Thursday, December 31, 2009

Insurgent Iran: Is This Liberation Theology (Back) in Action?

Happy New Year everyone! It already looks like it going to be an exciting one, with riots in Tehran, Palestine solidarity activists trying to march into Gaza to protest apartheid, and more student occupations planned on campuses from Croatia to California.

I am particularly inspired by the Iranian students and workers who have taken to the streets to try and bring down the dictatorship there. As the Lenin's Tomb blog argues well, this is not some Gucci revolution. These students are working class students, and now their cousins from working class districts like South Tehran are joining the fray and kicking the cops in the face, blowing up police stations, and chanting "Allahu Akbar" and "Death to the Dictator".

This is also not simply a revolution of polite liberal atheists, as some here in the US would like to have it. This is not a revolt AGAINST the 1979 Iranian revolution, it is a continuation of the unfinished business of that revolution. It may be a revolt agianst a Muslim dictatorship but this doesn't mean that this revolt and the form of society it might create to replace that dictatorship will be liberal, secular, or pro-US imperialism.

1979 was a moment where Marxists, socialists, and Muslims rose up together, where largely Muslim workers took over their factories and set up direct democratic councils (shoras), animated by a prophetic and revolutionary vision put forward by Islamic socialists like Ali Shariati. It was a moment analogous to the liberation theology movement of Christian workers and peasants in Latin America which was going on at the same time.

Since then, the revolution was coopted into a counter-revolutionary Islamic dictatorship, a kind of Islamic Stalinism based on the imperatives of production for the nation at all costs, smashing workers protests, and extreme patriarchy.

There are signs this counter-revolution is wearing thin. As the excellent book Iran on the Brink documents, workers councils (shoras) have reemerged in recent years as part of a renewed rank and file labor movement. And this year, since last spring's disputed elections, students and many other layers of society have joined the militant workers in opposing the regime. These past few weeks older and more religious layers of the working class have come out in full force after the regime attacked and killed 8 protestors, vilating the traditional ban on killing during the holy day of Ashura. Ashura is the Shia day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad, who was killed by Yazid, a king who Shia Muslims see as a tyrant. During the Iranian Revolution, Ali Shariati and others called the Shah, the U.S.- backed dictator of Iran Yazid and thousands of people in the street shouted "Yazid will fall."

The same thing happened this week but now people are calling the leaders of the Islamic Republic Yazid. The spirit of Shariati and Islamic liberation theology is very much alive on the streets of Tehran:

Seeing this shows what workers and students can do and it inspires me to keep organizing here against our own Yazids and tyrants. It also inspired me to go back and revise a paper I wrote a few years ago comparing the Islamic socialism of Ali Shariati and the '79 revolution to the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. I wrote this after taking a seminar with Gutierrez when I studied theology at Notre Dame. Here is a short summary of the paper, and it is embedded below. I would greatly appreciate feedback and criticism from anyone interested.

Ali Shariati was an Islamic socialist leader during the Iranian Revolution. Gustavo Gutierrez is one of the most prominent Latin American Christian liberation theologians. This paper compares their theological ideas. Both argued that people of faith should engage fully in political struggles for human liberation against capitalism and imperialism. In this, they draw from and challenge their respective religious traditions. They also draw from and challenge the Marxist tradition they shared.

This essay also reflects critically on methods of religious studies, liberation theology, comparative theology, and Marxist philosophy of history.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love

I just found this picture, which is now my desktop background.

What Che and Jesus have in common is they were both revolutionaries who were murdered for being revolutionaries.

What Che and Jesus don't have in common is that Che was a state capitalist and Jesus was not.

In a letter to his mother in 1956 Che also wrote: "I am not Christ or a philanthropist, old lady, I am all the contrary of a Christ.... I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don't get nailed to a cross or any other place." That didn't work. He got shot. I wonder what he would have made of people turning him into a martyr who died for others.

I also wonder why did Che feel the need to tell his mom that he is not Christ? Were people already mistaking him for Christ during his lifetime? It seems strange to me, I've never seen a revolutionary of my generation have to explain to his mom that he is not the messiah, it's pretty damn obvious. Most of our parents just think we're either crazy or stupid. But then again, we haven't overthrown any U.S. backed dictatorships recently either.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

For Marx atheism was not a prerequisite for socialism

I just came across a great blog by a theology professor named Roland Boer who writes about Marxism and Christianity. I just ordered his book Criticism of Heaven on the theological writings of Western Marxists like Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Gramsci. He also wrote a great piece on Rosa Luxemburg and religion. I hope to review both here as soon as I can carve out time away from our constant organizing.

In the meantime, I am struck by Boer's short, accessible review of Marx's stance on religion on his blog. Here is an excerpt:

While Marx admitted that he had a particular dislike of Christianity – ‘so specific is my aversion to Christianity,’ he wrote to Lasalle – and even though he is guilty of occasional moments of crass materialism, he also argued that atheism is not a prerequisite for socialism.
Another reason for distinguishing between atheism and socialism was tactical. On one side Bakunin and the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. Marx comments dryly, ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’ On the other side there were plenty of accusations that the International was precisely as Bakunin had wanted. I do not mean the scaremongers of state repression, but former comrades such as Jules Favre and Mazzini, who stated that the International wanted to make atheism compulsory. Engels repeatedly points out that atheism is not part of the socialist program.
Marx basically argued that religion would only go away once a socialist society fulfilled all of its promises. Once the future socialist society develops into the social equivalent of the Kingdom of God, Christians will have nothing left to preach. Until then, Marx and Engels argued Christians were welcome to participate in the 1st Communist International.

Someone should go that to Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian who keeps raving about the need to destroy religion. The RCP's bookstore even carries filth by "new atheist" authors who are helping to feed the neoconservative thugs in the ruling class plenty of ideas about the backwardness and barbarism of Islam.

I'm really impressed with what I've read of Boer's work so far. I don't know why he isn't read more widely on the US Left. This country is even more religious than his home (Australia) and we are in serious need of this kind of critical engagement with religion if we're ever going to build a serious revolutionary movement here.

James Connolly on Marxism and Religion

It is a common idea that Marxism and religion are opposed to each other. I have heard this from Marxists and religious folks alike when I suggest that I'm trying to develop a religious vision of socialism from below/libertarian socialism. However, recently I've been stumbling across key texts from the history of Marxist revolutionary organizations that seem to challenge this assumption. I've been looking at Marxist parties and groups that did not narrowly imitate the practice of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, including Rosa Luxemburg's group in Poland/ Germany. Luxemburg engaged seriously with Christian theology, which is something hope to write about here in the future. I also just came across a great essay from James Connolly, who was a Marxist national liberation leader in Ireland and an early Irish American labor organizer in the US with the anarchist group the Industrial Workers of the World.

He argues that socialism is not opposed to religion because:

- most of the militant liberal atheists are also enemies of socialism. Their class base is the bourgeoisie/ ruling class.

- when the Pope attacks socialism he makes himself a fellow traveler of bourgeois atheists: "the ill-reasoned and inconclusive Encyclicals lately issued against Socialism make of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church belated camp followers in the armies marching under the banners raised by the agnostic exponents of the individualist philosophy."

- many workers falsely associate socialism with atheism/bourgeois criticism of religion because the propertied classes try to make this identification to discredit the socialists

- socialist parties should not take a position on questions of theology but should leave it up to their individual members to articulate a religious vision of socialism if they wish

-socialist doctrine is based on analysis of historical facts through human reason unassisted by faith. It does not require theological verification to be true. However, socialists welcome such theological verification if it helps the cause of socialism, they just can't be expected to make it party policy.

- the party should take this stance because it can't get caught up in battles between different religions or sects within religions

- Connolly models his party's policy on religion after that of the German SPD (Luxemburg's party). More on this later.

- He suggests this policy is designed to make religion a "private" matter. Would this leave him open to the critique that some liberation theologians have argued that making religion private ends up "privatizing" it, reinforcing bourgeois individualism and making ethics self serving, taking the bite of social critique out of religion and/ or demobilizing it as a force of liberation? Maybe not though because Connolly seems to suggest that individual party members can articulate a socialist vision of faith publicly if they want to, so it's not just private.

