February 17, 2009
I have received quite a few letters in response to a column that I wrote in the Gleaner three weeks ago. I am posting one such response which I found particularly jarring, along with my rejoinder. Your comments are welcome.
Thanks for your response. I can see that you are quite angry at the kinds of interactions you have had with Adventists; I don’t blame you. Nonetheless, you raise several important issues that my column also spoke to i.e. the ways in the media has not done its work in anticipating the controversy, and thus failed to provide some important contextual information that would help people parse out what is “personal” from what is “religious/institutional” with regard to the attitudes and behaviours you describe, but also what we can anticipate from Dr. Allen.
Because we in Jamaica have really not learned how to talk about religion in a way that is dispassionate and analytical, I can see how you would assume my affiliations, even though there’s absolutely nothing in that column that would suggest that I am indeed Adventist. Interestingly, other respondents did make the same mistake, although their responses were quite different from yours: they were glad that I was speaking up for the Adventists!
Here is what I said to one person from Northern Caribbean:
“I am not SDA member, nor do I agree with much, or any, of SDA doctrine and positions, but I do know that calling Dr. Allen “pastor” and not “Rev. Dr.”, or even “Dr.” goes a long way towards undermining his credibility in this context. This is what happens when reporters do not take their jobs seriously, nor have a sophisticated understanding of what they are doing when they are writing. [Nonetheless] the accounts in the newspaper(s) have been quite biased, albeit in a problematic way […] there is little if any discussion about the systematic biases that slant reportage on religion in Jamaica.”
Here is what I said to another SDA member:
My intention was not to be “pro-SDA” (I actually disagree fairly strongly with SDA doctrine and stances on many issues) but to point to some of the ways that “commonsense” reporting often overwhelms and does more damage than good. The media houses have – in this case, and every other one – the absolute responsibility to be fair in the treatment of any issue, and to provide the information that will allow people to make up their mind and to ask questions. In this case, what they have done is essentially “try” Dr. Allen in the court of poorly informed public opinion, and after the fact! A better approach might be to ask: what role does individual religious belief play in how political leaders do their jobs? Well, the media houses are either too lazy to ask that question, or don’t want to ask it for fear they will have to answer it, and the evidence will provoke more questions and debate than they want to deal with. The kind of divisive reporting we see in this case does a really dangerous thing of pitting SDA folks vs. others, and inflates/invigorates SDA identity in a way that is not necessarily productive or progressive.
Like you, I have a mountain of personal anecdotes about my own experiences as well as what I have witnessed, that ought to lead me down the same path that you have gone down, regarding your strong disdain for adventism. When I was a teenager, I even decided to attend the local SDA church in order to find out exactly how the indoctrination was happening, and to account for the differences among the SDA members that I knew. Years later, I can tell you that the description that you offer of those two women almost perfectly fit a couple of persons who I know who are Jehovah’s Witness and Church of God members. I now know that its not SDA that makes some people nasty, spiteful, hateful vipers; that’s their personality. What does make people feel ENTITLED to be nasty, spiteful, hateful vipers is fundamentalism of any kind. SDA is undeniably a fundamentalist sect. When people invest their whole selves in believing that there is a black/white view of the world, you get what we have in Jamaica: a profound intolerance for difference, and a rabid desire to stamp out whatever difference is apparent, because in the fundamentalist view, only ONE answer can stand, and that answer is TRUTH, specifically, MY TRUTH. Yours has to be killed and ground into nothing. SDA just takes it in a particular direction: not only do they share the same ridiculous loathing of human diversity, they also choose to live their lives rather strictly according to their own creed. Your comparison of SDA to Anglican isn’t entirely fair; they are different institutions based on very different values. SDA is closer to Orthodox Judaism than anything else. In fact, both of these sects within major religions are based on many of the same precepts, including the rule about conversion and bans against “unequal yoking”. So, I don’t have any particular animus towards SDA that I don’t dole out in roughly the same quantities towards other rigid belief systems as well.
Nor do I think that SDA is benign; it has never been. I have had the privilege of reading the scholarship written about SDA belief systems in the Caribbean and in immigrant communities in US and England, and I can tell you, it is a powerful institution that is doing a lot to make itself relevant and to embed itself more fully and visibly in Caribbean societies. Universities, hospitals, colleges, research & training centres, community centres, family support, publications, you name it, they do it. They are not wasting time or resources in making themselves a force to be reckoned with. That’s the way all the larger organized religious bodies work; so nothing really distinct about SDA in that regard. WE just haven’t seen them in a holistic way; we are more concerned about the pork than about the power.
For those reasons, I wrote the column. I don’t take the appointment of Dr. Allen lightly at all. In fact, I see it as quite a dangerous step and entirely regressive. And the more that is disclosed about him, the secretive process by which the appointment was made, the glaring conflicts of interest (can you imagine that he was not asked to resign immediately prior to accepting the position of GG??? How stupid can the PM be?), and the ways that Jamaicans don’t really see the problem for what it really is (Martin Henry wrote a great column on this) the more I am worried about what is to come down the road. If we Jamaicans were sufficiently organized, we would have raised enough hell to overturn this appointment. And we still can. There are some serious ethical issues that, with sufficient care in constructing the argument, can force the PM to reconsider. Chief among these is the lack of confidence that many Jamaicans have in Allen, and the overly partisan ways in which SDA leaders have embraced Allen’s new role, which undermines any possibility of him acting in a neutral fashion. If this issue had come up in any other democratic society, the nomination would never have gone through. Our PM is also not the brightest bulb in the pack.
But therein lies the hypocrisy. Such a move to overturn the nomination would not be because we have problems with religious fundamentalism being placed front and center in the governance of the society; it would be because we don’t want an Adventist. In my view, we should not allow ANY person with such clear religious views and stances to be appointed to that position. From my point of view, Anglicans may look more liberal compared to SDA, but not when they come out of the Caribbean or Africa. When we sit back and allow our elected prime minister to APPOINT conservative religious persons like Herro Blair and Al Miller to political office without saying a word – because we believe that somehow pastors have better judgment than others – then WE opened the door to this GG-Allen problem. You see, the problem is much bigger than Allen. And that’s what my column was trying to point out. But we have become too enamoured of religion to be able to see that we are mixing and feeding ourselves our own poison. And rather than do the hard work of showing how this retreat into religion is hurting us, the mass media just keeps feeding us the poison, legitimizing it, rather than raising questions. In other words, an Anglican is not inherently better than a SDA; I would prefer to know how that person stood on a list of issues that we agreed were important barometers.
I hope I addressed your concerns adequately.
January 16, 2009
I sent a version of this letter to the editor on January 16, 2008.
To the editor:
I find the media-driven discussion about the newly appointed Governor-General to be quite disturbing. The absence of basic contextual information, the oblique prejudices as well as speculative claims being expressed about Mr. Allen’s religious beliefs reflect the shortcomings of the reportage on the issue.
It is curious to me why the Gleaner has chosen to represent the new Governor-General in a particular way ie. of highlighting his religious affiliation and thus using it as a qualifier. In light of the prejudices and misinformation that persist about SDA, producing a headline about a “pastor turned GG” and “Adventist cleric” is bound to both inflame public prejudices as well as distract us from the important questions like: why do we still have a Governor-General, and what role do we want the Governor-General to fulfill, given that there is little effort being made for Jamaica to become a republic?
If there has not been any discussion about the religious orientations of the former Governor-General, why is so much being made of the current appointee? Surely it is Mr. Allen’s decision about how he will balance the needs or demands of his spiritual faith in light of this particular position that he has chosen to accept? Surely, given his stature in the SDA denomination, that he would know about the requirements of the job, and that he would have consulted with other members of the SDA leadership before making this decision?
