Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice

Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice


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Divine Rebels chronicles the extraordinary efforts of American Christian activists who agitate for a world free of racism, patriarchy, bigotry, retribution, ecocide, torture, poverty, and militarism.

While pundits speak of the “Religious Right,” this is the underreported story of American Christians who are progressive because they are religious. They don’t see themselves simply performing good work, but Godly work. They believe in a community based on ethics, a world with infinite potential for improvement, and an inclusive God of love. These rabble-rousers are small in number, and their efficacy is best measured on the margins, but they are part and parcel of an American tradition that began with the nation’s earliest Quaker abolitionists.

By profiling social justice activists on the frontlines of the “Christian Left” since the 1960s, Divine Rebels articulates a forward-thinking, faith-based alternative to both the conservative drone warping religion as well as the political left’s alienating cynicism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569762646
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/01/2011
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Deena Guzder is an independent journalist who has reported on human rights across the globe. Her work has appeared in Time, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, National Geographic, Washington Post, Ms. magazine, and elsewhere. She holds advanced degrees in journalism and international affairs from Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt

Divine Rebels

American Christian Activists for Social Justice

By Deena Guzder

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 Deena Guzder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-870-9



The Faith Driving the Freedom Riders

Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn, the economic conditions that strangle, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a dry-as-dust religion. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We're going to get left of Karl Marx and left of Lenin. We're going to get way out there, up on that cross with Jesus. — James Bevel, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

On May 4, 1961, one Greyhound bus and one Trailways bus left Washington, DC, for New Orleans, but neither bus ever reached its destination. Outside Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound precariously tilted sideways, and the panicked driver realized his tires were slashed. As soon as the driver pulled off the highway, a mob of arsonists shattered the bus windows and lobbed a firebomb at the passengers, causing the fuel tank to explode. The mob proceeded to obstruct the bus's exits in hopes of cremating the passengers alive. Alabama state troopers belatedly dispersed the mob, allowing hysterical passengers choking on acrid smoke to narrowly escape death. Meanwhile, the Trailways pulled into the Birmingham, Alabama, station, where another mob greeted passengers with baseball bats, bicycle chains, and iron pipes. One survivor of the attack, James Peck, sustained head wounds requiring more than fifty stitches.

Both buses were part of the "Freedom Rides" in which blacks and whites traveled together through the South in hopes of breaking the segregation pattern in interstate travel. A northern-based group dedicated to racial equality — Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) — organized the Freedom Rides as part of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "a full scale nonviolent assault on the system of segregation in Alabama." The civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael elaborated on the Freedom Riders' plan:

In any sane, even half-civilized society [the plan] would have been completely innocuous, hardly worth a second thought or meriting any comment at all. CORE would be sending an integrated team — black and white together — from the nation's capital to New Orleans on public transportation. That's all. Except, of course, that they would sit randomly on the buses in integrated pairs and in the stations they would use waiting room facilities casually, ignoring the white/colored signs. What could be more harmless ... in any even marginally healthy society?

The Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel back in June 1946 and then, in December 1960, had also outlawed segregation in waiting rooms and restaurants serving interstate bus and rail passengers. Nonetheless, Jim Crow travel laws remained throughout the South, since calculating Southern politicians rarely enforced these federal rulings lest they alienate Southern white leaders of the Democratic Party. Freedom Riders hoped to begin desegregation efforts themselves by blatantly violating Jim Crow laws and sparking a national debate on their legitimacy. "We were counting on the bigots in the South to do our work for us," explained one Freedom Rider, James Farmer. "We figured that the government would have to respond if we created a situation that was headline news all over the world and affected the nation's image abroad."

As Farmer predicted, the mauled Freedom Riders did capture national attention and force Americans to question the morality of racial segregation. Supporters of the Freedom Riders saw them continuing a proud campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that had begun with the Montgomery bus boycott and continued with student sit-ins at lunch counters. These sympathizers commended the Riders' willingness to suffer for their moral convictions and hoped their sacrifices would awaken the country to the evils of racial segregation. However, the Freedom Rides coincided with the April 1961 Civil War Centennial celebration, and a resurgent siege mentality was in full force throughout the white South. Many Southerners regarded the Freedom Riders as needlessly antagonistic "professional agitators" from the North who were violating the "Southern way of life" and infringing on their state sovereignty. Memories of meddling abolitionists and invading armies were reawakened.

