12 books that inspired me in 2012
This has been a fabulous year for books of the peace and justice genre. Like many of my peers, I’ve seemed to have less and less time to read books in recent years — the crush of work and parenthood and all that gosh-darn content on the internet have managed to keep me from digging as deeply into the long-print medium as I once did. But this year, I managed to carve out the space once again — the content was just too intriguing not to honor them thus. (And a couple illnesses that laid me out for days at the time helped the reading process, for better or worse!)
Here are a dozen titles that came out in the past 12 months and which have especially excited me.
- We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, edited by Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, Matt Meyer, and Mandy Carter (PM Press, 576 pages) — This is an outstanding and essential piece of work. Inspired by correspondence by long-time anti-racism writer-trainer-activist Martinez to the War Resisters League, this book has been almost a decade in the making. The editors have gathered some 80 powerful contributions from the past several decades, ranging from civil rights and anti-war leaders of the past to today’s young changemakers, on the many provocative intersections of racism and warmaking in our society. I am personally proud to have been the editor of four of these articles, written originally for Fellowship magazine by David Billings, Anne Braden, Lynn Gottlieb, and Liz Walz. As I wrote in a thank-you note to the editors, “Since Anne is one of my heroes [I met her as a young activist working in the faith-based racial justice community, and I was fortunate to interview her while participating in the inaugural Challenging White Supremacy Workshop in San Francisco, coordinated by Sharon Martinas and featuring Betita!!], it has been a source of great personal pride that this article was essentially Anne’s final public statement.” I am slowly making my way through this extensive text, and each new article offers new learnings and lessons of the work that is still before us.
- Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Michael Lapsley with Stephen Karakashian (Orbis Books, 256 pages) — My life was changed for the better when I met Father Lapsley in Cape Town, a dozen years ago. Like many, I was captivated by his personal story of joining the anti-apartheid struggle, surviving an assassination attempt, and thereafter devoting his life to community healing, reconciliation, and reparations. Now, finally, Lapsley has the opportunity to tell a comprehensive version of his life story — and despite having worked closely with him on many occasions, there is so much I did not know. I admit to being a biased reader, but I was riveted by this telling of his life, and for many weeks I found myself challenged and troubled by some of the hard questions he asks peace activists as well as people who represent oppressive power structures.
- Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise (City Lights Books, 189 pages) — The leading white anti-racist commentator in the United States, Wise has long been renowned in academic and activist circles for his nuanced yet pointed indictments of white supremacy’s grip on our nation. In this pithy, almost-pocket-sized book, the popular notion that Barack Obama’s election as president is evidence of a “post-racial” United States is dissected and disrupted. In fact — as Wise points out many months in advance of the November election — an increasingly multiracial country that may have led many whites to have “discovered our inner libertarian, and decided that government intervention was bad” was evidence of both a diversifying electorate and one in which race is still a critical indicator.
- The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues by Angela Y. Davis (City Lights Books, 201 pages) — I’m only a few pages into this book, but I am already convinced of its importance. Angela Davis is, of course, one of the most significant radical philosopher-academic-activists of the past half-century, and her outline of the prison-industrial complex has been a template for justice-makers. Her first book in seven years is a collection of previously-unpublished speeches, drawn from a 15-year period, and it confronts the intersections of oppressions in our society — with particular focus on the demonic role of the incarceration/punishment industry, as one should expect.
- Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth by James W. Douglass (Orbis Books, 158 pages) — Four years ago, Jim Douglass published the monumental JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It is an extraordinary re-telling of the Kennedy assassination, and it was to me by far the best book of the year. While some might dismiss Douglass’ commentary as those of a conspiracy theorist, his scholarship is exceptional and his focus is not simply on the “what” and “how” of a government cover-up but also the critical “why.” The author’s thesis is that Kennedy was turning from a Cold Warrior to a champion of peace, and this is why he was targeted. It was intended to be the first of four such profiles, as he is also working on books on Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy — with the same perspective in each case, opining that these four men were murdered just as they were turning against the (national security) state and toward a stronger ethos of nonviolence and peacemaking. Without planning to write such a book about Gandhi, Douglass was provoked to do so by information he received from Arun Gandhi, one of the Mahatma’s grandchildren and a long-time voice for peace, about his grandfather’s assassination. This short book addresses that extraordinary incident — the murder of the “father of the nation” carried out in front of dozens of onlookers — and shows how Gandhi (like King later on) essentially predicted and had prepared himself to be killed, and the complicity of the state in his murder (again, like MLK a half-century on).
- The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective by Gary Dorrien (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 244 pages) — I honestly don’t understand how Gary Dorrien manages to do it. He teaches full-time at renowned Union Theological Seminary, as its only tenured professor of social ethics. Despite his teaching and advising load, somehow he manages to publish at least one remarkable book a year (and sometimes more!). This title, released in the midst of this year’s election campaign, considers Barack Obama from the perspective of the religious Left. It notes the president/candidate’s many “faults” — compromising with conservatives on such issues as the financial crisis and health care reform; having a militaristic foreign policy that approved a huge increase of troops into Afghanistan; never closing Guantanamo despite his pledge to do so; and showing little commitment to address climate change — while the book also gives Obama strong credit for such achievements as passing the most progressive health care bill in 60-plus years, ending the war in Iraq, and saving the U.S. auto industry from collapse. Dorrien makes a strong case for the debate that was ultimately reflected in the run-up to the November election, and it provides a hopeful framework for the “change” that may finally come during the president’s second term.
- Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy by Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou (Campbell & Cannon Press, 133 pages) — This collection of essays by Rev. Sekou, a FOR Freeman Fellow, serves not only as a reflection of his personal experiences of justice-making around the world (in New Orleans, Haiti, Occupy Wall Street, Paris, etc.) over the past decade. It is also a testimony to the cutting-edge issues we are facing this very day — from gun violence to religiously-inspired homophobia to the ways that we handle (or don’t) natural disasters — and the demand on people of faith to be at the center of addressing these issues, not treating them as “political” concerns. In the wake of such recent events as the Newtown massacre, the electoral battles over marriage equality, and the response of the Occupy movement to Hurricane Sandy, these commentaries are as timely as ever.
- I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, edited by Michael G. Long (City Lights Books, 516 pages) — This past March, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Bayard Rustin’s birth, this collection of letters to and from Rustin written over almost a half-century was released. The second letter in the book is “Rustin to the FOR Staff,” dated September 12, 1942, when Bayard was a field secretary for the organization, and includes these words, “In many parts of this country I have found men completely cut off from a knowledge of pacifism. This is an indication that there may well be millions of men who would be eager to follow the truth if they could but hear it. … I therefore have a deep concern when I hear many FOR people across this nation say that they feel they ought to be still at this time. I believe this is the time to say louder and more frequently than before the truth that war is wrong, stupid, wasteful, and impeding future progress and any possibilities of a just and durable peace.” It seems remarkable how applicable these sentiments of 70 years ago seem today in the midst of the Afghanistan war and the use of drones and secretive military forces in other parts of the world.
- Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control by Medea Benjamin (OR Books, 224 pages) — OK, admittedly, I haven’t yet started reading this book. But I feel as if I have, and once I get it back from a colleague, I will. Medea Benjamin was the recipient of FOR’s 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Award, and we’ve worked closely with her on several campaigns, including her current anti-drones efforts. We sent a FOR representative to join Medea in Pakistan and Waziristan this fall, to meet with family members of those killed by U.S. drones, and we featured Medea in a FOR webinar on researching drones. So I feel safe in giving this one a big thumbs-up.
- A Is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara (Kupu Kupu Press, 28 pages) — Earlier this year, I heard about a Kickstarter campaign by someone “just like me” — a justice-centered father of a young child. Nagara, an artist-activist, wrote in his project description: “It’s a familiar story. Dad reads the same books to 2 yr old over and over and over again every night. … But this isn’t just your average liberal family. This family goes on anti-war marches together. They have an ‘I Support Marriage Equality’ sign in their window. They may even have tattoos. But what don’t they have? They don’t have an honest to goodness pro-activist, pro-social justice, pro-gay, pro-labor, pro-diversity, pro-gressive ABC book. With beautiful kid centric art.” The proposal captivated me. I donated to the cause. It was fully funded! And a few weeks ago, I received my “first edition” copy of this great children’s book, which I have already enjoyed reading on many occasions to my future-radical-activist toddler. Thank you, Innosanto!
- Gathering at God’s Table: The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of Faith by Katharine Jefferts Schori (Skylight Paths Publishing, 224 pages) — As an Episcopalian who has long been active in my denomination’s peace and justice work at global levels, I found our current presiding bishop’s interpretation of the Anglican Communion’s “Five Marks of Mission” to be both thoughful and inspirational. Bishop Jefferts Schori outlines this quintet of commitments — to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God; teach, baptize, and nurture new believers; respond to human need with loving service; transform unjust structures of society; and care for the earth — and magnifies each of them with concrete examples of grassroots ministry throughout the church that we can use as models for our own congregational and community-based work.
- Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart by John Backman (Skylight Paths Publishing, 147 pages) — This is the first book that I’ve ever “blurbed.” Here’s what I wrote: “Why Can’t We Talk? challenges our sound-bite culture to abandon partisan diatribes and premeditated monologues and to truly engage one another — especially those whom we may prefer to avoid. We learn not only why it is necessary to commit to dialogue, but how to construct an effective, spiritually-centered and lasting dialogic relationship.”
And here are a few others I’m excited to belatedly crack open in the next few weeks:
- Peace Primer II: Quotes from Jewish, Christian, Islamic Scripture and Tradition, edited by Lynn Gottlieb, Rabia Terri Harris, and Ken Sehested (Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America) — Three long-time FOR members have revised and updated this excellent resource that has useful application in every local congregation and community that seeks to develop and strengthen interfaith engagement, especially among the Abrahamic traditions.
- Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini (Beacon Press, 174 pages) — The term “moral injury” is a new one, and FOR member Brock’s new institute, the Soul Repair Project (based at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas) aims to help define it. This initiative has the hopeful prospect of bringing together people across political and theological lines — both peace and anti-war activists as well as military veterans — for the common purpose of facing and healing the deep emotional and psychological trauma that veterans are grappling with as a result of their participation in war and the moral choices they have made.
- Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America by Eboo Patel (Beacon Press, 224 pages) — Patel is rightly considered one of the most dynamic voices in the progressive religious community today. A young Muslim from the Midwest, he founded Interfaith Youth Core a decade ago; it has quickly become one of the most respected and hopeful signs of interreligious organizing in the country, with students on hundreds of university campuses in its network. Although Patel maintains a arms-length distance from certain forms of political activism, he is intellectual, charismatic, and an inspiration to everyone who seeks hope for the future of our multi-faith democratic experiment.
- From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation by Gene Sharp (The New Press, 160 pages) — Gene Sharp is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities on nonviolence practices, strategies, and principles. He has received “just due” in the past two years since the Arab Spring movement emerged for the translation of his writings into native languages and their use in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. His latest primer provides more insights on how extraordinary political transformation can — and will — take place.
Happy reading, and happy new year!