April 4, 50 Years Out

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Fifty years.

Fifty years since the shot rang out. Since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Over the years there has been a lot of reflection on the legacy of King, our “inconvenient hero.” But 50 years out, how do we confront the legacy not just of his leadership in the movement, but also of his assassination?

What has his death meant for the civil rights movement, for the church, and for subsequent American history?

As we try to grapple with his death, perhaps King himself offers a place to start. It was 1956, and King was only 27 years old, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptists Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had just started leading the Montgomery bus boycotts, and he was receiving death threats daily—sometimes dozens.

It was on the night of January 27 that he received a call that shook him to the core. With his wife and 10-week-old daughter sleeping nearby, he heard an anonymous caller threaten to blow up his house if he didn’t leave within the week. He felt his courage slip away. He began to search for a way out of the work before him. But then he bowed over the kitchen table, and prayed. He later recalled experiencing in that moment “the presence of the Divine” as he “had never experienced Him before.” He heard an inner voice telling him: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear left him, his uncertainty was gone.

Three days later his house was bombed, but his family escaped injury, and his inner calm and conviction persisted.

He lived in the shadow of death from that point on. He knew it, and his family knew it. And he was not alone. Yet he persisted with a boldness, even a recklessness, that astounds.

There is power in this story, the “power of unearned suffering,” as Mika Edmondsen describes it. But when outsiders—white Christians, for example—find inspiration in King’s courage, his commitment to nonviolence, his martyrdom, is there a danger of overlooking the terror, the evil, that caused this suffering? Is there a temptation to resist the necessary work of interrogating how some of us might be implicated in the cause of this suffering, historically or in the present day?

Finish reading this post at The Anxious Benchhttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/04/april-4-50-years-out-unearned-suffering-white-terror-and-the-legacy-of-a-death/ 


Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

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“Betrayed by History?” Book Review of Judas by Amos Oz

by Bert de Vries.
book cover of Judas by Amos Oz

Amos Oz, Judas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016)

It is 70 years since the state of Israel was born out of the first Arab-Israeli War under the leadership of the much-revered founding father, David Ben Gurion. Thinking Israelis must wonder how political life degenerated from that heroic beginning to the corrupt and racist prime ministry of Mr. Netanyahu. Amos Oz’s Judas takes us back to that beginning and tells a gentle and thoughtful story to help us see that the country’s present troubles are rooted in that apparently idyllic past.

At one level Amos Oz’s book can be read as a historical novel set in the 1950s, when Israeli society was still absorbing the nationalist ideological outcome of the Jewish victory in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947-8. To understand this core topic, I find it helpful to lay out the historic ‘branches’ of Zionism which developed from Theodor Herzl’s incipient, innocent Zionism (“a national home for the Jewish People”). See the APPENDIX below for explanation of the 4 types.

Amos Oz’s Judas is about the victory of Type-2 over Type-3 Zionism and its consequences. Those who supported the notion of a state in which Arabs would have equality with Jews lost sway during the Second World War, when news of the Holocaust reached Palestine. As a result, the new state of Israel won the 1948 War under Ben Gurion’s nationalist leadership, which enabled him to establish the exclusivist ideology of Israeli statehood as the mainstream, while those who favored rapprochement with the majority Arab population fell out of favor. Amos Oz fictionalizes this event as the recalling of a debate between two former players in this drama, one a “Ben-Gurionist” and the other a “Buberist” (my invented shorthand) brought together in one household by the marriage of the son of the first to the daughter of the second.

That’s the core topic. The core issue of the book is that the verdict of history has now labeled the “Buberist” a traitor, though his position was once respected as righteous. The discoverer of this conundrum is a young neutral observer, a grad school dropout anti-nationalist, who comes into the house to provide elder care. However, it so happens, this student’s thesis research was an inquiry into the place of Judas Iscariot in the Judaic intellectual tradition. His research, in a nutshell, led him to discover that Judaic scholars labored to show the Christian labeling of Judas as “traitor” is a maligning of the ‘true’ story: The tragic disintegration of Judas’ faith in the divine power of Jesus as he watches him bleed to death on the cross, just like any other human being (including his two crucified companions).

