Sermon for Gaza

This is a sermon I gave Sunday April 28 at a service held at the encampment for Gaza at Princeton University. The service was organized by students from Princeton Theological Seminary.

In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead. Some of them are forgotten. Most of them are unknown.

These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits—a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence and a deep empathy that was extended to people who were different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent. I set my life by the standards they set.

The Cross and the Lync... Cone, James Best Price: $3.26 Buy New $11.00 (as of 04:03 UTC - Details) You have heard of some, such as Vaclav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met most evenings, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, in the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague. Others, no less great, you probably do not know, such as the Jesuit priest Iganacio Ellacuria, who was gunned down by the death squads in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those “ordinary” people, although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, no people are ordinary, who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity being persecuted and hunted. And to some of these “ordinary” people I owe my own life.

To resist radical evil, as you are doing, is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It is to defy injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency and at times your life. It is to be a lifelong heretic. And, perhaps this is the most important point, it is to accept that the dominant culture, even the liberal elites, will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do, but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at The New York Times after being booed off a commencement stage in 2003 for denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded by the paper for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I had known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby. They did not want to be contaminated by the same career-killing contagion.

Ruling institutions — the state, the press, the church, the courts, universities  — mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status and authority. All of these institutions, including the academy, are complicit through their silence or their active collaboration with radical evil. This was true during the genocide we committed against native Americans, slavery, the witch hunts during the McCarthy era, the civil rights and anti-war movements and the fight against the apartheid regime of South Africa. The most courageous are purged and turned into pariahs.

All institutions, including the church, the theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, are inherently demonic. And a life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is often temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience will not allow you to make.

The theologian James Cone in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” writes that for oppressed blacks the cross was a “paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.”

Cone continues: “That God could ‘make a way out of no way’ in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of this world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”

Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ ” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.” Martin & Malcolm & Ame... Cone, James Best Price: $4.91 Buy New $20.66 (as of 04:03 UTC - Details)

The prophets in the Hebrew Bible had this sublime madness. The words of the Hebrew prophets, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, were “a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” The prophet, because he or she saw and faced an unpleasant reality, was, as Heschel wrote, “compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what their heart expected.”

This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that when you stand with the oppressed you will be treated like the oppressed. It is the acceptance that, although empirically all that we struggled to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.

The radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan —  who was sentenced to three years in a federal prison for burning draft records during the war in Vietnam — told me that faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good. The Buddhists call this karma. But he said for us as Christians we did not know where it went. We trusted that it went somewhere. But we did not know where. We are called to do the good, or at least the good so far as we can determinate it, and then let it go.

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