“If you ask one of the crucial theological question—why was Jesus killed?—the answer isn’t ‘because God wants us to love one another.’ Why in the hell would anyone kill Jesus for that? That’s stupid. It’s not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution, calling people to be an alternative to the world. That’s what the cross is about.” – Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics, Divinity School of Duke University.
“…I’m not willing to sit and wait on God to come… I believe in religion, but a religion that includes political, economic and social action designated to eliminate some of these [oppressive] things, and make a paradise here on earth while we’re waiting for the other.” – Malcolm X, February 3, 1965 address to the Tuskegee Institute (Post Mecca)
Prayer without action is blasphemy—this is one of the many thoughts that have been twirling through my mind this nice Christmas Day. For the past few days I’ve been reading—and just finished—the new Manning Marable book, Malcolm X: A Life Of Reinvention, and today, being that it’s Christmas, I’ve also been reading some Christian scripture. I just finished doing about 10 asanas (yoga poses) and some nice pranayama (yogic breathing) and Kirtan (chanting) and I thought, “Yes, prayer without action is blasphemy.”
Many theologians from various religious traditions—Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc.—have expressed this idea. Stanley Hauerwas (who I quoted above) is an interesting person. I’ve read some of his books. He writes and speaks much about the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fought against the Nazis and was eventually executed by Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer,—who I’ve read also spoke about how merely looking on in the face of injustice is not Christian behavior, the true Christian is called to sympathy and action. This is indeed what the Christian Bible teaches.
Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the importance of prayer, but spoke of how the most important thing about prayer is that it should be followed by action—action that challenges the injustices within our world. When people say they are praying for something the question that immediately comes to mind is, “What are they actively doing to help make their prayers manifest into reality?” Jesus was a social justice activist; he was in the streets holding rallies, conducting teach-ins, challenging the corrupt authorities. There are many examples from the New Testament Christian Bible that illustrates this, but one of my favorites is contained in the first part of Matthew.
Jesus is born. The Magi (high priests) from the east—probably Zoroastrian holy men—come and let it be known: This is the Messiah, coming straight from God, this is the “Christ” (anointed one). King Herod tried to run some weak duplicitous course on the Magi telling him that he love-love-loves (!) Jesus and really wants to worship him, so pretty please tell me where he is, but in reality Herod is thinking, “Kill the Christ child!” The Magi are, after all, mystic sages so they don’t tell King Herod where he is because they know his real intentions.
An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “The authorities are after the baby Jesus—go escape to Egypt!” Mary, Joseph and Jesus outwit the police and escape to the land of the pyramids, of the high god Osiris, the goddess Isis, lords Anubis and Toth. While in Egypt another angel appears to Joseph and says, “Evil King Herod has died, there’s been a change in government so go back to Israel.” So, they make it to Israel and find out Herod’s son has gained control of the government. Not good—so they leave for the district of Galilee and live in the town of Nazareth. Time goes by.
John the Baptist appears as a Holy Man baptizing people in the Jordan River. Jesus goes to meet him and goes through the rite of baptism and the heavens open up and the spirit of God appears and blesses Jesus. Lovely, right? Yes…but—then Jesus is in the desert for 40 days and it was bad enough that crooked government police were after him but now Satan himself appears! Satan tries to handle Jesus and tempt him with some really weak game, but Jesus bests him with his superior rhetorical power and the devil runs away and angels come.
He’s escaped the crooked police, and beat Satan so all is cool, right? Nope. The unrighteous authorities arrest John the Baptist and send him to prison. Time to organize! Jesus goes back to Galilee and begins organizing and building a solid social movement. His style is to be admired: Jesus walks up to the sea and meets the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and says, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They pledge their solidarity and two other fishermen, John and James, do also. Organizing amongst the working class goes well and they hit the streets on a grassroots level.