After the burning in Anniston, Freedom Riders decided they could not allow their integrationist efforts to be derailed. Much to the surprise of the American public, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized another Freedom Ride. Americans of every political persuasion wondered what drove these students to risk their lives attempting to integrate interstate travel. What gave them the courage to continue their campaign knowing full well that the previous Riders returned home bloodied and burnt? Why volunteer for what seemed like a suicide mission? Even those within the movement cautioned against continuing the Freedom Rides. When student leader Diane Nash called movement organizer Fred Shuttlesworth to inform him of the students' decision to commission a new ride, he responded sternly: "Young lady, do you know that the Freedom Riders were almost killed here?" Nash assured him that she did, adding: "That's exactly why the ride must not be stopped. If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead. We're coming."

Whereas CORE had chartered their buses, members of SNCC decided they would obtain tickets and board a regular bus like any other travelers. They also then needed to choose the students who would be risking their lives to participate in the ride. A lanky twenty-one-year-old college student of German descent with verdigris eyes named Jim Zwerg was one of eighteen students who volunteered, and ultimately participated, in the potentially fatal mission.

In more ways than not, Zwerg was an unlikely candidate for the Freedom Rides. The short-tempered Wisconsin native had once scoffed at the idea of "nonviolent protest" as a way of transforming society. And, as a white man from a wealthy family, Zwerg had nothing tangible to gain from the movement's success. Zwerg, now a seventy-year-old former minister in the United Church of Christ, says that a remarkable two-year-long religious transformation led him to believe that protesting racial segregation was his higher calling and divine duty. Despite the tremendous risk involved, Zwerg insists he was deeply at peace with his decision to join the Freedom Rides. "My faith was never so strong as during that time," he reflected. "I knew I was doing what I should be doing."

* * *

Growing up in lily-white Appleton, Wisconsin, Zwerg led an all-American boyhood filled with hiking trips and Boy Scout excursions. He and his brother served as acolytes in the First Congregational Church of Appleton; they sang in the Sunday morning choir and participated in church summer camps. Taller and brawnier than other children his age, Zwerg preferred to settle his differences with his fists rather than words. Once in elementary school, he coldcocked a bully who cheated in kickball. A few years later, during a Boy Scout trip to a state fair in Milwaukee, Zwerg beat the hell out of a classmate who tormented his sick friend by jiggling the friend's cot to make him vomit. As a result, he lost his coveted spot on his school's honor committee, but even that did not cool his fiery temper.

Yet, Zwerg also had an introspective side that came out in his fondness for the outdoors. As an Eagle Scout, Zwerg spent countless hours tying complicated climbing knots, distinguishing poison ivy from innocuous weeds, and igniting bonfires with flint. Even after entering high school, Zwerg preferred exploring the wilderness to joining his friends at parties. Despite his propensity to wander away from crowds, Zwerg's natural charisma won him admirers, and, by his senior year, he was unanimously elected president of one of the largest church youth groups in Wisconsin. The gangly teenager with a blond crew cut had long considered himself a devout Christian. He dutifully attended church, read the Bible, and said grace before his meals, so when his church's senior minister abruptly relocated to Phoenix for a new job, Zwerg was happy to assist the church's associate minister by delivering that Sunday's sermon. He embraced his debut at the pulpit by preaching what he regarded as a "riveting message" on recharging one's spiritual batteries through regular church attendance.

* * *

In 1958 Zwerg began his freshman year at Beloit College, which was not too far from home. Without giving it much thought, Zwerg indicated on an incoming-student questionnaire that he felt comfortable rooming with someone of a different race. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine and mandated that segregated facilities be integrated with all deliberate speed. Zwerg ended up being paired with a short, stocky black roommate named Bob Carter. The two became fast friends. They played intramural college football and basketball together, crammed for exams over bottomless cups of coffee in the college's library, and spent many late nights attempting to decipher those enigmatic creatures called girls.

Yet, it didn't take long for Zwerg, who was studying sociology, to notice that his and Carter's college experiences differed drastically. When Carter and Zwerg entered a cafeteria, people left the lunch counter. When Carter and Zwerg entered a barbershop, the barber refused to cut Carter's "nappy" hair. When Carter and Zwerg bought movie tickets, Zwerg enjoyed a front-row seat while Carter was segregated to the upstairs balcony. When Zwerg invited Carter to join his fraternity, Carter was informed that black students were prohibited from pledging; Zwerg eventually revoked his own membership. One September morning, Zwerg's parents visited Beloit and invited Carter to join the family for dinner at one of the fancier restaurants in town. The roommates welcomed the opportunity to escape the monotony of their college cafeteria's soggy hamburgers and overcooked vegetables and even dressed up for the occasion. At the restaurant, they regaled Zwerg's parents with stories about their professors, friends, and classes. After half an hour passed, Zwerg's father wondered out loud why their waiter had not yet taken their order. Finally, the maître d' appeared and crisply explained that the restaurant only served whites.

