Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

How Communists Think

There’s a lot of confusion in social media about what socialists should or shouldn’t do in the upcoming election. There are many who say “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton because _____” You can fill in the blank, with anything from She’s a Corporate Shill to She’s a Liar to She’s Not Going to Support Single Payer Healthcare to whatever the concern of the day might be.

When these discussions occur between communists and other progressives, the progressive usually says something along the lines of “how could a communist support someone who will _____.”

Let’s clear something up here. Those statements are ideologically driven. If we unpack them fully, they really mean something very much like this: “If you’re a communist, then you must believe X, but Hillary believes Y, therefore you shouldn’t support her.” In other words, it’s an ideological litmus test.

The flaw in that argument is that communism is not an ideology. Dictionary.com defines ideology as “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” Doctrines, myths, beliefs, etc. are all philosophical constructs. Notions.

The basis for communist thought is not ideology. Marxism is not a philosophical construct. Philosophy is a tool of communist thought, not the foundation of it. “The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

What, then, is the basis of communist thought, if not beliefs or doctrines? It is a method. Specifically, that method is dialectical materialism.

For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit. They did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but affirmed that ideas could arise, therefore, only as products and reflections of material conditions.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Materialism deals with objective reality, and proposes ideas which communicate that reality in a useful way. This is the opposite of ideology, which places “doctrines and beliefs” first and seeks to understand the world through the lens of those beliefs.

The reason why so much of the left is consumed by sectarian squabbling is because they are ideologues, not dialectical materialists. They have ideas which are dear to their hearts and which they believe explain the world around them. This is similar to the fundamentalist forms of religion, which proclaim that in order to be saved, you have to assent to the creed that they promote. It is fidelity to the creed that determines purity.

Marx described communism as scientific socialism. Scientific, because it is grounded in an empirical model, just as the scientific method is. We observe what is going on around us, then formulate hypotheses that help to explain or predict what happens. This guides the actions we take. We assess the outcome of those actions, and formulate new hypotheses based on what we’ve learned. Theories that are useful are retained and used, until subsequent experience suggests improved hypotheses. We are not bound to the hypotheses, we are proponents of a process.

Dialectical materialism is a particular form of scientific process.

In opposition to the ‘metaphysical’ mode of thought, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers things in their movements and changes, interrelations and interactions. Everything is in continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded…Marx and Engels started from the materialist premise that all knowledge is derived from the senses. But against the mechanist view that derives knowledge exclusively from given sense impressions, they stressed the dialectical development of human knowledge, socially acquired in the course of practical activity. Individuals can gain knowledge of things only through their practical interaction with those things, framing their ideas corresponding to their practice; and social practice alone provides the test of the correspondence of idea with reality.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Let’s use a practical example to bring this down to earth. We see that there is a pattern of violence against blacks by police. This is the thesis. Racist violence is being expressed in this form at this time. Blacks are not being hung from trees by angry white mobs as they were in the early 1900s. This overt racism has taken a modified form.

A movement called Black Lives Matter springs up in opposition to this violence. This is the antithesis.

Prior experience from the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s tells us that if blacks persist in their demands for racial justice, and enough whites reject their racist attitudes, then improvement will occur. That is the synthesis.

In response to this, we take part in the movement, blacks and whites each doing their part. We see what happens. If we’re right, then progress takes place. If we’ve misinterpreted, then there is a different result, a new set of conditions, and we start the process again.

We see that this approach is scientific because, like the scientific method, it proceeds from practical interaction with the world around us. This is the experimental method.

Paolo Freire understood this very well, and taught a method in Brazil functionally identical to what we’re talking about here. As described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the method of praxis consists of reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. “It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.

This Freire quote is more than a little reminiscent of the Marx quote above, that our goal is to change the world and not merely to understand it.

Often, people read communist texts and like the ideas they find there. They believe that those ideas are the essence of communism. They’ve missed the point. It’s easy to understand how this happens.

Much of our educational system is devoted to convincing people to accept the conclusions of others, rather than teaching them how to apply the method by which those ideas were formed. People who have been trained this way will habitually assume that if they have grasped an idea, they have understood the situation.

They should be attending to the process by which those ideas came to light instead, and applying that process to current conditions in their own lives. Marx himself, using the framework of dialectical materialism, might come to different determinations under the conditions of today, then what he concluded in the 1800s.

So when someone says “how can a communist support someone who believes X,” they are displaying a lack of understanding of the nature of communism.

If it’s idealistic rather than practical, it’s not communism.

Fascism and the New American Caesar

There’s a lot of loose talk during an election year, especially one as heated as 2016. Not that we haven’t seen heat before. The Bush years were full of a blind invective from the Left. Bush Derangement Syndrome, I heard it called. If he had gone back to drinking, many would have criticized his choice of hooch.
Then there are the slurs that the booboisie has flung at Obama. Just as deranged, and made more despicable by the racism they just have to add.

This kind of thing goes back to the beginning of the Republic. In 1800, old friends Jefferson and Adams squared off for the Presidency.

Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” — Kerwin Swint, Mental Floss

This is far from pristine, principled discussions of issues!
It’s the issues that count the most, when the campaign’s over and someone has to govern. As much as possible, I try to keep things on that level. I avoid the simplistic characterization, the ad hominem attack, and the dumbing-down of important policy distinctions.

