Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

Recommended Reading: Prophetic Encounters

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)

In most of the radical social change movements I’ve been a part of or otherwise come into contact with, there has been the distinct idea that “religion” is part of the problem. More often than not, you’ll usually get an ill-informed tirade on how oppressive “religion” is. When pressed, one hears the usual, though clumsily given, examples of crusades and witch trials, the purportedly universal homophobia and misogyny among the religious. All important, of course, and much of it true. But what about the religious impulse to make the world more just? And what about the longstanding place that religion and spirituality have had in radical movements—movements that fought for human dignity and racial reconciliation and peace among nations?

Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a good antidote to contemporary progressive activists’ antipathy toward organized religion and spiritual movements. Anyone whose view is that religion’s role in public life is necessarily conservative needs to read this book. In it, McKanan sweeps across US history with an eye toward exploring the relationship that religion and religious traditions have played in movements for radical social change. Indeed, that there is an unbroken radical tradition in the US with a religious element.

Beginning with the anti-slavery movement and moving through the women’s, labor and civil rights movements, Prophetic Encounters documents and discusses the active role that religion has played in each. Key players in each era are considered, from William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King to Starhawk.  McKanan introduces or re-familiarizes readers with historic figures, painting a biographical portrait as well as a chronicle of their contribution to the American radical tradition. Their relationship to each other and following generations is also outlined. The picture that emerges is of an ongoing radical movement, rather than sporadic organizing around disparate issues.

For readers already familiar with the territory covered here, this history will read like a brief overview without much analysis. The author’s organizing principle is that of encounter—the encounter of white activists and Blacks, activists from the urban North encountering poor Southerners,  among others—and the transformative energy that is created in that mutual encounter. “When human beings encounter one another deeply,” McKanan writes, “in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”

Prophetic Encounters can read like a history of the American Left from a religious perspective and it can also be read as a history of organized religion’s radical stream. McKanan is dismissive toward the critiques of the secular left by Rabbi Michael Lerner and evangelical pastor Jim Wallis. In the journals that each founded (Tikkun and Sojourners, respectively) each has been critical of secular leftists and opportunistic Democrats who either deride or try to manipulate religious constituencies. McKanan describes these as “straw men” for Lerner and Wallis to knock down; he finds the antireligious attitude of leftists to be far more benign.

It is true that the division of Religious Right and Secular Left is too simplistic, and the fertile ground tilled by religious leftists and leftist people of faith is demonstrated in this important work. But the hostility toward faith among leftists is real and often spiteful.  Participants in organized religion in the US will benefit from reading McKanan’s history whatever their politics; the recovery of this tradition within American religion is important, if for no other reason than to recognize themselves, their forbears and their coreligionists in movements long stereotyped as militantly secularist.

For those people of faith who are interested in social justice and the progressive tradition in American religion, along with those interested in the story of US radicalism but who lack knowledge of the country’s religious history, this is the ideal book.