Sunday, November 30, 2008

Catholics for Palestine

These are pictures of murals in Belfast, Northern Ireland calling for solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. The opression of both peoples is a legacy of the British Empire, which the U.S. Empire seems hell bent on outdoing today in its divide and conquer tactics.

You Can't be Irish and White at the Same Time

I just read the first chapter of Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White."

Ignatiev is a staunch opponent of white supremacy, a longtime labor activist, and editor of the Race Traitor magazine. I have some criticisms of Race Traitor's politics, which I may post later. Nevertheless, I am inspired by Ignatiev's insistence that the people who grew up as white need to reject white identity, become race traitors, and side with people of color to fight white supremacy.

Ignatiev points out that the idea of the white race is a social construction created to oppress people of color through slavery and colonialism. It also divides and conquers the working class and allows rich white folks to smash and co-opt anti-capitalist rebellions. White workers are given a deal: if they side with their white bosses against workers of color then they will receive higher wages, better living conditions, and less state terror from the cops, vigilantes, and prisons. They get real benefits, not just illusions of grandeur. But these benefits are far from straightforward "privileges." They are a poison bait that the white rulers use to buy off white workers and keep them in their place. White workers don't end up rich, they just end up less poor than people of color. As Ignatiev puts it, embracing whiteness means they "hug the chains of their own oppression" (see more here). For this reason, Iganteiv encourages white workers to commit treason against the white race and to identify instead as working class militants.

Sometimes I hear people say that this is impossible because white supremacy and racism more broadly have been with us for ever, they are part of the evil side of human nature, etc. A lot of Christians I've talked to end up coming to all sorts of sick conclusions from this. I heard a white Unitarian Universalist tell me once that it is impossible to overthrow white supremacy so what she was trying to do instead was "work on her privilege" by "recognizing her inner racist" and "atoneing for it." Atoneing for it won't do shit as long as the officers of white supremacy continue to smash the faces of people of color into the pavement. White Christians should leave their whiteness in the confessional and come out into the streets to actually do something about it.

What I've been emphasizing in my history classes recently is that white supremacy CAN be overthrown since it is only about 500 years old - it began with the European colonization of the new world. Before that time you only had a bunch of Viking, Anglos, Saxons, and Celts running around Europe killing each other - no unified white race bent on, let alone capable of, world domination. Hell, African states had larger armies AND larger libraries than any Europeans did back then, and it was Asians, not Europeans who invented gunpowder, the printing press, and the other technologies European elites would eventually use to conquer and subjugate people of color. So if White Supremacy has only been around for 500 years, that means it can be ended.

What's more, a lot of people who consider themselves white today were not white 10 generations ago. The Irish were called the Blacks of Europe. They faced racism in Europe from a vicious British colonial occupation and were treated little better than slaves there. They were forced to work on British ships and on Caribbean plantations, where they participated in slave rebellions alongside African slaves (for a good account of this, check out The Many Headed Hydra: Slaves, Sailors, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic). In the early 1800s, many people speculated that Irish and Black folks might actually amalgamate into one "race" because they intermarried and shared a common culture of the oppressed.

However, this didn't last. The escaped slave and abolitionist militant Frederick Douglas said, "the Irish who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro... Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake." As the abolitionist paper The Liberator put it, " Passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening guilty." (The Liberator argued that this sin could be atoned for not by feeling guilty but by rising up against the slave system. John Brown would put this into practice.)

So how did the Irish become white? Ignatiev's book argues that when faced with racist anti-immigrant mobs, vicious bosses, and the grind of urban ward politics, Irish workers followed demagogue politicians into coalitions with the white supremacist ruling class, beating down Black folks in order to gain acceptance in the American system.

Ignatiev narrates how the Irish anti-colonial leader Daniel O'Connell, known as the Liberator, addressed the Irish-American community, demanding that they side with the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery: "Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, Come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer." He was trying to link the struggle for Irish independence from Britain to the cause of abolition. At first, the Abolitionists in the U.S. were able to rally Irish- American workers through such appeals. But eventually the Catholic newspapers, opportunistic Irish-American politicians, and slaveholders who opportunistically took up the cause of Irish independence managed to separate the Abolitionist and the Irish anti-Colonial causes.

They often did this by advocating a strategy of assimilation, saying O'Connell as a foreigner had no right to interfere in American domestic politics. They were trying to make their community the "model minority", a group that would pledge its loyalty to the U.S. and play the role of the "good Irish" even if it had to renounce the "bad Irish" abroad. As Ignatiev puts it, "The columnist Thomas Brady went on to cite, as a horrible example of the sort of person he was referring to, a speaker at an antislavery convention reporting favorably on the degree of racial amalgamation he had observed in Mexico, the West Indies, and Central America. 'Irishmen', asked Mr. Brady, 'what think you of that? Are you prepared to amalgamate with the negro, or rather are you not prepared to execrate any wretch, no matter what his own taste may be, who would insult you by such a recommendation?'".

So the Irish chose to be white at the expense of solidarity with American Blacks. As one southern Irish-American organization put it, "as the alternative has been presented to us by Mr. O'Connell, as we must choose between Ireland and South Carolina, we say South Carolina forever!"

Those of us who are not happy with the outcome of this choice should try and recover the tradition of Irish anti-whiteness and multiracial solidarity. In Belfast today there are still murals celebrating the Palestinian intifada. The Irish hip hop artist Marxman raps about his solidarity with all people from Asia to Africa to the Middle East who were also oppressed by British colonialism (he incorporates some dope Irish fiddle into his beats too). These folks are the real Fighting Irish! Maybe through these kinds of links, the struggles of Catholic workers in Northern Ireland against Protestant death squads and Anglo occupation soldiers can contribute to the global traditions of liberation theology.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is the Spiritual Desert?