Most of all, I dislike hyperbole. I’m a staunch supporter of the frame of mind implicit in Godwin’s Law (1990): “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.” French author François de Smet refers to this as the “Reductio ad Hitlerum.”
There’s a corollary to the law, that says that whoever mentions Hitler or the Nazis first, loses the argument.

So far This year I’ve been avoiding using the term “fascism” to describe Donald Trump, for all the above reasons. But I’ve been studying fascism, too, because the parallels are too strong to ignore.

There is a time and place for everything. We can’t take this comparison off the table. Mike Godwin himself has said, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”

There are Nazis, and they are dead serious about it. And then there are those who are not Nazis, but who have fascist tendencies. They can be more dangerous than the out-and-out Nazis. First, they’re more numerous. Second, they’re not as obvious. I believe Trump falls into the latter category.
Let’s take a moment to describe fascism, so we’re all on the same page.

Robert O. Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” [quoted in Fascism: The Ultimate Definition]
All of these elements can be seen in play in the Trump campaign.

“Obsessive preoccupation with community decline”: The very slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that America, once great, currently is not.

“Humiliation or victimhood”: “When Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and initially refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, he offered voters a toxic mixture of victimhood and pugilistic rhetoric tinged with nostalgia for a violent, unapologetically racist past.”— Gunter Peck, Salon

“Compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity”: Jesse Graham, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, remarked “More than any other Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has been appealing to a particular combination of in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns. On the purity side, he often expresses disgust, often toward women and women’s bodies (e.g., Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate). But his purity appeals are most commonly in the context of group boundaries, like building walls on our national borders to prevent contamination by outsiders, who are cast as murderers and rapists, both morally and physically dirty.” – (quoted by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times)

“Mass-based party of committed nationalist militants”: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” [Donald Trump, quoted in The Guardian] Sadly, this seems to be pretty much true. If that’s not committed, what is? And as to the militant part, I give you this. And this. It’s not Kristallnacht by any stretch of the imagination, and no one suggested that Trump is organizing Brown Shirts, but there’s no question that the raw material is there.

“Uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites”: Did you hear Paul Ryan’s speech? Uneasy collaboration is a pretty good description. We’ll see about the effective part.

“Abandons democratic liberties”: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” (Donald Trump, quoted by Hadas Gold on Politico.)

“Pursues with redemptive violence”: There’s no way for Trump to carry out his plans to build walls, deport millions, ban Muslims, etc. without violence ending. And clearly he sees these plans as redemptive, making America great again.

“Without ethical or legal restraints”: Trump talks about doing many things without reference to how the Congress or judiciary would be involved. It’s as though he thinks that, with the stroke of a pen, he’ll be able to put all these ideas into action.

“Goals of internal cleansing”: the well-known wall, deportations, of course. He has also said he would consider tracking Muslims, perhaps with a form of religious identification. New moons sewn on their clothing? I know: Godwin’s Law. But the specific form of religious identification doesn’t matter; it’s despicable just that it would even be considered.

“External expansion”: no specific plans that I’ve seen. The age of colonialism is over, so there’s that. Economic expansion is another thing though. Trump is a businessman, and had made a major part of his appeal that he will create jobs. This suggests that some kind of corporate imperialism is on the agenda.

Brian Anesi notes some other characteristics of countries in which fascism has taken hold. Among them:

1. Polarization and deadlock: “In all cases where fascism was successful, its rise was preceded by a period of political polarization and parliamentary deadlock.” Case in point: Merrick Garland.

2. The political stance is poorly defined: “Fascist ideology was vague and protean. This is a source of endless frustration to those who expect to find a coherent definition of fascism in the writings of party ‘philosophers’. But it reflects nothing more than fascism’s pragmatic approach to attaining its goals and its unwillingness to be bound (like its predecessors) to failed dogmas. Like all popular movements, fascism tried to encapsulate ideology in terse slogans – ‘Believe, Obey, Fight’, ‘Strength through joy’, ‘Work makes you free.’ “ Or, as we’ve heard so often, Make America Great Again.

3. Emotionally appealing: “It is commonly observed that fascism was more a matter of the gut than of the head. Clearly those who joined fascist parties often did so from shrewd self-interest, but the same could be said of those who join any party. It was the emotional appeal of fascism – the notion that through sheer hope and force of will difficult and long-standing problems could easily be resolved – that set it apart. Triumph of the Will. This idea of course was not new and is still popular.” Trump is making a patently emotional appeal. Now, we know he has lots of good words, but primarily he is connecting to people through gut instincts. Fear, self preservation, anger.

4. Intolerance for dissent: “It would be trivial to observe that since the fascist model required individuals to serve the nation-state as the embodiment of the popular will, and subordinate their interests to it, dissent would be unthinkable for any true believer. A stronger reason for suppressing dissent can be found in the emotional characteristics of fascism. Accepting that ideas firmly held become reality, a dissenter imperiled the collective spell, and dissent was seen as a species of malefic witchcraft.” Even the stodgiest of media outlets – U.S. News – raises concerns about Trump on this issue.

