By Bill Mefford
In Raymond Arsenault’s excellent book on the Freedom Rides of 1961, he describes the journey of brave civil rights activists who intentionally broke segregation laws in the South on interstate travel in 1947 and 1961. Through dozens of rides in deep south states they endured savage beatings and long terms of imprisonment in order to implement the Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia from 1946. Can you imagine? It took fifteen years after the Supreme Court had decided something was wrong for that to be implemented and it required literally the blood and sacrifice of young leaders like Jim Farmer, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Jim Peck, Bayard Rustin, Steve Green, and so many others.
The resistance of the South to integrate interstate travel was intense. The violence perpetrated against the Freedom Riders was done in collaboration with local law enforcement and, in some instances, with the full cooperation of the FBI. In addition to state-sponsored violence, the South also coordinated slanderous attacks against the Freedom Riders themselves, through exaggeration, misinformation, and outright lies. Mississippi’s state government created the State Sovereignty Commission - funded by taxpayers - with the intent of discrediting the activists since they could not discredit their message and their actions.
In Chapter 9, Arsenault describes numerous instances when newspaper editors and organizations were created to besmirch activists. My “favorite” was an organization created by a former military intelligence officer from East Texas, F. James Dabney, who started a group called, “Resist All Pressures Endlessly,” or RAPE. Why on earth someone would want to create a group with the acronym like RAPE is entirely beyond my capacity to understand, but Dabney was so threatened by racial integration that he created a horrible organization with a horrible name to do horrible things against people working for justice and access to full equality.
This same kind of messy, but semi-coordinated attempt to tear down and undermine the reputations of people committed to justice and social change reminds me, as a former United Methodist who worked at a general board, of a group called the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). The IRD, along with other conservative groups like the Confessing Movement and Good News, were organizations with the aim of attacking and tearing down progressive structures and people in the UMC that they disagreed with theologically and politically.
I remember being featured in a few of the IRD’s attack articles, which usually were extremely long and poorly written screeds that creatively put quotations around one or two words in the midst of their fundamentalist interpretation of how I and the people I shared office space with were tearing down the church and everything good and holy in the world. The articles were more a source of laughter than concern to me, though I know they were written to scare fundamentalist United Methodists out of their money. They often ended their harangue with a plea for money to “fight the good fight” for their nauseous brand of fundamentalism.
In considering that the past is but prologue and there is nothing new under the sun, we who work for the liberation of all of creation need to continue to steady ourselves because the hate speech and attacks against us are only beginning. In what is a sure sign of white, Christian fragility, trump and his evangelical henchmen (emphasis upon “men”) are going to go after us particularly with the charge of socialism as we head into 2020. They will wrongly lift up the mistaken belief that the United States functions as the perfect ideal of laissez faire capitalism even though the signature legislation they passed were the tax cuts for the rich. These “tax cuts” have forced poor and low income working people to pay more in taxes so that affluent Republican corporate donors can get massive tax breaks.
So how should we respond? We should always be ready to share stories of how their efforts to implement corporate welfare impacts real peoples’ lives.
Here is an example. Just a week ago, my wife went to see the person who prepares our taxes and the tax person was late to the appointment with my wife because she had to spend thirty minutes consoling one of her clients whose taxes went from receiving a modest return to owing thousands of dollars for 2018. She confessed she has other clients who are threatening suicide because of the amount of money they now owe the government. This is the direct result of the Republican Tax Cut/Corporate Welfare bill. These are the stories that need to be told.
But be prepared: you and I will be called socialists ad nauseam because we believe that health care is a basic human right and that we as a country should spend more money caring for the most vulnerable than adding to the military industrial complex.
We will be called socialists because we believe that the US government ought to use our resources to address income inequality in this country and across the world, instead of funding organizations like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which function as instruments of state-sponsored terror against brown and black people.
We will be called socialists because we actually have the audacity to believe that the driving purpose of this country’s foreign and economic policies should be promoting and defending peoples’ human rights. Remember when the leadership of this country actually used to say those two magic words, “human rights,” when we dealt with leaders from other nations?
I say let them call us socialists. Let’s do the work of caring for and working alongside the most vulnerable in order to achieve justice and liberation. We should know we are in good company. Many people before have been called socialists and their work stands to this day. One of my favorite families is the Booth family, led by Catherine and William, who started the Salvation Army and who were, frankly, revolutionaries.
In Donald Dayton’s incredible book “Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage” he reminds us that Catherine was called a socialist because she was committed to the complete reordering of society. What’s more, William and Catherine’s son, Ballington, said that to try and correct social wrongs through charity is like “bailing out the ocean with a thimble.” Therefore, to attain justice, “we must adjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become the owners of wealth.”
If Catherine, William, and Ballington Booth are socialists then count me one as well.
But let’s make it plain: our goal is not about a socialist or a capitalist. Our goal is to work for justice. Let our work be the goal. Let us strive for deeper incarnation among people directly impacted by injustice so that our words and our deeds are shaped and molded by the voices of those facing oppression head on. Let us not be bogged down in stupid arguments over socialism. Let us do the will of God, which is justice and liberation for all of creation. And in that work, when the fake religious leaders and the gutless political leaders speak all kinds of evil and slander against you, you will be blessed.