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The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree
After listening to one newscast after another rightly condemn the barbaric killing of that Jordanian air force pilot at the bloody hands of ISIS, I couldn't sleep. My mind kept roaming the past trying to retrieve a vaguely remembered photograph that I had seen long ago in the archives of a college library in Texas.
Suddenly, around two in the morning, the image materialized in my head. I made my way down the hall to my computer and typed in: “Waco, Texas. Lynching.”
Sure enough, there it was: the charred corpse of a young black man, tied to a blistered tree in the heart of the Texas Bible Belt. The victim's name was Jesse Washington. The year was 1916. America would soon go to war in Europe "to make the world safe for democracy."
My father was twelve, my mother eight. I was born 18 years later, at a time, I would come to learn, when local white folks still talked about Washington's execution as if it were only yesterday. This was not medieval Europe. Not the Inquisition. Not a heretic burned at the stake by some ecclesiastical authority in the Old World. This was Texas, and the white people in that photograph were farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, some of them respectable congregants from local churches in and around the growing town of Waco.
Democracy in the Balance
How do we nurture the healing side of religion over the killing side? How do we protect the soul of democracy against bad theology in service of an imperial state?
Web Exclusive! Full Transcript of Bill Moyers' Speech at Pentecost 2004
Bill Moyer's Keynote Address
Politics today has become an arms race, with money instead of missiles. The 1996 federal elections were the most expensive in history—costing approximately $2.2 billion—and that could be doubled by the year 2000. In an arms race the side with the most missiles wins. In politics the more money you have, the better your chance of election. One side escalates, and the other follows suit. Faster and faster, the spiral has been growing. Today this arms race is undermining our system of self-government.
When asked who really controls Washington, voters overwhelmingly answer special interests, as opposed to either Congress or the president. Nearly everyone thinks contributions affect the voting behavior of members of Congress. In another poll, only 14 percent of the people give members of Congress a high rating for honesty and ethical standards.
Is this what politics has become on the eve of the 21st century—a bunch of self-interested, lying windbags on the take from moneyed, special interests? On the one hand, these polls tell us that Americans are pretty smart and see through the pomp and circumstance that passes for news coverage by most of the media.
On the other hand, there is a terribly important warning here: Americans are disillusioned about politics. They are both alienated and apathetic. Fewer than half of us bother to vote in our presidential elections—compared to 80 percent a century ago—and only about a third in our congressional elections. People will tell you they feel betrayed, sold out by a political class of professional electioneers, big donors, lobbyists, and the media. What happens when so many people drop out of a system they no longer respect and they think no longer represents them?