Where were you when they crucified my Lord? Truthdig—Chris Hedges

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Edmonton Journal’s Religion page that questioned the church about its apparent absence during the Occupy protests. I was contacted later by one Pastor informing me that his church (Look to the Cross) of a few dozen socially engaged people were there, had always been there, and were fully supportive. This was cause for hope.

5147-chris-hedges-120311At the same time, that 99% of the clergy have been silent or quietly opposed, or even actively opposed, is for me a Jeremiah-sized lament. They have failed to recognize that this is more than a movement opposing corporate state bailouts and corporate controlled governments. It is a movement that challenges our very way of being in community. It challenges and condemns our celebrity culture and our atomistic consumerist culture; and for those of us who still name ourselves Christians, it is beginning to shame our spiritualized Christian culture.

We like to quote Dietrich Bonheoffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” as we are able to spiritualize and privatize it to where it has no bearing on how we live outwardly. We forget that Bonheoffer also said things like, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Chris Hedges is one who is leading the “spoke driving”. On Sunday he gave a speech worthy of MLK at Trinity Church in New York. (I thank my friend Connie Howard for pointing me to it.) It was in fact a sermon that should be circulated, perhaps used as a template, in churches across the land. Holding up the Beatitudes—from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—on behalf of social justice and the Occupy movement will offend many including salvationist-Christians, but I have a notion that it won’t offend Jesus.


  1. Nice platitudes from Chris Hedges & yourself but the message I heard from Occupy Protesters is about coveting the rich one percents’ wealth & power and taking it from them to spread among the ninety-nine percent. It’s not the message I hear from Jesus, who calls on the rich to freely give away their wealth. Rather, it’s closer to the message of Karl Marx & Vladimir Lenin.

  2. The title of Chris Hedges’ piece caught my attention since I grew up listening to the Johnny Cash/Carter Family version of “Where you There When they Crucified my Lord?”. The song still gives me chills. I need to find out more about Mr. Hedge as this piece is very powerful

    As part of my recent trip to South Africa, I have immersed myself in readings related to apartheid and the truth and reconciliation process. But while there, I stayed for 3 days with the former head of the Moravian Church and learned more about the important role that churches across the country played in the anti-apartheid movement. I knew of Desmond Tutu, but there is so much more – much of which is only preserved in oral history.

    I spoke about my trip in my class today telling of South Africa as a land of contrasts socially and ecologically. Only 3 of 24 had a vague concept of what apartheid was. Several claimed to have never heard the term before. How can I use this country as an example of hope for the world if the audience has no context for which to understand the transition that occurred?

    As I read the piece by Chris Hedges, I noted the reference to Matthew Shephard. Students don’t know this story either. (Although I must admit that I had to look up Rachel Corrie.)

    All semester, I have been trying to get students to consider what it would take to get them to metaphorically take up arms. What cause would they engage in nonviolent civil disobedience for? I was particularly struck by the line from the piece: “If this nonviolent movement fails, it will eventually be replaced by oen that will employ violence.” Hasn’t history repeatedly shown this to be true?

    With the focus on climate justice surrounding the negotiations at COP17 I suspect that without significant changes in our actions and willingness to take seriously the disparate impacts of climate change, this too will lead us to a future of violent protests.

  3. Another Chris Hedges comment worthy of note: “The Occupy movement is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the U.S., or signal its moral, social, and political irrelevance.”

  4. Ian, why do you assume that resistance to the extreme concentration of wealth and power that abuses and withholds from those without wealth and power is about envy? (It’s not, I assure you.)

    And I’m no theologian, but from what I do know, I find it hard see how you justify defending an ideology that is keeping millions of people jobless and poor and powerless, when the message of Christianity is about caring for the marginalized and powerless, and resisting evil. It is deep corruption (evil) in the current system that perpetuates poverty, and it seems to me that as a professing Christian you’d care about that. Charity is good, but it’s barely putting a dent in it; the system needs a bit of an overhaul, and the too-powerful and wealthy guilty of fraud need to be brought to justice.