Likewise, the public queries of members of the SDA also reflect their own sense of betrayal, as well as a staunch defense of those practices which they seem to think are being called into question by Mr. Allen’s appointment. Here again, the confusion about and intolerance of diversity of religious practices among SDA becomes evident, and which the media reportage could clarify, but has not done so far. If indeed it is a matter of interpretation whether Mr. Allen is indeed violating some core religious tenet that precludes members of the SDA from participating in political duties, then it would be helpful if the answer did not come from hearsay and speculation, but from the research conducted by the reporters.
But more to the point, it seems as if the objections about Mr. Allen being religious and thus prone to using his political status to proselytize and impose his religious beliefs onto the society, are really about his being Seventh-Day Adventist and not, say, a member of the Church of God. The hypocrisy of many of those who complain becomes evident: there has been no such outcry about melding individual religious beliefs with politics up until now, no matter how retrograde those beliefs have been, and no matter how often we see such a lethal combination of religious beliefs and political power working against the interests of Jamaican people. Indeed, it is rare that media reportage treats religious affiliation as anything but an ordinary, albeit required, part of one’s biography, especially for persons involved in politics.
As I hear all the jokes about jerk pork being banned and people being forced to close their shops and stay home on Saturday, I also hear how easily it is for Jamaicans to be mobilized based on fear and ignorance, rather than on actual information. Underlying the obsessive detailing of all the ways in which the new Governor-General will be handicapped by his religious orientation, then, is the profound fear that one version of fundamentalist Christianity is about to eclipse the other version that is increasingly holding us hostage in this society. That may well happen; after all, the SDA denomination is very active and successful in terms of creating viable institutions that can have a meaningful impact on Jamaican society beyond the physical places of worship and direct proselytizing. Its fundamentalist rivals haven’t been as successful in this regard.
In practice, we should have and continue to be concerned about all our political leaders – appointed or not, symbolic figurehead or not – and the ways that they continue to manipulate and misinterpret religious doctrine to support their own narrow stances.
Given that there is little recognition of the dangers of making religious fundamentalism a part of our political structure, those of us who would prefer a more secular polity are seeing more of the same, and are duly afraid. It seems that all the chatter about “the church” becoming more involved in public life has fallen on the PM’s ears. Aside from the specific practices that SDA use to distinguish themselves, the moral conservatism articulated by Bruce Golding is no different from that coming from the new Governor-General.
So, if there is anything to fear about this appointment, it is this: Amidst the political and economic failures that surround us, this government is being remarkably consistent in finding ways to enshrine conservative religious views everywhere it can, including in the most symbolic of positions. I would think all the devout “law and order” folks who are constantly decrying the death of “morals and values” in Jamaica would be happy; they may have just gotten their strongest ally and defender yet.
December 7, 2008
I read everything when I was a child – from atlases, the dictionary, encyclopedia, manuals on general surgery, the bible cover to cover at least twice, the farmer’s almanac which I loved, and no small number of True Confessions, Mills & Boon, and Harlequin books. But I also read a lot of evangelical tracts on the rapture which told me what a wicked harlot sinner I was destined to become if I did not “become born again.”
One stalwart in the crusade for my soul was “Caribbean Challenge.” I would get it from church, and put it at the bottom of the center table underneath the telephone directory. And somehow by midweek, it would make its way from the living room onto my bed, where I would find it laying when I came home from school; my grandmother would leave it there – no’h fi yuh dis? she would ask. No answer. And after reading yet another book a third or so time, I would leaf through the Challenge, and then want to throw it away, but felt so damn guilty about what it said about me that I would do such a thing, that the most I could do was stuff it under my mattress (I discovered many of them there browned and aged when my grandmother died a few years ago and we were cleaning out the house and giving away some of the furniture). I did a lot of things on that bed that probably would have made the magazines burst into flames, but somehow they didn’t. I don’t remember any horrible nightmares either. And as far as I know, I’m not going to hell; I’m there already.