The most powerful passage in the book is the reconstruction of the story of the crucifixion as seen through the eyes of Judas, who in a parallel process suffers the descent of his own psyche into the empty despair that climaxes in infamous suicide.

Interestingly, for those of you who need romance in a novel, that legacy of despair flowing from inability to overcome the deep sense of messianic failure is embodied in the “Buberist”’s daughter. A beautiful war widow, she is rendered permanently incapable of loving anyone as she dwells bitterly but impassively on the branding of her father as a traitor to Israeli national destiny. How that plays in the growing love of the young student for this older woman is another thread in this tapestry of interwoven stories.

Amos Oz’s architectural design of these intertwining tragedies is masterly. While I learned to understand the conundrum of the beginning of Israeli nationhood better, I also felt Oz gave me a more nuanced sense of tragic sympathy for the role of Judas in incipient Christianity, in its parting of the ways with Judaism – and in the further darkening of the Judas character in Christian anti-Semitic lore.

Oz has used his career as an Israeli novelist to level soft, but introspective, critiques at the Israeli state and society. His is not the hardened salvo of condemnation for the destruction of villages one reads in Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which covers the same period. Yet, in his subtle and thoughtful book Oz makes clear that the principle of the universal equality of all humans, including Arabs, was deemed as traitorous disloyalty to the state from its very beginning.

I recommend this book for both its introspective tone and its refusal to find an easy solution to the still unreeling tragic dilemma of Israel’s existence. This is also a good story. Read it and weep – for those betrayed by history.

APPENDIX: Tiers of Zionism (from right to left)

1. Jabotinsky Zionism – hard-right Jewish nationalism, centered on the goal of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine and the exclusion or removal of Palestinians Arabs. Jabotinsky, a successor of Theodor Herzl in the early Zionist movement, saw Arabs as inferior and unsuited to peaceable coexistence with Jews, and advocated military force to coerce Palestinian Arabs into accepting the state of Israel. Today reflected in the right-wing Netanyahu coalition government.

2. Ben Gurion Zionism – more moderate Jewish nationalism that purported to stand for co-existence (though not equality) with Palestinian Arabs. Nurtured in the myth of the first Arab-Israeli War (1948) as a heroic, defensive war of independence against militant Arabs. Dominant through the Labor Movement until the early 90s.

3. Martin Buber Zionism – nationalist “soft” Zionism stressing co-existence with Palestinians based on the shared and equal humanity of Jews and Arabs. Lost momentum during the Holocaust, but still prevalent among the Israeli academic left and the Peace Now movement.

4. Jewish Anti-Zionism –secular (more American: Noam Chomsky, Alfred Lilienthal) and religious (more Israeli: Naturei Karta). Never politically effective, but possibly gaining among those members of global Judaism who are disgusted with Ariel Sharon’s and Benyamin Netanyahu’s overtly racist anti-peace regimes.

Bert de Vries (Director, Umm el-Jimal Project) is professor emeritus of the History Department, but he continues to administer and teach the Archaeology Minor Program at Calvin. Ironically, as his teaching duties faded the Umm el-Jimal Project, which he directs, has flourished. 

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When History Comes Crashing Down on Your Head: Reflections on Erik Killmonger of Black Panther

by Eric M. Washington

Spoiler warning! This post contains major plot details from the film Black Panther.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther. (Image by Marvel / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett)

Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Disney-Marvel film, Black Panther premiered. According to a New York Times article published on Sunday, February 18, there was an estimation that by Monday, February 19 the film would gross a record breaking $218 million in North America alone. In a Deadline.com article published last Thursday, it was reported that the film would push past the $500 million mark globally by today. (In fact, as of today, the film has reached $780 million worldwide.) Forbes is reporting today that Black Panther has passed The Amazing Spider Man and will surpass Deadpool in sales tomorrow. In terms of the dollars, Black Panther is a blockbuster if there ever was one.

