Most mainstream media discussions about the recent wave of violent attacks dismiss the idea that political, cultural, or economic hierarchies and tensions, when coupled to the demonization of an “Other,” can encourage violence. When the Right demonizes the Left and the Left Demonizes the Right, sometimes an individual or group decides to take action to stop the evildoers before it is too late. This type of apocalyptic aggression can be carried out by people who are legally sane or insane; and whose political ideas come from the Left or Right or somewhere outside of rational thought.
I oppose acts of violence or terrorism to achieve political goals. My analysis of vilification, demonization, and apocalyptic rhetoric in the United States today, however, compels me to conclude that it comes overwhelmingly from the Right, especially apocalyptic rhetoric from the Christian Right. Nevertheless, we need to pay more attention to the linkages of demonization, apocalyptic aggression, and violence, no matter what part of the political spectrum employs this dynamic…wittingly or unwittingly.
Apocalypse is a word common in popular culture, what with the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” and the heroics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy stopped the Apocalypse on a weekly basis in a television series from 1997-2003. (reruns are easily discovered online and off). Buffy and her team were stopping evil from taking over the world. Nothing wrong with that.
The word “apocalypse” is often misunderstood. The words apocalypse, prophecy, and revelation are all related, and in the broadest sense an “apocalypse” is an upcoming struggle between good and evil during which hidden truths will be revealed and the world dramatically reshaped forever. So an apocalypse can bring bad news—or good news. Apocalyptic rhetoric that warns of an evil plot by “Them” can be interpreted as a call to act “before it is too late.”
Vilification by demagogues anywhere on the political spectrum can lead to incidents of directed violence by individuals who adopt a superhero complex to save “Us” from “Them.” This dynamic was first thoroughly analyzed by Hannah Arendt and Gordon Allport in the 1950s. The process involves the theory of Constitutive Rhetoric in which a leader creates (interpolates) an actual constituency in society.
Almost a decade ago I was invited by Ruby Sales, founder of the Spirit House Project, to have a public conversation in Washington, DC at a forum on the demonization and scapegoating common in the Christian Right. My focus was exploring how apocalyptic demagoguery prompted not only Christian Right political activism but sometimes acts of apocalyptic aggression and violence. We were demoralized in 2004 by the second term of George W. Bush, and we felt there needed to be more analysis of how the Christian Right was pursuing a path toward theocracy frequently based on apocalyptic conspiracy theories that vilified and targeted named “Others.”
Constitutive Rhetoric prompting Directed Violence fuels the real life and death consequences we are witnessing today, and has prompted similar incidents in the past. The New Hampshire Supreme Court Society recently presented the Life and Liberty Award posthumously to slain 1960s civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, and a very much alive U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia who is a past chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ruby Sales accepted the award on behalf of Daniels. They and many others whose names should be better known are amongst those who put their lives on the line and are Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. Another activist from the Civil Rights Movement, Ruby Sales, accepted the award on behalf of her murdered friend and colleague, Daniels.
Sheila Zakre, a disability and employment rights attorney wrote that at the ceremony Lewis and Sales “pulled no punches in warning of a rollback in the civil rights they fought to obtain. How fitting that they did so in a state whose legislature seeks to do just that.” In a column in the Concord Monitor, Zakre said:
Shouldn’t we expect our appointed representatives, both federal and state, to appreciate that history teaches us that restrictions on voting are tied to discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender and disability, and that morality teaches us that voting rights is a nonpartisan issue? The warning about history repeating itself may be hackneyed but is nonetheless true. Sadly, the lessons of the civil rights movement can be forgotten even as we venerate its heroes.
John Lewis and Ruby Sales at the presentation of the Third Life and Liberty Award
photo credit David Wolowitz . [View event photos here].
My first encounter with Ruby Sales was over a decade ago at a lecture I gave to a class at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My topic was the challenge to equality posed by right-wing social movements. During the Q&A with students an older Black women pursued a series of questions about right-wing violence and our response as people of faith. They were sharp questions delivered with intensity but no hint of rancor. After class the professor explained the student was Ruby Sales, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, and she suggested I should learn more about her concern with apocalyptic demonization and violence.
I found out that Sales made her life altering choice to stand up against apocalyptic aggression as a teenager in the 1960s when she joined the Civil Rights Movement while a student at Tuskegee University. In 1965 the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sent Sales with an organizing team to Lowndes County, Alabama—known among Blacks in the South as “Bloody Lowndes.” Sales was arrested with some 20 other activists protesting segregation and conducting a voter registration drive.
Released from jail, Sales and a few others were confronted by an enraged White racist wielding a shotgun. Sales witnessed her organizing colleague and friend Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student, shot to death on the street after he pushed Sales out of harm’s way. Another organizer was seriously wounded. The trauma left Sales literally speechless for seven months, but she persevered, found her voice, and carried on with her activism, eventually attending the same Episcopal Divinity School where Daniels had studied.
