Sunday, December 8, 2013

Paul Buhle's Radical Jesus

Review of Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor
Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, Nick Thorkelson, Artists

Paul Buhle is one of the most prolific and insightful critics from the American left.  While his topics at first glance appear incredibly eclectic, closer reading uncovers a sharp focus that thoughtfully challenges class disparity, racism, and imperialism in the United States and throughout the world.  The breadth of his work, even if you consider only his collaborative graphic titles, is mind-boggling as the topics include Che, Yiddishkeit, SDS, the Wobblies, Emma Goldman, FDR, the Beats, and Isadora Duncan.  And now, in collaboration with artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson, comes Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.

Like Buhle’s prior writings, Radical Jesus investigates the inequalities that exist in the world, historically and presently, but this time through a theological lens.  After an introduction, the sections of the book are “Radical Gospel,” “Radical History,” and “Radical Resistance.”  As a focus for reading the book we can assume that liberation theology began with Jesus and carries on at the present time.  Each section is illustrated by a different artist but is pulled together by both content and style.  As Buhle explains in the Introduction: “The book has been designed with a purposeful color progression from black and white in the first section, to a color choice reminiscent of the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, to the full color of modern times.”  Combining substance and style, the drawings and text constantly switches between social issues of the past and the present.  Interviewed by a reporter for the Brown University newspaper, Buhle said that he wrote the book for the young people involved in the Occupy Movement.

Oh, let’s say I was speaking to those young people. I’m not a person who goes to church. But I was speaking to those young people and to others who were looking for some alternative, there’s one page in the comic that says no to either passivity or violence. For some other way to respond to the crises, and you know, Americans by and large, still, have this religious thing, this mystique. It’s good to think of a way to speak to them in this fashion.

There are numerous poignant frames in Radical Jesus – below are some samples.  With stark black and white graphics page 23 in the “Radical Gospel” section, by Sabrina Jones, begins with a priest looking at a dead man lying in the street, “unclean – better keep away!”  Another priest does the same but then comes the Good Samaritan who helps the man who isn’t dead – who is the Christian.  Stories of Jesus and class disparity continue in this section with a distressing sequence on preaching and religious leaders on page 35, “They preach – But they don’t practice.”  Reminiscent of of Bishop Tutu’s story of Europeans coming to Africa: “We had the land and they had the bible.  Then they said, ‘Let us pray.’  And we dutifully shut our eyes, and when we said amen at the end and opened our eyes, why, they had the land and we had the bible.”  But of course Bishop Tutu said much more.  Corresponding to Radical Jesus:

This God did not just talk… He showed himself to be a doing God.  Perhaps we might add another point about God – he takes sides.  He is not a neutral God.  He took the side of the slaves, the oppressed, the victims.  He is still the same even today; he sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice.

Gary Dumm did the “Radical History” section of the book with Laura Dumm and others.  This section tells the story of dissent beginning in the 14th Century and concluding with the abolitionists.  John Wycliffe, the Anabaptists, Quakers and the Grimke sisters are introduced with many other people who challenged church hierarchy in the name of social justice.  On page 63 Buhle collaborates with Dumm on a story called “Escape from Galley Slavery.”

Some martyrs were burned at the stake, others were drowned, decapitated, had their tongues ripped out, or their mouths filled with gunpowder.  To go to a violent death with cold determination or even good cheer was to prove to all present that the believer placed ultimate trust in God’s judgment.

However, these executions were ultimately cynical and class disparately vicious.

French and Belgian royal courts sometimes offered ‘banquets’ for the intended victim the day before the execution.  In the city hall, the accused would be compelled to take the seat of honor between the mayor and a local religious leader while being mocked and offered expensive food and wine.

Many a martyr refused to eat or drink!

The last pages of “Radical History” speak to the Quakers in Pennsylvania losing the fight for Indian rights.  Two frames appear on page 85 with the first showing Quaker representatives in the Pennsylvania Assembly resigning and walking out of the chambers in protest of oppressive actions to attack Indians.  The second frame, titled “What was Lost,” depicts people in a living room watching a baseball game between the Philadelphia Quakers and New York Iroquois – shades of Howard Zinn history.

The 39 pages of the book’s last section, “Radical Resistance,” is thick as the art of Nick Thorkelson and the text speak to the many more modern quests for social justice through questions/statements of a grand diversity of people on-the-ground testifying at a faith-based meeting.  The courage of abolitionist Sojourner Truth is portrayed in a story called “Steal Away: Abolitionism and Black Freedom.”  We meet those who fought for civil rights in the United States like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth, Bob Moses, and many people whose names we don’t know.  The New Jim Crow is portrayed on page 104 with Reverend Jeremiah Wright connecting the incarceration of blacks in the United States with the plight of Jesus.  On Reverend Wright: “A prophetic voice much maligned in the mainstream media but cherished by the thousands of black churches allied against mass incarceration.”

“Radical Resistance” also tell us of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement as a lead into the anti-war actions of the Berrigan brothers – liberation theology and the work and political assassination in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscsar Romero.  All of these accounts of activism conclude with stories of people that we have never heard of that fight for social justice in both their communities and throughout the world – and there lies the ‘mission’ of Paul Buhle and his collaborators in Radical Jesus.  Buhle writes:

The radicalism of Jesus has nothing to do with men hoarding guns against the imagined threat of black helicopters, or bearded fanatics burning down schools for women.  Instead, Jesus goes to the roots of assorted hatreds – not only our destructive exploitation of humanity but also our plundering of creation.  All of life is endangered and we cannot afford these hatreds running rampant much longer.

Radical Jesus is a book that provides the stories of models, teachers, for the young people for whom Buhle says the book was written.  The book’s portraits, graphics and text, are thoughtful, powerful, and are important not only for young activists, but rather for all of us who thoughtfully work for social justice.

