Guest Blog: Richard Hughes – Review of LETTERS FROM ‘APARTHEID STREET’

I am grateful today to be able to post Dr. Richard Hughes’ review of my book that he gave at the Christian Scholars’ Conference here in Nashville. 

Richard Hughes is the director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. His books include Myths America Lives By and Christian America and the Kingdom of God.   

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Michael McRay begins his extraordinary book, Letters from “Apartheid Streeet”, by reflecting on the meaning and power of stories.  “We own our stories,” he writes, “and they own us.”  In fact, he very thoughtfully writes that “the stories we choose to tell . . . become the liturgy of our lives.” And that is why he especially commends what he calls those “stories from below.”  Many of the stories human beings tell are stories that point us toward power and privilege, but those are the stories that also point toward decay and death.  But “storytelling,” Michael writes, “can be an act of resurrection.”  And his book illustrates the biblical paradox that the stories that especially lend themselves to resurrection are those “stories from below.” No one can read Michael’s book and fail to discern the story that has shaped his life and his commitments.  That story is the story of Jesus and the good news of life and peace and reconciliation that the gospel story proclaims. In fact, the story of Jesus so completely informs this book that when Michael asked me to write an endorsement, I wrote these words:  “Here is a book as unflinchingly faithful to the Christian gospel as a book can possibly be.”  And I stand by those words today. Through his letters back home, Michael unpacks in great detail the stories of Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people and the extraordinary levels of suffering the Palestinians must endure. As I read these stories, I could not help but think how offensively they would ring in the ears of Americans who subscribe to what Michael calls “the single story.”  For the single story not only eliminates the legitimacy of competing stories.  It eliminates their being told and being heard.  And when privileged and powerful people define the “single story,” those stories most at risk are those “stories from below.”  Michael is therefore right to suggest that the ruthless perpetuation of the single story stands at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the single story is nothing new.  Tyrants in every age have used the single story as a means to subjugate others.  In her Nobel Lecture given in Stockholm in 1993, Toni Morrison reflects on what she calls “dead language” which is the language inevitably employed when a single story become the official story, enforced as the orthodox story by the ruling regime.  And that is the kind of story that the Israeli regime routinely tells about the Palestinian people. “A dead language,” Toni Morrison writes, “is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis.” She continues, Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than to maintain the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. . . .  Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. . . .  Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence . . . .  Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux language of mindless media; . . . whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary check—it must be rejected, altered and exposed.  It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line. In his powerful book, Michael exposes the single story for what it is—a tool the powerful use to subjugate the powerless.  And that is the truth that privileged and powerful people—whether in Israel or the United States—do not wish to hear and do not wish to have told. That is why I also wrote in my endorsement of Michael’s book that when reading this text,

I could not help but recall the words Mark Twain spoke to Dan Beard regarding Twain’s classic text, The War Prayer:  “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”  Therefore, Twain told Beard, his text rejecting war could be published only after he was dead.  In a book at least as powerful as Twain’s War Prayer, McRay tells the unvarnished and deeply disturbing truth regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine—the truth he has witnessed with his own two eyes while working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in that occupied country.  But McRay is not afraid of death, having exposed himself to the threat of violence and death time and again as he has sought “to be owned” by “the stories from below,” as he so graphically puts it.