Jesus shows what he is about with action—he’s healing the sick, casting out demons, alleviating pain and suffering. People all over the region are hearing about Jesus the Christ, from Syria, from all over Judea, to lands across the Jordan River. Great crowds form and Jesus goes up on a mountainside and in the style of the ancient Sages before him, he sits down and begins to teach. Can you imagine? Jesus is healing the sick left and right, people are cheering, screaming with joy, dancing, tears of happiness are flowing. Great crowds are pulsing like a rock concert and suddenly—Jesus stops what he is doing and all is quiet…
The crowds part and he walks up on a mountaintop and sits down. A thousand, ten thousand, catch their breath and all eyes are on him. And the Messiah begins to teach:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for, righteousness they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
To be merciful takes action. How can one be pure of Heart? Simply think pure thoughts? Hardly. To be pure of heart one must live a pure Life. All action is preceded by thought and pure thoughts will breed pure actions, but this must be actively cultivated. We live in a world filled with injustice. What is peace? Peace is harmony in all affairs—one can have personal peace within oneself and this is good and will cultivate more harmony with (and within) those you encounter. In a small way this creates peace, it makes peace, but to be a true peacemaker one must actively work towards bringing more harmony to humanity, the earth, existence. It takes time, effort and dedication and you may be persecuted in very small or even large ways. (In today’s society I think most of the time we persecute ourselves more than anything.) But, this is what Jesus commands his followers to do: be socially engaged, do good works, be merciful, be a peacemaker. Pray, yes, but action must follow.
Malcolm X understood this and lived this near the end of his life. His autobiography (published in 1965) has sold 6 million copies worldwide and it’s an excellent book. It’s much more moving than Manning Marable´s book because, in his autobiography Malcolm X’s voice comes through much clearer, but Marable’s Malcolm is the work of a historian and this has a different kind of value. (Marable, who died earlier this year, was a renowned historian, author and professor of public affairs, history and African-American Studies at Columbia University.)
It’s quite interesting how after his assassination Malcolm X became a perfectly acceptable social and historical figure, though he was deeply hated by many when he was alive. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, was even invited to a Richard Nixon´s, re-election fundraising gala. Many have said that Malcolm X’s full assimilation into popular and acceptable mainstream U.S. culture was marked when, in 1999, the U.S. government celebrated the release of the official Malcolm X postage stamp. One can only imagine what former F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover—who irately ordered Malcolm’s destruction and his famous “Do something about Malcolm X” internal F.B.I. wire—would think of this.
What do I get from this book and the overall story of Malcolm X? Malcolm was a hustler, gangster, dope man, drug dealer. In the violent and vicious hell of prison he went through a powerful life-changing transformation. This started when he met another prisoner—a self-taught intellectual—who challenged Malcolm to learn, grow, and expand his mind and elevate his Consciousness. Most of this growth was done on his own and always without the help of—and many times in opposition to—prison authorities. Prison destroys most people, but Malcolm only flourished and began what Marable rightly calls, “A Life Of Reinvention.”
Malcolm X got out of prison and immediately began engaging in social activism, albeit a form deluded by black supremacist/separatist ideology. For 12 years he was with the Nation of Islam, and then the most powerful and profound part of his history—perhaps next to his prison experience—occurred: Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam and for the next year went through a beautiful revelatory experience, spurred on more than anything by his Haji pilgrimage to Mecca. He went from a kill-kill-kill the white devil mindset to well, let’s hear it from Malcolm in his own words:
• “Islam brings together in unity all colors and classes. Everyone shares what he has, those who have share with those who have not, those who know teach those who don’t know.”
• “I began to perceive that ‘white man’ as commonly used means complexion only secondarily; primarily it describes attitudes and actions; primarily it describes attitudes and actions…[I met whites] who were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.”
• “I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God…with fellow Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue…[for] the first [time] in my life…I didn’t see them as ‘white men.’ [T]his forced me to rearrange much of my own thought-pattern, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.”
• “[S]ome of my dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists…some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white. It takes all these religions, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients (characteristics) to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”
• “I believe in a society where people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.”
• “I believe in one God, and I believe that God had one religion…God taught all the prophets the same religion…Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, or some of the others…They all had one doctrine and that doctrine was designed to give clarification to humanity.”
• “There is no greater serenity of mind than when one can shut out the hectic noise and pace of the materialistic world and seek inner peace within oneself…The very essence of the Islam religion in teaching Oneness of God, gives the Believer genuine, voluntary obligations toward his fellow man (all of whom are One Human Family, brothers and sisters to each other)…the True Believer recognizes the Oneness of all Humanity.”
Seeking inner peace within oneself: meditation, prayer. Voluntary obligation toward one’s fellow man: social engagement, action. Speaking of which, I am about to go to my door and engage in some dialogue on all I’ve just written about after I do a bit of Shaolin Qi Gong. I’ll meditate and then conduct what is essentially a psycho-sociopolitical class—prayer followed by action. Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah Yule. In the spirit of Reinvention…
From the Polunsky Death Camp,
With Strength and Love: