Chris Hedges and Rev. David Bullock discuss the real meaning of Christmas with Paul Jay
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome to a special Christmas edition of Reality Asserts Itself.
Christmas is a day unlike the 364 other days that more or less we’re told greed is good. Around Christmas we’re more or less told charity is good. Well, just what is the role of charity in this society? And what is the message we get at Christmas and other times when we’re told charity is the solution to poverty?
Now joining us to talk about all of this, first of all, is Reverend David Bullock from Detroit.
Thanks very much for joining us, David.
REV. DAVID BULLOCK, RELIGIOUS LEADER: Thank you for being here.
JAY: And Chris Hedges–I should say Reverend Chris Hedges, ’cause Chris was ordained and is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a regular on Real News, and everybody knows by now Chris’s biography. And if you don’t, look down below and you’ll see David and Chris’s biography.
So what do you make of the whole message of charity?
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: Well, charity has become the instrument by which justice is denied throughout the society. We are stripping away civil services, destroying basic programs which sustain the poorest of the poor, because charity is supposed to take it over. We’re watching large corporations, which are predatory, justify themselves through acts of charity or philanthropy. And these corporations at their heart are disemboweling the country, are creating untold misery for the vulnerable, not only domestically, but globally. And so charity becomes something that is kind of unrelenting as a kind of ideology, because it’s a mask for the denial of justice and for the justification of predatory capitalism.
JAY: David, the message or theme of charity permeates the–certainly what Christianity is supposed to stand for. We’re told this is not a religious country, but on the whole we’re told this is a Christian country. The official narrative for most people is that to give is to show your fidelity to what you believe. And the sense of what Chris is raising, of a public sector as a solution to that, it’s kind of almost gone from the whole discourse.
BULLOCK: Indeed, if it ever existed. I think there has been a tug-of-war, at least in this country, between competing ideals. Charity, love, benevolence versus what John Rawls would call justice as fairness. And, so, of course, Rawls lost to Robert Nozick and love has triumphed over justice. This plays out in an interesting way even in the hands up don’t shoot or black lives matter movement. So we die-in, sit in, walk in, eat in, and sleep in, but don’t ask for any public policy solution to police brutality. Or better yet, activists stand next to families, lawyers represent those families, go into a criminal case that they know they can’t win because the law makes it impossible for them to actually win the criminal case. They know that in advance. But then, in the name of love, we get the family a settlement and march around New York or Washington, D.C., and give back. We wear a T-shirt at a basketball game and score points for the Lakers. I mean, so there is this shadowboxing, this veneer of care that has triumphed over the deep, significant need for justice, fairness, equality, public policy that empowers the people, as opposed to a limited and light love that lifts up corporations.
JAY: We learn to live with this hypocrisy of the narrative. We’re always told, do good, give.
HEDGES: Well, but it’s what does good mean. Good means obey is what they’re really saying. You know, trust in the system. The system is good. And the more totalitarian the system becomes–we live in a species of corporate totalitarianism–the more they have to create this facade. And that’s what all totalitarian systems do. Claudia Koonz’s book The Nazi Conscience is about that system of philanthropy and charity that was pumped out by the Nazi Party, all these pictures with the hyperinflation in Weimar, of young men in Nazi uniforms carrying wood or buckets of coal to widows’ homes. Stalin’s Russia did exactly the same thing. And I think that as the system becomes crueler and as the system essentially extinguishes any kind of legitimate democratic participation, as the court system becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporate state, they have to ramp up this image of charity which is really saying, we care. I mean, I walked into Brooks Brothers the other day, and there were pictures of children without their hair who have cancer. It used to be that Brooks Brothers manufactured their clothes in unionized textile plants in Pennsylvania. Now they are being sewn by sweatshop workers who make $0.22 an hour. So it becomes an ideological facade, because as the system becomes more and more rapacious, they need to generate these. And that’s what advertising does so well, these emotional responses which are completely fictitious.
