Sunday, July 18, 2010

Open Letter to Glenn Beck

Mr. Beck,

My dear fellow American, while in the midst of my graduate studies here at Cornell University I happened to come across your recent article published at entitled, "Liberation Theology and Social Justice." I will address that in a moment. Before I discuss what you wrote, I must say that it has long been my practice to refrain from responding to problematic notions of republicanism with regard to this nation that are printed in the media. If I did so I would never finish my work. Americans are bombarded with innumerable so-called experts in all things political. My primary focus while I reside here in central New York state is on my intellectual development--my education--which is preparing me to expertly teach the history of this republic and the African Diaspora, and especially the intersections of the two.  I study history because I believe it to be vitally important to the development of human society; I think that is safe to assume that you believe similarly. I view history as the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke did. He defined it as "a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day."

In our contemporary society, many find their political and cultural time of day through news media of some kind. For some, your show operates in this capacity. I have also tuned in periodically, watching your show both on CNN and FOX, intrigued by your point of view and eager to understand it. While I do not think I have ever completely agreed with anything you have said, I do defend your right to express yourself as you have. You have a platform and an ability to reach a large audience in various ways: radio, internet, and television.  Many in the news media, no matter what the political affiliation, point to you as an integral piece in the stimulation of the conservative base, usually associated with the Republican Party.  I am sure that you would agree that the beauty of this nation resides in how we bring our myriad experiences, cultures, beliefs and faiths together to make a more perfect union. No matter what the color, race, or creed, we are not a monolith, no more than the framers of the constitution were.

I believe that you do love this nation, as I do I.  Part of loving something is being able to critique it, not in a vitriolic way, grounded in hate, but in a way that seeks to make that which you love better.  Simultaneously, when one loves something you must be ready and willing to look in the mirror yourself. It is my hope this day I can engage you in an authentic and meaningful discourse about the nature and the identity this nation--what is is and is not. I take this time out from my work to address you directly because I believe a grave injustice has been done with regard to how you have misrepresented not only my practiced faith, Christianity, but even specifically how you have continued to misappropriate of the ideas of the Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a manner that distorts them to the core.

You frequently talk about his "dream," but yet you, and other conservatives always fail to mention the first part of his historic, and at the same moment, timeless address, "Normalcy Never Again"/(I Have a Dream).  In the beginning he discusses how "America has defaulted on its promissory note to which every American is to fall heir."  Understand that the March on Washington in 1963 signals a symbolic movement of all Americans to bring attention and action to the "bad check,” a promise of democracy and political equality, that was written to African Americans at the start of this republic.

Today, some forty-seven years later, we have made great strides as a nation to pay off this past due balance, but we must ever be vigilant and strive to make this nation what it needs to be.  Like Dr. King, I too "refuse to believe that bank of justice is bankrupt." We live in a nation where you can speak as you, Mr. Beck, typically do, with no reprisals.  Such freedom of speech is your right, and mine too.  I believe in free speech as much as you do.  Indeed, I cherish the fact that you, Mr. Beck, my fellow American, can speak freely in this nation. But while speech is free here, so exists a responsibility for the things we say. You are a stalwart supporter of personal "accountability," are you not?  Well, today I am  holding you accountable. Your direct and indirect use of “race” and denigrated understandings of Christianity to support your efforts must be challenged.

In your article, you seek to educate your readership on the theological term, "black liberation theology".  You begin by warning your readers that there is "poison" coming out of our churches. Your basic premise is, "Jesus never said take from the rich and let the government redistribute it." In short, you begin your indictment with a conservative/GOP talking point rehashed over and over since the early discussions about finance reform and during the 2008 presidential election.  Couching this theological tradition in terms of the partisan redistribution of wealth mantra, or the “socialism” argument, allows you to make the fear-mongering claim that “the government is going to take your money and give it to the undeserving poor minorities”—simply unfair and untrue.

You support this irresponsible statement by using the parable of the Good Samaritan, professing that the Samaritan "took it upon himself to help; he took on the bills himself." You have hijacked this parable and distorted it to support your belief and fear of socialized government, which many of your viewers and readers have as well. This careless  extension of the Good Samaritan parable to support your political concerns leads to a dangerous road to travel. Such a misrepresentation takes the power out of the lesson that Christ is teaching. The original passage of scripture has nothing to do with government, especially the particularities of our 21st century American one, and your application of it to such an entity I consider near blasphemous.