    I thought it a powerful message.

  5. So a man stands in the centre of New York reading the Scriptures, witnessing to his belief in the power of the gospel, and these are platitudes? How dare the poor ask for more when they should simply wait politely for change or a few crumbs? How, oh Lord, has our evangelical culture managed to take us down this dark path that no longer questions power and seems to ignore the blessings that come through the extension of mercy? We’re not going to force the hand of the rich, but we can stand for justice – there must be some kind of church tradition here – Steve Berg being a prime example.

  6. Today I asked my college students in a first-year seminar course to read the piece by Hedges. (Unfortunately, this just came out and we are at the end of the semester since a piece like this deserves significant discussion.) We have spent the semester talking about the voices needed for 21st Century Environmentalism but I have also brought up from time to time other social justice movements and the leading forces/voices behind them for comparison. I had not covered faith-based community responses to environmental issues (my bad) except for mentioning their growing interest in stewardship of the planet as a moral responsibility. But in talking about my trip to South Africa, I did explain the prominent role of the council of churches in the anti-apartheid movement and in climate justice. Since it was the last day of class, I said that I would love to hear their reactions to the piece and that I would accept a reaction paper as extra credit.

    Below is the response I just received from a student (not exactly a reaction paper and poorly written – a too common phenomenon). I am rather stunned (if this is the appropriate discriptor) by the comments and am wondering how you would respond to student who wrote something like this.

    (By the way, in two classes this week of a total 40 students, only 4 ever heard the word apartheid, but even these 4 couldn’t tell me what it was. Sigh. Where have we gone wrong in our education?)

    From the student:

    Where were you when they crucified my lord?

    In reading this article I was a little thown off with the whole religious aspect of it. I do not understand how religious belifs have to do anything with how our world is going. I am catholic and my religious attitude does not apply to our world and how it is being run. If a church is taking action on marches and movements for the better, to me that has nothing to due with the fact that it is a church, to me it is just a group of people on a movement the fact that its a church doesnt really change anything in my eyes. i did like the one statement in the reading that said the people, by the people and for the people becuase it is now wall street, by wall street and for wall street. i do feel as though wall street has taken over and we do whatever they are doing.

  7. Thanks for your comment Ian. No doubt, my understanding and utterances are often trite and banal. You might however at least consider the formative experience of someone like Hedges, who far beyond me, has earned the right to speak of justice in light of the gospel. Thing is, when coming out of the mouths of any of us untouched and unformed by the grind of actively pursuing love and justice, even the Beatitudes can sound like bromides.

    With much respect, it sounded by your reading of Jesus, that injustice must not be challenged, that the growing gap between rich and poor merely mused about, that the hundreds of thousands cast into unemployment by corporate corruption, simply mollified, the poor, pacified, the homeless, distracted; this is just a definition of a sanitized spiritualized Christianity. It was Jesus’ brother James who said that true religion was about actively defending the widows and children and the poor.

    Again, with respect, I don’t suppose any of this will convince you, (convincing being more of an internal evolution anyway) so by all means, dismiss Hedges; however, beyond Jesus’ exchange with the rich ruler, consider reading the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew. Hedges comes off like a cowering moderate by comparison. I cringe every time I read it. Curiously it comes just before the eschatological discourse, the preceding chapter is also great for context. And do remember the Scribes and Pharisees, while being the religious elite, were also the political and corporate elite who controlled the money and power of the day. Jesus represented an immense threat.

    Certainly, the Occupy movement is not a citadel of righteousness, hardly a surprise that “covetousness” might be present. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a morally pure movement you might want to look outside of Christianity as well.

  8. Diane, Welcome back from Durban. And thanks so much for sharing some of your experiences. It’s gratifying to hear of the many churches that rose up against apartheid.