Zwerg was shocked by these racist double standards, but Carter and other blacks were accustomed to abuse in every facet of their lives. Nearly a century after the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws still relegated African Americans to inferior and underfunded public schools and facilities. Disenfranchisement and voter harassment left many politically voiceless. Economic oppression, coupled with deep-seated prejudices, subjected blacks to impoverishment and exploitation at a level incomprehensible to whites. As novelist James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in an open letter in 1962: "You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity." But, by the early 1960s, black people across the country were beginning to more actively revolt against this unjust status quo. They sparked a movement rooted in the audacious belief that a subjugated minority could reclaim their humanity from an oppressive majority's iron grip on economic, political, and social structures. All over the nation, individual acts of resistance began snowballing into a collective movement for social change. Richard Wright spoke for many when he wrote in his classic Black Boy:

The white South said that it knew "niggers," and I was what the white South called a "nigger." Well, the white South had never known me — never known what I thought, what I felt. The white South said that I had a "place" in life. Well, I had never felt my "place" to which the white South had assigned me. It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being. And no word that I had ever heard fall from the lips of Southern white men had ever made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity.

* * *

At Beloit College, Zwerg was less interested in the national debate on civil rights than in his black roommate's college experience. One day during the second semester of his freshman year, Zwerg overheard a white student walk past Carter and say, "Do you smell a cigar? Nah, it's just a nigger." Passersby snickered loudly. Zwerg lunged for the white student's jugular, but Carter restrained him. Calling Carter a coward for refusing to defend himself, Zwerg snapped, "You take their abuse and you don't even smart-mouth them!" Carter walked away shaking his head and soon returned with a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. "Fighting doesn't prove anything," Carter said, handing his roommate the book. "But Dr. King did prove something."

Zwerg knew embarrassingly little about Dr. King or the Montgomery bus strike in Alabama. Who was this frail seamstress with wire-rimmed spectacles named Rosa Parks, and why did she refuse to relinquish her seat to a white man on a city bus in open disregard for city law? Zwerg read King's testimony and was struck by its pressing words: "Actually no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'" He was fascinated by the fact that King, at twenty-six, had been recruited to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization created to direct the nascent civil rights movement. Reading on, Zwerg was especially captivated by the young minister's emphasis on the Christian doctrine of love as an organizing principle. When Zwerg read "our action must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating idea. Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you,'" he put down the book and wondered if King were completely delusional. How could anyone tolerate, let alone love, people who forced them to attend inferior schools, drink from separate water fountains, and sit at the back of buses?

Zwerg had long considered himself a devout Christian who dutifully attended church and studied the Bible, yet he had never seriously entertained the idea that Jesus expected people to love their enemies. Now, a young preacher just a few years older than him was claiming "We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in our actions" as he rallied against the indignities that hundreds of blacks regularly suffered on Montgomery's buses. Dr. King also declared, "Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation." The poetic quality of these orations impressed Zwerg, but he could not comprehend the depth of faith the Baptist minister must possess to actually pray for his enemies and love those who persecuted him. The sociology student was particularly amazed that King's singularity of conviction had not reduced him to a laughingstock — the minister's sermons had resonated with the dispossessed and inspired them to put the basic elements of Christian theology into action. He now understood why Carter had given him this gift, this message to transcend hatred rather than reciprocate in kind. But he still was not fully convinced of its validity.

Zwerg continued reading about how the black community in Montgomery organized carpools, preached messages of resistance from the pulpit, and persevered in their boycott even after the city retaliated by indicting one hundred boycott leaders. He sympathized with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth's response to Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor's decree that no black minister should urge his people to stay off the buses: "Only God can tell me what to say in the pulpit. And I'm going to tell my people to stay off those buses if I have to go to Kilby prison." Although Zwerg had never articulated this thought, he agreed Christians should pledge allegiance to God's divine law over unjust man-made ones.


Excerpted from Divine Rebels by Deena Guzder. Copyright © 2011 Deena Guzder. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: The Universe Bends Toward Justice 1

1 The Faith Driving the Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg 13

2 The Soul of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement Daniel Berrigan 38

3 The Crusade to Close the School of the Americas Roy Bourgeois 64

4 Convictions of the Hearth in the Sanctuary Movement Jim Corbett 96

5 Beating Nuclear Swords into God's Plowshares John Dear 122

6 Waging Peace by Resisting War Taxes Robin Harper 154

7 Living in the Clouds to Save the Redwoods Joseph Land 175

8 Modern-Day Abolitionists Against the Death Penalty Suezann Bosler 200

9 Ecojustice Warriors Against Pollution Charlotte Keys 221

10 The Peaceful Revolution of Downward Mobility Shane Claiborne 243

Epilogue: Interfaith Covenant for Peace and Justice in Modern America 267

Afterword 271

Notes 275

Index 293

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