In the parable, which comes from the Gospel of Luke 10: 25-37, a Samaritan helps a traveler (who we can assume is Jewish) who was left for dead after he was severely beaten by thieves. Prior to the Samaritan stopping by, both a Levi and a priest pass by the Jew either for fear of also being beaten themselves, or for other reasons unknown to the reader.  When Christ teaches this parable, the power behind it is that the Samaritans and Jews during biblical times held a profound contempt for each other.  Thus, that the Samaritan would stop and help someone who would typically be viewed as his enemy speaks directly to loving thy neighbor.

In his final and most prophetic speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Dr. King uses this very parable.  In King's discussion of the passage he explains what the thinking of the Levite and priest may have been. He can clearly see both early passersby asking themselves, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"  King continues, "But then the Good Samaritan came by.  And he reversed the question:  ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’"

Mr. Beck, this last is the question that you and every other American, including myself, faces everyday of our lives.  We must begin to ask, "What will happen not just to my fellow Americans, but what will happen to the Haitians, our brothers and sisters in need on the African continent, the citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and also Palestine if we do not stop to help?"

This brings me to the topic of your article, black liberation theology.  Professor James H. Cone initially coined this term in a 1969 treatise, Black Theology and Black Power.  The book was in large measure a response to the times, in my view. History is about understanding context and when discussing a text such as this, it is imperative that we understand the times in which it was written. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Cone wrote this volume after the assassinations of historical icons Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, and of course Dr. King. However, this tumultuous moment of the “sixties’ saw countless other high-profile murders and crimes to the flesh in the name of political and racial conflicts, such as those against Jimmy Lee Jackson and the young Emmett Till. America at this moment in history, as you well know, was in a state of socio-political change and frustration felt by all, not least of all by those of African descent. Neither one of us—you, a white man, and I, a black man born a generation later--can truly imagine what it must have felt like to be a black American at this tumultuous time. America was at war, not just abroad, but at home.  Within this context, Cone's text was an effort to reclaim Christianity which by that time largely seemed impotent in the face of wanton violence and terrorism.

In the preface to the 1989 edition of the book, Cone himself admits "I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus whose gospel I believed had been largely distorted by the preaching and theology of white churches." He was profoundly frustrated as so many were and he sought to speak against what he saw as a corrupted theology; for it was that same theology that allowed for slavery to exist in the first place. Each of the European nations that participated in the transatlantic slave trade were "Christian" nations. Dr. King addressed this issue again when wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail". King addressed his fellow clergymen about as eloquently and patiently as possible to get to the heart of the matter...moral injustice. Similarly, Cone tries to address the same point.  His intellectual response was the creation of an alternative theology that valued the black freedom movement, the struggle of the dispossessed black masses in America.

The call to take up with the dispossessed, as Cone (and by extension King) suggests, does not mean that one should give over their worldly possessions, as you assert, but rather that one should acknowledge that their actions are to speak for them. Such a call requires no mandate from government.  I call your attention to the Gospel of Matthew 25: 34-46.  Here Christ clearly explains just how He will judge nations when He returns. Many of us are familiar with the clarion call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and to visit those who are sick or in prison. Christ explains to those who will sit at his right hand that they will be rewarded because of their care for those in need.  In verse 40 He clearly states, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me," (NKJV). 

There is no place in Cone's text where he calls for the government to force whites to pay reparations. Now, the issue of reparations is a real one. It is no secret that this nation is what it is today because of the forced labor of bonded men and women taken from African shores. This fact you cannot argue, nor deny. I do not simply suggest that writing checks to every African American would change this nation either. If one was to calculate how much the forced labor of slaves was worth in the creation and maintaining of this republic it would likely make our current deficit (which according to the Congressional Budget Office eclipsed the $1trillion mark this year) seem like pocket change. You wrongly characterize African Americans as seeking some sort of hand out. You are indeed mistaken on this front. If there was money paid, it was surely earned with our forefathers labor and blood. 

In your discussion of how Cone sees "white salvation" in black liberation theology you equate it to stepping down "from that job you ‘took’ from someone else. Give back that money you ‘took’ from someone else." Such an interpretation is totally wrong and a gross misrepresentation of black liberation theology. Here again, you are using your interpretation of this theology to serve a political ploy, this time against Affirmative Action programs. Or worse, you are characterizing African Americans influenced by black liberation theology—a great majority of them—as money-grubbing victims, unwilling to work for their pay or unwilling to earn, through merit, their position.  Reparations can come in many forms. One of the ways that Cone proposes reparations, a discussion that you take up in your article, includes the giving up of power based on a racial hierarchy. That "power" which he mentions is linked to white privilege in this racialized republic. White privilege has been around since the initial construction of “race” as a modern concept in the 16th century. One reality cannot exist without the other. This privilege has paid both a real and psychological wage to those who fall under its aegis of inequality. In our current economic climate the wage of whiteness is not paying what it used to.

