Teaching Lessons in Deliberative Democracy and the Theology of Social Justice: A Response to Mr. Paul Jeebah Albert

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 9, 2006


Mr. Paul Jeebah Albert criticized my July 25th 2006 article which focused on ethnically, culturally, and religiously intolerant statements attributed to the Director of Police. In his rejoinder, two months later, dated October 3, 2006, entitled: Tolerance and respect must always be maintained in our national dialogue, Mr. Albert made at least three arguments. First, he argued that my article was “fraught with unsubstantiated accusations and vilification.” This, he claimed violated his standards of “tolerance and civil discourse.” Second, he proclaimed that I advocated a “militant theology.” He followed this allegation with a long-winded exploration of a seeming theology of social justice to support his thesis, although depicting his real lack of understanding of exegesis. Third, he alleged that I accused President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of corruption, noting further that criticizing the government is “counterproductive.” It is possible that there are other tangential arguments in Mr. Albert’s critique, but I would limit my comments to these three key points of his article.

Why is it important to respond to this article? Two reasons necessitated this rebuttal. It is obvious that Mr. Albert has an extremely rudimentary understanding of how democracy operates within pluralistic society. Indeed, if his claims are not responded to or corrected, readers might unwittingly absorb preconceptions, especially those who lack strong grasp of the underpinnings of a democracy. Moreover, his notion of tolerance, respect, and civility in dialogue are also skewed by the former impediment – limited knowledge of the basic processes that are bedrocks of deliberative democracy. One must also add that Mr. Albert’s treatise on the theology of social justice is not Scripture-based or rooted in the religious traditions of Islam (Qur’an) and/or Judaism (Torah). This means that one must dedicate this article to refuting his misconceptions, while at the same time helping him to glean greater insight into the intricacies of democracy. I will be doing readers a disservice if I failed to perform these tasks.

Mr. Albert alleged that my article hinged on unproven claims and that my comments disparaged the Police Director. Readers will be keen to see in my article that I underscored that the subject under scrutiny was based on allegations. He adds that my objectivity faded as the article continued. To this claim, I plead guilty, but he also forgets that I made this clear in my article. This was a response to a prejudiced way of thinking and there was no need for political correctness. One of Mr. Albert’s greatest failures is his inability to distinguish between political and legal matters. Politics is about perception and legal matters involve court proceedings to address violations of the law. It is in the courts that guilt or innocence is decided. The focus of my article was on the question of whether the issues alleged crossed the threshold of a politically inappropriate behavior. As a Liberian, I have the right to raise my concerns regarding such a question as does Mr. Albert. Mere words may not be criminal, but they can be vile and provocative and our expectation of political leaders is that they adhere to higher conduct. It is so disappointing to witness situations where Liberians living in the United States like Mr. Albert of Salisbury, North Carolina, are unable or unwilling to absorb or learn from the democratic traditions in which they are embedded.

The evolving scandal saturating the US media involving revelations that Republican Congressman, Mark Foley, resigned due to allegations of inappropriate communication with teenage boys placed in his care as Page demonstrates this point very well. To make my point, Speaker Dennis Hastert and beleaguered Republican Party Leaders who supposedly have any knowledge of this event are now being urged to resign by both Democrats and Republicans alike, although Hastert and other members of his leadership team have not been privy to ethics investigations or court proceedings. Mr. Albert, in democracies, people can make these demands of their leaders and not be construed as uncivil. In some cases, people who feel a sense of violation by the actions of their public officials, use even harsher language given the magnitude of their hurt or breach of the public compact between public officials and citizens.

Mr. Albert may be unfamiliar with or blind to the fact that ethnic hatred played a major part in fueling the 14 years of civil war in Liberia that caused needless destruction and loss of lives. “When you have been bitten by snake and you survive, when you see worm, you tend to run as fast as you can.” Many of us have seen the damage that war has caused and will not relent in our efforts to prevent a reoccurrence. I spend my daily life repairing the damage that the war did to many young Liberians either in the form of my research or counsel to they and their families. Venomous diatribes about difference that were uttered by warlords have left scars that some of us have to repair as our service to humanity and Liberian society in particular. This has ratcheted up my sensitivity and sensibilities to bigoted statements.

Regarding tolerance and civility, I have these comments. Repudiating intolerant behavior is the responsible conduct of tolerant and civil people. People critique events based on their values and worldviews. A nation like Liberia, which is saturated in ethnic hatred and seeking to remove itself from under the yoke of this volatile situation, cannot afford “arming a possible bigot.” The demographics of Liberia is changing and there is a greater need for public officials and all citizens to become welcoming and respectful of those who do not fit “mainstream norms” whether in the form of their dress, lifestyle, political views, etc. By virtue of the statement alleged, the sense of impartiality imbued in a law enforcement officer was shattered, and that formed the basis of my article. Presumption of innocence is a dictate of the judiciary. A person who has guns and other weapons at their disposal and allegedly holds bigoted sentiment poses immense risk to the liberties and safety of people. In my mind, it is not wrong to request putting them on administrative leave while an investigation ensues. By the way, Mr. Albert, did the Director of Police apologize? Did her bosses call the alleged sentiment unwarranted? Ponder these questions, and perhaps you will appreciate the value of leaving no bigoted statement unanswered.