In researching this essay, I found that all of a sudden, over the last week to 10 days, the number of respected journals that have identified Trump with fascism has exploded. When I first started writing it, it was hard to come up with enough varied resources that I wasn’t just repeating the same authors over and over. Now, there are so many, it became a major investment of time to read them all thoroughly in order to pick the sources I wanted to use.

We are at a crossroads. This is not exaggeration. Every country that has been taken over by an autocratic leader, be it Franco or Putin or Pinochet or Stalin, has found that once its democratic tradition has been destroyed, it is very hard to go back again. We must not let that disaster befall the USA.

It’s not enough for people to the left of Hillary Clinton, such as the millions who Bernie Sanders inspired with a vision for 21st century socialism, to stand up against the threat posed by the rise of this new American Caesar. As a lifelong socialist, I’d like to end with a high-falutin call to progressive ideals. Right now, that has to wait. What is most important now is for independent voters, who are the great majority, and for moderates in the shards of the Republican Party after it sold out to Trump, to set aside their differences and defeat him and all the people in Senate, Congressional, and statehouse races who are aligned with him. Having saved our nation, then we can go back to the usual arguments over policy.

Time for the NRA to Step Up

Another mass shooting happens in Orlando and all the predictable responses emerge like 17 year cicadas. “Ban assault weapons.” “If someone had been armed, they could have stopped it.”

Some of these responses are worthwhile and some are nonsense. I’m not going to rehash them. There will be plenty of people doing that over the next few days or weeks, with the usual results: not much.

Let’s try something new. Let’s ask the NRA to step up.

I don’t mean the leadership. That won’t happen. Take executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre: in office for 25 years, earning around $970,000 per year as of the 2010 IRS filing. He just might have a vested interest in appealing to the crowd that pays his salary, rather than approaching this situation with compassion and common sense. Fear-mongering is very good business.

So when I say “the NRA,” I mean the millions of regular members. Lots of them sport the bumper sticker that says “I am the NRA.” That’s right, you are. You’re the ones we need the most right now, not LaPierre or board members such as Motor City Madman Ted Nugent.

I have a suggestion for you, the members of the NRA.

But first, let me establish some credibility here. I am a gun owner, somewhere between the person who owns one gun for personal protection and a real collector. I’d rather not publicly advertise how many I own, but it’s more than a few. Handguns, rifles, shotguns. I handload ammo for about ten different calibers. I’ve worked part-time as a range safety officer and salesperson at my local range. I like to hunt. It’s nothing for me to put 1,000 rounds down-range in an average month (I keep stats.) I have a concealed carry license. I’ve shot an elephant gun (not at an elephant, I was helping a custom builder sight it in at the range.) My favorite pistol is the Browning Hi-Power. My favorite revolver is the .44 Special. My favorite shotgun is a 16 gauge L.C. Smith side-by-side (belonged to my great-grandfather.) And I own an AR-15, because it’s very accurate, ammunition is readily and inexpensively available, and I never tire of the recoil as I do with some larger calibers.

I’ve been a member of the NRA for many, many years.

So here are my suggestions for you, the NRA rank and file:

1. Stop listening to that blowhard, LaPierre. We should have gotten rid of him after the “jackbooted thugs” comment back in 1995. He’s making huge money, preying on your fears. Who knows if he even believes half of that nonsense, so long as it keeps the money – your money – rolling in.
(Maybe the good, kind, level-headed members of the NRA board, and there are many, could find someone else for the job. This is the only suggestion I have for the leadership.)

2. We already have background checks for all sales through an FFL (federally licensed firearms dealer, for the non-gunnies in the crowd.) Why not background checks for all sales? Go to an FFL, pay a small fee, he or she runs a check, it’s done. I sure don’t want to risk selling a firearm to a criminal or someone with a disqualifying mental condition, do you? Here in NC, and I believe we’re not the only ones, if you have a concealed carry license, you don’t have to have a background check because you’ve already jumped through all the hoops. Good enough.

3. We have to take training to get a concealed carry license. It’s a great idea. I learned a lot. Why not have training for any firearms owner? It would make that argument about the meaning of “well-regulated militia” carry a lot more weight, wouldn’t it?

4. If, as we know, guns can be the only means for the small, the frail, or the sickly to protect themselves, that very capacity is what makes them so deadly in the hands of these murderers. It’s not enough to point out how many millions of us don’t use them for crime. It doesn’t erase the slaughter caused by those who do. We have to accept this ghastly truth. While we know that the Clinton-era assault weapons ban had no measurable impact, we could re-visit the idea. Maybe handle it like silencers: pay a one-time fee, get a letter from your local sheriff. Again, it’s not that different from what we did to get a concealed carry license, so why make a fuss about it?

5. Something needs to be done about the mental health part of this issue. Gun owners always like to pint out how often these mass shootings are due to mental health issues, and often they are. It’s way not enough to just point it out. In fact, it’s rank hypocrisy to say it’s a mental health problem and do nothing about the problem. I am a licensed mental health professional. I diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders. I know for a fact that our mental health system is so broken that it’s not a system at all. Very few of our states have anything that comes close to meeting the need. The much-ballyhooed lobbying power of the NRA (that’s you and me, remember, not the leadership) could make a powerful difference in ensuring that mental illness doesn’t go untreated.