Apocalyptic Christian Right activists often link their plans to “take dominion” over the United States to their view of an End Times battle between good and evil; in which godly Christians must struggle against literal agents of Satan. In case it is not clear—those of us who read Talk to Action because we care about social, political, and economic justice are the agents of Satan in this Christian Right script. The overall tendency that seeks to make America a Christian nation is called “Dominionism;” and it comes in soft forms as well as hard forms that produce apocalyptic aggression against the targeted scapegoats.
Author and apocalypse scholar Lee Quinby calls these attacks “rituals of purification.” The destructive negative form of apocalyptic thinking is in part why the Christian Right blames all of the problems we face in this nation on scapegoats such as gay people, reproductive rights activists, feminists, and folks on the Left in general.
In the narrative of Liberation Christianity the Apocalypse brings an end to systems of oppression and exploitation, and let’s “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” This quote from the book of Amos was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. But as the Rev. R. William Carroll wrote in his essay on this theme, while Rev. King “spoke as a Christian…in so doing, he appealed to deep longings of every human being for freedom and righteousness, for brotherhood and sisterhood, for what he called the Beloved Community.” Rev. Carroll continued:
How easily do we forget that King’s vision was not limited to ending legal segregation! How easily do we forget how he confronted our nation with a shining vision of a beloved community that has not yet arrived! King’s dream was not limited to racial justice, though we should be quick to add that even here, his dream, like America’s promise, remains unfulfilled. If anything, in the last thirty years or so, we have moved backwards. King’s dream included peace and justice among nations. It also included justice and fairness for working people.
An activist for decades, Sales builds communities of compassion, commitment, liberation, and spirit. Her life was indelibly marked as a teenage college student when a friend was shot dead while they were organizing Black voters during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Now, more than four decades after this act of apocalyptic violence, Sales devotes her life to demanding justice for all of us.
Ruby Sales, Spirit House Project
In a number of essays and interviews and activities over many years, Ruby Sales has been on the road to fulfilling the task of building the “beloved community.” Perhaps the best-known essay by Sales concerning the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice is “Empire Christianity vs. Liberation Christianity.” She wrote it following the contested election of George W. Bush as President in 2004. Conservative Christians played a key role in electing Republicans to public office nationwide that year.
Sales placed the elections in the context of a historic struggle within Christianity—between those who support “Empire Christianity” and those who support “Liberation Christianity.” Sales charged that the “Empire religion espoused by George Bush and his white Christian conservative allies is headed by a God who appears to be white supremacist, patriarchal, and upper class, one who stood on the side of enslavement and the genocide of native peoples throughout the globe, including the Americas.”
Opposed to that form of theology is Liberation Christianity, which “begins with the assertion that God is on the side of the oppressed rather than the side of the Empire,” wrote Sales, who added that “Jesus made clear the radical nature of his mission”:
- to bring sight to the blind, i.e. to bring a new consciousness that freed his community and others from the false consciousness of identifying with the goals of the Roman Empire
- to feed the hungry, i.e. a systemic redistribution of resources that is not charity, but systemic economic justice
- to set the prisoners free, i.e. a recognition that the Empire uses law and order as tools of oppression and domination.”
Sales has a vision of Liberation Christianity that leads her to reach across many divides, not only of spiritual and ethical belief, but also race, gender, and class. She uses a wide range of tools to help prepare people for nonviolent action in pursuit of justice. Sales currently leads the Spirit House Project, “an intergenerational network of diverse people” using “the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well as for spiritual maturity.” Sales and Spirit House co-director Cheryl Blankenship oversee the Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Younge Institute for Justice and Nonviolence Fellows Program. This internship program is now based in Atlanta, Georgia, where the organization re-located after years in the Washington, DC area. The intern program:
Supports and prepares a new generation of peace and justice workers who want to discern a call to social justice and nonviolence; strengthens their courage, hope, resolve and reason to do this work; prepares them to play leading roles in public policy debates about issues such as poverty, prison industrial complex, militarism, and the shrinking budget for human needs, voting rights, privacy and judicial issues, and neo-conservatism; and helps grassroots communities meet their urgent need for trained and committed volunteers or staff.
Fellows of the internship program at the Spirit House Project
I have been inspired by Ruby Sales, and have written about my experience working collaboratively with her to sort out the tough issues of violence and oppression—the hallmarks of Empire Christianity in the United States that have delayed the promise of equality and democracy for too many for too long. Now in 2012 it is easy to see the forces allied in this country to barricade the path of progress trod by so many before us.
While acts of dramatic violence and the cacophony of hyperbolic election rhetoric snares our attention, Sales reminds us that there is an ongoing wave of police violence against people of color and immigrants. I will cover her views on this urgent matter in a follow-up essay here at Talk to Action.
In a book on “Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America” I wrote a chapter explaining that both Sales and I felt compelled by our spiritual beliefs to stand up and speak out in support of justice. “We all have to choose sides in an endless struggle,” I wrote:
Are we on the side of the powerful, the arrogant, the bullies who seek empire? Or are we on the side of the weak, the impoverished, the marginalized, and seek liberation for those who are suffering under the weight of oppression? Which side are you on?
Ruby Sales chose which side she was on at a young age, but it is never too late to make a commitment to justice, especially if you have spirit—no matter how you define that word.