Beyond unprecedented success at the box office, Black Panther has been a cultural success, especially for the millions of Africans and Africans in the Diaspora who donned their African garb and marched to pack movie theaters. I avoided the masses on the opening weekend to watch the film carefully in a half-filled theater last Thursday, and again, this Thursday. Watching without the hoopla from other movie-goers allowed me to be reflective about one of the characters of the film, the villain, Erik Killmonger; yet as movie villains go he has resonated with African-American audiences. Killmonger has brought to the surface the historic pain, aspirations, and the tensions that exists between continental Africans and Africans of the Diaspora (here I’m primarily referring to the descendants of enslaved Africans). I cast Killmonger as an African-American anti-villain.

Unbeknownst to the viewers, they are introduced to a young Erik Killmonger in 1992 as he dribbled on a basketball court outside of his apartment complex in Oakland, California. While playing basketball on the street something life-changing occurs in his apartment that he shares with his father. His father, Prince N’Jobu, a spy of Wakanda (the fictional African kingdom that is the most technologically advanced kingdom in the world, but has hidden this progress to the world), dies at the hands of his brother T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda. The brothers had argued over the use of Wakanda’s weapons made from the strongest substance in the universe, vibranium, which only Wakanda possesses. N’Jobu had lived in the US and witnessed the oppression of African Americans, and he hatched a plan to arm them with weapons made of vibranium to overthrow their oppressors and rule. It is interesting that this takes place in Oakland, the former headquarters of the Black Panther Party.

In time, we learn that Killmonger desires to put his late father’s plan into action. Upon overthrowing his cousin, King T’Challa, as the new king of Wakanda, Killmonger sets a plan into action that will distribute vibranium weapons to oppressed peoples globally. This plan fails to have the full support of the top brass in Wakanda, who would rather use their weapons to fight against injustice only when necessary. This is where the audience should pause and question Wakanda’s position: you, an African kingdom, hiding this most valuable metal, have chosen to act only in certain situations to aid people, but there are other Africans and Africans of the Diaspora suffering and you refuse to help them and justify this based on your traditional ways? This is a troublesome question, but one of critical importance if viewed from an African Diasporic lens, which Killmonger does.

Though his father was a Wakandian prince, Killmonger grew up literally cut off from that heritage. This reflects part of the narrative of Africans in the Diaspora. Enslavement cut them off from their kin, a process that sociologist Orlando Patterson has labeled Social Death. The history of enslavement, colonization, legalized segregation and disfranchisement came crashing down on young Erik Killmonger as he had to live life without his Wakandian father—his direct link to an African Dream. Yet Killmonger experienced the African-American Nightmare. He witnessed African-American impoverishment, mass incarceration, and death rooted in the history of African-American oppression. African-American audiences know this pain.

Yet there is a thick layer of complexity to Killmonger. His method of liberation is rooted in the system of colonial oppression. As made clear in the film, he is a product of the new style of American imperialism. Killmonger is a graduate of Annapolis; received a graduate degree from MIT; and he became a Navy Seal. Killmonger also participated in supplanting regimes that created power vacuums that allowed for the US to seize influence over new territories. This is what he knows; this is what the US Navy and the CIA trained him to do. He is poised to use this knowledge against global oppressors. It gets even more interesting: Killmonger desires the liberation of oppressed people only to rule them himself in the name of Wakanda. In a solid piece on Killmonger in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote that “Killmonger’s goal is world domination.” Because Killmonger is just as imperialistic as those who colonized Africa and other parts of the world, he is a villain. Possibly.

In thinking through the issues this film unearths, Killmonger remains an anti-villain. It is through his death that I saw the redeeming qualities of his desire to liberate the oppressed. In the most moving dialogue in the film, Killmonger refuses T’Challa’s offer to heal him of his battle wound by saying that he’d rather die free than in bondage as did his enslaved ancestors who jumped off slave ships plunging themselves into the murky Atlantic along the Middle Passage. In the end, T’Challa travels to Oakland and purchases the complex where Killmonger lived as a child to make it into a community center that will help African-American boys and girls flourish. In addition, King T’Challa reveals a new Wakandian way. He states that the kingdom will share its knowledge globally. This sets the stage for Wakandian global leadership based on a clear humanitarian posture. I think this will appease Killmonger’s ancestors.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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