Under the influence of radicalism

“Empire resurrected and unapologetic, war without end, an undefined enemy that’s supposed to be a rallying point for a new kind of energized jingoistic patriotism, unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion, white supremacy changing its form, but essentially intact, attacks on women and girls, violent attacks, growing surveillance in every sphere of our lives, on and on and on, the targeting of gay and lesbian people as a kind of a scapegoating gesture to keep our minds off of what’s really happening.” — William Ayers, self-described anarchist, former Weatherman bomber, friend and supporter of Sen. Barack Obama, describing his view of America in a 2007 speech. Audio at Powerline.

sds_bring_the_war_homeIn the 60’s, William Ayers and his current wife Bernardine Dohrn were leaders in the Weathermen, an ultra-radical group that preached revolution — the overthrow of the US government and its replacement by a communist society. They declared war on the United States and planted numerous homemade bombs against government facilities and police stations. Three of their own members died in an accidental explosion while building bombs.

Though Ayers and Dohrn willingly, even proudly, admit what they did, they were never prosecuted. The FBI used illegal wire taps to gain evidence against the Weathermen, evidence which was later ruled inadmissible.

Today Ayers and Dohrn are well-to-do college professors, “respectable” and still politically active. They sponsored the first fundraising efforts for Barack Obama’s entry into Illinois politics and have continued to be close friends with the Obamas.

The question being asked by some on the right, a question my fellow Democrats are ducking, is this: What sort of influence has the Ayers-Dohrn radicalism had on Barack Obama’s thinking? How will the radical ideas espoused by these former domestic terrorists shape Obama’s presidency if he is elected? What payback has Obama promised Ayers-Dohrn for all their support over the years?

Put another way, who is influencing whom? Have Ayers and Dohrn convinced Obama that we are living today, in Dohrn’s words “in the belly of the beast” and “inside the heart of the monster”? Or has Obama, an avowed Christian and church-goer, attempted to convince friends like Ayers and Dohrn that love, not violence, is the way to right society’s wrongs?

Jesus was also friendly with people who had unsavory pasts. It was, in fact, one of the criticisms made against him, that he must be a sinner because he spent so much time with sinners.

You can tell a person by their friends, as the popular saying goes.

One of the twelve men Jesus chose to be his disciple was Simon the Zealot. We know very little about Simon, except that he stayed true to the commitment he made to Jesus. He was there in the upper room with the rest of the disciples in Acts 1:13, after Jesus had died and risen, waiting to be filled with the Holy Spirit, waiting for God to show him what was next. His life became subsumed in Jesus’ life.

He is presumed to have been called Simon the Zealot because he was a member of a radical group just like the Weathermen. The Zealots were religious radicals, vehemently opposed to the presence of Roman authority in Jerusalem and committed to a violent remedy to the problem of Roman occupation.

Indeed, it is ironic that in one of the final scenes during Jesus’ trial, Pontius Pilate offers to pardon Jesus, as it was his custom to free a political prisoner during the Passover observance. The crowd insisted that Pilate free Barabbas, instead. Barabbas was a prominent member of the Zealot movement and in prison for leading an insurrection against Roman authority.

If Simon joined Jesus’ band of followers with thoughts of co-opting Jesus and persuading him to join in the Zealot’s rebellion, Jesus ultimately turned the tables on Simon. By all accounts, Jesus persuaded Simon to abandon domestic terrorism and embrace a life of self-emptying service — a life centered in love, a love so powerful and inclusive that it transformed the lives of Jews and Romans alike.

Simon the Zealot may have hoped to influence Jesus, but in the end, it was Jesus who influenced Simon the Zealot.

Whose words move you? Whose philosophy guides you? To whom do you owe your allegiance?

The principles we live by, the political philosophy that guides us and sets our priorities, both in the voting booth and during the long seasons of real life in between, these ideas are never original.

We borrow everything we believe from someone else. All of us are persuaded by the words and actions of others, and once we are persuaded, we build our lives around their beliefs. It’s as true for the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas as for privileged college professors in the mid-west. As I said in my last post, we each create a framing story that we use to judge truth and error, a story that guides not only our thinking, but every decision and action we take — as well as every alternative we reject out of hand.

According to Christian thought, we all influence others. Those of us who follow Christ influence society as much as those who reject Jesus’ authority. Jesus used the metaphor of yeast, a very tiny organism that spreads through a batch of dough and transforms it from something inedible to something sweet — bread.

Like yeast, Christians are to be agents of change, agents of influence, people with counter-cultural ideas about the nature of the world we live in, ideas that have practical consequences and real benefits in our culture.

It’s a fair question for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain: “Who influences and shapes your political philosophy?” All three candidates claim to be Christians. How has that devotion to Christ transformed them, and their political views?

It’s a fair question for us, too. Jesus transformed Simon the Zealot and his politics. How has Jesus shaped your political goals and the means you use to achieve them? How has he shaped your values, your principles and the framing stories that guide your life?

Who influences you? Jesus the Son of the living God, or someone else?

Art credit: SDS/Weathermen anti-war poster.

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  1. Thanks, Charlie, for helping to bring this to light. In the recent Obama-Clinton debate, the ABC moderators asked about the Ayers connection and have been sharply criticized for even hinting that maybe Obama’s friendship with Ayers could be problematic. Some 60s radicals have grown up, even becoming Republicans (yikes)! But Hugh Hewitt posts a link to statements made by Ayers and Dohrn as recently as 2007 that show that they still hold the same basic radical views. (link here)

  2. Andrew Bridges says

    Just the other day i was wondering about Simon the Zealot. Who he was, what was his background, etc…Interesting stuff. Enlightening.

  3. Based on Ayers and Dohrn’s recent statements, if Obama was trying to rub off on them, he hasn’t been rubbing very effectively. (I think it was my mom who said that Bad rubs off on Good, not the other way around.)

    Ayeres & Dohrn need a good dose of Jesus.

  4. It is always puzzling to us Saskatchewanians the way Americans react to former radical views of leaders. Most of our former political leaders would be considered radical to Americans and yet their faith was fundamental to the development of our social systems. Some of their children even ended up spending time is US jails for political activism.

    Violent radicalism is a different story. If these people are living peaceably now, are they still advocating violence?

  5. Very compelling reflection on a vital contemporary issue. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Andrew Bridges says

    Funny thing was, when i first saw that picture it made me think of Zach De La Roche. Then i read the article and found that it was a funny coincidence being that Zach De La Roche was and is the front man for Rage Against the Machine, and also during their breakup he was toting a gun around with rebels in some south American country.

  7. Maybe this is why we have such a problem with offender recidivism in this country. Too many people refust to hang out with “sinners.” And look down on those who do.

  8. Hey Charlie –

    Where are you? Hope everything is OK.

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