Anytime there is a perceived or real loss of political and socio-economic power by the group that holds it, once rational minds cleave to false prophets and teachers. History is replete with nations that have created scapegoats to blame their problems on and when this has occurred such nations have allowed maniacal, evil tyrants to rule over them. America is facing some tough days, and likely even tougher days ahead. With the type of misinformation you continually present to those who do not, and will not, interrogate what you say, America is destined to join the annals of history of those fallen empires who, like mighty Rome, fell to internal strife rather than outside invaders.  The German philosopher and economist Karl Marx once prophetically said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." In your insulting parody of genuine historical scholarship and pedagogy, you are helping to facilitate both tragedy and farce, Mr. Beck. 

You claim that "We are living in dangerous times and unless you understand what people are saying and why they are saying it and how they arrived there, then too many Americans are going to be fooled." For once, you are absolutely right. Your viewers and readers need to do the same with you--just as they should any person that brings them so called "truth".  You peddle these half-truths and fabrications, and people listen because they want someone to tell them that it is okay for them to be as they are, there is no need to change. Change is hard, takes work; stasis if for the lazy man and woman.  Mr. Beck, I am here to tell you that you can generate support for ideas and agendas without misrepresenting facts and skewing truth. Theologian Obrey Hendricks in his book, The Politics of Jesus:  Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted,  reminds us in  his discussion of conservatism and liberalism that despite extreme views held by some, " its base true conservatism is not about hateful rhetoric and murderous behavior, neither is true liberalism about permissiveness or moral laxity." It is one thing to critique it is another to misinform Mr. Beck.  Prof. Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, maintains, “The task of theology is to show the significance of the oppressed's struggle against inhuman powers, relating the people's struggle to God's intention to set them free.”

Theology, simply understood is faith seeking understanding. Do not muddy the waters of the debate by attempting to inject things that are not there. Are there salient critiques that exist with regard to black liberation theology? Of course.  Does Cone not rethink his own language in respect to historical context? Yes. I do not agree with everything that Prof. Cone has written, but I understand where he is coming from. Throughout history mankind has allowed religion to be the hand maiden of conquerors, do not allow this to happen with your own attempts to understand differing points of view. My own thoughts hinge more on one comprehensive and holistic theology that does what Christianity was intended to do--empower the dispossessed, speak for the voiceless of the brotherhood of man.  The disinherited should not have to re-create the theological wheel, but hold the faith accountable to what it says that it is.  Did you know, Mr. Beck, that the most segregated hour in American life happens around noon on Sunday? Instead of crafting a fiction for why this is the case, a fiction that deepens the cultural cleft, you should explore and fairly represent the realities that separate we the people of the United States of America in the first place.

Mr. Beck, the struggle for freedom in this country by African Americans is not unlike any other oppressed people in history who have struggled and yearned to be free. Yes, the particulars may differ with regard to time period, etc., but the narrative at its core is always the same. Such persons, as theologian and philosopher, Howard Thurman defines as,  "those who stand, at a moment in human history with their backs against the wall." These persons have utilized various methods to secure equality and equity in that equality. This concept should not be foreign to you. In the Book of Mormon, the sacred text to which you adhere, speaks to this point precisely. In Mosiah 29:39 reads:

“Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.”

Thus, how can you begin to say the things you have with regard to African Americans? From what I have read, the Book of Mormon delights in, and supports opposition to oppression. Is that not common ground?  Does not the Book of Mormon support those who struggle against moral injustice?
In your wholly inaccurate depiction and explanation of black liberation theology you profess, "You don't need to be a Christian to believe this. You need to understand this because a perversion of God is extraordinarily dangerous."  Those are very strong, condemning words, that are uncalled for and invalid. If there has been any perversion it surely has come from your own pen, from your own mind. At the end of your article you finally proclaim that:

 "...there are those in this country that need to divide us for power.  They will make this about race.  But this has almost nothing to do with race; it everything to do with power. It has happened over and over again -- it's a formula:  same outcome, different group of people."

Who is dividing who for power? If anything or anyone has made this issue about race it surely has been you.  Frederick Douglass understood thinking such as yours. Those who would protest loudly as the peculiar institution of slavery began to crumble. He understood the hypocrisy that was America, not on paper, but in practice. He saw how race was utilized just as you are using it now, to take attention from the real issue.  He professed, "There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution..." It is a shame that in the twenty-first century persons such as yourself still seek to corrupt the movement of those persons striving for freedom. Well, my fellow American, it is time to speak truth and provide light in the darkness of known ignorance.

