Words Create Worlds

The Austin American-Statesman published the following as an op-ed on Sunday, August 18, 2019.

In the four years since declaring for the presidency, Donald Trump’s tongue and fingers (on Twitter) have spewed divisive and sometimes hateful words to a worldwide audience. It has helped him amass a fervent base of supporters, even though his approval ratings are the lowest for any president of recent memory.

The hyper-partisan political divide in this country pre-dates the Trump presidency, yet the 45th president intentionally stokes the fires of division while striving for a second term. He treads upon the same path as did previous American politicians who leveraged this nation’s original sin of racism to gain and maintain a grip on power: Andrew Jackson, Ben Tillman, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond.

Mass shootings in America also pre-date the current presidency. But Trump’s words to describe immigrants and immigration – invasion, criminals, infestation – helped create the environment where a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and opened fire at a local Walmart, killing twenty-two persons – mostly Latinx. In an online rant posted just prior to the massacre, the white male shooter parroted the president’s language, writing: “This attack is in response to a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

El Paso – on today’s site of its sister city, Juarez – was founded in 1659, more than a century and a half before Stephen F. Austin came to establish an English-speaking and slave-holding settlement in what was then the northeastern part of Mexico. Spanish, alongside indigenous languages, was spoken in this territory – now called Texas – long before English ever was. I wonder if the El Paso shooter knows these historical facts. I imagine the president doesn’t and would label them, if he encountered them, “fake news” as they run contrary to his invasion narrative.

The renown Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke these three words – “words create worlds” – to his students and to his own daughter, raised in the post-Nazi world. The wise rabbi based his teaching on the first chapter of Genesis wherein God’s words create the world of light, seas, land, and sky.

Heschel was born in Poland in 1907. The Nazis would eventually kill his mother and three of his sisters. The Gestapo deported him from Frankfurt, Germany in 1938, where he instructed adults in the Jewish faith. His escape from the Nazis to America was facilitated by his giftedness in writing and teaching.

He eventually settled in New York City, where he instructed seminarians – future rabbis – to be public actors burdened with the responsibility to speak out against social injustice. The Holocaust, he knew, was originally created with words – words of hate, blame, and propaganda seeking political power and advantage. Only after these words inflamed public sentiment, did the Nazis construct their crematoria and concentration camps. Words create worlds, for better and for worse.

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(Left to right) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy

In 1963, Heschel shared the keynote speaker stage at an ecumenical religious conference on religion and race in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. They mutually recognized a prophetic connection and became confidants. Two years later, Heschel walked arm-in-arm with King as they led thousands on a civil rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery. This historic march marshaled the political will President Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Heschel later said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”

King was an African American and Protestant minister, and Heschel was a European immigrant and Jewish rabbi. Different, yes, but they shared a common calling to bring justice to the oppressed by opposing those who create, cause, and maintain injustice. Their words – conversations, prayers, sermons, speeches, and writings – have an edifying effect yet today, helping to uplift liberty and promote justice for all, building on the egalitarian structures created by the words of great Americans who came before: Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Susan B. Anthony.

It was hoped that the current president, when assuming office, would become more “presidential” by scaling back his volatile and divisive rhetoric. He’s not done it, and as both supporters and resisters can see, he’ll not change his ways – or his words – anytime soon.

Words create worlds. After four years of invective words from Trump, it’s time for those of us who oppose him to work as hard as we legally can – whether for impeachment or reelection defeat in 2020 – to change the narrative for the better, and with it, the world we now live in.

 


T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

Visit http://www.tcarlosanderson.com for more information.

The Demonization of Others Won’t Solve our Problems

A version of this article has been printed in a handful of Texas newspapers on their Op-Ed pages, notably the Austin American-Statesman on December 11, 2018, and the Houston Chronicle on December 24. Special thanks to ministry colleague Jim Harrington, former Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, for collaboration on this article.

The story of a pregnant woman, on the road and needing shelter, is retold and reenacted throughout the Americas every December. Raised in a family of European descent, I heard the story in detail each winter of my Midwestern childhood. It wasn’t until adulthood in Texas, however, interacting with Latino communities, that I delved deeper into the story’s themes of exclusion, welcome, and sanctuary.

Originating in Mexico more than 400 years ago, “Las Posadas” (“The Inns”) is the Latin American reenactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. US citizens—many familiar with the biblical story—are faced with a reexamination of societal values, because of heightened political polarization which threatens our ability to deal with societal problems. Whether or not you are a religious adherent, I advocate digging deeper into this story as a way forward.

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Demonization of the other is currently accepted behavior in our society—whether seeing a caravan of migrants as a hostile force; nonchalantly accepting as normal our entrenched inequality, including the callous assumption that anyone who is poor is lazy; or, dismissing our unconscionably high rate of gun killings (massacres and suicides) by calling the majority of actors “mentally unstable.” We know from recent history—from Germany in the 1930s to Rwanda in the 1990s—that demonization of the other is a deadly ideology. The majority of problems that our society suffers from does not originate outside our borders but from within them, creations of our own decisions and values (or lack thereof). “We, the people” means that we are responsible for dealing with our problems in a proactive and cooperative way. Demonization of the other is a convenient cop-out which allows us to point fingers at others outside our borders and, within them, at each other. Rather than solve problems, it exacerbates them by the misallocation of political energy and societal resources.

Religious leaders (including those of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, and those of other faith traditions) have the responsibility to lift up their voices, as did the prophets who came before. In America, it’s not the purpose of religion to support the state, but to keep it honest and to call our leaders to accountability when they deviate from the commonly-held values of our faith traditions.

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped organize a prayer protest outside the prison-like Tornillo, Texas tent camp where our government detains hundreds of unaccompanied minor children. In similar courageous fashion, Brownsville Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores denied access to surveyors tasked with border wall construction on his church’s property in Hidalgo County. For this leader, construction on church property would severely restrict his church’s mission to serve all its neighbors.

The best of our traditions mandate that we live together by just laws that establish subsequent order. Religious teachings help infuse our social contract with compassion: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, demand equal treatment for all, welcome the migrant, and enter into purposeful dialogue with those whom we disagree. The only question about these practices is how we do them, not whether we do them.

After the birth of Mary’s baby in humble circumstances, the story continues with the family having to flee for their lives because of the murderous intent of a ruling tyrant named Herod. The refugees cross a border to find shelter and hospitality—again.

On January 6—Epiphany—many Texans of Mexican heritage will gather around a King’s cake, called “Rosca de Reyes,” in search of an embedded miniature plastic infant boy, representing the baby Jesus, hidden in the cake. The knife that cuts the cake represents Herod and his murderous plan. The gathered ones, however, will do their best to protect the innocent child from tyranny and death.

We don’t make America great by demonizing other people, but by welcoming and befriending vulnerable personsthat’s the message and challenge of this popular Christmas story.

 


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).