While I want to say that it is good to have more things for people to read – we just don’t read enough – I really think that we also need more variety, substance and balance in terms of what is made publicly available, even in the religious publications. I mean, where is our version of Tikkun, Sojourners, etc.? (to see the difference between what gets called Christianity here and the variety that can and does exist in other places, check out this site).
The irony of course, is that if we were such a Christian country, then how come this magazine, which is practically an institution – 52 years to date – would come to this bitter end? I guess we think we know everything already, and don’t need to read? Whatever the reason, I say good riddance. Now we just need to step into that space left by the Challenge and do something that will leave all of us better off. We sure as hell don’t need another vehicle for right-wing evangelical proselytism to terrorize those of us who have not claimed the “righteous” path yet or at all. This is an excellent moment for well-thinking Christian Jamaicans to create something new and different, and which nourishes people’s spiritual selves rather than turning them into blood-thirsty cannibals.
June 21, 2008
This week, the Gleaner notes that Rev. Dr. Marjorie Lewis, of United Theological College – WI, offers a strong criticism – rebuke is really more apt – of PM Golding’s ass-backwards stance where he claimed that he would exclude gays and lesbian MP’s from participating in his Cabinet (on a side note, the man obviously thinks he’s going to be PM for life, you know. Why would you even make such a statement unless you had the wherewithall to make it a policy? Just saying ‘im nuh too right inna im ‘ead…). More importantly, she took the opportunity at the Diaspora conference (a gathering that has, to date, pretty much ignored and thus rubber-stamped the State’s putrid stances on homosexuality) also spoke to the implications of such arguments coming from the PM, particularly in the way that he explicitly legitimizes the exclusion and maltreatment of gays and lesbians in Jamaican life. I do love a woman who speaks her mind…ok, so this is a bit of hero-worship — I have a crush on this woman, and she clearly is deserving of such (yes, I am very choosy)! Between she and Rachel “Evie” Vernon, the big church man dem betta’ watch dem self! Change is a-coming, and while she is looking mighty fabulous, she na’a joke!
March 18, 2008
If you’ve been paying attention for the past two weeks, you will know that white folks have got their knickers tied in all kinds of knots about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and whether he has ostensibly contaminated our dear angel Barack Obama with his fire-breathing assault on white supremacy. I’ll blog about some related issues soon. But, for now, here’s what Rev. Wright had to say to the NYTimes exactly one year ago about the smear campaign they were jumpstarting. Full text is in the TUCC bulletin of March 18, 2007.
March 11, 2007
The New York Times
9 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036-3959
Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years.
You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a “Spiritual Biography” of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.
For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.
I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office.
Your own question to me was, Didn’t I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and
Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.
I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just “in word only.” I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about
Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.
Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack’s spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that.
When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?,” that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it “in his hand.” Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 21st century, and you did not print that.
As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack’s taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed “sound byte” and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.
I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before, and I want to write you publicly to let you know that I do not approve of it and will not be party to any further smearing of
the name, the reputation, the integrity or the character of perhaps this nation’s first (and maybe even only) honest candidate offering himself for public service as the person to occupy the Oval Office.
Your editor is a sensationalist. For you to even mention that makes me doubt your credibility, and I am looking forward to see how you are going to butcher what else I had to say concerning Senator
Obama’s “Spiritual Biography.” Our Conference Minister, the Reverend Jane Fisler Hoffman, a white woman who belongs to a Black church that Hannity of “Hannity and Colmes” is trying to trash, set the record straight for you in terms of who I am and in terms of who we are as the church to which Barack has belonged for over twenty years.
The president of our denomination, the Reverend John Thomas, has offered to try to help you clarify in your confused head what Trinity Church is even though you spent the entire weekend with us
setting me up to interview me for what turned out to be a smear of the Senator; and yet The New York Times continues to roll on making the truth what it wants to be the truth. I do not remember reading in your article that Barack had apologized for listening to that bad information and bad advice. Did I miss it? Or did your editor cut it out? Either way, you do not have to worry about hearing anything else from me for you to edit or “spin” because you are more interested in journalism than in truth.