- But he does say that the Irish party should follow the German party in banning talk of religion or theology in party meetings or party events. I disagree with this, and the group I am helping build doesn't take this approach. I think when religious talk does come up we need to remind folks that they can't advocate for the revolutionary org as a whole to take a position in favor of any particular theology but they can openly discuss theology and can brainstorm with other group members about how to make theological arguments against patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, etc as cadre within the context of the group's organizing efforts.

- this quote sums up Connolly's position: "Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon its knowledge of facts, of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual members if they so will. It is neither Freethinker nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor Idolator, Mahommedan nor Parsee – it is only human."

Discussions on Islam and Liberation Theology Part 2

Here is a follow up to my previous post on Islam and Liberation Theology. We have continued to discuss this topic over at Gathering Forces, and it has turned into a very fruitful dialogue about the intersections between comparative theology, liberation theology, and grassroots anti-imperialist organizing in Christian and Muslim communities. I am reposting the discussion here since on Gathering Forces it got buried inside the broader conversation about how to respond to the troop surge in Afghanistan. Some of the questions my friends Gila and JK raise are crucial and I hope to develop my answers to them in more depth in the future.


gila // Dec 2, 2009 at 4:45 am

Mamos, because i’m extremely ignorant in terms of religion, what exactly do you mean by:

“What is missing in the mix are revolutionary religious forces from a direct democratic perspective who can jump into the 3 way fight without subordinating their distinctive religious content and vision….?”

What is “distinctive religious content and vision?” The way religions are practiced, it seems that one of the core tenets of each is that only followers of that specific religion know the true God or will be saved. Is it possible to be directly democratic but only include followers of one faith?

Mamos // Dec 4, 2009 at 4:35 am

hey Gila,

By a “distinctive religious content and vision” I mean that we should not be afraid to publicly proclaim a theology of liberation. I’m still trying to work out how best to do this, but I think it’s possible to organize religious communities and groups that overlap, draw from, support, and inspire broader multi-religious and/or non religious organizing efforts. For example, there is a dynamic relationship between Leftist religious communities in Chiapas informed by liberation theology and the broader Zapatista movement/ EZLN.

I don’t think there is any one theology that can stand alone and provide answers to our social problems without drawing from broader theoretical traditions that are not religious, at least not explicitly. One of the strengths of Latin American liberation theology is it meshed liberating political currents in the biblical tradition and in Church history with liberating currents of Marxist thought and practice. I should qualify that it did this only when it was at its best…. when it was at its worst it meshed a vision of a “progressive” or reformed Catholic hierarchy with Stalinism. I should also qualify that Marxism itself has historical roots in the long arc of Christian communistic struggle from the anti-Roman resistance of the early Church through the late medieval peasant revolts through the early slave revolts against primitive accumulation documented in The Many Headed Hydra: The Hidden HIstory of the Revolutionary Atlantic. So you could argue that when liberation theologians “baptized” Marxism and made it Christian, they were actually RE-baptizing it. Loren Goldner has also written extensively about the mystical roots of Marxism (for example, see here and here). Of course the “Christian” trajectory of these liberating currents has deep roots in indigenous religious traditions from African, Native American, and pre-Christendom European cultures.

Liberation theology is the critical reflection on practice in light of the word of God. In other words, when any of us are actively engaged in the struggle for human liberation and when we reflect, meditate, and pray as part of this struggle, we gain perpetually new insights into God’s revelation in the world. This stands in stark contrast to conservative theologies that claim there is one unchanging truth that God deposited only in the locked vaults of a select, elite corp of caretakers.

So by “distinctive” religious content and vision I don’t mean something that is completely separate from or hostile from “secular” political traditions…. much of my practice as a liberation theologian is informed by non-Christian traditions and much of the critical reflection I do on this practice is done in conversation with people of various religious and non-religious backgrounds.

Also, I disagree with your assessment that “the way religions are practiced, it seems that one of the core tenets of each is that only followers of that specific religion know the true God or will be saved.” Many religions don’t focus on “salvation” at all, that is a largely Christian concept, and of course, there are many traditions that don’t imagine that there is one “true God.”

And among Christians who do believe in salvation, I’d say there are many believers who assert that salvation is promised to everyone, not just Christians. In the Gospels, Jesus says that we are saved if we give food to others when they are hungry, clothes when they’re naked, drink when they’re thirsty, shelter when they’re homeless, etc. Many atheistic revolutionaries have taken this moral imperative more seriously then the bureaucratic leaders of various Christian denominations.

This is where liberation theology intersects with what is sometimes called comparative theology. Comparative theology is done when a Christian seriously studies another religious tradition and takes it seriously on its own terms, in its own historical, social, spiritual, moral, and aesthetic context, and then goes back and asks how we can better understand our Christian belief and practice in light of the insights the other tradition has to offer. For example, as a Christian I have studied Islam for years and this has prompted me to understand much more that “Allahu Akbar”, God is Greater – God cannot be captured or defined by any earthly power or authority. That’s why I have no problem chanting Allahu Akbar in Palestine solidarity street demos.

Of course there is a lot of religious chauvinism out there, and there are people in every faith who claim that only they have access to the Truth. We need to challenge this forthrightly, especially when these folks try to wield state power against people of other faiths or when they try to organize insurgent street forces to impose their beliefs on others by force. We also need to practice and promote dialogue between people of different faiths. However, the way interfaith dialogue is often done limits the terms of discussion to terms accessible to liberal multiculturalism. For example, in most “interfaith dialogues” I’ve been a part of (or thrown out of!), Christian and Jewish Zionist theologies cannot be challenged… when I have challenged Zionism I’ve been labeled an anti-Semite and shunned. But I do think the project of interfaith dialogue needs to be be built from below, from a firmly anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist perspective.

Also, just to clarify, the “Three Way Fight” is the idea that we need to fight a) the state/ruling class/ imperialists AND b) the various right wing populist/ fascist forces who are also opposing the state/ruling class/ imperialists. The idea is that insurgency comes not only from the Left but also from the Right, and the Left needs to out-organize and compete with the Right to organize rebellions against the state and ruling class.

What I’m advocating in the US is that Left-wing, direct democratic religious radicals need to organize against both the religious right AND the liberal secular state. I would love to build this kind of organizing project but unfortunately for the time being I’m preoccupied with other work. I’m hoping that over the next few years we can “gather forces” and build circles of revolutionary religious folks who can start to take up this work more consistently.

JK // Dec 4, 2009 at 11:39 am

Hi Mamos,

Thanks for your comments! I realize this is sort of continuing the derailment of the conversation away from Afghanistan & Pakistan, but I’d like to learn more about your thoughts on leftist religious organizing. If folks think it’s best to move the conversation elsewhere, I would be happy to do that.

Specifically, you say that “Left-wing, direct democratic religious radicals need to organize against both the religious right AND the liberal secular state.” I’m more or less an atheist, and for me a big part of that is that my naturalistic view of the world/universe, including myself, gives me a strong sense of wonder, awe, and connection — things that I think religion can provide people too. At the same time, I would very much like to organize with religious radical leftists, and I have no interest in “converting” people to my view. How do you view the working and organizational relationships between atheists/agnostics/non-religious folks and religious folks in the 3-way fight?

Mamos // Dec 4, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Hi JK,

I agree this is getting a little off topic, but at the same time I do think your questions are relevant because the inability of secular and Muslim folks to fight imperialism together is one of the factors that contributes to the weakness of the antiwar movement in the US. Maybe I can answer your question and bring it back to the topic at hand by talking about how some of the folks around Gathering Forces have brought religious and nonreligious folks together in our Middle East solidarity organizing. This could be another post if the GF editors feel there is room, but if not, we can keep discussing it here in the comments.

So here goes…. many of us have participated in Middle East solidarity campaigns over the years. We have always tried to link solidarity to the struggle against white supremacy here in the US, pointing out how Israeli apartheid and US Empire are connected to racist institutions and perspectives here in our communities. To do this, we have organized in Arab and Muslim communities, bringing Arab and Muslim folks together with other people of color. There are many ways to do this – confronting bigoted anti-Muslim speakers like David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, or Michael Medved when they come to speak on a college campus, doing mosque defense when a local mosque is getting vandalized and attacked, demanding a designated space on campus for Muslim folks to pray and do ablutions when folks get harassed for doing these things in public places, etc. In all of these cases, we have tried to build multi-religious coalitions on a militant anti-racist basis. Many practicing Muslims have gotten involved in these actions and both Muslim and non-Muslim folks in our groups have participated in Ramadan dinners or Iftars hosted by Muslim Students Association groups or have gone to Qur’an discussion groups or theological debates to meet folks and talk about organizing.

