Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sermon: "Our Response to the Genocide in Darfur" [Delivered 6-8-08]

This is the third sermon on issues of war and peace that I have delivered in the past month. On Mother’s Day, I preached about the life of the 19th Century Unitarian and anti-war activist Julia Ward Howe in conjunction with the "Julia’s Voice: Stand for Peace" event. Two weeks later, on Memorial Day, I preached about the life and poetry of William Stafford, a conscientious objector during World War II. Today, I conclude this sermon series with a sermon about the ongoing genocide in Western and Southern Sudan and the humanitarian crisis that has impacted all of the countries in the horn of Africa. What I will talk about is graphic and disturbing. It will also challenge our own sense of ethics, moral responsibility, and conscience.

However, the way I want to introduce the subject is indirectly. With a topic as dark as genocide the temptation is to tune out after a certain amount of information is presented, so it is helpful to suggest a lens through which to view it. I want to begin by talking about our own country and our own country’s history of genocide against indigenous people. Analogies aren’t perfect, but they help for us to place something foreign in a context we might better understand.

The Shoshone Indians are a small Native American tribe that is widely dispersed in the American West. Their homeland ranged from present day Idaho to Nevada and even into parts of Southern California. Sacajawea, who helped guide Lewis & Clark’s expedition across the continent, was a Shoshone Indian. In 1863, the Shoshone signed the Ruby Valley treaty which granted the Shoshone a large segment of Nevada. This is not exactly prime real-estate. One hundred years later, the United States government began to try various tactics to take the land back. Various government bureaucracies, including the IRS, the bureau of land management, and even the US military have attempted to gain control over the land. The Western Shoshone primarily make their living as ranchers, and to ranch in this kind of desolate land you need lots and lots of land.

When attempts to buy the land failed, the government claimed the Shoshone were illegally grazing on government lands and sued them for millions of dollars including compounded interest. These are poor people, small time ranchers living subsistence life-styles. From time to time, the bureau of land management has claimed that the Shoshone’s ranching is hurting the environment and come in with armed law enforcement agents and take the Shoshone’s horses and cattle. The United States military has even become involved, threatening to test powerful bombs – weapons of mass destruction – on Shoshone holy sites. In 2006, the Pentagon planned to test a new megabomb, nick-named “Divine Strake” on Shoshone land. This bomb is 5-times more powerful than any non-nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal.

So, why has the US government been so fixated on this land for the past several decades? The simple answer is greed. Although the land was deemed pretty much worthless when the treaty of Ruby Valley was signed almost 150 years ago, what they didn’t know at the time was that the treaty ceded one of the world’s largest gold deposits to the Western Shoshone. Follow the money. The gold industry sees profit and their lobbyists influence legislators to try to open up the land for mining. And not just any mining. The gold in the land is in flakes, not nuggets. To extract the gold would require the leveling of mountains, strip-mining and leeching the gold of the land with environmentally degrading chemicals – which makes the claim that the Shoshone are damaging the environment by grazing incredibly suspect. In 2006 the Shoshone appealed to the United Nations to intervene and the UN issued a decision against the US government, the first decision of this kind in history. For more information, check out the Western Shoshone Defense Project or check out the documentary film “American Outrage.”

In the 19th century, the United States would have simply removed the tribe by force, used biological weapons against them, or perhaps just slaughtered them. Now, our Indian removal policies are just more civilized.

I ask you to hold this story in mind as I talk about the history of the Sudan. Geographically, the Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. It gained independence in 1956, but, like many countries in colonial Africa, the geo-political boundaries were problematic. The Sudan included a large Muslim population in the North, several Nubian tribes, as well as many other tribes. In fact, there are nearly 600 different tribal groups who speak approximately 400 language dialects. The history of the area goes back over 10,000 years to the Kush dynasty. The area was conquered first by Christians and then by Muslims.