In light of the stories Michael tells, I found myself wondering time and again about the American nation—why we so uncritically and endlessly repeat the single story of Israeli righteousness and Palestinian depravity when an entirely different story begs to be told.  But as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, nations—even democratic nations—typically refuse to tell or acknowledge the “stories from below.” And I found myself wondering why so many American Christians—people who should embrace the “stories from below”—also repeat the single story of Israeli righteousness and Palestinian depravity.  Some of those Christians repeat that story because they fail to grasp the dominant storyline of the biblical text.  They imagine the biblical story is all about Israel when, in point of fact, the centerpiece of the biblical story is Jesus and the story he tells about the kingdom of God—a kingdom that exalts not Israel or any other nation, but those he called “the least of these.” And then there are Christians who, as Michael notes, “claim to follow this native from Nazareth [and] travel [t]here in flocks to see the ancient stones, to ride boats across the Sea of Galilee, to walk the Via Dolorosa.  We come,” Michael continues, “to see where Jesus walked, but it seems we often forget what he taught.  We see the places but do not hear the words.” More often than not, these are the Christians—and we may well be among them—who seek a “spiritual salvation” but refuse to acknowledge what Michael calls “the political relevance of Jesus.”  But as Michael notes, “To relegate Jesus’ teachings to the category of spiritual ideals or intentions is to allow ourselves a way out, an escape hatch so that we do not have to confront the life-altering implications of passages like the Sermon on the Mount.” Michael understands that the politics of Jesus have nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans but everything to do with the struggle the kingdom of God wages every day—and the struggle it has waged for centuries on end—against the principalities and the powers.  For the kingdom of God does what the powers will never do—it lavishes love and compassion on marginalized and oppressed human beings whose only stories are those “stories from below.”  To help us get this point, Michael quotes a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  There, Bonhoeffer explains that we must learn “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.” And then Michael offers a comment that does more than anything else to help us understand his book.  “Those living ‘below,’” he writes, “have stories that frequently do not find ears that hear.”  As a result, I seek to train [my ears] to listen to these stories and be owned by them so that I must live within their painful pages.  The pain of these stories, compounded by the injustice embedded within them, compels me to service.  Rooted in a love of people and places, I am seeking to weave my story into the human narrative’s recurring patterns of violence and death by joining those seeking to sew threads of wholeness and rebirth. But while he seeks to train his ears to hear those “stories from below,” Michael remains open to the leading of the Spirit.  He knows he has been called to the work of making peace, for he knows how central peacemaking is to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.  But within that larger context, what that specific calling might be today or tomorrow or the next day, he admits he does not know. “I am not yet convinced that I have been ‘called’ to any particular avenue of peacemaking,” he writes, but I am absolutely convinced that as a Christian, I am called to be involved in the hard work of peacemaking and reconciliation, wherever I am and in whatever way I can.  I am not yet sure what path I will take, but for now, I am compelled by the issues here in Israel and Palestine, and by the issues in my current city of Nashville, dealing with the injustices of the prison system, reconciliation between victims and offenders and whites and blacks, and the disparity between the housed and the unhoused.” Indeed, Michael knows that all these tasks are ways of making peace by telling and listening to those “stories from below.” And finally, on a more personal note, I am struck by the extent to which Michael is profoundly a McRay.  When we were undergraduate students at Harding College, Jan and I both studied under Michael’s grandfather, John McRay.  And through their words and through their deeds, both John and Annette—John’s wife and Michael’s grandmother—helped Harding students to grasp the shape of the kingdom of God. Carrying on the legacy of John and Annette, Michael’s parents—as Michael relates the story—“moved to East Tennessee immediately after my birth so my father could work with a community health center as a family physician, offering quality care to the uninsured.  Intending to relocate to Central America, they instead found themselves drawn to the stories of their neighbors and his patients, and so they planted roots in that community.”  Michael is telling us that his parents also listened to those “stories from below.” But his parents did more than that.  They taught their children to listen to those stories as well.  Michael writes that “I was . . . nineteen when I stood before the brick ovens of Auschwitz.  My father told me there that whatever beliefs I held of the world or of God must make sense in these places or they cannot make sense at all.” And then, toward the middle of Michael’s book, we read these words:  “Tomorrow I leave Hebron and head for Jerusalem where I will meet up with my parents.  My mom has come to attend a peace conference in Bethlehem with me during the next week, and my dad comes, as he does each March, bringing six medical school students and residents to do rotations in hospitals throughout the West Bank.” Yes, Michael is a McRay, and because he is a McRay, he is profoundly a Christian who listens first to the voice of Jesus, and because he hears that voice, he listens carefully to “those voices from below.”

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