This work is not always easy. We have gotten criticized and shut out by MSA leaders, Imams, and other folks who felt we were turning rank and file Muslims against us and tried to isolate us as outside agitators (this is especially difficult for those of us who are Muslims who end up getting shut out from communities which are supposed to be theirs). Maybe other folks can elaborate more on these experiences.

Despite these difficulties though, this work has been fruitful because it’s given us a chance to build majority people of color multiracial groups in which Muslim folks participate as equals alongside atheists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, etc. It has also given us a chance to challenge patriarchy and other forms of oppression within Muslim communities IN ORDER TO strengthen these communities to fight outside enemies like the racists and imperialists who try to use patriarchy and divisions in the community to justify attacks and occupation in the name of “saving” Muslims from themselves. Fatima, Ibn Jubayr, and Will described this “three way fight” very well in their piece on Nidal Hasan: Also, you might want to check out a piece that Fatima wrote here about the role of Islamic prayer in the Gaza solidarity rallies last winter:

I think to do this kind of work effectively, everyone, not just Muslim folks, need to study and train ourselves to understand the basics of theological debates in the Muslim community. Folks who aren’t Muslim can’t be opportunistically coming in as outsiders just packaging a pre-fabricated radical politics in theological window dressing. There needs to be genuine engagement with Islamic politics working from the assumption that atheistic/agnostic Leftists and Leftists of other faiths can learn something from the dynamic currents of Islamic political thought. Non-Muslims who have a healthy “naturalistic view of the world and the universe” which brings “awe and wonder” are certainly in a better position to do this than knee-jerk secular chauvinists. After all, if the entire world is full of dynamic, dialectical struggles which bring growth and development then so is the Muslim community. If the entire world is full of class struggle, expressed in myriad forms including struggles over culture, family, gender, and identity, then it should be no surprise that Islamic political traditions have taken up questions of class struggle in debates over the historical role of prophecy, the Ummah (Muslim community), the role of consultation and shoras (popular councils) and the greater jihad/ struggle for social justice.

All of these questions also come up in terms of organizing in Christian circles, which is something I’d love to do as a Christian revolutionary. I’d love to build organizations that could directly disrupt the Religious Right while trying to win over working class folks who the Religious Right preys on to a more anti-racist, democratic, and anti-patriarchal vision of Christianity. But that’s another whole conversation for another time.

In terms of the awe and wonder that comes from understanding the dynamism of physical and social nature, I feel that too as a Christian. As I see it, Creation is an ongoing process of struggle, rupture, evolutionary creeps and revolutionary leaps, all shot through with God’s glory. This is consistent with the tradition of Hagia Sophia, or Woman Wisdom in the Bible…. the author of the Book of Wisdom for example encouraged ancient Jewish folks to develop a meditative practice which combines naturalistic analysis with the tradition of Exodus from slavery and God’s revelation of social justice through prophecy. The Bible calls Jesus the incarnation of Sophia/ Wisdom, the “discourse of the universe” made flesh and taking on the pattern of a human life, one full of revolutionary opposition to oppression. So I think there is a lot of possible common ground here… in any case, I’d strongly encourage you to read those Loren Goldner pieces I quoted in the previous comment because he grounds the formation of revolutionary Marxism in the confluence of various “cosmobiological” traditions that had very strong spiritual tendencies: they saw the human person and human subjectivity as part of the dynamic cosmos.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discussions on Islam and Liberation Theology

Gathering Forces has posted a series of articles on Islam, politics, and resistance to US Empire. The first is about Nidal Hasan, the Arab American soldier who shot other soldiers at Fort Hood. The second and the third cover different dimensions of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the historic role of Islamic politics in both anti-imperialist movements and pro-US puppet regimes there.

All of these articles lay out the need for an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist Islamic theology of liberation. They subtly chide folks on the Left in both the US and the Middle East for their inability to envision, organize for, and support such a vision.

For example, Will from GF argues:
“Treating Islam as a backward or as false consciousness is only going to leave the field open to liberals and Wahhabists. The revolutionary left has to throw its dog in the fight. Concretely, this means that Islam is a religion and ideology, which must be engaged with. It means that there is a political spectrum and the left should help develop the most democratic, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal interpretations of Islam. If Christian Liberation Theology is legitimate then why cannot the same be said of an Islamic liberation theology."

Below is a perspective that seems to expand on what Will is arguing, from a discussion on the Three Way Fight blog.

I generally agree with the points that Matthew makes on 3WayFight, I just think that some of these points are framed in a somewhat clunky way that makes it seem like the author is calling for “supporting” Muslim and Christian revolutionaries rather than organizing alongside them in the same organization. Also, he fails to take up the point that Will and mlove raise on Gathering Forces, that US Imperialism has actively supported authoritarian versions of Islamism, not just Napoleonic secular chauvinism. In any case, hope this is helpful:

“This is a fascinating and timely discussion. I agree with the Three Way Fight folks that sometimes anti-imperialist forces can take on an insurgent Right wing or fascist character, and that there are some Islamic versions of that in the Middle East today.

But it seems to me that Three Way Fight tends to overemphasize the influence of these right-wingers. Do the Al Qaeda networks and the Taliban really have that much clout internationally? How many everyday Muslims actually support them?

People like David Horowitz and the organizers of Islamofascism week at campuses across the country next week claim that most Muslims support these fools. But that is just witch-hunting and imperial propaganda. Obviously the 3-Way Fight folks aren’t coming from the same angle as Horowitz and it seems they would be equally as opposed to his white supremacy.

But could they also be overemphasizing the power of the Islamic right? I would argue that Al Qeda and the Taliban are relatively marginal in terms of the politics of the world’s several billion Muslims. It seems there is much more international grassroots support for groups like Hizb’Allah and Hamas because they are the most prominent forces currently on the ground mounting mass struggles against Israeli apartheid and for social reconstruction. But are these groups really fascist or on the Right? In many ways they have more in common with authoritarian Leftism: their program is a kind of revolutionary cultural nationalism with a state capitalist/ social democratic emphasis on social justice and aid from above.

In this, they are no doubt oppressive forces poised to betray the workers, women, queer folks, and other everyday Muslims who have at times expressed very militant aspirations for democratic self-government (for example the popular committees of the Intifada). But this betrayal is not a result of Hamas or Hizb’Allah’s Islamic character. After all, plenty of secular nationalist and socialist parties in the Middle East performed similar betrayals in earlier stages of anti-colonial struggles, and that’s at least one of the reasons why so many folks have turned to Islamic politics as a supposed alternative.

Secular populist, Leftist, and state capitalist regimes have also launched brutal campaigns against women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and others, (as Matthew recognized with Chavez and Ortega). Reinventing an earlier secular nationalism or Communism is not viable considering these historical failures. Whether Islamic or not, something new is desperately needed. The key question is, where will folks go once they see the new Hizb’Allah and Hamas “Islamic” versions of state capitalism betray them once again?

I would argue that this will not automatically be in a secular direction. It could also be a different type of Islamic politics, a more libertarian or direct-democratic vision from below. This is of course not guaranteed but it is one viable possibility worth fighting for.

It is good to see some activists in the US working to critique both US imperialist attacks on Arabs and Muslims and also the patriarchal and authoritarian aspects of right-wing Islamic movements today. These are important first steps. But when are we going to actually propose alternatives that engage with religious thought seriously in its own vocabulary, language, etc.? When will revolutionaries throw their full support behind Muslims who are attempting to articulate libertarian Islamic theologies of liberation? Are they despairing that such folks do not exist in the Muslim community? In my experiences, they do exist, but are often boxed out and squeezed between the secular chauvinism and racism of the Left, the conservatives of the mosque and Muslim Students Association leadership, and the authoritarianism of insurgent Islamic tendencies. What types of political organization will open up space for new Muslim possibilities? I would argue that the largely atheist forms the Left has taken historically are inadequate for this task.