JAY: How do you deal with this in the church? The message of love, the message of Jesus, is one of giving and loving, forgiving. At the same time, people’s rights, as you were saying, are being so violated. How do you deal with this yourself? I mean, you’re based in Detroit, which, like Baltimore, is a devastated city.
BULLOCK: Right. Indeed. You know, I’m not sure that we should continue to say that Jesus’s message was forgiving and loving and giving. I think we need to back up a bit. Jesus primarily, when you encounter Jesus talking to people and teaching them, he’s either teaching his disciples or he’s teaching his enemies Sadducees and Pharisees and other sects. And some of the things that he says primarily, about the Sabbath and about the legalism and about the sign of holiness or the sign of being blessed, who God’s people are, this isn’t just kind of some individual love your neighbor, give, and forgive. I mean, this is deep critique of legal systems of oppression. The work that Jesus does in the Temple, which is also a bank, right–and, of course, people never read the bank temple. They read the temple as the sanctuary of worship. It’s a bank. And so the high interest fees that are being charged on poor people who have tied their religious worship to a deity, right, to their financial prospectus–so they can’t opt out, because if you opt out, you’re a bad worshiper. So you have to pay the exorbitant amount of being charged for the turtledove and charged for the sacrifice. And Jesus comes and says, no. Right? I mean, so that Jesus–.
JAY: And overturns the tables
BULLOCK: And flips over the tables, and whips. So the meek, caring, loving, forgiving Jesus pulls a whip out, okay, and whips the money changers out of the temple, which is why, ultimately, he makes a lot of enemies and gets crucified. You know, he goes to Zacchaeus’s house. I don’t know what he told the brother, but whatever he told Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus came out of that dinner meeting giving folks their money back.
So this is not a sermon that says, you know, that’s nice and gentle. I mean, Jesus is dealing with systems of economic oppression, systems that keep people in poverty, systems that tell people to be good in their individual lives while they are oppressed. And goodness means not only being subject to, but worshiping the very people that oppress you. And what does he do? He turns over the tables. He kicks the moneychangers out.
So, as we talk about Christmas and charity and love and giving and Jesus, the giving that Jesus seems to represent, the love that Jesus seems to represent, at least in the Bible, is love of people that forces you to reject any system that organizes, orders, and backs with military force a force that oppresses those people. And if you’re not opposing that system, you don’t love people. And I think that is what we should be telling people about Jesus during Christmas.
JAY: We know much of the Bible was written long after the early Christians and much of the Bible was written once Christianity had become a state religion and, in fact, the religious ideology of the oppressors themselves. The early Christians ain’t that. And that’s where the revolutionary Jesus, that’s where he emerges as the leader of a movement, of an early Christian revolutionary movement.
HEDGES: Well, it’s a revolutionary movement in this sense–and, you know, I’ll see if you agree–in that it understands that power is always the problem, that in order to live the moral life, one must always be alienated and stand in opposition to power on behalf of the oppressed.
JAY: But he was very specific. They were fighting against the Roman Empire.
HEDGES: Well, of course. They were fighting against empire. But that’s how power manifested itself. And there were–Jesus is very clear throughout the gospel that to serve systems you cannot serve two masters. To serve God, one cannot serve systems of power, and certainly systems of empire.
And I think, as David said correctly, that it’s also very clear from the gospel that justice is the physical or public manifestation of love. And it is true that the Roman Empire executes Jesus as an insurrectionist and yet Jesus is also a pacifist. But what Jesus is asking followers to do is to turn their backs on the values that empire imparts. So in our empire it is the values of consumerism, of consumption. And Jesus is opposed to it.
And I think that when we go back and look at the early 19th century, with William Jennings Bryan, all sorts of other figures, the Chautauqua movement, although segregated, but you saw–and certainly the black prophetic tradition saw this–they got that radical message, and then in the early 19th century we had the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, who actually invested tremendous sums of money to promote the prosperity gospel, to challenge this narrative, which had fired up the abolitionists and fired up a lot of the socialists, even those around Debs, and that black prophetic tradition came under assault. You’re seeing it under assault today with the rise of Booker T. Obama and Booker T. Sharpton and the attacks on figures like Jeremiah Wright, Cornel West, and others, and because that core, I think, fundamental message of the gospel is anticapitalist, anti-imperialist. Remember when Jesus is taken to the desert by Satan and Satan offers him not only riches, but control of land, which is empire? And that is a condemnation. The Gospels are such a clear condemnation not just of the Roman Empire, but of empire. And remember, as Jeremiah Wright correctly points out, that Jesus wasn’t white. The Romans were white. Jesus was a person of color and came out of the cast of the oppressed, racially and religiously.
BULLOCK: No, no, Cornel West says it as only he can. He says he was a swarthy brother. And, of course, Revelations says he has eyes like balls of fire, feet like polished brass, hair like lambswool. You put that together and you see kind of what that creates.
But I want to just say the anti-Empire, anti-capitalist impulse in Jesus–Jesus the baby, Jesus the crucified. The crucified Jesus is innocent. The baby born in the manger is innocent. But the representatives of the empire seek to destroy the innocent. So Herod tells the wise men from the east, tell me where he is that I may come and worship him, but wants to kill him, the innocent baby. And then Pilate, the representative of the empire, cannot be a good man and save the innocent Jesus, but then throws him to the mob. But if you read the text correctly, it is not the mob that condemns Jesus. The leaders are in the crowd. And so the leaders tied to the empire, to the system of oppression, use Twitter or Facebook or media to influence the crowds’ opinion of the innocent man.
And so I think the love impulse of Christmas should propel us to fight any system that destroys innocent babies or innocent families or innocent men and women because of profit, because of greed, because of a impulse to power. And that’s what we’re seeing, not just in the United States of America, but across the world. Power is used to destroy innocents, right? And then there is no champion, there is no outcry, there is no movement, there is no public–what is the public policy that protects the innocent in housing, right, in schooling?
HEDGES: And let me just add that when the Bible was written, it was written in peasant Greek, as anybody who’s studied Greek. There’s no relation between the complication of Homeric Greek and the very simple peasant Greek of the Bible, because it was written for the oppressed. And those of us who come out of privilege, especially white privilege–and I think the great theologian theologian James Cone has spent his life pointing this out–are blinded to so many fundamental messages of the gospel.
So when I covered the war in El Salvador, I was in refugee camp in Honduras for those who had fled the fighting. These were illiterate campesinos. And I was there on January 6. This was the day of the innocents, right, Reverend? Is that right? And they were decorating the camp. It was having a big fiesta. And I said, why is this an important religious holiday? And one of the campesinos said to me–and this is when Herod kills the hundred babies and the angel comes and Mary and Joseph and Jesus have to flee Egypt–they said, because that’s the day Jesus became a refugee. Now, that’s from Luke. I had heard my father read that. My father was a–both–we were both preachers’ kids. I had heard my father father read that. I know that passage from memory. But I never understood it. I never understood it until that moment.
And I think when you do descend as the way–you know, when slaves read the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, they viscerally understood liberation. And that’s who the Bible–and we know the Bible was written for that population, because I think it only has a 300-word vocabulary, if I remember correctly from Divinity school. And that message is one that has long frightened centers of power, so that they have attempted to co-opt not only religious institutions and religious figures, but also co-opt the message itself and twist it into what we began with was this kind of Hallmark-ian sentimental notion of love, which is not what Jesus was about.
JAY: We’re in Baltimore. I’m told (and I haven’t verified this) there’s more churches per capita in Baltimore than maybe any city in the country. There’s sure a lot of churches, and most of them are black churches. There have been numerous killings of people here by police. There was a report recently about police brutality. It’s a daily occurrence here. Wide sections of the city suffer terrible chronic poverty and boarded up housing. We know the blight of many urban centers in America, and Baltimore has it as bad as most.