Informed citizens form the crux of democracy and informed citizens are those who hold their political leaders accountable. To share a divergent opinion or to request that a public official whose conduct (alleged or otherwise) have the potential of inciting hatred or discrimination by asking that she be placed on administrative leave, while the allegations are being investigated, is not intolerance or a lack of civility. Mr. Albert cried about thin skin or being fainthearted, and yet was quick to cry foul because democratic norms of accountability and transparency were being advocated. What a contradiction? Liberia is not a theocracy nor is it an oligarchy. Public officials must be held accountable for their actions.

Mr. Albert charged that I advocated a “militant theology” and incited an “uprising” because I urged people of faith and conscience, mainly Christians to rise up in an interfaith defense of their Moslems counterparts. No where did I say that Liberians should become violent. If he misunderstood the meaning of “being up in arms” this is a testimony to his limited grasp of the English language. I take no responsibility for such a shortcoming.

It should also be noted that themes pertaining to social justice and equality run throughout the theology of the various faith traditions, notably, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Scripture tells us that the focal point of his declaration was the pivotal place of justice in God’s plan for humankind. Here is the word of God: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.

Did Jesus not practice what he preached? Did Jesus not seek out the rejected and persecuted? Did Jesus not stand in defense of the oppressed? In my reading of Scripture, Jesus’ ministry embodied the framework for all quests for just societies. Examples abound in the case of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, and/or freedom movements in El Salvador, among others. Would Mr. Albert caricature Jesus’ social justice ministry, which is replete in Scripture as “militant theology?”

In the Moslem tradition, the Qur’an is replete with calls for social justice, ranked at the top being the fundamental belief that humankind is equal before Allah. The Qur’an’s vision of humanity and destiny comes through in the noted verses: “Towards God is thy limit” [Surah 53: An – Najm: 42]. This proclamation clearly points to Islam’s commitment to the values of justice on earth. Relative to people’s liberties, the Qur’an is also affirmative in its stance that only God, God alone can restrict human freedom [Surah 42: Ash-Shura: 21]. Would Mr. Albert characterize these proclamations in the Qur’an in favor of social justice as “militant theology?”

Anti-Semitism – “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), particularly the Holocaust is often cited as a grim reminder of what can happen when we ignore human rights violations, however minute. Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Sudan being the latest case, we see how neglecting statements attributed to the Director of Police can mushroom and then transform into full blown genocide. Would Mr. Albert say that seeking to proactively stop the planting of the seeds of genocide is espousing “militant theology?”

Let me agree that each of these faith traditions advocate love and compassion. But Mr. Albert should note that they also herald social and distributive justice.

In terms of Mr. Albert’s attempt to call for a freeze on criticism of the Liberian government, he again demonstrates lack of an appreciation for democratic political processes. Speaking truth to power prevent governance from becoming a hollow ritual, a space where tyranny blooms. Nowhere in my article did I charge the Sirleaf government with corruption. Although the lifetime of the Sirleaf government is short, it has a miserable record of persecuting corrupt officials from the past. Indeed, there were reasons to be cynical and to highlight such growing record of lethargy, perhaps to expose the sanctuaries that are the underbellies of state failure in Liberia.

The Police Director in whose defense Mr. Albert writes: allegedly engaged in a provocative act in a very volatile political and social climate. I am not surprised that these allegations invited choruses of citizens’ voices to chastise her and to warn the government of the negative implications for national security and stability. I urged President Sirleaf to honor her stated commitment to religious tolerance.

Mr. Albert is free to express his views, and I welcome the dialogue and the intellectual exchange. He lives in a free society and the price he pays for expressing his thoughts is a reciprocal response. We both have the luxury to engage one another and it is in doing so, that we each contribute building blocks to democracy in our native Liberia. If he has been following developments in Liberia, he would note that interestingly, the government has withdrawn some policies in the wake of public criticisms. This means that vibrant exchange of ideas in transitioning societies such as Liberia, especially among ordinary citizens provides the locus of reform and social change. We will not build sustainable democracy in Liberia unless we create room for divergence of thought.

Finally, Mr. Albert insinuated that in order to be certified to criticize the Liberian government, one has to be living in Liberia. Like previous others myths that he propagated in his article, this claim is devoid of merit. Mr. Albert does not recognize that Diaspora communities are staples of Mrs. Sirleaf’s constituency, particularly since we now live in a globally- interconnected world. His opportunity to speak in defense of the Police Director and the President is indicative of this reality, and so is my right to criticize the Liberian government.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is a graduate of Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, SC. He served as the Pastor of Washington Street Presbyterian Church in Abbeville, SC; Pastor of Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Simpsonville, SC and Director of Social Justice Ministries at Christian Mission Fellowship Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA. He currently serves as the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He can be contacted at edolo@sowashco.k12.mn.us.

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