6. Speaking of mental health, something needs to be done about the place on the form we fill out when purchasing a weapon (the 4473) that asks whether we have a disqualifying mental condition. How easy would it be to lie? Nothing easier. So we need a national registry. There are some requirements for that: it needs to be as complete as possible, it needs to protect confidential health information, and it needs safeguards to prevent unwarranted inclusion on the list. Those are all achievable, and I have ideas about how it could be done. This isn’t the place to go into details. My point in all of this is to say that if the genuinely good people of the NRA want to be taken seriously by our neighbors, we need to be asking for these things as strongly as we resist encroachment on our Second Amendment rights.

7. Finally, stop with all the rumor-mongering already. For instance, so many of you started stockpiling everything even remotely firearms-related when Barack Obama was elected President, prices skyrocketed on guns, most ammunition became scarce or unavailable (including the lowly .22LR), and even primers were almost impossible to find. And yet over 7 years have gone by, and Obama hadn’t taken a single gun from any of us. If you don’t feel foolish by now, you must be living in fantasy land.

None of these suggestions involve registration, confiscation, or banning a specific class of arms. They take what we’re already doing to the next step, that’s all.

I know, from years of being around fellow “gun nuts,” that the overwhelming majority of us are good, decent people. Educated. Hard-working. Reliable neighbors. Community-minded. Fun-loving. Kind to children, animals, and the down-and-out. The average scared-of-guns sort of person doesn’t know that we live right next door because they feel perfectly safe around us.

Words can no longer convey the desolation I feel over the innocent people being lost to this violence. I’d like to say more, but I just don’t know how.

If we don’t come up with ways to try to reduce these heart-wrenching tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and the Pulse shooting, eventually people who don’t know the first thing about us or our guns will do it for us. It’s not enough to express our grief over the senseless loss and chant “More guns, less crime.” I’ve said that myself. Now, I’ve had to stop and look for better solutions, because it rings more and more hollow with every drop of blood. Sooner or later, sooner rather than later, that blood will be on our hands if we keep on selfishly doing nothing.

Gringo Liberation Theology: A Course Correction

A slight but important course correction to the series formerly called North American Liberation Theology:

It struck me the other day that, although I’ve addressed the issue of diversity a couple of times in these posts, the title was misleading. “North Americans” are a broad mixture of race and ethnicity. North Americans can be Afro-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Creole, Middle Eastern, etc.

I wanted to create a dialog specifically for members of the dominant culture in North America. I want us to realize that, despite our privilege, we have a very real stake in being part of a movement for justice and freedom across lines such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or creed. I wanted those of us who are people of faith to have our participation in this movement firmly grounded in that faith.

Using the term “North American” may have made sense in some way. That way would be looking outwards, from within the dominant culture. To do this well, I have to recognize when I’m doing that and try to change. I want to be one with my brothers and sisters across all those lines. I want out of these barriers. That’s one of the reasons we in the dominant culture need to adopt a liberation mentality, to free ourselves from those gilded cages while allying with others who are liberating themselves from the chains the dominant culture has imposed.

So as a step in this direction, and with tongue in cheek, I’ve renamed North American Liberation Theology “Gringo Liberation Theology.” Makes it a little more clear who I’m trying to reach. I went back and changed parts of the earlier essays. Tell me what you think.

Gringo Liberation Theology: Race and Gender

I have struggled for the whole time I’ve been working on these Liberation Theology essays to make statements about race and gender. These are essential to an understanding of what Liberation Theology means, not just in North America, but anywhere. I  can’t do my subject justice without addressing them.  But there are real problems as far as me,  personally, trying to do so.

I have a couple of co-workers who are Afro American men. They asked me one day not to use the term “boys.” For a bit of context, it’s fairly common in my social circle for men to refer to each other as boys. For instance, the adult leaders in my Scout troop often use the word with each other. “Okay, boys, time to get supper cooking.” “Any of you boys heard a weather report?” It’s an integrated troop, so we’re not just talking about white men here. So I didn’t think anything of it, until these two co-workers asked me not to. They said “We know you don’t mean anything by it, but we don’t like it.”

The operative sentence there? “I didn’t think anything of it.”  Exactly. It didn’t occur to me how this could have a very different meaning to black men. I wonder now what else I’m doing or saying, without intending disrespect, that is equally wrong.

(Yes, I stopped using the phrase. I would not wish to convey anything but respect or affection for these two, or by extension, to people of color in general. Nice of them to acknowledge that I meant no harm, but in the end, what good are good intentions? Road to hell, right?)

That story goes to highlight the difficulty I have had with addressing this issue. I can’t pretend to be an expert, when I don’t even see my own faults.

I’m a white male. Being white, it’s none of my business to tell people of color how to view their own liberation. Being male, it’s none of my business to tell women how to view their liberation. It’s none of my business to tell either how to progress in that direction.

But the situation isn’t a complete stalemate. White people can have an impact on racism, and men can have an impact on sexism.

There was a time in 1964 when hundreds of brave white college students, both male and female, went to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. Side by side with black activists, they spread over the state to promote voter registration. Three of these activists – one black, two white – paid the ultimate price. Many more were subjected to various assaults and indignities.