But where are the black churches? What is going on those churches? They have a rally about someone either–you know, the killing in New York or in Ferguson, and maybe 500 people come out, and that’s big. Trayvon Martin, I think maybe they got 1,000. But sometimes there’s killings here and nobody comes out. What’s going on in those churches?
BULLOCK: No, I think that’s a very profound question. Baltimore; Detroit; Southside Chicago; Gary, Indiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Los Angeles; I mean, wherever you find African-American churches, you find a number of them, you find a spirited worship, you find maybe a musical tradition that expresses longing and hope, pain and promise.
But what we struggle to find is what James Cone’s life’s work represents, is what Cornel West talks about in Prophesy Deliverance! and some of his other writings as well, but specifically in Prophecy Deliverance! Where is the response to white supremacist ideological and institutional realities coming out of the Christian religious tradition from the black church, not just in preaching, but in praxeology? And so you say, you ask, where was the black church? Well, the black church is in Baltimore.
The real question is: what is the agenda, where is the praxeology, how is public policy tied to the preaching that goes into the black church? But as has already been pointed out so eloquently, Rockefeller, Carnegie, add to list, there has been a intentional attempt that is been very successful to shape the preaching and the religious teaching of Christian living in the black church and tie it specifically to individual personal piety, holiness, and prosperity. And so the black churches in Baltimore are preaching God will make you rich, faith will give you favor. Right? Hope will lead you to healing. But they’re not preaching, we have to change the law to stop police brutality, and laws don’t get changed if you pray at the altar but those prayers don’t have feet. That’s not happening in the black church in Baltimore at large. Maybe one or two. Detroit at large. And so, without that message, and then without members and pastors and faith leaders being pulled into an agenda that has an action plan, all you get is high worship. But after high worship, you leave and go into low living. And so that cycle is repeated week after week.
HEDGES: And, you know, I lived in–you know, I’m going to bounce this off David when I finish, because he knows more than I do. But I lived in a housing project in Roxbury for two and a half years when I was in seminary, and I came away with a kind of mixed feeling about the black church. Black preachers, especially in poor urban areas, materially do very well. Baldwin writes about it and kind of eviscerates those preachers for it.
But what they do is they set very strict standards about behavior. You know, you have to obey your mama, you can’t run in the streets, you have to stay in school. And they can–maybe it’s less true today, but it was true then that they could get a certain segment, maybe the upper third, out of the ghetto. And the only way they were going to get out of the ghetto is by playing the game.
But that meant that there was a whole ‘nother segment of the population–and a lot of those kids in the projects–I was right across from the mission, main mission extension housing projects, which in those days were very rough projects in Boston–those kids not only were trapped and never getting out, but the black church wrote them off. And I kind of–I don’t think the black church was wrong, in a sense, that they were trying to funnel a certain–save a certain segment and realized they couldn’t save everybody. But it colored the message they preached, which, as David said, was really, at its core, the gospel of prosperity, that if you do right by Jesus–it’s magic Jesus. You know, magic Jesus will take care of you.
And the other thing I saw–and, you know, I’ll get your comments on this–is that successful blacks who had gotten out of Roxbury would come back to these churches, but they looked with utter disdain on the blacks that had remained behind.
BULLOCK: Yeah. Interestingly enough, I was born in Roxbury on Seaver Street right across from Franklin Park Zoo.
HEDGES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that.
BULLOCK: And my grandfather, Dr. Samuel H. Bullock Sr., built a church in Roxbury on Blue Hill Avenue, Pleasant Hill, Missionary Baptist Church–
HEDGES: That’s a very famous church.
BULLOCK: –in the ’40s. That was my grandfather. And marched with Martin and hosted Malcolm. My cousin’s the pastor of that church today. He’s a lawyer, Brandeis grad.