Many young folks are slowly but surely becoming fed up with the bootlicking leadership of groups like the MSA who constantly try to prove to whitey that they are the “Good Muslims” unlike the “Bad Muslims over there.” Many of these young Muslims will see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some version of secular Arab or Muslim power politics. Others will similarly see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some vision of Islamic liberation theology. Revolutionaries of all religious and non-religious backgrounds in the US need to be prepared to respect, support, and understand, and further BOTH potential developments and cannot subordinate either one to the other. These tendencies will only be vibrant if they cross fertilize each other.

Incidentally, I would argue a similar orientation is needed to deal with Christian imperialism and fundamentalism in the US. This is not the place to articulate a full vision on this front, but preliminarily, we need to recognize that a) liberal, multicultural and “interfaith” oriented Christian theologies generally serve as smoke-screens for US Empire because they argue that the US is a progressive force in the world because God ordained America (manifest destiny) to spread separation of church and state, dialogue, and tolerance in order to uplift backwards Third World cultures, especially Islamic ones. b) this liberal theological consensus is fracturing domestically because it cannot contain the frustrations of class tensions, de-industrialization, people loosing their jobs, etc. c) one response to this is an insurgent, populist Christian right that has definite fascist groupings within it that function as vanguards with influence beyond their numbers. d) we need to combat both the liberal imperial theology as well as this insurgent Christian right (we need a 3 way fight), e) it is not enough to simply make a secular critique of both theologies and encourage people to leave Christianity; we need to actively develop Christian liberation theologies that pose insurgent alternatives to both. A top priority in this should be to articulate, in uncompromising and militant Christian prophetic language, why it is crucial for Christians to stand in solidarity with everyday Muslims against imperialism, white supremacy, and fascist attacks.

I’m glad you pointed out some of the legacies that such a liberation theology could draw from, ranging from the late medieval peasant uprisings to the militant abolitionism of John Brown and David Walker. This whole history needs to be retrieved and reconsidered. Again, I can’t go into sufficient depth here, but in many ways it wasn’t capitalism that waged an assault on feudalism in Europe but rather a whole range of insurgent Christian heretic groups, as Sylvia Federici has documented. Capitalism was a middle class counter-revolution that attempted to co-opt this anti-feudal movement and establish a new ruling class. As a result, the middle class’s secularism is not unambiguously progressive. Enlightenment liberals struggled against the Church hierarchy and its feudal ties, but they also struggled against direct-democratic Christian visions from below and attempted to contain the self-activity of peasant, artisan, and early workers who were becoming Christian revolutionaries. Nowadays this middle class secularism takes its most destructive form in the NeoConservatives who act like Napoleon, attempting to shove the Liberal revolution down Muslim peoples’ throats from above and secularize them whether they like it or not. Revolutionaries must distinguish ourselves from this imperial project at all costs, while still mounting our own struggles against religious authorities whether these be conservative, liberal, or insurgent Rightists.

What is missing in the mix are revolutionary religious forces from a direct democratic perspective who can jump into the 3 way fight without subordinating their distinctive religious content and vision. These urgently need to be articulated and organized.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Death and Resurrection of In Soo Chun

A year ago, In Soo Chun, a Korean-American custodian at the University of Washington poured gasoline over his body and lit himself on fire in front of the office of the university's president. Several students rushed to try to put out the fire in vain. In Soo Chun soon passed away.

The media dismissed him as deeply troubled, following the lead of UW public relations rep Norm Arkans. There was no effort to ask why he chose such a public way to die. There was no effort to ask whether it had to do with the poor working conditions many UW custodians face. There was no effort to ask whether In Soo Chun was attempting to carry on a tradition of self-immolation that has been a central part of the Korean labor movement.

I work closely with an organization called International Workers and Students for Justice, a group of rank and file UW custodians and tradespeople. IWSJ held a memorial on the one year anniversary of In Soo Chun's death at which they asked these difficult questions. A video of the memorial can be found here. A publication of workers' writings dedicated to In Soo Chun's memory can be found here and here.

This memorial came soon before All Souls Day and the beginning of November, a month of remembrance for the dead in the Christian tradition. Sitting here on a dark and brooding Sunday afternoon in Seattle, and thinking about In Soo Chun, I'm flooded with memories of past encounters with death and ressurection.

In the fall of 2006 , my grandfather passed away in New Jersey. I remember flying into New York for the funeral and feeling like he was present, alongside all of my ancestors whose blood and sweat went into building the gray buildings and gritty streets. I remember feeling like their faith was a narrow opening, a crack like a small stained glass window in a dark cathedral, shining the perpetual light of God's remembrance into this ancient city of exhausted hearts and bodies. I remember writing and reciting the Prayers of the Faithful for the funeral, reminding my family that my grandfather would live on because God will re-member him in the Kingdom, because God never forgets his creations. I said we need to come together in remembrance so that he can rise again with us in the Church.

Over the years, I have practiced this month of remembrance by attending the School of the Americas protest at the gates of Fort Benning Georgia where we remember those who have ben killed in Latin America by counterinsurgency forced trained at the US Army School of the Americas. This protest involves a very powerful act of mourning and resistance where the names of all those killed are read out and the crowd raises white crosses and chants "Presente", Spanish for "I am here." This embodies the spirit of Oscar Romero, a liberation theologian and social movement leader in El Salvador. He said: " "I have frequently been threatened with death. I must tell you that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people."

Last year after a young Black man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a cop in Oakland, CA, people took to the streets chanting "we are all Oscar Grant."

Last year at a protest against speed up and overwork, custodians started chanting In Soo Chun's name. At the memorial this fall, referencing that event and the Oscar Grant protests, we chanted "we are all In Soo Chun; we will struggle together as one."

Will In Soo Chun rise again in the Church, or among his coworkers, or among youth in streets, like I am sure my grandfather, Oscar Romero, and Oscar Grant have already?

The difference is that he took his own life, he was not murdered and he did not die of natural causes. He was a devout Christian. Why would a Christian choose an act of suicide, which is considered a mortal sin in the Christian tradition?

My Christian friend Shin Gu has a good reflection on this over on Exile from Pyongyang blog. He writes:

"Evaluating the meaning of In Soo Chun's actions is not exactly an easy thing to do. As the UW Daily pointed out, ritual suicide is a fairly common practice in Korean labor and was also a big part of the democracy movements during the 70s and 80s. The act of self immolation publicly also has a political history about it, rooting with Chun Tae-Il's self immolation back in 1970. Chun Tae-il quickly became a martyr for both the labor and democracy movements and many activists chose similar routes during their lifetimes.

The question remains is exactly HOW this act became so rampant throughout the movement. Unlike Japan, there isn't any sort of tradition ritual suicide in Korean history. To make things even more complicated many people who committed political suicide were also devoted Christians (Chun Tae-il was as devout as you can get) which condemns suicide as murder and a one-way ticket to hell. By Christian logic, Chun Tae-il paid the ultimate price with his soul for his sacrifice. Prof. Nam at the University of Washington told her class that there seems to be no known source for Chun's actions. None of his writings warn about this and he did not seem well aware of the Buddhists in Vietnam who performed self immolation to protest the Diem government.

Is the action just a symbolic "FU" as one commenter posted? Is it just an example of how the human mind and soul can only be pushed too far? Or is there something we are all missing? Its stuff like these that make mankind a creature of great mystery no matter how hard we try to "rationalize" things.

One of the custodians who spoke at the memorial for In Soo Chun is a devout Christian and a good friend of mine. He shed light on the situation when he said: "In Soo Chun did not want to DIE here, but was trying to send a message which the people in the building behind me did not want to hear." Was In Soo Chun crying out in desperation, and in hope that someone would stop him and spare his life? Was he hoping to continue his life seared by fire but living to see positive changes in working conditions for his coworkers?

A year after his death some workers were afraid to come out to his memorial because of management harassment and retaliation. One manager scheduled a mandatory meeting during the middle of the memorial (which was planned during the day shift break) preventing many from attending. Some union officials almost divided the workforce by calling their own separate memorial because they were worried that asking difficult questions about In Soo Chun's death might anger management. When only about 10 people showed up they walked over and joined us anyway. My Christian friend told me he prayed and prayed over the course of the week that the memorial would come together. When many workers came despite these challenges, he told me that he is sure In Soo Chun was watching over us from heaven.