Forgive me for having a momentary lapse. I forgot that The New York Times was leading the bandwagon in trumpeting why it is we should have gone into an illegal war. The New York Times became George Bush and the Republican Party’s national “blog.” The New York Times played a role in the outing of Valerie Plame. I do not know why I thought The New York Times had actually repented and was going to exhibit a different kind of behavior.
Maybe it was my faith in the Jewish Holy Day of Roshashana. Maybe it was my being caught up in the euphoria of the Season of Lent; but whatever it is or was, I was sadly mistaken. There is no repentance on the part of The New York Times. There is no integrity when it comes to The Times. You should do well with that paper, Jodi. You looked me straight in my face and told me a lie!
Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. ,
Trinity United Church of Christ
November 4, 2007
and make our educational system into a mockery…
1. Put people like Esther Tyson in charge of our children’s educational development.
2. Give her a national platform where she uses her status of Principal of a highly regarded high school to promote her religious beliefs, knowing that few will question her. Jamaicans, after all, are suckers for elitist behavior, and people of such status dictating what we should do. She knows it. We all know it.
3. Allow her to write as if her agenda is inherently more noble, righteous or legitimate than the “homosexual agenda” that she claims is at work simply because American rightwing and religious fundamentalists said so, and that’s what she’s been brainwashed by. Again, she knows that Jamaicans don’t give a hoot about evidence; why? That’s easy. We have been educated under regimes governed by Esther Tysons, where we have been taught not to think or question received knowledge. Esther clearly demonstrates and supports the view that if one thinks it and claims it, then it must be right, valid and sanctioned by God.
4. Allow her to claim that the viewpoint of The Church of God of Jamaica, a fundamentalist denomination that is so reactionary, puritannical and sexist, they rival or come quite close to the Taliban, is representative of Judeo-Christian theology.
5. Accept her logic that since heterosexuality has been normalized as an institution (ie. enforced through law and cultural values) in Jamaica thus far, it would be somehow unthinkable to question that repressive setup at this moment in time.
6. Accept her argument that her particular religious views – as perverted and biased as it is – should be the basis for how our ostensibly democratic society should be governed, and the views that all of us should be held hostage to, no matter how ridiculous, anti-human or intolerant to social justice.
7. Allow her to use the party line of right-wing fundamentalism and pass it off as her own. That is, using established rhetorical tricks to demonize human beings by drawing unsavory comparisons between them and animals, helps to show her contempt and to justify their subordination.
8. Allow her to ignore evidence that does not support her ideological position, to misrepresent historical material, and to pass off her thinking as logical, informed and concern for all of us.
9. Allow her to position herself and her argument as “right”, where her plea that “we as a people need to think for ourselves” really means, agree with and accept her point of view, along with its consequences.
11. Allow her to misuse language (e.g. “ideal”, “spurious”, “objectivity”, “bias”, “morality”, etc.) and to mangle, misconstrue and misrepresent social scientific knowledge to serve her own political interests.
12. Allow her to promote her argument on the assumption that the questions that she asks of those “other agendas” should and cannot not be asked of hers.
13. Allow her to usurp her role as an educator, and to abuse her authority by using the school as her political platform ie. to proselytize our children, and to coerce them to accept her worldview.
14. Allow her to show her fundamentalist, uninformed, miseducated, anti-intellectual backside in public, and then let her keep her position as Principal, on the basis that “she took a stance for what is right”.
15. Hire people like her and give her authority to provide a warped, prejudiced, anti-intellectual and moralistic foundation to make sure our children can’t reason their way out of a paper bag.
Our schools should be educating, not indoctrinating, our children. If only I were the Minister of Education or the Prime Minister…