Are you familiar with the biblical story of Christ and the money changers? If not, the story takes place during Christ's arrival into Jerusalem where he enters the city riding a beast of burden, under great excitement from the people. Once in the city, he goes into the temple only to find that there are persons selling and buying goods inside the sacred space.  Angered, Christ turns over the tables of these biblical vendors and salespersons professing, "it is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but ye have made it into a den of thieves," (Matthew 21:13).

Mr. Beck, my fellow American, when you speak as you have, you are no different than the money changers who were in the temple in Jerusalem.  If we consider the temple to be analogous to this republic, this nation was created knowing that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." As you know that comes directly from the Declaration of Independence.

In practice, this nation has never lived up to these lofty aims. If we are ever to move past rhetorical equality, the type of information you are disseminating must be challenged and stopped. Persons of goodwill must use their righteous minds to speak out and overthrow the proverbial tables of fear, ignorance, and greed. Make no mistake, I am in no way calling those persons of goodwill, or myself, Christ. That would be absurd. However, this is not about religion. It is not about race. It is about treating people fairly and justly. 

Mr. Beck, you are a man that Frederick Douglass cautioned us about in 1857.  You "profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation...want crops without plowing up the ground...want rain without thunder and lightening...want the ocean without the awful roars of its waters." Well, my fellow American, the time has come to get out our plows. You have the ability to help make this nation better.  I should hope that you would act as righteous as the Book of Mormon calls for you to, if not that, at least operate from a position of moral justice.

Let me be clear too, you are only a symbol of a larger movement that at its worst preys on weak minds and hard hearts. At best, a genuine dialogue might be fostered. As I write, I think about the  book of Ephesians 6:12, "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rules of darkness of this world, against spirit wickedness in high places." The struggle for freedom is unfortunately a constant one.  Dr. King knew that as well. "History," he reflected, "is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." Freedom, Mr. Beck is something that is demanded and rarely given.

I need to bring this to a close. I never intended for this letter to be as long as it is, but circumstances dictated it. Mr. Beck you mistakenly see African American equality and equity as a zero sum game. What that means is that you understand any gains made by African Americans to come at the expense of whites, or at least that is how you have framed this debate. This debate is not a religious one, nor one about race, it is, as I have said about what is morally right and just.

Other than you, I hope that others who may read my words will begin to speak against those who seem to be determined to undermine this democracy.   For my efforts, I will continue to speak when I feel the situation necessitates it, of that you can be sure. As long as you continue to use fragments of the Bible and the United States Constitution to fit your socio-political needs I will speak and I will act. I pray that I will compel others to do the same. "Power," Mr. Beck "concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will." America is a far cry from being perfect, but if we are to make this nation what it should be, what it can be, if we are to engage in serious dialogue about how to make it better, let us speak as men and women with respect of each other and without the vitriol and hate that are the relatives of discord and anarchy.

If, in this letter there is something that I have mentioned that is anything but truth and far from reasonable, may God forgive and have mercy upon me. May those who read this forgive me, if that be the case.  President Barack Obama, once mentioned, "our stories our singular that our destiny is shared." Dr. King similarly understood that, "All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." I think you can agree with that, my fellow American.

I pray God's blessings not only upon you, but upon all of those who seek freedom and love justice.

Sincerely, I am,

Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr.


Mr. Schulzki said...

Mr. Mitchell:

First of all congratulations on your chosen profession - I am a high school history teacher in Colorado Springs, CO (a bastion of rather right-wing thinking [some might suggest right-wing paranoia], that has a highly energized evangelical base [we are the home of Focus on the Family, Pastor Ted Haggard, and numerous other churches and organizations). As a history teacher I am encouraging my students to read historians as you correctly point out, in the context of the times in which the historian did her/his research. Historians understand that they are products of the times, places, and events in which they live - and it is imperative that the readers of history understand those contexts.

While I am not totally familiar with the writings of Dr. Cone, nor to be fair do I make it a habit of listening to Glenn Beck on a regular basis - I too am troubled by his constant misapplication of history, and historians to further a political agenda. His apparent misunderstanding of black liberation theology seems to be in the same vein as how he views Progressivism and the Progressive Movement. What of course is equally troubling is the fact that too many people take his point of view for some type of "fact". As I try to inculcate to my students - one needs to read a variety of points of view and become informed and challenged by them - then and only then can they begin to make informed opinions.

Your argument is one of the more intelligent ones I have come across - but then again I would have had little doubt that a history student would be able to create such a lucid, intelligent, and well written argument. Continues success in your studies...I look forward to reading your works in the future - your field of study sounds fascinating and would add much to the discussion of history.

A. Schulzki

KC said...