    Thinking about the example of your class, I wonder about the ease we, within the Western church, have in dismissing a prophetic voice like Hedges’. Perhaps, as you say, it’s because we don’t have the context of living through something like the civil rights movement or apartheid. And so now, when injustices are pointed out all around us, calling us to get up and leave our pews and make the smallest of protests in recognition of the words of Jesus, we can’t make any empathetic connection. We don’t have the imagination to see the broad picture.

    As far as Hedges’ books, I’d recommend, “War is a force that gives us meaning,” in my mind, his most powerful work. Also, along these lines, “Death of the liberal class” is a sure bet. But both “American Fascists” and “I don’t believe in atheists” are good as well. Thanks again for writing.

  9. Ike, I too was taken with the first sentence of this article. Regarding the charge of Christian irrelevancy, I suspect far too many of us see our faith within the single realm of personal salvation/personal morality, and so the social and political categories are kept “safe” from the gospel. It allows us to justify everything from war to the polluting of our earth. A philosophy professor I had called this a hardening of the categories.

  10. I found the piece by Hedges quite compelling. I know that when we read the Beatitudes, and indeed the entire Sermon, from an individualistic point of view, we miss a huge piece of what Jesus was saying. Our justice must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. I think it’s essential that the message of the occupy movement – that there’s something wrong with the way the financial and economic systems are working – needs desperately to be heard. The civil rights message of MLK needed to be heard. But surely this isn’t enough. When Gandhi led his non-violent protests, the message was heard. But Nehru had to get elected for real change to happen. William Wilberforce was able to get legislation passed to abolish slavery because he was first elected. MLK’s message was heard, but it was the elected representatives in Congress and the Senate who enacted the legislation that has helped bring a greater degree of civil rights.

    I fear the occupiers are occupying the wrong space. Let them earn some MBAs, some PhDs in economics, and let them do so while continuing to hone their convictions for justice. Then let them occupy the legislatures, the parliaments, and yes, the board rooms. And while doing so, let them be careful, lest they too may be tempted by what the powers and principalities of those high places. Let one of them indeed become the CEO of a large corporation and then turn down the offered 7-digit salary.

    By the by, Potash Corp of Sask has offered a $1 million matching grant to support the food banks of the cities Saskatchewan.

  11. Thanks Sam, I like your thoughts here. Just a couple things though: Obviously it’s good to have people in high places, but it seems to me that the real work is always done prior to legislation by people driven to do right, regardless of whether they’re successful. If the image of the mustard seed, and the kingdom of God metaphors tell us anything, it’s that the seemingly small things matter. Acts of defiance, acts of human kindness, small acts of rebellion (as opposed to revolution) are the generative actions that lead, even decades later, to change and justice.

    Regarding the protesters, I recall a news report indicating that not an insignificant number of protesters held degrees. Many of them unable to find employment. But I understand your point. And yes the corrupting influence of power is always at hand.

    Very good news regarding the Potash Corp. (I’m assuming the one million is not conditional on receiving initial donations.)

  12. Certainly small things matter. The occupiers have drawn attention to the issues. I should have said, rather than that they were occupying the wrong places, that there were other places to occupy as well – and I think it’s all real work. I think it’s easier though to occupy a park. To do the work of gaining a place of influence within the system, to master the intricacies of the details of the work (and remember the devil is in the details, metaphorically and theologically), to develop the strategies that will bring in the changes, that’s the harder work. But as essential as drawing attention to the fact that there’s a problem.

  13. Thanks for clarifying Sam. When you said that real change happened with the election of Nehru, I did have to argue that that’s hardly the politics of Jesus.

    Yes, granted, to “master the intricacies of the details, to develop strategies,” as you say, is certainly part of the work, (Hedges has mastered the details and has thought long about strategies; the strategies you suggest, he too believed would have worked before what he calls the death of the liberal class.) but to gain a place of influence within the system is surly a remark “the system” would make. Perhaps this is too strident, but it seems that “the system” allows dissident voices within the ranks, the way Stalin allowed trials–for show. I’m not sure how much more influential you want to get then becoming the president of the USA. Consider the election promises about cleaning up Wall Street corruption, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, the end of the war, the treatment of POW etc. As well, no one knew the inside intricacies and what needed to be done more than Eliot Spitzer. He screwed up in his personal life but the weight of media, the full page advertisements against him, the amount of daily surveillance he had to endure was phenomenal. So in a more equitable and democratic world, I agree with you. (I realize I’m thinking of the USA here, and this may have to be tempered when talking about Canada.) Of course I could also be proven wrong, which would be nice.

