are my brothers and sisters. And I stand with them honoring and respecting our differences and finding hope and strength and love in our common commitment. At times like these I hear the voices of the saints who went before us. The suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who announced that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God, and the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who said, “The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.” Or Henry David Thoreau, who told us we should be men and women first and subjects afterward, that we should cultivate a respect not for the law but for what is right. And Frederick Douglass, who warned us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” And the great 19th century populist Mary Elizabeth Lease, who thundered: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.” And General Smedley Butler, who said that after 33 years and four months in the Marine Corps he had come to understand that he had been nothing more than a gangster for capitalism, making Mexico safe for American oil interests, making Haiti and Cuba safe for banks and pacifying the Dominican Republic for sugar companies. War, he said, is a racket in which subjugated countries are exploited by the financial elites and Wall Street while the citizens foot the bill and sacrifice their young men and women on the battlefield for corporate greed. Or Eugene V. Debs, the socialist presidential candidate, who in 1912 pulled almost a million votes, or 6 percent, and who was sent to prison by Woodrow Wilson for opposing the First World War, and who told the world: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” And Rabbi Heschel, who when he was criticized for marching with Martin Luther King on the Sabbath in Selma answered: “I pray with my feet” and who quoted Samuel Johnson, who said: “The opposite of good is not evil. The opposite of good is indifference.” And Rosa Parks, who defied the segregated bus system and said “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” And Philip Berrigan, who said: “If enough Christians follow the Gospel, they can bring any state to its knees.” And Martin Luther King, who said: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take a stand because it is right.”

Where were you when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there to halt the genocide of Native Americans? Were you there when Sitting Bull died on the cross? Were you there to halt the enslavement of African-Americans? Were you there to halt the mobs that terrorized black men, women and even children with lynching during Jim Crow? Were you there when they persecuted union organizers and Joe Hill died on the cross? Were you there to halt the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Were you there to halt Bull Connor’s dogs as they were unleashed on civil rights marchers in Birmingham? Were you there when Martin Luther King died upon the cross? Were you there when Malcolm X died on the cross? Were you there to halt the hate crimes, discrimination and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queers and those who are transgender? Were you there when Matthew Shepard died on the cross? Were you there to halt the abuse and at times enslavement of workers in the farmlands of this country? Were you there to halt the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam or hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were you there to halt the genocide in Gaza? Were you there when they crucified Refaat Alareer on the cross?

Where were you when they crucified my Lord?

I know where I was.

Here.

With you.

Amen.

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