I am certainly not advocating ritual suicide. God's creation is a beautiful thing and our bodies ultimately belong to the Creator, not to ourselves, so we ought not to sacrifice them. I think ritual suicide is a tragic way to protest and I want workers to live on and enjoy the fruits of their resistance. But I also do not think it is helpful to conclude that In Soo Chun is therefore a sinner and that he will never rise again. In Soo Chun's act was not a selfish one, it was not an act of isolating pride. You can judge a tree by its fruits, and the fruits of his action, a year after the fact, is a greater sense of solidarity, compassion, and courage where many workers are now willing to take risks and to stand up for their coworkers, families, and communities in his memory.

The core message of In Soo Chun's memorial was that never again should a worker feel so isolated that he resorts to such drastic measures. We must come together and struggle collectively to make sure that we are all In Soo Chun. Only then will he be able to rise again among the people.

In Soo Chun: may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

God is not the author of confusion

In Korea, thousands of workers at Ssyangyong occupied a factory to protest layoffs, outsourcing, and casualization. All across the US, workers are also protesting casualization. Casualization is when management breaks up a union and creates a new tier of second-class citizen workers without union wages, benefits, or protections. Usually this is done along lines of race, gender, or citizenship status. At its extreme, casualization means they ask you to work for a few hours one week then 70 hours the next.... to work hard for 3 years at a job then to be unemployed for another year then to bust your ass at another job for 5 then to retire early into debt and poverty.

I was discussing this with my friend. He is a custodian and kind of a "philosopher king", as the director of the new movie about campus custodians puts it. He is a theologian, poet, artisan, blacksmith, instrument maker, musician, revolutionary, and labor militant. He told me that he had seen a newspaper article about how in Georgia unemployed workers are "auditioning" for scarce jobs. They are working for free for a week so the boss can see who will bring in the most profit and who will therefore get the job. It's like a modern day slave auction.

My friend pointed out the severe moral implications of this process of "casualization." Really, the word casualization speaks to the heartrot seeping through more and more of modern society. It begins with the bosess and then trickles down, or really blasts down through the ranks of labor. We are forced to regard our fellow human beings casually. Our presence in each others' lives can never be guaranteed because we could be forced out and broken apart through layoffs, gentrification/rent hikes, imprisonment, etc., etc. We can't build stable relationships, we can't plan for the future, we can't risk deeper connections with each other because it could all come crashing down at any time.

To paraphrase Marx, as capitalism marches forward everything holy is profaned, everything stable melts into thin air.

My friend came up with a biblical phrase to describe the actions of someone who was facilitating this process of casualization in his workplace. He said this misleader is endowed with the "anointing of confusion." And God is NOT the author of confusion.

All across the country, across the world, society is getting scrambled with the anointing of confusion like a legion of demons marching through every relationship that we used to think was sure or stable. We are being scrambled, confused, messed up. Society is regarding us casually.

There is only ONE good thing about this process: a lot of previous idols are also melting down. People are loosing faith in all mighty Mamon, in capitalism, in the assumption that we should just slog it out in our dead end jobs cuz we might get rich one day. That American Dream is being replaced with chaos and confusion. The alternatives could be terrifying or they could be beautiful: it is up to us and it is up to God's providence working through us.

God is not the author of confusion, but we have been told that God can make good out of a confusing situation. God does not regard his creation casually but he can still find us in the swirl of confusion and casualization that is beseting us and teach us the way in and through this disastrous situation. Precisely because we're no longer clinging to the sureness of our past idols, he can find us and share the good news with us.

After all, God was casualized on the cross. He was regarded casually, as a thing to be tossed away and discarded. The early church was ripped up and scattered to the wind. And yet out of that, the community rose again with God's spirit, recomposed itself, and found its dignity. Jesus' good news to the poor today is that our labor is not destined for pure confusion. We can still use our hands and our minds to build up God's creation with justice and stability. God will get our backs as we rise up against the bosses, the casualizers, and the confusers of this world. This is part of the age old struggle against the Anointer of Confusion who the bosses always seem to be praying to.

To love our neighbors, we need to revolt against the system that forces us to regard each other casually.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hip Hop Has Saved My Soul (and Spirituality)

Hey folks,
Here is a reflection from Bao Yun Cheng, a good friend of mine and someone I've been organizing with for several years. My buddy Krisna posted it over at Democracy and Hip Hop Project. Krisna's intro is in italics below.
When I read this, it brought tears to my eyes - it is some of the freshest theology I've read in years. I've studied academic liberation theology, and Yun Cheng and I have practiced the arts of liberation in the streets but it's been hard to bring those two worlds together. Sometimes the most eloquent shouts of liberation aren't obviously theological and usually liberal-progressive academic theology just simply isn't liberating. I agree with Yun Cheng about hip hop though - it is probably one of the clearest expressions of deep currents of American liberation theology, remixing and sampling earlier traditions running back through soul, gospel, the classic spirituals, the music of Black Power back through the abolitionists back to that original creative fusion of radical reformation, African, and indigenous spirituality that has always chanted down Babylon here in the Americas.

I'm reposting this note that I was tagged in from my Facebook page. It is from a very good friend of mine in Seattle, BYC, who I and LBoogie also collaborate with (among several other good folks) on a new blog calledGathering Forces which I hope all of you will read and participate in too.

This is a very introspective and striking essay that means a lot to me on a very personal level. Personal, because everyone has their own story of how hip-hop has transformed them. In the case of BYC, as a conservative youth evangelist who was repelled from hip-hop due to its apparent violence and patriarchy, to his process of becoming a revolutionary who finds within hip-hop a deep sense of spirituality and struggle and not the cartoonish and proselytizing forms we see with Jin, Toby Mac, or still worse manifestations.

My history and sense of alienation from Christianity as a youth for its missionary vibe, its judgmental predisposition, and its straight-up racism, found legitimation in the lyrics of hip-hop music which many times raged against the contradictions and historical crimes of official Christianity. Through it I've found that hip-hop has sent up, in an uneven and contradictory way, the from-below tradition of spirituality (including within Islam, NOI, 5% NOI) that saw saving one's soul as engaging in the fight against injustice. Over time, as my own politics and perspectives matured and deepened, hip-hop went with me expressing a vast range of conflicting ideas and sensibilities and each time I found a way to make it relevant to my specific place in life.

Read and digest this essay carefully for it is one of the most original contributions to hip-hop that I have ever read.


I know this is long but I hope everyone tagged will read this and forward if they want.

As insomnia kicks in, another profound post (I hope) is produced. I only get exciting ideas to write about in the middle of my sleep- surely, it’s divinely inspired. It’s like the Tupac line from Ghetto Gospel, “Never forget, that God isn’t finished with me yet//When I write rhymes, I go blind, and let the Lord do his thing.”

I dedicate this entry to all my friends and family from Seattle Chinese Alliance Church. It’s hard to write this and not think about the past five years of what could have been had I continued ‘growing in Christ’ with you all. I ask that you will be patient as you read this, as I’m sure much if not all of this note will provoke some kind of offense, and genuinely welcome and encourage your comments at the end.

A second audience I want to address here are some of my progressive friends who do listen to hip hop, but intentionally limit their listening to ‘underground’, ‘political’, and ‘socially conscious’ rap—artists like the Blue Scholars, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Mos Def.

I think the title of this note is really fitting, because I wish to say that hip hop, in its entirety, including its most violent incarnations (i.e. gangsta rap, horrorcore), has rekindled my spirituality when I had completely abandoned God by providing me an alternative conception of Christianity and faith that was understood and embraced by people struggling against a system that had marginalized them from the political process and from economic opportunities. Hip hop has also taught me so much about the world and has given me so much purpose to what I do as a community organizer.

Recently, I’ve become very annoyed with Jin the emcee. I used to love him in his battle rapping days on BET’s 106 & Park and followed him closely when he moved to Hong Kong and rapped in Cantonese. In fact, he was the only rapper that I could listen to with my family (not to mention my grandparents too), as he produced a lot of family-friendly, humorous tracks innocently portraying the landscape of HK or touching on lite-themes like dim sum dishes. Recently, though, he’s abandoned all of this and turned pretty staunchly into an evangelistic ‘Christian’ rapper. I won’t be surprised if his next album hits Christian stores alongside established ‘Christian’ rappers like Toby Mac, John Reuben, Grits, and T-Bone (whom I think is probably the only technically sophisticated ‘Christian’ rapper) or played on spirit 105.3 (actually, I would be surprised if Jin got airtime, since spirit 105.3 likes to play white artists). Jin’s latest two songs, “The Light Club” and “The Best”, really capture an aspect that I really hate about Christianity and Christians today. The dominant notion of Christianity today says that if you want to be identified and accepted as a Christian rapper, there are certain moral and thematic parameters by which you must abide. Jin captures this sentiment very well in “The Light Club,” with lyrics like “you want raps about pimpin’ killin’ snitchin’ ballin’?//You won’t get ‘em from me, naw that’s not my callin’//God Almighty reached out I mean this sincerely//He spoke to me like Morgan Freeman did to Jim Carey.”