Three years ago, I was a young student of Christianity in the process of becoming a Palestine solidarity activist. I wrote this paper for a class on Early Christianity and Ecology. It describes the social, political, and economic significance of the mass movement of early Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria. They were sick of the increasingly decadent official Christianity that the Roman Empire was using to conquer its subject peoples, and they were looking for another way to be Christian, even if that meant going to the margins of society. The icon here shows Moses the Ethiopian, one of these early Christian radicals.
I no longer agree with everything I wrote here. In particular, my conclusion argues that the experience of the early Christian monks and nuns is relevant for us today as we face a world of diminishing resources and ecological destruction. Like them, we should learn to live on little so that we don't start fighting each other over scarce goods. What I was missing at the time was a more developed understanding of capitalism and how it actually creates artificial scarcity. Today, we have the capacity to develop the technology necessary for everyone in the world to meet their basic needs while working much less than we currently do. Capitalism wastes so much; if working people reorganize the economy from below, we could retool production to make it more ecological and more just. In the meantime, learning not to fight each other over artificially scarce resources is still important, but I guess I also appreciate much more the sense of "damn, if the rich get to live the good life, why can't we" that you see in the Bling-Bling aesthetic of contemporary hip hop. (For a good analysis of this, check out DEMOCRACY AND HIP-HOP PROJECT: a blog of politics and culture from below: The Dialectics of Hip-Hop ) We live with wealth all around us and yet we don't have what we need. We should take it, but we should also take a tip from the early Christian desert peoples and share it with each other when we get it. That'll still take some spiritual discipline.
The other thing I would do if I were to rewrite this is I would emphasize much more that the desert Christian monks were not just an arrogant vanguard looking down on the rest of the world. As I wrote back then, "Monasticism was never completely a self-righteous counterculture of ornery folks bent on the destruction of society. Monasticism was a social alternative to the world, an orderly and stable challenge to the world, dynamically engaged with it, offering its citizens new values and new possibilities of living by higher ideals." This needs to be developed further.
Finally, I don't think I paid enough attention to some of the gender and ethnic opression that the monks fell into and brought with them from the cities. Like most revolutionaries, they were far from perfect. This book, among many, is a good place to start:
In any case, I'm posting the paper here so ya'll can get a better sense of where I'm coming from with this idea of the spiritual desert. I apologize for the rough formatting, I'm still learning how to blog :)

Tag their walls; make them your hermitage

I wouldn't have started blogging if it weren't for my partner Jomo, who convinced me that I needed to get my thoughts out there, even if they're in fragments over time. If not, I might drive her crazy by talking about theology all the time! :) So she was happy when she saw this up, and was struck by the ambiguously gendered graf image on the banner. Are they monks or nuns in their cloaks? Are they hip hop generation youth in their hoodies? Are they hijabi women or kefiyahed men? (or maybe hijabi men and kefiyahed women?)

In any case, she said it reminded her of a poem I'm working on about the tombs of Roman freed slaves, the kind of folks who made up the first generation of Christians. Here it is:

Queer Roman Tombs

I. Freedwomen

At least now they own their own veils

And can lift them in stony gestures
Warding off aristocrats
Shielding their faces
From their slave-girl pasts-

When it had been illegal for them to refuse
When their children couldn't wear necklaces
To ward off the evil eye

II. Freedmen

Of different shades and tongues
The tools of their trades tangled
To scrounge a new home

Maybe the common name
They had acquired from their master
Let them pass as brothers

III. Fonteia Elesus, Fonteia Helena

Somehow their female names survived the chisel
Their hands clasp like lovers
And this had to be edited

Yes, one of them - her hair is short
That’s because they chipped away her veil
To make her a man

But you can still see her Venus rings
And their tender glances

See, someone has carved a wedding ring
Into this woman’s hand

On Christian-Muslim Solidarity

I have found other people living in the desert, from every tribe and every religious practice. The desert Christians were not the only ones to rise up against Constantine's heirs. Deeper in the desert you find Medina, the City, home of the Medina Compact, center of the Umma, a new way of living in prophetic justice and equality. I am living in exile in the spiritual desert with Muslim friends and non-blood kin. We are trying to keep the Empire's bombs from raining down on our people. We are organizing to try and stop the war, end Israeli apartheid, and get U.S. troops out of the Middle East.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


My pen name is Mamos, given to me by someone I love. I am a Christian, a revolutionary, a teacher, and a poet living in the middle of the spiritual desert that is the U.S.

Like the desert Fathers and Mothers, I'm frustrated that my church has given itself over to worshipping the mayor, the police chief, and the gold coins with the Emperor's pale-ass face on them.

Like them, I'm fleeing the churches built by the Empire with stolen gold, and running to the desert on the other side of the barbed wire.

Like them, I often find myself worshipping God at the margins, in places not designated by the authorities, in places the authorities are afraid to go, in places where it is hard to live comfortably but you can keep your soul.


Like those early monks and nuns, I have found a city growing in the desert, full of escaped slaves and undocumented prophets. I have found deep company where they said there would only be silence and loneliness.

I write this because I am grateful to rhyme with the desert. Like the early monks and nuns, I hope one day to storm the empire's capitals and help Jesus chase the money changers out of the temple.