What could be done then can be done now. Whites can stand with blacks, Hispanics, or people of color in general. It may not be as obvious now as it was in 1964 what to do. Many of the most pressing goals of the civil rights movement of that day have now been realized. But racial equality has not arrived. There is much to be done.

It would make a vast difference in how white people relate to racism if they would realize two things.

First, a lot of whites don’t understand the reality of white privilege. They look at their own lives, and see that they aren’t part of the One Percent, so where’s all this privilege people are talking about?

A fish doesn’t know it’s wet, and most whites have no idea how much privilege they have. Just one example: Joe Whiteguy is walking down the street with a couple of friends, and he’s never had the experience of people reacting to him and his pals with automatic fear or suspicion. He’s just minding his own business and not even thinking about it. But if you and your buddies are all black, people react differently. Since Joe’s never been in their shoes, he doesn’t know what a privilege it is to be unnoticed.

As Chris Boeskel said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Second, white folks should know that equality for all benefits everyone. It’s not just that the surgeon who saves your life might be a highly skilled black woman or man; that’s almost too easy, although it’s true. The real impact of this is in daily life. If black children get good educations, everyone gets a good education. If black families have affordable housing, everyone has affordable housing. If black people are valued at the workplace, everyone is valued at the workplace. If black people don’t have to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police, no one has to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police. And so on.

Likewise, while women have advanced since The Feminist Mystique was published (also in 1964), there is still inequality in pay and opportunity. There is still sexual harassment and assault. There are still struggles over maternity leave, child care, and reproductive rights.

I don’t think that one guy, alone, writing an essay like this, can say definitively what all whites or all men should do. Each of us has to find that place where we take our stand in solidarity with the struggles of others.

About all I can say is that whites need to be allies with people of color in overcoming racism, and men need to be allies with women against sexism. Generally speaking, we need to follow their lead. This doesn’t mean that we must be puppets and there is no room for our own conscience or our own will.  It isn’t liberation if anyone has to give up their own personhood for another.  But, equally truly, it isn’t theology if we don’t make sacrifices for each other’s liberation.

In addition to standing with people of color and with women, we need to confront men and white people when they speak or act in sexist or racist ways. Our witness against these forms of oppression means nothing if we don’t fight against them. Further, we are in a better position to know how the racist and sexist mind works, because we know what we had to overcome in our own hearts to take this stand. Plus, there is the power of example. If a black person resists racism, it can be seen by white bigots as self-serving.

This is not just sociologically or politically motivated. The preferential option for the poor is not because they have less money but because they are exploited and oppressed. The same goes for people of color and for women. If God loves mercy and justice, he wants it for all.

Beyond that, I would like for whites and men to see what people of color and women have said about liberation.  James ConeCornel West, and, yes, Malcolm X are good starting points for black liberation theology. Rosemary Radford Reuther and Serene Jones are good starting points for feminist theology. So much better to hear what these men and women have said for themselves than for me to try to summarize or translate it.

Somewhere, I think it needs to be said that what unites us all, what is fundamental to the struggles of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is class. Problems of race and gender will not, cannot be solved without economic justice. The powers that be manipulate these distinctions to divide us, to take our attention off the ways in which they exploit us and make us afraid of each other.

I’m not saying that racism and sexism are less important than classism. I am saying that class is the shared factor that bonds men with women; it bonds black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and aboriginal with each other. Class doesn’t transcend these distinctions, it’s the common link. I will have more to say about class in another post in this series.

Gringo Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology? ). Some of those comments were here, some came to me via email, some were  posted elsewhere on the Web. There were some common themes. One of them was along the lines of “Consumerism isn’t much of a motivation to get people to change.” Others were along the lines of “Here’s what liberation theologians in South America are doing.”

I’m fine with both of those responses. I’m fine with most any response that shows that people are thinking. And they made me think, too.

So, while I’m working on the next post in the series, I want to address process rather than content.

First, this is a series. Each of these posts should stand alone in some sense, carrying at least one morsel worth chewing over. Yet none of them is sufficient. If there’s something that you think hasn’t been covered but ought to be, you have a couple of options. One is to wait and see if it is dealt with later in the series. There’s a lot to say and it can’t be said all at once. The other is to say what you think is missing, as I may have missed it. Or else you think about it differently than I do, and that will somehow inform and modify what I intended to say.

The second thing, as alluded to in the title of this post, Liberation Theology is what you do as much as what you say. Our Latin American brothers and sisters talk about praxis, that intersection between thinking and doing, a sort of OODA LOOP of applied spirituality. I realize that I’m trying to express something in words, just as Gutierrez and Bonino and others have done in Latin America, or James Cone and Cornel West have done among Afro-Americans in the USA, or as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether have done among feminists. Trying to communicate sensibly in words is worthwhile, though difficult. However, Liberation Theology is a way of acting or being in the world. I’ve tried to convey some sense of what I’ve done in the context of my community in various places throughout this blog. Those clues which point to what I’ve done are a necessary part of understanding what I’m trying to say. Some who have asked questions may find answers in other posts which don’t have a Liberation Theology label on them.

Third, Gringo Liberation Theology isn’t going to look like Latin American Liberation Theology, or Black Liberation Theology, or Feminist Liberation Theology. Those of us for whom these posts are intended will have to work out for ourselves what community in the context of the liberating Gospel means for us, to give one instance. Blindly imitating other forms is inauthentic. I don’t mind stumbling around in the dark, while we try to find our way. It’s instructive and worthwhile to look at our sisters’ and brothers’ successes and mistakes. We will still have to make our own mistakes and celebrate our own successes.

Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology?

[I realized, as I struggled to come to grips with a post on North American Liberation Theology that I started working on in January, that I was trying to say too much at one time. Some bloggers write really long posts. One fellow I read sometimes calls them “uber-posts.” I don’t think lengthy posts fit the blogging format; at least, for me they don’t. And so I’m breaking the long post down into several pieces.

By the way, I was just looking over the list of old posts, and noticed that this blog saw first light on Sept. 3, 2011. I didn’t realize it had been three years. Thanks to the many who have read these essays over that time.]

There is something odd about the notion of North American Liberation Theology.

Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico is part of North America. Am I trying to say anything about Mexico? No; for this purpose, I’m considering Mexico as part of Latin America, along with Central and South America. I don’t know exactly where the lines are drawn, but I think of Mexico as Third World.

I want to  address the First World, particularly the USA and Canada, which are marked by advanced industrialism, an extreme concentration of wealth, an imperialistic outlook, and an amazing standard of living.

In short, we seem to have it all. Why would we need a liberation theology? From what do we need to be liberated?

Please consider the fact that our standard of living is such that all but the most desperately poor live as well as, or better than, the middle class of Asia, Africa, and South America. (Yes, really. We live in a society in which 95% of the people  have a roof over their heads, sanitary drinking water at the turn of a tap, electricity, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter that you don’t have to walk miles to gather firewood to enjoy, a steady supply of food at affordable prices, ready access to medical care even if it’s only the nearest ER, a car or reliable public transportation, good clothing at cheap prices and the ability to buy $100 tennis shoes, and one or more color TVs in each home. That’s doing pretty darn well.)

All true. All important. All things that most people everywhere want. What’s the problem?

This pretty picture takes no notice of the deep divisions of class, race and gender that engulf us, all of us, all the time, no matter how well off we are materially, and on no matter which side of any of those divisions you personally may fall.

And then there’s consumerism. Let’s talk about that first.

Consumerism, as Wikipedia defines it so well, is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Of itself, this need not be so bad. We all need some things, and we all want some things. This is universal, excepting monks and other ascetics. However, consumerism has been driven to a feverish state by the knowing application of methods which amount to mass hypnosis. The use of music, color, motion, and sex in advertising, for instance, is consciously designed to get people to lust after things they don’t need, and don’t really want all that much. I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating when I refer to hypnosis. As a master hypnotist, I assure you that the techniques are identical and I wish, as a therapist, that I was that good.

Consumerism, to put it in another way, is the ideology that takes materialism to its logical extent. It assures us that if we just have the right things then we will be happy, loved, powerful, laid. Most of us know, at some level, that this is a lie. There are all those sayings that float around that indicate that consumerism has not totally won our hearts and minds. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” “The best things in life are free.” “Nothing is more important than family.” “What a terrible accident. At least no one was hurt. Things can be replaced.”

Yes, we all know those things. Until the doors open on Black Friday and people are crushed by the throng trying to get to the goods. To give only one example. In many small ways, I find myself loving things more than they should be, and having to actively work against this tendency. If you are honest, the same is probably true of you, too.

Consumerism is alienating, and yes, I know Marx introduced us to this concept. (As I’ve said for years, his descriptions are pretty accurate; it’s his prescriptions that go so dreadfully awry.) Our ability as human beings to be, to feel, and to do need not be mediated by the presence of things. Beyond the bare necessities, it’s all gravy. Nothing wrong with a little gravy, of course. But just as the drug addict’s body reacts to the absence of dope as though it’s survival is threatened, in the consumerist society our emotions are re-calibrated to the same distortion: “I’ll simply die if I can’t have ….” Take a cell phone away from a teenager and watch the fireworks. Or an adult for that matter.  A few weeks ago I left the house without my cellphone and actually felt uneasy, until I processed the feeling and came to grips with the fact that, for most of my life, I did just fine without a cell phone in my pocket.

This alienation runs so deep and has become so commonplace that it almost seems petty to point it out. What’s all this nonsense about cell  phones? Sure, they’re convenient and we are used to having them, but what does that have to do with alienation? Just one symptom of the disease, that’s what. Here’s another, to my mind much more profoundly disturbing: In the not-so-distant past, enjoying music meant being in the presence of the musicians. For most people, this meant that people they actually knew who had learned an instrument would play for the enjoyment of family and friends. For some, in cities, it also meant orchestras and the like, but still in their presence. Since Edison made recording practical, that has changed. In many ways, this is a good thing. We can all enjoy the music of the finest musicians of the age, at any time, in any place. Tragically, for many of us this has replaced sitting on the front porch with Uncle Jed on the fiddle and mama on the guitar. Real human beings, interacting in a real human way, as humans have done since time out of mind. The same thing can be said of art, and architecture, and many other things.