Your comments are very insightful. And black people are not like milk. Right? We’re not homogenized. And I don’t know if America understands that there are layers, there are class realities in the black community. And so middle to upper class blacks have an aversion, don’t understand, don’t want to be identified with lower-class blacks. Lawrence Otis Graham writes about this in Our Kind of People.
But beyond that, in the church, there are two things that I think are very important. One, the minister many times is the managerial appointee of white power. Okay? And so, for instance, in the City of Detroit, if you wanted to get a job at the plant for Mr. Ford and you were black, you went to a certain church, and that pastor had a certain amount of jobs he could pass out. But now, if I’m passing out jobs for Mr. Ford and I’m the other pastor, I can’t preach sermons about the labor movement, collective bargaining, trade unionism. Right? I have to preach, be obedient and you’ll be blessed. So that’s one piece. So there is an economic relationship. And so the pastor does well because many of these churches are poor.
And so the other thing that members don’t really realize is that some pastors are doing well financially because of their members. Many more are doing well financially because they are managerial elites. And so the Bentley is a sign that the pastor is tied to a white supremacist status quo institution, and that’s the payoff, or the charter school sometimes is the payoff, or the radio show or the television show is sometimes the payoff.
But the other layer of this is that it’s easier to speak truth to the powerless. And so I would maybe disagree and say that those who are left behind have not been written off. They have been anointed to the status of whipping boy and whipping girl. And so the holiness message, right, is a weekly opportunity to speak truth to the powerless which purges the preacher’s impulse to speak truth to somebody. And so every week the preacher is then free from the guilt of having not whooped somebody. Jesus whipped the money changers. Preachers whip their members.
And so there’s an interesting dynamic in the black church, where many ministers will say things to their members–don’t steal–but they won’t say “don’t steal” to Wall Street. Right? But if stealing is wrong for Leroy, right, then stealing ought to be wrong for the corporate banker. But you don’t get that connection.
HEDGES: I was thinking of the unchurched group, those kids running in the streets and the projects who–you know, their families were kind of dysfunctional. They weren’t going into the church, at least I saw in the projects. But you’re right, you’re right that that is–but that is a mechanism of fear by which you keep people subservient to the system.
But at the same time, I just want to say that I felt a kind of moral quandary, because that was the only exit door. People don’t understand, unless they’ve lived in those communities, all of the ways institutions, white, formed institutions, schools, probation officers, courts, police mean that you’re never going to get out. The walls that are built, you can’t see those walls if you haven’t been there. But the walls are–it is a prison. You can’t walk out of it. And there are so few ways to get out. And so my final–even though I chastise the church, they were right. For the few that were going to get out, they did offer them that. Some did. Some did.
BULLOCK: No, no, that’s right. And I know we’re running toward the end of the segment, but this is why people in the black community are not going to church, because the church, after Dr. King’s successful work and after the work of the civil rights movement, is no longer the only door. See, Jay-Z proves I can sell dope and then start Roc-A-Fella and then cut a deal with Sony and take Kanye with me and cut my brother Damon Dash ’cause he’s not going to play ball and marry Beyoncé and get out. And so now hip-hop is a way out. Lebron will tell you, I can go to high school and then I can go to the NBA, and that’s my way out. And so now you find dope to hip-hop, high school to NBA, and these are other avenues, whereas Aretha came through the church, Sam Cooke came through the church, but now people are going around the church. And so it’s creating another level of difficulty for the black church.
JAY: Alright. Really fast, Reverend Hedges, final words for Christmas?
HEDGES: We have to, as the consumers that we have conditioned, been conditioned to be, recognize that all of these things have to be brought before the manger holding the baby Jesus and abandoned if we’re going to recapture what that gospel message is about.
JAY: Final word?
BULLOCK: I would simply say there’s a song that says must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free; know there is a cross for everyone and there is a cross from me. So if the baby was born to bear a cross, then let us not just admire him, but let us follow him.
JAY: Alright. Good. Clearly we need to do this again, and probably often. Thanks very much, gentlemen.
BULLOCK: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on this Christmas special on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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