From 1983 to 2003, Sudan was stricken by a second civil war that pitted Arabs in the North against non-Arabs in the South and West. The war claimed the lives of more than two million people. The Sudanese government employed mercenary militia forces to devastate villages in Sudan. These mercenaries rode into towns on horse-back. These Janjaweed militias systematically terrorized these villages, murdering indiscriminately, raping women, and taking boys as prisoners to be put to slave labor. The militias also stole whatever they could take, burned the rest, scorched and salted the earth and dropped corpses down wells. The goal was total destruction.

Out of this civil war we are perhaps most familiar with the Sudanese Lost Boys. The Lost Boys either escaped the militias or were sent away by their elders before the militias arrived. These groups of boys walked hundreds of miles and crossed over to Ethiopia and Kenya. The walk took many lives, and unimaginably, the Sudanese Air-Force strafed these packs of displaced boys with bombs and gunfire. Some 27,000 survived and in the late nineties, as many as 4,000 lost boys were brought to the United States. The largest group of Sudanese Lost Boys actually wound up in Omaha, believe it or not.

In 2003, the civil war ended, but the government of Sudan began the same practice in the Darfur region in Western Sudan. Janjaweed militias continue to perpetrate unspeakable acts of violence and terror against these villages. The Sudanese government supports these militias with arms and funding. Estimates are that at least 400,000 thousand have died. Another 3.5 million from the Darfur region are displaced, living and dying in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Cross-border attacks against the refugees continue. It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

Sudan is ruled by a fundamentalist Muslim regime. It is regarded as the country with the worst human rights record in the world. This includes not only the ongoing genocide in Darfur, but also the widespread practice of slavery, human trafficking, and supporting terrorist organizations. In 1998, President Clinton authorized cruise missile attacks against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a suspected weapons factory in Sudan. (Osama bin Laden is widely believed to have lived for a time in Sudan.) These attacks were in retaliation for embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

There is one more thing you should know in terms of history and background. One should ask why the Sudanese government is so interested in the Darfur region? Well, for much the same reason that the United States government is interested in barren grazing lands in Nevada. In the case of Sudan, it isn’t gold but rather oil. And there are plenty of countries that will deal with a genocidal, oppressive regime in order to get oil. China has been selling arms to The Sudan for over a decade in exchange for allowing Chinese oil companies access to oil in Sudan. In fact, China has also made oil deals with countries like Iran, Burma, and Venezuela.

The impetus to preach on the issue of Sudan, Darfur, and the Lost Boys came from this congregation’s Fiction Book Group. This Spring they read a book by Dave Eggers, entitled What is the What. What is the What is written as an autobiography of a Sudanese Lost Boy named Valentino Achak Deng. Deng survived a militia raid against his village, walked hundreds of miles across the South of Sudan and just barely survived dehydration and starvation, lion attacks and bombing from Sudanese war planes. Deng lived in refugee camps first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya and came to the United States after September 11th.

I read the book when it first came out, in February of 2007. It was probably the most affecting book I’ve ever read. There were probably about a dozen moments while reading What is the What when I had to set the book down and take a walk around the block to staunch the flow of tears and recompose myself.

The littlest things could set this off. For example, when a large group of Lost Boys came to Atlanta, the Atlanta Hawks decided to give the group complimentary tickets to a basketball game. The blaring music and laser lights were discombobulating and frightening. The scantily clad cheerleaders distressed these young men who had grown up with very different standards of modesty. And, when a guy came out with a T-Shirt cannon (you know those contraptions that launch T-shirts into the crowd) it caused many of the young men to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reactions.

The life of the Lost Boys in the United States has been complicated. Psychologically, many of them struggle with the extraordinary trauma of their ordeal, and the grief of not knowing what became of their entire family – parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins – but fearing the worst. While groups in the United States, including church groups, have provided them with outstanding care, they have also struggled to adapt. The most common job for Sudanese refugees is slaughterhouse work. This is followed by working the front desks at hotels and gyms. In one passage, the protagonist of What is the What is denied admission into college because, according to the admissions director, it wouldn’t look right to have a tall black man in his mid-twenties mixing with little white girls in their teens.