Ivan Illich goes into great detail about this process of alienation in his books, such as “Deschooling Society” and “Medical Nemesis.” In these books, he points out that activities like learning and healing, formerly engaged in by people in general, had been professionalized in a process he calls radical monopoly. When only people with an education license can teach, and only people with a medical license can heal, you have a radical monopoly. Functions which were the province of everyone, and which deepened human interrelatedness, were put off-limits to most of us. Jessica Mitford pointed out how the same thing happened to the unfathomably human process of death and dying, in “The American Way of Death.”

Illich presents, as a counterpoint, the idea of conviviality. He defines tools as something you use to get things done, whether it is an implement you hold in your hand or an institution you attend. A convivial tool brings people together rather than separating them, and it allows them to express their own creativity instead of making them the slave of the machine or the institution.

As you can see, this runs counter to the trend in modern society, in which even someone who paints your nails has to have a license.

Call it a First World problem and I won’t disagree. But we need to be liberated from consumerism and the alienation it fosters. Even though it’s a problem of Plenty rather than Scarcity, which seems like a good problem to have, understanding how consumerism operates indicates that it is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking problem. And we are in its clutches.

The system of production on which the world currently depends, demands that we be consumers. This is why so much effort goes into creating these artificial “needs.” If we don’t spend money on all the seductive glitter, profits are lost, jobs are lost, the stock market plummets, and all that follows. To avoid this, the economic system gives us choices between commodities while doing everything in its power to eliminate the choice of whether to be a consumer or not. Bird in a gilded cage? Yes. It’s still a cage.

There are other ways in which we are also alienated and I’ll address those in future posts. As mentioned above: race, gender, class.

And imperialism. Don’t forget imperialism.

This is going to be a long series. No wonder I couldn’t get started, thinking it all had to go in one post.

Quaker Plain VII: A Simple Ministry

[I was well on the way to finishing a long post on Liberation Theology for North Americans this winter when I got sick. Major sick. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that without Bonnie I may not have survived. Getting back on my feet, getting very busy at work, and other bits of life and service have taken the focus from writing. Fortunately, I have all my notes for that piece, tentatively titled “Liberty and Humanity.”  It will still see the light of day. Getting back in the saddle and writing a shorter piece is part of the process. Plus, I try always to go where I feel led, regardless of prior plans or where I thought previous leading were taking me. So:]
 
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Friends recently about our tradition of vocal ministry and how best to support and enrichen it. The spark for these discussions was a plan for a minister’s retreat.
 
Among Conservative Friends, ministry is conducted along the lines laid down by the founders of our Society. We don’t ordain ministers, nor is there a clerical caste that runs things. We meet for worship in a quiet spirit of expectant waiting, a spirit that can directly inspire any of us to share a spoken message. There have always been some who are inspired to speak in some fashion that meets the needs of our members: more often, more deeply, more powerfully. When this gift is recognized, and a minute entered into the Meeting’s records, that person – male or female, by the way, from our earliest days – is said to be a recorded minister.
 
Why record ministers? Is this not ordination by another name? Have we not set up a priestly caste?
 
Just as we use the short hand phrase “Meeting for Business” to mean “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business,” we also use the term “recorded minister” as short hand for “having recorded a gift of vocal ministry, which has been vouchsafed to this particular Friend to be exercised, and to this body of Friends for mutual nurturance.”
 
The focus is on the gift. The practice of recording is to acknowledge a mutual responsibility. On the part of the minister, there is the responsibility to cultivate the gift, to be obedient to its promptings, to share freely those lessons that are meant to be shared without embarrassment or pride. On the part of the Meeting, there is the duty to respond faithfully (by which I mean genuinely and spiritually, not with blind obedience) and to hold the minister, who must make him or herself vulnerable in every exercise of the gift, with tender care.
It is another way in which our testimony of plainness is embodied. Ministry among other Christian denominations is wound about with all kinds of ritual, hierarchy, fancy gowns, etc. Not so for us. Like our way of worship itself, ministry among us is based on the experience that nothing is needed except the direct action of the Holy Spirit within our midst.
 
Could not other gifts, besides vocal ministry, be so recorded, exercised, nurtured? Emphatically, and fervently, yes! Wherever we see the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the clear benefit of the Meeting, our Society, or the world, we should have the same care for these gifts. For instance, we have a long history of prison ministry, dating back to the earliest days. We do not record those who have a gift for prison ministry.
 
Yet there is a reason why, from our Society’s first generation, we have recorded gifts in vocal ministry. This gift, more than any other, has built up, strengthened, inspired, chastened, taught, and shepherded our Society as a whole than any other. Perhaps its vocation is to be Primus inter pares, first among equals.
 
In regard to the ministers’ retreat, I certainly don’t want to limit this retreat to recorded ministers. I do want to reach out to those who are new to the vocal ministry. Having spent the vast proportion of my years in the ministry while unrecorded, Lord knows I don’t equate “minister” with “recorded minister.”
 
I find that even ministers of long standing, whether acknowledged formally or not, also need support from the larger group. Just having people say “I like what you said” doesn’t fill the need we have. And while I’ve been as faithful to the Light given me as I can be, that sense of God’s love and mercy are not enough either. Nor do I believe He meant them to be. He gave us each other, to love and cherish and teach and learn together.
 
Historically, going back to the days of Fox, the gatherings of ministers served many of these functions. Those new to the ministry could find guidance and encouragement. Those who had exercised the gift longer could find strength and tenderness in the fellowship.
 