The former me relates a lot to this sentiment of morality. Let me backtrack a bit. For those who don’t know my past, back in my high school days, I was almost ‘militantly’ Christian. I evangelized everywhere I went, helped establish our high school’s Christian club, and even preached to a congregation in Mexico. Kids at high school hated me for this, but I saw it as a challenge from God and accepted the mission of evangelism quite humbly. Without ever explicitly admitting this to myself because the rhetoric of church forbid Christians from judging others, I did actively judge others on a daily basis, based on the promiscuous activities that I saw and coarse language I would hear. It was subconsciously built into my system that those activities were evil, sinful, and ‘hell-sent’ (to ironically quote a song title from my favorite gangsta artist, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony). I’ll spare you the long story of how I drifted away from being this evangelist, being this type of Christian, why I left the church, and ultimately why I abandoned God (although if anyone really wants to hear it, I would be happy to lay out all the reasons in person).

One of my biggest qualms about the mainstream/dominant version of Christianity is that it makes all these indictments against activities that are commonly associated with youth of color. Growing up, probably the biggest reason why I never listened to ANY rap (let alone gangsta rap), was I heard from so many sources- my parents, my pastors, my youth counselors- that rap music was promiscuous, that it was sexist, that it was violent. Much like how I approached evangelism as a high school Christian, the church itself makes no attempt to contextualize or see youth of color according to where they’re at. Instead, evangelism itself becomes a tool of colonialism, of ‘civilizing’ the barbaric tendencies of the ghetto.

Never mind the structural inequalities of gentrification, the overcrowding of low-income people of color into a small unsanitized neighborhood, the rampant unemployment, and the homelessness that impelled the creation of hip hop in the 1970s. Never mind the structural racism that prevents youth of color from any chance of formal success in the forms of college education and high-paying jobs. With the economic crisis today and the exponential increase of tuition in universities across America, youth of color will only be further marginalized from access to colleges, pushing more and more to identify with the messages of hip hop culture. Never mind the police brutality and racial profiling that institutionalize colonial thinking among mainstream society one the one hand, and fear and resistance by victims of such on the other.
When Christians do engage the ghetto, communities of color, and the homeless in their limited way, it’s almost always in a patronizing form that reinforces white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, capitalism. Growing up, I was repulsed by gay people. Whenever I met someone gay, I had to force myself to talk to them by telling myself it’s not the people you hate, it’s their ways. And the typical conversation would end up with me telling them to follow Jesus and he would give them the power to rectify their sexual orientation.

I distinctly remember that one of the ‘social justice’ activities I participated in with my high school youth group was to go to Capitol Hill and feed the homeless for one night. No real connections need to be made, just give them food and hopefully they’ll take a track or listen to us attempt to proselytize them for a few minutes. It’s this shock therapy multiplied a few times with monetary and racial privilege that characterize mission trips today. Let’s go into a third world community of color, tell them (implicitly of course) that their gods are weak and poor by providing them with foreign aid and English instruction, show them the love of God through helping them build their communities, and frame this foreign aid as the outward reaching, selfless ministry of Jesus Christ. I hate to burst the bubble, but oftentimes this type of soft imperialism in the form of nonviolent priests coming into and converting entire communities was used either as a substitute for or a precursor to the violent imperialism of European colonists in the New World. Either by force or Christian/Catholic conversion, though, the natives were ultimately subjected to their own massive Exodus (this word is quite intentional) from their homelands or subservience to European empires.

While Christians busily impose their own Cultural Revolution against hip hop (term is deliberate as what Christians say about hip hop is what Mao said about all non-Mao praising culture when he imposed a massive ban on literature, films, etc) and inner city culture, I have discovered a Christianity and spirituality rising from the streets that more so exemplifies the social critic and revolutionary of Christ than any of the messages emanating from mainstream churches.

Christ was first and foremost a critic against Roman occupation. It was very telling that, in Luke 8:30, when he cast out the demons called “Legion” from the man, he drove them into pigs that rushed down a river bank and drowned themselves. At that time, the only use for the term “Legion” was to describe the Roman army. To needle the colonized Jews who saw pigs as unclean animals, the Roman army frequently called themselves swine. This example and others reinforce the anti-empire, anti-state oppression character of Christ.

In mainstream churches today, though, there is an overemphasis on being ‘apolitical’ and taking no stance on (or in the worst case, sometimes actually explicitly reinforcing the) injustices committed by Western governments and their allies. Sure, widespread abuses of China, Sudan, Iraq, and other countries that the U.S. government deems ‘evil’ can be similarly indicted at church, but when it comes to America’s own oppression and colonization of people of color in the inner city, of its own occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or when it comes to the state of Israel occupying Palestinians, then churches have to be silent. Make no mistake, silence not only reinforces these injustices by making us complicit in them, it is ant-Christ.

It is in the lyrics of Public Enemy, TuPac Shakur, and Ice Cube that I have discovered the same anti-empire, anti-state tendencies of Christ. It is in rap where I see American injustices called out and America’s hypocrisy exposed. While mainstream Christianity has the privilege of ignoring oppressions and struggles against oppressions happening right around them on a daily basis, the victims of these oppressions have been impelled to use hip hop, among other forms of struggle, to fight. Let me emphasize that ignoring oppressions is a privilege that unfortunately condemns the forms of struggle taken up by the oppressed most of the time. The hypocrisy of the church is glaring. While they focus on misogynistic images in rap videos, they overlook the sexism of the state. While they focus on the violence of gangsta rap, they overlook the fact that the state monopolizes formal violence, from the army to the police, and that these violent actors exist for the sole purpose of securing profit for a minority at the expense of the majority. If Christians are going to condemn these patriarchal and violent tendencies, why don’t they start with condemning the state? In my mind, only when a movement that pushes for a wholesale transformation of the state into one that is truly democratic, truly anti-racist, and truly anti-patriarchal arises, will we start to see forms of popular culture reflect this new reality.

It is within this context of marginalization of and institutionalized state violence against low-income, people-of color from which hip hop arises, and from which we get the ultra-violent forms of hip hop. For many youth of color, gangsta rappers speak to their reality of being caught in the game- not by choice but by the reality of being dark-skinned in America and thereby automatically disenfranchised from opportunities that I myself, other mainstream Christians, and many liberal progressives take for granted. Perhaps my favorite Christian artist, the gangsta rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (yes they identify as Christian), say it best when they say “I tried so hard, can’t seem to get away from misery//I tried so hard but [I’ll] always be a victim of these streets//It ain’t my fault ‘cause I tried to get away but trouble follows me” (“I Tried” ft. Akon). Another one of my favorite Christian artists, DMX, would immediately be condemned by many mainstream Christians for being overbearingly violent and coarse in his lyrics. To all those ‘Christian’-hatas out there, he reminds you to “Look thru my eyes, see as I see, do as I do, be as I be//Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet, then know why I do dirt in the street” (“Look Thru My Eyes”). In another song “The Convo”, he casts himself in the traditional Christian poem ‘Footprints’ as the man carried on the beach by Christ. He ponders the question of many a youth stuck in the game, “I tried doin’ good, but good’s not too good for me//Misunderstood, why you chose the hood for me,” to which Christ, also played by DMX, replies, “My child, I’ve watched you grow up, And I’ve been there//Even at times you least suspected it, I was there//And look what I’ve given you, A talent to rhyme//I may not come when you call, but I’m always on time.” In spite of the systematic oppression dealt against him, DMX is able to express his faith without being overbearingly evangelistic. Because he comes from the hood, unlike many other ‘Christian’ rappers, he is never judgmental and retains his gangsta persona throughout his albums to remain relevant to youth.

