Raising hell for Jesus 


Since God and George W. Bush walk arm-in-arm these days, at least when it comes to selling a pre-emptive strike against Iraq to the American public, it's probably a sin or treason (is there still a difference?) to note that Bush's proposed war doesn't pass Christianity's own smell test.

Religious scholars, Catholics in particular, have been pondering the use of deadly force for about 1,600 years. The sixth commandment does put it fairly bluntly, after all: Thou shalt not kill. But does that really mean never, as in even when your enemies are begging for a smote down?

When it is and isn't OK to fight is outlined in the Just War Theory. Seven conditions have to be met before the bullets fly: 1) War must be a last resort; 2) It must be waged by a legitimate authority; 3) It must be fought to redress a wrong; 4) It cannot be a hopeless cause; 5) It must seek to re-establish peace; 6) The amount of force used must be proportional to the injury suffered; and 7) It is not permissible to kill noncombatants.

Leave it to Fred Morris to point out that Bush's baby is on shaky moral ground; Morris has been raising hell for Jesus for a long time.

I met Morris Feb. 15 at PeaceOrlando's "Peacenik Picnic," where he addressed a crowd of about 300 people on a dazzling day in a beautiful park.

As Orlando demonstrations go, this one was a monster. There was revolution in the air and Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" blasting from the PA, and it doesn't get much better than that.

But the event was typically disorganized, with protestors wandering from one end of the park to the other, not knowing exactly where to gather or what to do. Then a woman got up to the microphone and spoke about the missing voices of women and the elderly, or something, and I almost nodded off. The sun was warm, the grass was green, the sky was blue, and I was sure the crowd was in for yet another tepid dose of lefty folderol. Surely the next speaker would want to save the rain forest, and the one after that would want Mumia Abu-Jamal freed. When the topic turned to hemp I was outta there, I promised myself.

Then Morris grabbed the mike and saved the day.

He looks a bit like Vladimir Lenin in a clergy collar, and, being a Methodist, his delivery lacks the oratorical fire of say, a Southern Baptist. But his speech was a searing critique of the Bush administration, nonetheless. In the space of five minutes, he touched on everything from Enron, to tax cuts for the rich, to the Patriot Act. He saved his best stuff for Iraq, comparing Bush's ever-mutating notion of the truth to President Lyndon Johnson's deceit that escalated our involvement in the Vietnam War. "Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, Colin Powell lied about Iraq," he said. "It's time we were told the truth."

After touching on the aforementioned principles of just war, Morris closed with a call to action. "This war is immoral, illegal, and we must oppose it in every way we can."

Strong words from anyone these days, and certainly not the kind of rhetoric one is accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. But Morris has a deep sense of social justice, and he loves a good scrap. He's taken his lumps for speaking the truth to power, and as executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, he's untouchable.

The Florida Council is an umbrella group of churches representing 27 denominations in the state, from Episcopalians to Presbyterians to Methodists. They pooled their resources so they can better work to address society's wrongs. Morris works for the council, not any one church, so he's in no danger of angering parishioners with his activism.

Thus, he says things like this: "Bush needs to be exposed for what he is: A racist." And, in reference to Colin Powell: "You know what an Oreo is?"

Beginning in 1964, Morris, now 69, spent 17 years in Brazil as a Methodist missionary. In 1970, while living in Rio de Janeiro, he hooked up with Time magazine and worked as a stringer. "They paid me five dollars an hour," he recalls.

It wasn't glamorous work -- Morris says he got only one byline, for a story about a plague of locusts in a small town in northeastern Brazil.

But Time liked his access to Don Helder Camara, aka the Archbishop of Recife. Camara, nominated four times for a Nobel Peace Prize, was world renowned as a friend of the poor.

The Brazilian military, however, considered Camara a subversive and a communist. Any friend of Camara's was an enemy of theirs.

In 1974, Time published a piece praising the archbishop and chastising the military. Morris had nothing to do with the story. "I was a little miffed that they did a story on my man and didn't even tell me they were doing it," he says.

Military officials called Morris in for questioning anyway and finally arrested him in September 1974. "I was tortured for four days," he says. "They beat me and applied electric shocks to various parts of my body." They wanted him to finger Camara as a communist. "That would have been funny if they weren't so serious," he says.

They held him for 17 days and then kicked him out of the country. Back in the U.S., Morris found that he'd become "unemployable," so he moved to Costa Rica and started his own construction business, which he operated for 12 years. While in Central America he also edited a newsletter on regional politics and occasionally worked as a stringer for ABC news.

He left Costa Rica in 1989 for a stint as a pastor in Illinois. Then he officially retired in 1995 and returned to Brazil to teach Methodist missionaries. By then the government had changed, and he was once again welcome in the country. In 1996, the Florida Council of Churches hired him, and he's lived in Winter Springs since.

So far, Morris has marched in support of and helped to win a union contract for mushroom packers at Quincy Farms near Tallahassee, has worked to organize nursing-home workers in South Florida and has pushed hard in Central Florida for living-wage ordinances. "I'm a professional troublemaker," he says.

The Big Guy would approve, he adds. "I don't see how people who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be controversial. There is nothing in the Gospel that says rich people are better or more deserving. Quite the contrary."

So don't look for Morris to shut up and start waving a flag anytime soon. One of the rich people he finds most undeserving is our very own president.

"My worry is that George Bush has convinced himself he's God's instrument. Literally, he's messianic," says Morris. "He's going to do this whether the people want it or not, and it will be a disaster."

Amen, Fred.


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