"Roxbury Was Quite a Shock for Me": Christ Hedges on Empire, Religion and Resistance

Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he’s reported for more than 50 countries and has worked for the “Christian Science Monitor,” National Public Radio, and the “New York Times,” where he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He is the author of several books, including the “New York Times” bestseller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” co-authored with Joe Sacco.

Currently, Hedges writes a weekly column for “Truthdig” and is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He holds a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

Recently Hedges sat down for a series of video interviews about empire, religion and resistance with Paul Jay, senior editor of the Real News Network. Excerpts from their conversation follows.

How do you get from being a seminary student, a religious man, one would assume, to a mainstream journalist, to a career-ending—mainstream career-ending, at any rate—speech at Rockford College in 2003?

Well, I was always a writer, and I wrote compulsively. Language is a form of music, was something that dominated my life from the age of four or five. I wrote poems, short stories. I published my first piece in a historical journal when I was 12. I published my first piece of journalism in The Christian Science Monitor when I was still in college.

But I could never square the supposed neutrality and objectivity of journalism with the social commitment that was inculcated within me, primarily by my father, who was a Presbyterian minister and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, and the gay rights movement in the 1970s—very controversial stance. His youngest brother, my uncle, was gay. My father was very outspoken on behalf of gay rights, something which the church, the institutional church had great difficulty with.

So you grow up with a father who was a rebel? With religious roots, but a rebel.

Right. And, you know, I still, although I probably would not formally consider myself religious, honor that tradition of—one could call it Christian anarchism, which is the kind of term they used to describe Dorothy Day and the “Catholic Worker,” and went to seminary really in part—I suppose I was clashing with my nature, but I went to seminary because I felt that that social commitment was paramount.

So when I graduated from Colgate University, I moved into the ghetto, into the inner city in Boston and Roxbury, and ran a church across the street from one of the most notorious housing projects in Boston, Mission Main and Mission Extension.

While most of people doing that at that time would have—like the worker priests and such, I mean, they would have considered themselves religious, and the way to express that was through this kind of social commitment. You were not religious?

No, I was. I wanted to be an inner-city minister. You know, I was at the time. I was planning on being ordained. I was planning on spending my life in the inner city.

And I had a kind of clash—and I write about it in the first chapter of my book “Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America”—with the institutional church and liberal institutions like Harvard Divinity School that like the poor but didn’t like the smell of the poor. They spent a lot of time talking about empowering people they never met. And that hypocrisy was something that I had great difficulty with.

I also, my second year at Harvard, became friends with a guy named Robert Cox, who had been the editor of the “Buenos Aires Herald” at the time of the Dirty War in Argentina. And he was the only newspaper editor every day to print the names of the disappeared, the desaparecidos, on the front page above the fold, an act of tremendous courage that eventually saw him disappear, taken away by the falcoñeros. And the only reason I think he survived is because he is a British citizen or was a British citizen. And he was at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.

And that was a very important relationship for me because it wedded the love I had of language and of writing with the commitment to social justice that mainstream journalism said was an anathema to their creed of objectivity and impartiality and neutrality, which of course I later came to learn is a kind of subterfuge. It’s not true, of course. And what I did was leave for Latin America. I finished my second year of divinity school, went and studied Spanish in Bolivia with the Maryknoll fathers, the Catholic missionary society. I ended up in Argentina, where I covered the Falkland war for National Public Radio from Buenos Aires. I went back to divinity school, graduated, and then turned around and went to El Salvador to be a freelance reporter and spent five years in Central America.

Now, when you got to the “New York Times” you were still able to stay within the bounds of keeping your job. Did you ever have to compromise in any way?

Well, let’s be clear. I mean, American journalism, unlike European journalism, is quite restrictive in its form. And you ingest the form of the “New York Times.” You know how to write a “New York Times” story. So the form itself precludes—the boundaries are so narrow that you can’t do the kinds of things you could do if you were writing for “Liberazione” or the “Guardian” or something, which is make comments outside that would be considered editorializing. So the form itself is constrictive. That’s the first part.

The second part is that because I was writing on the ground, I mean, even though I was in Gaza, I was writing what I saw. So I was in Gaza, for instance, when Israeli F-16s bombed Gaza. I went to the site where the bombing was. I counted the number of corpses. I described those who appeared to be children or those—it was quite hands-on.

So as long as you were saying, “This happened, that happened,” and you could verify what you were saying, they would print it?

Right. And yet, of course, the Israelis hated that reporting, because the spin they were putting out of it on that particular incident, you know, they would always talk about a surgical strike against a bomb-making unit. Well, you know, dropping a 500-pound iron fragmentation bomb in a densely populated refugee camp is not a surgical strike, and half the time there weren’t any bomb-makers anywhere nearby, I mean, you know, when you get on the ground. And so that reporting rankled the Israelis quite a bit.

Now, logistically, living in Gaza at the time was very unpleasant. Getting to the site where an attack was extremely difficult. About 60 percent of my time was just spent trying to get where something happened. And a lot of reporters didn’t want to do it. A lot of reporters didn’t want to be in Kosovo, didn’t want to be in Bosnia, didn’t want to be in these physically difficult places. But once I was there, I would say the paper was quite happy to have it.

So when you go to Latin America and then you go to the Middle East, this is not a big surprise to you what U.S. foreign policy is?

I would say actually the really seminal moment was moving into the inner city and watching what we do to our poor, the warehousing of our poor, the shattering of lives, especially the lives of children, of poor children. That maybe rattled me more than almost anything I saw. And I’ve seen horrific things. I remember going back to the chaplain at Colgate after a few months of living in the projects and just walking into his office and sitting down and saying, “Are we created to suffer?” And his answer was, “Is there any love that isn’t?”

And I think for a white person of relative privilege to confront the cruelty of what we do to poor people of color in this country and to begin to understand institutional forms of racism, all the mechanisms by which we ensure that the poor remain poor in, you know, what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. correctly called “these internal colonies,” really rattled me, really shook me. It made me question all sorts of things—the myth we tell ourselves about ourselves, the nature of capitalism, the nature of racism, exploitation.

So those two and a half years I spent in Roxbury were quite profound—not that, of course, I wasn’t stunned at the evils of empire in places like El Salvador or Gaza or anywhere else. But Roxbury was quite a shock for me.

A version of this article originally appeared as a video interview on the “Real News Network.” Reprinted with permission.

–Paul Jay

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