Thank you for a most eloquent and loving reprimand. We cannot continue to be a nation divided by ignorance and fear. We have much to work on that requires us to work as one.

DeeinOK said...

Mr. Mitchell,

I am both impressed and moved by your letter to Mr. Beck. As a staunch liberal, I cannot say that I follow his "teachings" with any desire to be swayed by his highly emotional pleas for sanity. I do, on occasion, tune in to see what wild tangent he is taking his viewers on so that I may be better prepared for my daily conservative rebuttals at the local butcher shop.

I am always fascinated by his use of "history" to make his points while acting as if his version is some big insider trading tip. Whatever the political soup du jour, he has the inside track—or so he purports to his audience. Using religion and the constitution as staples in skewing the facts, reduces me to yelling at the television and quickly channel surfing to put on something less controversial, Iron Chef usually does the trick. As a self-proclaimed news junkie, I do like my serving of soup fact checked--something that I suspect many Beck followers fail to do. Whether that is because he is marketed as an authority figure or perhaps it says something more about the way this country now gets their news—the more over the top the better--I don’t truly know. What I do know, is I hope more people will read this and be inspired to speak out in the manner in which you did.

While some people will still prefer their soup spoon fed, at least they'll have a choice between the version that has a healthy serving of facts and the other one that is mostly poisoned.

dejoi said...

I appreciate this open letter and your references. It is encouraging to see someone stand up and use well-thought out and articulated uses of historical references to rebut a largely unquestioned stance.

I look forward to hearing more from you.

!tsMeAgain said...

Very interesting rebuttal. There were some very good points here, but I do believe that you are making some ad hominem arguments regarding 'Republicanism'. At CNN Beck FREQUENTLY railed against Republicans & Bush.

Very good points though, especially about America having the [cajones] to live up to its Constitution. The reality is that is is truly the issue, more than any other point made in either Beck's article or your rebuttal.

I wont go into depth about some of the red herrings or straw man arguments here - there are enough to create an article twice this size, I think I'll get to the real philosophical issues:

1. the individual vs. society
2. the role of government
3. the scope of government (big vs. small)

1. Throughout history and even in present day the dynamic of individual vs. society has existed. The reason this society has surpassed older societies is directly attributed to the protection of individual rights. Your point earlier (quoted from Frederick Douglas) states that We as a Nation have not truly lived up to that ideal.

I agree wholeheartedly. I am not being a masochist in a zero sum game here, but society has often (and quite literally) crucified those individuals who chose to enlighten through scientific (Copernicus), social (Dr. King), or religious (Jesus) means.

2. I'm not sure I read in the article where Beck said that Black's should not get reparations or affirmative action (red herrings maybe?). I think the issue here is government spending. It is way out of control, but that is because the money is fiat (lets not go down this road, it will take too long).

The issue here is that the Declaration of Independence explicitly state that the role of government is to SECURE the rights of life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness. This is the scope of government, everything else is a PRIVILEGE of living in the society. A government cannot grant rights, but if you need a license or have to fill out an application, it's a privilege.

3. You talk about the fall of Rome earlier. Rome fell because it was a massive welfare state whose code of ethics were those of the masochist and the sadist. They played games for 1/2 the year and were at war for most of their history. We will repeat their fall if we repeat their path, government should be kept small, politicians will always have half baked plans to increase its size (and their electorate).

As for Beck, at least he doesn't repeat whats on ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, CNN, and PBS I'll give him that. He always tells his watchers to fact check him as well (an item you missed in the article).

I don't agree with his romaticized version of the Founders either, but philosophically what they did was unique even if they could not live up to it.

allheavens said...

Vernon, thank you for a thoughtful and intelligent response to an increasingly demented Beck.

@!tsMeAgain, nice concerned trolling.

The whole world is Africa said...

This is a well crafted and organized message. However, I feel the author is being too kind in assuming that the Glenn Becks of the world love America the way the author does.

The Glenn Becks of the world love the privilege and power that came from colonizing and brutalizing the white world.

If Mr. Beck and his ilk were honest and self aware, they would be able to articulate this.

However, their long history of power and privilege over the non whites of the world has caused them to think they earned such position by something other than greed, racism, ignorance and intolerance.

They have been in power so long that they regard it as a birthright which they are loath to relinquish, but nothing last forever.

Mario Houston said...

My young brother, I stumble upon your letter to Mr. Beck and I applaud your well directed response to his maniacal rant. As others have commented you have chosen your profession well. Best wishes in the future, I will check back often.

Rachel C said...

Thanks for writing this. It's nice to see a rebuttal from someone who really knows the subject matter.

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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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