Don’t Eulogize Mandela as a Hallmark Card

Long-time South African educator and President of the New Unity Movement, R. O. Dudley had a quote that he used when speaking of various iconic South African struggle leaders – “he had arms, not wings.”  It is a phrase that we should remember when speaking of the late Nelson Mandela, but unfortunately, press coverage in the United States as well as throughout the world has turned Madiba into a Hallmark greeting card figure.  And while Mandela’s role as a freedom fighter and the major force in reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa should be honored and celebrated – we must remember that we are talking about a complex revolutionary, and also a complex politician.

No one argues with Mandela’s leadership in the African National Congress during the fifties and through the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The key word here, though, is comrades, because Nelson Mandela always worked with other people in the struggle, during his time at Robben Island Prison, and of course in both the negotiations with the apartheid regime and the forming of the first South African democratic government in 1994.  President Barack Obama was totally in error when he said that Mandela’s life proved the power of one man with courage and vision could change the world.

So – point number one!  Nelson Mandela worked with comrades throughout the struggle and beyond.  Internal colonialism, racism, class disparity and extreme oppression were part of South African history long before the apartheid regime came to power in the late 1940s.  Nelson Mandela collaborated with other activists, black, Indian, coloured, and white, at Wits University in Johannesburg and it was within this grouping, as well as from his fellow African National Congress Youth League leaders that he came to a belief in nonracialism.  I was asked last week if he was criticized for promoting nonracialism during the struggle and I answered that he actually late came to the party.  He clearly stated that it was the struggle commitment of fellow students at Wits – Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ishmael Meer, Norman Levy, J.N. Singh and others, as well as his close friends, and struggle stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, that changed his view on the struggle.  A view that went from African Unity and only fighting racism to a belief that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.

Countless are the continuing statements on Nelson Mandela as a man of peace and love and forgiveness – none of them are untrue yet they are clearly only a partial portrait as Nelson Mandela was part of a struggle fighting against what Bishop Desmond Tutu often refers to as a “pigmentocracy.”  And an organized pigmentocracy at that.  Throughout the 1950s beginning with the Defiance Campaign against the magnification of racist legislation, to the Freedom Charter calling for democracy for all South Africans, to the 1956 Treason Trial, the mission of Mandela and his struggle comrades was to change the South African government.  However Gandhian the strategy and tactics of this part of the struggle took, the government oppression became more harsh, more violent, and more oppressive.  Thus, by 1962, for Nelson Mandela, who had gone underground, as well as his comrades, it could not be all peace and love.   Before he was arrested that year Mandela was clandestinely interviewed by British journalist Brian Widlake. 

If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.

Mandela was actually asking the apartheid regime, once again, to question their own policy of harsh, violent, repression.  And what he was proposing at this point was not actually armed struggle, but rather armed propaganda – attacks on government facilities in an attempt to show, first, the people, and then the government, that the apartheid regime was not invulnerable.

At this point, 1962, armed propaganda didn’t do much to reach either goal and although Mandela, in partnership with Joe Slovo, had written a document for armed struggle, called Operation Mayibuye, and cadres of struggle soldiers were sent out of South Africa for military training, the arrests at Rivonia crippled the struggle for almost a decade.  Yet even at trial Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary – his message certainly wasn’t peace and love.  His now famous speech in the court deserves repeating.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela went to Robben Island prison in 1964 and would not see freedom until 1990.  In fact, his face was not even seen in a photograph again until 1988 – representation of the totality of apartheid.  His interactions in prison, however, were both revolutionary and human, and in spite of the harsh conditions he faced he was involved in political conversations across the boundaries of competing struggle organizations and was very much part of what prisoners referred to as Robben Island: Our University.

But Nelson Mandela spent the struggle years in prison and it was comrades like Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils and younger MK soldiers that continued the struggle-in-exile.  Within South Africa black people on the ground and the in country exemplification of the ANC, the United Democratic Front, kept the struggle alive.  But by the mid-eighties Nelson Mandela was part of the conversations with the apartheid regime and he was released in 1990.  It must be remembered that South Africa did not have a successful armed revolution, but rather a negotiated settlement.  And this is where Nelson Mandela becomes a politician.

So while I do not begrudge the peace and love eulogies nor question the magnitude of the end of organized and legislative apartheid in South Africa, I again think that it is important to view Madiba with more complexity.  No one will ever claim that the negotiations with the apartheid regime were easy and it is here where Mandela’s brilliance as a politician comes front and center.  Yes, it was important that he publicly stood up to DeKlerk.  But one has to question whether these clashes played well for both men within their own constituencies.  We have to also wonder at which point the United States, United Kingdom, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund entered negotiations about negotiations.  Because the formal negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime is where Mandela’s political brilliance is paramount.  Nelson Mandela basically sidelined (albeit temporarily) Thabo Mbeki and chose three negotiators that represented the far left of the struggle – Cyril Ramphosa then of the Mineworkers Union and Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj from the South African Communist Party.  Did Madiba know that selling what would surely become a neo-liberal transition to the struggle left was more difficult that negotiating with the enemy?  Did Madiba know that he needed Joe Slovo to proclaim the sunset clauses that would protect the jobs of apartheid regime bureaucrats?  Again a question – but one surely worth asking.

What we do know is that neo-liberalism came with vengeance to South Africa and that the ANC and President Mandela became partners with the west. But we also know that in the early struggle years Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who believed and fought for a people’s democracy.  So even if there is much more complexity than the present eulogies exhibit – Madiba is still deserving.  And the hope, at least from my perspective, is that the love of people that these Hallmark eulogies proclaim, will lead to 1980s struggle conversations and actions that address the class disparity, lack of services, freedom of press issues, and corruption that exist today in South Africa.