  14. My suggestion: More equitable, more democratic. I’ll say this word carefully: Socialism (Social-democracy). Because, properly understood, it is not communism, but a system of government run by the principals of the co-op movement. That is, a government informed by, and in service to its members. Essentially, a truer form of democracy than we presently have. We still need a political solution, even thought the difficulty is that government, to various degrees, is controlled by moneyed interests. Michael Albert’s participatory economics is an example of a social-democratic solution, but admittedly the bureaucracy could be burdensome. Perhaps technology can help here. Of course the Occupy movement, despite its faults, is already part of the solution because it has identified a problem, and has reengaged many, and out of this may yet spawn better solutions. Isn’t this kind of like narrative therapy?

  15. I’ve always thought that the difference between socialism and communism was a matter of degree rather than a more qualitative difference as you seem to suggest. You distinguish between them by the application of cooperative principles – am I understanding you?

  16. Yes, you understand me. My notion (hardly original) is that socialism embodies the cooperative principles. But distinguishing between (Leninist) communism and socialism is far more than the application of these principles. Chomsky says that the, “Failure to understand the intense hostility to socialism on the part of the Leninist intelligentsia (with roots in Marx, no doubt), and corresponding misunderstanding of the Leninist model, has had a devastating impact on the struggle for a more decent society and a livable world in the West, and not only there.”


    I faithfully received the common misconception that there is a direct relationship between Leninist/Stalinist communism and socialism. The suggestion was that socialism, that of say John Dewey and even Tommy Douglas, was the thin edge of Communism. But socialism at its core is simply the idea that workers get to control the what they produce. And for that, the principals of the Co-op movement seem especially applicable.

    Here’s a short essay on Cooperative Socialism: http://home.comcast.net/~romccain/CS.html

  17. Thank, Steve – a very helpful article by Chomsky to differentiate between socialism and Leninist communism. So the essential mark of socialism is “Mastery over production by the producers” in “converting the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom.” This seems to describe the Wheat Pools for example? As well, we could include the free association of consumers in order to gain mastery of consumption, illustrated in the co-operatives. But in Saskatchewan, the CCF party, recognized as a socialist party, also took over the ownership of some capital – such as the potash industry and the oil industry, and still today the SK government owns SaskTel, SaskEnergy, SaskPower, and SGI. Thus, capital, the means of production, for these entities is owned not by freely associated producers or consumers but by the state. Yes? Is this then a perversion of the socialist ideal? Or…?

  18. Sam, I was rereading some Tom Wolfe the other evening, ‘Radical Chic’, that 70’s something book, where he, as only Wolfe can do, deflowered Americian leftist intellectuals and elitists and their socialist ideals by bringing up Solzenitchen, (who was on an American circuit at the time), and who said that socialism always leads to totalitarianism. Well, this was obviously a blow and an embarrassment to the socialists. And of course, how do you argue against someone the stature and experience of Solzenitchen? So if it’s true, that the ideals of socialism can’t be maintained, that they inevitably slip because of something like the human will to power, then I have no further argument. (Yes, CCF’s ownership of capital was a perversion of those ideals. Socialism is not Stalinist communism and neither is it statism.) Any yet, there is something within, that so desires those ideals because to my mind they approach something like a reflection of paradisal equality, a oneness, classless social structure, mutual care and so on. Perhaps it’s a utopia that we (many, some?) can’t help aiming for. I will now retreat to my monastery.