I want to offer some thoughts about what our response could possibly be to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. What can any of us do to impact genocide half a world away? One thing that many of us can do today is to look at our retirement investments, stock market investments, or 401(k) if we have these. Do research. Are international funds a part of your investments? If so, do those international funds include stocks from Chinese oil companies like Sinopec? Perhaps, you should consider divesting from those funds that hold stocks in Chinese Oil companies. Or, perhaps you can go one step further. If you work for a company, perhaps you can organize to get your company to stop offering funds that contain holdings in Chinese Oil. Perhaps you can leverage this to get companies like Fidelity to create funds that don’t hold stock in Chinese Oil Companies. How comfortable are you living with knowledge that you own stock in corporations that are funding and encouraging genocide in Darfur? Who else can you apply pressure to? If you are a college graduate you could urge your alma mater to make sure their endowment does not own stock in Chinese oil. If you are interested in examining your investments, this web-site is a great tool to find out how socially responsible your investments are.

[One of the most interesting comments I received between services was from a woman in the congregation who warned me against making the Chinese the “new red scare.” She reminded me that it has been the United States’ desire for cheap plastic goods that has driven China’s widespread industrialization. It is easy to blame China without realizing how much of their development can be attributed to our patterns of consumption.]

Divestment is somewhat controversial. The last time this came up in a significant way was when companies and universities were urged to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime. Divestment is controversial because once you divest you preclude yourself from engaging in shareholder activism. For those of you unfamiliar with this practice, let me give you an example: Publicly traded companies need to have shareholder meetings. I have a pension through the UUA that is managed by Fidelity. One of the companies the pension holds stock in is Verizon. It was discovered that Verizon, on top of the political contributions that virtually all companies make, was giving large sums of money to various Creationist institutes and anti-gay groups, as well as to Tom DeLay’s legal defense fund. A few years ago I got to attend the Verizon shareholder meeting and move a proposal that Verizon publicly disclose their political giving. The CEO took me on and we engaged in a war of words on the floor of a giant hotel ballroom. He refused to disclose because he said it was a privileged business decision. I asked him to explain the business rationale for giving to groups that actively oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools. My motion didn’t carry, but there is nothing quite like publicly shaming someone who makes in excess of $20,000,000 per year.

One thing is for certain, and that is that I am not going to get invited to the shareholder meeting of a Chinese oil company. And, it will probably take far more than economic pressure to protect the millions of refugees from Darfur. This leads us to the question of military intervention for humanitarian purposes.

The UU response to such a question has been mixed. Unitarian Universalist President Bill Sinkford was arrested in 2004 for trespassing at the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. while protesting the genocide in Darfur. Actor Danny Glover protested at the same demonstration. The late Tom Lantos, the only holocaust survivor to serve in the United States congress, was arrested while protesting at the Sudanese embassy in 2006 along with a handful of his colleagues in congress.

And, while there are some Unitarian Universalists who unequivocally renounce the use of all military force, there are also a number of Unitarian Universalists who believe that our faith requires us to encourage our government to pursue the multilateral or even unilateral use of force when it is a last resort and done for humanitarian purposes. In the case of Sudan, that might mean enforcing a no-fly zone over civilian populations that have been targeted by the Sudanese Air Force. It also might mean dispatching soldiers and security personnel to bolster the small numbers of ill-equipped African guardsmen who have been ineffective about protecting refugees from Darfur.

During the 90’s, then UUA President John Buehrens spoke approvingly of President Clinton’s decision to bomb Serbia in order to stop the genocide in Kosovo. Following the Holocaust, Jewish leaders coined the phrase “Never Again” and have been active in pushing for the world’s powers to intervene in cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. And yet, “again” has happened and continues to happen: in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, arguably in Myanmar, and certainly in The Sudan.

This morning I’ve asked us to wrestle with tough questions. I’ve asked us to examine our own history of genocide. I’ve asked us to probe the depths of our own conscience and ask what we should do and what we should ask others to do for the people of Darfur.

I hope this trilogy of sermons on peace and war has stirred your conscience. I hope it might move you to action. I want to close with a passage from What Is The What, where the voice of Valentino Achak Deng speaks and utters these words,
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has met me during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”