Time to Remember

howell_headshotTHINKING FOR OURSELVES
Time to Remember
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Feb.8-14, 2009

Our national culture encourages us to ignore important anniversaries. We rarely use events from our history to encourage public reflection on what we have learned from a critical moment or on how we have grown or declined as a people.

For example, this week is the 30th anniversary of two important events. On February 1, 1979 the Sandinistas of Nicaragua established the National Patriotic Front. By March they had achieved unity among all the guerrillas, and by May they swept into power, overthrowing Somoza’s dictatorships, one of the oldest and most violent in Central America.

On that same day, on the other side of the globe, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran. Several million Iranians greeted him with cheers. On February 11, rebel troops overwhelmed forces loyal to the Shah. The Islamic Republic was born, and on April 1 overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum. The Shah fled the country and was admitted into the United States in October. In response to the refusal of the U.S. to return him for trial, students entered the U.S embassy and seized 52 hostages, contributing to the defeat of Jimmy Carter.

President Obama would be wise to use this 30th anniversary to invite sustained public reflection on these events. They raise many issues about our relationships to other nations, our way of living and our use of the military to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Both revolutions were fueled not only by material grievances but by spiritual power. The Sandinistas brought the ideas of progressive Christianity into the political world. Liberation Theology, born out of reflections on the significance of Christ’s message in a world of poverty and injustice, swept through the Americas, demanding new forms of political activity. Likewise, the forces for change in Iran believed they were sacrificing to create an Islamic state that would be “a perfect model of splendid, humane, and divine life… for all the peoples of the world.”

It is worth considering how these spiritual forces have evolved over the last three decades. What has happened to the ideals of Islam? How has a religion of peace become so associated with violence? What has become of Liberation Theology? How has a message that fueled such great hopes for new relationships of justice and love disappeared from public consciousness? During the election campaign Liberation Theology was so little understood that scholars had to be called upon to explain the claim of Rev. Jeremiah Wright that he was speaking in that tradition.

Moreover, both these revolutions were opposed by the United States. Both were against brutal regimes that, with the help of the U.S. military and CIA, had come to power against the popular vote of the people. Both regimes were sustained by U.S. military assistance, including torture and political repression. As Dr. King had said, more than a decade before these events, our government was on “the wrong side of a world revolution.”

King went on to say that to get on the right side “we must undergo a radical revolution of values” and “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

We avoided this look in the mirror at the end of the Vietnam war. So we repeated the same mistakes in Nicaragua and Iran. Today, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan provide another opportunity to ask ourselves “What kind of people are we? What kind of world are we helping to create? Can we look honestly at who we have been and who we want to become?”

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