While DMX expressly believes in Christ, TuPac conveys a more conflicted sense of spirituality. Throughout his lyrics, you can see him genuinely struggling between the mainstream conception of Christianity and his fate of thug livin’, which he accurately and poignantly frames as the product of a racist and capitalist system. In songs like “Life Goes On” and “Thugz Mansion,” he attempts to reconcile his gangsta life by creating a heaven for g’s- one that is stress free and one where homies can just kick it. In “Ghetto Gospel,” he challenges mainstream Christianity’s morality and exposes its inadequacy to understand the ghetto by ending the song with the line “Am I less holy, cuz I choose to puff a blunt or drink a beer with my homies?” In perhaps his greatest song criticizing mainstream Christianity, “Blasphemy,” he further exposes the irrelevancy of contemporary church leaders like the Pope and juxtaposes him with figures like Malcolm. He further breaks down church imagery of devils and hell, implicitly asking Christians what they know about each when in the hood, he inevitably fights devils on a daily basis in a living hell, a sentiment similarly echoed years later by Young Jeezy, “Tonight I can’t sleep, I’m livin’ in hell//First they gives us the work, Then they throw us in jail” (“Soul Survivor” ft. Akon).
While the violence in gangsta rap is unfortunately directed against other g’s caught in the game, it validly expresses the extreme anger and frustration of youth who are isolated from the fa├žade of the American dream. As an organizer, while I think much of this frustration needs to be channeled productively into organizations that combat systemic injustices, if you simply overlook and condemn gangsta rap, you would be doing the state’s job of invaliding youth anger due to real injustices rooted in the system itself.

The spirituality I express today is much more in line with the liberation theology of Latin America, the black theology of Africa, the min jung theology of South Korea, the hip hop theology of the American hood, and the non-white Christ who existed centuries ago. Thank you hip-hop for saving my soul by providing me with a spirituality that actively speaks out against injustice. I may not go to the same heaven as some of you tagged in this note (can I at least request “a bottle of gin, in case I don’t get in?” – TuPac in “Life Goes On”), but I’ll be more than content if I can kick it in Thugz Mansion with the likes of Billie Holiday, Malcolm, TuPac, Tech N9ne, and Bone Thugs.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Communion of Saints

The incense rises as the rain falls:

Augustine pulls his hood

Over his dreads

And lights a cigarette

Home in the inner

City of Man

He watches God’s tears fall

They stir the faces of the puddles

He remembers the faces of the youth

Gargoyled by stray bullets

Now they’re mug shots in the ground

staring down divinity

He remembers Job crying from the ash heap

And Job’s friends, less comforting than social workers

He gently touches the light of his cigarette

To the tip of a cigarette in the gargoyle puddle

And heaves his head back up

As the sky rages open

Gathering Forces

hey folks,
My friends and I just launched a new blog called Gathering Forces: I will be posting comments regularly and articles occasionally over there under the name Mamos, and I will cross-post articles on religion from time to time. Here's a summary of what the new blog is all about:

We began in 2003 among a number of activists primarily involved in anti-Israeli apartheid work. Searching for a means to deepen our association and build on our experiences we formed a small grouping of people, which provided the basis for further discussion and support organizing in other areas important to us. Some of the areas of work we are or have been involved in include labor, anti-budget cuts in the schools, anti-racist, anti-apartheid, queer liberation work, as well as around public transportation. We currently are deciding on an organization name.

Our world is changing in uncertain ways. It is a time of transitions, as one period seems to be passing and an unknown one emerges. At the same time, the historic Left has long ago lost most of its organic roots among the working classes and oppressed communities. There is a profound discontinuity in American radical traditions and, to some extent, a crisis of historical memory among oppressed people.

This is a time of ideological and organizational changes. Small circles of people in all areas of social life, whether people unidentified with the Left or those who consider themselves part of it, are discussing the deepening problems facing this decaying society.

It is this recognition that has brought us together. We haven’t come up with all the answers. Yet although we are young, we have arrived at a few basic ideas. There is a tremendous need to learn from those who have come before us, their achievements and mistakes, but we cannot just pick up ready-made traditions of the past. Keeping this in mind, we need to explore and discover new ways forward.

Yet, this is not simply a matter of ideas; it is also one of action. Not only is revolutionary organization needed, it is vital. We need to continue to try out new ways of organizing, learning from our successes and our mistakes. The aim must be to build new organizational roots in oppressed communities and the working class.

Finally, only the self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed can lead to the overthrow of existing conditions and the arrival of a new, and better society. We are not the vanguard, but just one part of what needs to be a movement of millions. We are not a party, nor the kernel of a future party or organization that will lead the masses. We have only just begun and much remains to be done.

This site is intended to be a space for discussion for those around our project, those we work closely with, movement friends and neighbors, and those we hope to meet and engage in conversation and, hopefully, common action. The goal is to explore the history of our people and our contemporary world, sharpen our knowledge, further discussion of organizing and organizing traditions, and search for both the fault lines of conflict and contradiction, as well as the outlines of a new society–the future in the present.

We hope folks will join the discussion. Let’s continue to build the community and the links necessary to contribute to and advance a new movement. The ruling class is taking advantage of the crisis to deepen its agenda. It’s time to push back.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Jesus Gave Me Water (riff on a Sam Cooke gospel song)

Behind these walls all down these halls there’s a raging sound of waterfalls

It’s ripping through our veins like the story teller’s spell

It’s ripping through our ventricles like pumping crumping tentacles

It’s raging through ours cyphers cuz it is was not in the well

In crowded streets through cracked concrete the rain falls while our parents sleep

And the souls of the departed seem to come back here to dwell

We pour libations beneath train stations for the slain of all our nations

Pouring out the water that was not in the well

With more proof than 40 proof, it’s enough to blow right off the roof

It’s the liquid inversion of the daily grind in hell

It’s the weekend break from the devil’s fake piss tests that they make us take

It’s the ecstasy of moonshine light that was not in the well

In third world slums where the rivers run with the residue of cracker guns

And the very stones are sold off before their stories tell

Where fresh water’s jacked and throttled mothers fill their babies bottles

With crucified water that was not in the well

New blog coming up

hey folks,
This blog has been dormant for several months because I've been involved heavily in middle east solidarity and labor organizing the past 6 months. My friends and I are about to launch a blog that will be a collaborate forum for political discussion, linking a lot of our local organizing to key debates and discussions across the country and around the world. I will probably cross post articles on religion both there and here, but I will also keep posting some original material (especially poetry) here if I have time. I'll post the link to the new blog on this site as soon as it goes up (in a week or so).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Confronting the Politics of Torture

So I haven't updated in a while.  Our Middle East solidarity campaign is in full swing and I have major responsibilities in terms of organizing.   But I'll try to post now and then anything from our campaign that's relevant to the themes and subject matter of this blog. 

On that note, here's the transcript of a talk I gave back in January called Confronting the Politics of Torture.  It was part of an interfaith panel called "After Guantanamo" hosted by the Muslim Students of the School of Social Work.  It explains the political reasons for why the US engages in torture, and how this relates to deep-rooted structures of white supremacy and patriarchy. 

Since I gave this talk, Obama issued an executive order to close Guantanamo and end the CIA "Black site" torture cambers.  However, he did not stop the policy of outsourcing torture to US allies by sending prisoners to other countries for interrogation.  He also did not close the prison at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, which could become Guantanamo II.  It reminds me of when they closed the School of the Americas and opened it again the next day under a different name. 

Since I gave this talk, more and more evidence of Israeli atrocities during the Jan siege on Gaza has also been revealed.  Which is why we have to keep on organizing against Israeli apartheid and US Empire.  

Monday, February 9, 2009

Handala meets Jesus

I haven't posted in a while - my hands have been full with Palestine solidarity organizing. My friend Sush just sent me a link to The cartoonist Naji Al-Ali created the character Handala, a 10 year old Palestinian refugee child, who has become and icon of Palestinian resistance. Al-Ali's summary of the meaning of this child is posted below. To the right is one of many images in which Handala interacts with Jesus. Jesus is thinking "Bethlehem" in Arabic, signifying the fact that his hometown is still suffering under Israeli apartheid and occupation today. Handala is looking up at him with a mix of hope and despair, a mix that Jesus himself must have felt on the cross. Jesus is wearing a key around his neck, like the Palestinian refugees who still carry their keys to their homes on both sides of the Green line, inside and outside of the 1948 boundaries of Apartheid Israel.

Here is Al-Ali's reflection on Handala:

“The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. His name is Handala and he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way."

Handala was born ten years old, and he will always be ten years old. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, Handala will still be ten, and then he will start growing up. The laws of nature do not apply to him. He is unique. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns.

I presented him to the poor and named him Handala as a symbol of bitterness. At first, he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon. He is a simple yet tough child, and this is why people adopted him and felt that he represents their consciousness."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Takbir! - The Struggle Comes From Within

This is from my friend A reflecting on the same Gaza solidarity rallies we've beeen discussing on here the past few weeks. She originally sent it as a comment on the post below, but it definately deserves its own post.

Two days ago I called "Takbir!" at a rally and the crowd responded enthusiastically. It was exhilarating. I spent my youth in a masjid feeling alienated because I couldn't make announcements after prayer, my male friends would enter the prayer hall and leave the masjid without saying hi because they didnt see me in the back, and I secretly dreamed about being able to lead the call to prayer.

Because of these rallies, I have been seen by my Muslim community and have been supported in leading chants. I, as a twenty something activist, only got up the courage to call Takbir after a woman in her teens did it first. I had supported her in taking the bullhorn, and she had supported me in taking visibly religious leadership at this rally.

And rather than accept the timidity instilled in me by my patriarchal upbringing, I got in several arguments with uncles over the right to express our political connections to Palestine in ways that were authentic to us; as Muslims, as queer people, as women, as youth, as people of color engaged in various anti-colonial struggles, and as men who embrace the leadership young women in the community.

Allahu Akbar holds no patriarchal resonance for me whatsoever. It is part of my journey to forge queer leftist radical mystical Islam as my spiritual path. Rather, it was the male leadership of the rally yelling "stop killing women now, stop killing children now" that made it clear that they see youth and women as passive victims in the struggle. They feed into the duplicity of the death tolls, which count any male adult in gaza as a militant, not a civilian. This includes the many male paramedics who have been targeted while trying to evacuate injured folks to hospitals.

My response to the leadership is this:

"Women, girls, boys, men
The struggle comes from within.
Our communities will fight back
We will not accept attack!"

Echoes of the Intifada

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Middle East solidarity organization I'm a part of wrote a reflection on the Gaza solidarity rallies we've been attending these past 3 weeks. We've been circulating this piece among local organizers and it's posted over at BlakOrchid: A Blog by Asian rebels

As I've been arguing, there is an ethos of Islamic liberation theology at these rallies that has been very inspiring. In his comments on my previous post, my friend Eli pointed out that at the rallies he's been to it's mostly been Muslim men chanting Takbir-Allahu Akbar (God is Great). He warned that such religious chants could reinforce patriarchy. But in our group's experience this hasn't been the case. Recent rallies have been energized by a dynamic group of youth and the most consistent leaders of this crew have been young women from local high schools. As our group reflection describes, this is similar to the first Intifada where women and youth played a central role in the democratic resistance.

At the most recent rally (yesterday), we brought a banner that read "Youth for Palestine" and it was mostly young hijabi women who carried it and got on the megaphone to energize the crowd. At points when they were shy about leading, women from our group shared the mic with them and encouraged them, which worked well. We got a nice cypher going with other groups behind us echoing their chants.

At several points the young women shouted Takbir- Allahu Akbar. Some of the uncles did seem puzzled at first to hear women leading this, but once a few enthusiastically responded more were won over. One middle aged man in particular seemed ecstatic that they were chanting it, and he responded vigorously.

One of the young women also started chanting La Allah Ila Allah - There is no God but God. At that point, a man presumably from the group leading the march came over to complain that we were being disruptive. He said "there are Jewish and American people here supporting us and we don't want to alienate them, this is not a Muslim event." By "American" he must have meant white Christians - as if all of the South Asian, East African, Southeast Asian, and Arab Muslims there are somehow not real "Americans." In any case, I told him straight up, "look man, I'm a Christian, I'm obviously not offended by this or I wouldn't be holding the megaphone for the folks chanting it." I also think it was ironic that he was saying we're being disruptive and alienating since it was a speaker from the group organizing the rally who had earlier said some b.s. about how the "Jews control the media" and even suggested that the Holocaust wasn't as bad as people say- at which point our group shouted "down with anti-Semitism!" In any case, K. El Bathy, who wrote the piece below, pointed out that if the movement is going to be democratic then folks should be able to do Muslim chants if they want. Needless to say, we didn't stop and the organizer went away disappointed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Islam and American Radicalism

This is an excellent note from my friend K. El Bathy. We organize together as part of the same Middle East solidarity group, and he is reflecting on one of the local Gaza solidarity protests I mentioned in my previous post.

I attended what was one of the most beautiful and powerful rallies for Palestine in my lifetime. Across the world hundreds of thousands if not millions poured into the street to protest the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, and the 60 years of occupation and apartheid. In Seattle there were anywhere from dozens to 2000 of us (news sources clearly cannot agree, or count for that matter, but most folks think around 1000).

What was great about this crowd was the multi-racial and multi-generational make-up of the protesters. It seems as though most of the Muslim people in the Seattle area showed up to march through the downtown area, some driving as long as 3 hours just to be a part of it. There were whole families; young kids, youth, adults and even the older generation.

I think what struck me the most about this rally were the chants at the beginning. All the speakers got up and said their piece, but none of them resonated with the crowd. Most were white and most were in their 40s if not older. While they bemoaned the humanitarian aspect of the slaughter, me, my friends and a number of young Palestinian folks around me yelled and chanted "Free Free Palestine" and "Fight, fight the tide! End Israeli apartheid!"

Even more amazing were the continuous rounds of Allahuakbar's that were made in between each speech. The MC, one of the few Arab folks on stage, encouraged everyone to take part whether they were Muslim or not. He explained for those not in the know that Palestinians are chanting this when they are living, when they are dying and when they are fighting.

What was beautiful about yesterday was that chanting Allahuakbar was opened up to everyone in solidarity with Palestine. All at once the particular became so universal, and the universal so particular. Although it was a Muslim practice, it also became a practice and expression of multi-racial solidarity against white-supremacy.

There were a lot of folks who were put off by this; "white" folks, and even parts of the so-called progressive Left. There was even a guy holding a sign that called for a "Free and Secular Palestine" (note the "secular" part).

On one end, this opposition to Islamic politics is just straight-up racism. The Right talks about a clash of civilizations and values whenever Arab and Muslim people fight back, while the revolutionary Left maintains this backwards, dogmatic opposition to all religion, playing into the hands of the Right.

Islamic politics is just the most recent political expression of the Muslim world. Arab liberalism failed to deliver us from the jaws of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while Arab nationalism and authoritarian Marxism failed to deliver on the promises of liberation after European colonialism collapsed. So Brown folks started looking for a new way to understand the world, and fight back. Religion became a search for liberation; not automatically authoritarian.

I remember an imam I knew telling me that many Muslim immigrant didn't "find" religion until they came to the US. Identities shift. Thousands from Muslim families have identified as nationalists, Marxists and now Islamists. Thousands more imagined a new Black community during the era of Black Power, some even dressing as Chinese peasants in solidarity with the Chinese anti-colonial movement.

Probably the only thing I will agree with the Christian Right about is that religion -- though not only Christianity -- is a big part of American civilization. Many of the early European settlers were were Reformation rejects from Europe. While the Puritans could be said to represent the right wing of this movement, there were also Anabaptists who threw their lot in with the resistance of indigenous people, and also run-away slaves.

The Abolition movement is one example of this radical Christianity, but it's important to note that this early American Christianity fused with Native American and African spirituality that formed the backbone of the radicalism behind the Civil Rights movement.

Islamic politics and Muslims today, much like the Reformation Christians of three or four hundred years ago, are breaking with the status quo of Islam. Islam of the state is complicit in Palestine, whether right here in the US or in Mecca itself.

What I saw that Saturday was an Islam from below that rejected US empire, that rejected Arab-centrism, and became a call for all people in solidarity with Palestine to defend a democratic umma, and defeat white-supremacy. Islam is firmly rooted among the tradition of American radicalism creating a multi-racial -- and multi-religious -- democratic movement.

So let's do it one more time:
Free-Free Palestine!
Takbir - Allahu Akbar!

***some ideas on religion and American radicalism are taken from Loren Goldner's "Afro-Anabaptist-Indian Fusion: The Roots of American Radicalism" at