  19. In my mind, there’s an example of this in the Acts, where the first church had a kind of communal life in which “no one said anything was his own”, but the sold what they had and distributed it to any who had need, so that there was not a needy person among them. A beautiful picture, I think of what is possible. But even then the flies didn’t leave the ointment alone – stories of Priscilla and Aquila and of people being overlooked in the distribution. But for me, this is where I look for hope for a better way.

  20. Thanks Sam, I always have that reference in my mind when I think or write about these things. While the Acts account shows how this “socialism” was soon hobbled by human greed, it nevertheless seems as though it was a natural outgrowth of the gospel impetus.

  21. I think that “communalism” might be a better term than socialism.
    Several points can be made about it, I think:
    – it was voluntary
    – it wasn’t the first reason for the assembly coming together.
    – it was predicated on a “repentance” that made this kind of community possible.
    I think many churches still work together in similar ways – there’s an attending to each other’s needs that is beautiful to be a part of when it works like this.

  22. This thread of comments has been a liberal education. If only my students had found Chris Hedges’ words to be so inspiring!

    The piece came out at the very end of the semester so I asked students to read it anyway and noted that if they wrote a reaction to it, I would count it as extra credit. Only one student took up the offer, but sadly wrote the following (it is sad for many reasons):

    “In reading this article I was a little thown off with the whole religious aspect of it. I do not understand how religious belifs have to do anything with how our world is going. I am catholic and my religious attitude does not apply to our world and how it is being run. If a church is taking action on marches and movements for the better, to me that has nothing to due with the fact that it is a church, to me it is just a group of people on a movement the fact that its a church doesnt really change anything in my eyes. i did like the one statement in the reading that said the people, by the people and for the people becuase it is now wall street, by wall street and for wall street. i do feel as though wall street has taken over and we do whatever they are doing.”

    It is probably not my place, but I felt a response of some sort was necessary. I have no idea if the student read it or not, but I felt better for having tried.

    “Dear XXX:

    I was thinking about your response to the Chris Hedges piece last night and thought you should know that religious institutions have played an extremely important role in social justice issues and movements throughout history. My comments in class about the South African Council of Churches working towards ending apartheid represent just one example. At the kick-off for the U.N. Climate Conference in Durban, Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu led a faith-based rally. If you search his name and COP17, you will find all sorts of references to this. There is also a Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute!

    I am not Catholic (I was raised Lutheran) but am aware that the Catholic church, as well as churches from many denominations, have missions that are aimed at the poor or those who are otherwise less fortunate. They also tend to have official statements and teachings on a number of key social issues and sometimes on the environment as well.

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has several statements on social justice and economic justice (you can find many at http://usccb.org/.). There are also plenty of “official” documents on creation and stewardship. For instance, I typed in climate change in the search box and found several statements including one entitled “Why does the church care about global climate change?” (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/why-does-the-church-care-about-global-climate-change.cfm) I think that just reading the descriptor in italics under the title might help explain why. The fourth paragraph in the introduction is also a concise statement of the link between religion and these issues.

    You can also go online and check out the Vatican’s social teaching statements on wealth and poverty.

    I encourage you to do a bit of digging into your church traditions!”

  23. Diane, Contrast this to Jim Wallis’ experience, how when he was 15 he left his church because an elder told him, “Jim, Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political, and our faith is personal.”

    So how, evidenced by your student, did the separation of church and state become this misunderstood and absolute?

    I am glad you replied to your student Diane and pointed him toward some important literature. Who knows, a bit of reading can be a dangerous thing…let’s hope.

  24. O.K. Now I must confess my ignorance. I didn’t know of Jim Wallis. The title of his most recent book” Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street — A Moral Compass for the New Economy” may be a bit of dangerous reading that I need to do over the semester break.

    Steve – I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season.

  25. O.K. Now I must confess my ignorance. I didn’t know of Jim Wallis. The title of his most recent book “Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street — A Moral Compass for the New Economy” may be a bit of dangerous reading that I need to do over the semester break.

    Steve – I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season.

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