We don’t get much of that. It has been a lonely journey for me, in many ways, for much of the time. Some may be less sensitive to the isolation than others, but we are all subjected to it. This is not self-pity. It’s just an honest assessment of the situation. There are so few of us, and in our Religious Society as a whole, there is very little understanding of this gift. It’s better among Conservative Friends than elsewhere, but the fact remains.
 
If I understand the leading to conduct this retreat correctly, it is one way to meet some of these needs, for all of us who follow this gift, not just a select few.
 
I’m in the discernment phase with this leading. I’m not arguing in favor of something, so much as trying to communicate how the leading appears to me so that others such as you can help discover where it leads and what it’s about. If it turns out to be something different than what I’m saying now, that’s okay. God’s will, not mine.

Oscillation

Everything is marked by oscillation. From the vibration of the smallest wave/particle, to the galaxies and clusters of galaxies swirling around and sometimes through each other, whatever else is going on, there is oscillation.

In that phase of existence which is between the smallest and the largest – the plane on which we live – we see the effects of oscillation as well. The tide ebbs and flows. Seasons come and go and come again. Birth and death and life renewed. The phases of the moon. The systolic and diastolic within our very blood.

We don’t drive straight down a highway. There is always the slightest veering to right or left, followed by the correction back to the center. Every pilot knows that straight-and-level flight is really a constant fluctuation of pitch and yaw and roll.

And so it is in our lives. Activity is followed by rest, sadness by joy, amazement by boredom.

Even the great philosophers, sages, Buddhas, rishis, saints, and yogis are never free of this. Only the unenlightened believe in some state of perfection, in which there is no variation or twist. The enlightened ones know that no one escapes the laws of existence.

There is a story of the death of the wife of a great Buddhist teacher. When his disciples found him crying in his grief, they asked him why he was so sorrowful. Hadn’t he taught them that all life was impermanent and appearances only an illusion? “Yes, but my wife: what an illusion!”

We don’t know much about the life of Jesus, pretty much only the last few years of his public ministry. We are fortunate to know more about other spiritual giants. The Buddha, for instance, lived to be 80. We know much more about him. We know that early on in his ministry he taught certain themes. Later, he expanded them further, not abandoning the early teachings but building on them. Finally, towards the end of his life, he once more introduced great new themes into his life’s work.

It can be said, with great certainty, that each of these stages was preceded by a time in which he plunged back into – what to call it? – engagement, involvement, attachment. Drama, if you will. This is how the human psyche works. Not by constant progression, but in pieces, one step back for every two forward.

Carl Jung, in his autobiography, gives a thorough account of how this worked in his life. Every one of his great insights was preceded by a time of confusion, even darkness.

It is not just this way for the great and famous. I’ve just been through a period in which I lost perspective, got wrapped up in details, let go of what I know about impermanence, misplaced some of my sense of humor. Yet now it seems I’m emerging into new acceptance of myself,  a new recognition of my flaws and assets. When I first began to realize this, it was with that ego-energy that says “you were wrong, you screwed up, you’re a fraud,” because ego thrives on those petty judgmentalisms. Now, as the mists part and I step further into the warmth and light, I remember that this is just how it works. No up without down. No in without out. No learning without mistakes to learn from.

Homeostases are made to be broken.

Welcome to the New Association of Friends

Quakers have been watching, with various degrees of dismay, the slow slide of Indiana Yearly Meeting towards schism. Like a slow train wreck, this process has taken years. It has not been certain what would happen.

Briefly put, the impetus for this split dates back to a 2008 decision by West Richmond Friends Meeting to be a welcoming and affirming congregation for gays and lesbians. They allow GLBT folks to be full members, and by full they mean that no program, no position is barred to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation. (The full statement can be found here.

This caused a serious problem within Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which West Richmond Friends has been a part. IYM passed a minute in 1982 which states unequivocally that “Indiana Yearly Meeting believes homosexual practices to be contrary to the intent and will of God for humankind. We believe the Holy Spirit and Scriptures witness to this (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:9-10).” (Doug Bennett, past president of Earlham College, discusses these scriptures in his essay “Five Snippets”.)

As if the discussion of how to view homosexuality was not enough, another theme emerged during the lengthy discussions. Must West Richmond bow to the authority of the Yearly Meeting? Or could each Meeting determine its own views, like the congregationalist denominations such as the United Church of Christ or most Baptist churches? In other words, were the local Meetings coordinate or subordinate bodies to the Yearly Meeting?

I’m not going to give the whole history of the debate. It has been covered very well by Stephen Angell in Quaker Theology  in issues 18-22. More information can be found elsewhere, including further essays by Doug Bennett and others.

Now, the new shape of the Society of Friends in Indiana, western Ohio and Michigan is taking form in the New Association of Friends. Having held their first meeting in January 2013, they are still going through the organizational phase. There are many decisions to be made. It is not all hard work, though. They have scheduled a family camp for the Memorial Day weekend, and will have a picnic after the business sessions on June 30.

I pastored an Indiana Yearly Meeting congregation in the mid-1980s for a couple of years. This Monthly Meeting is one of the founding Meetings of the New Association. I also have friends who remain in IYM. In some ways, it is very sad to me that it has come to this.

It didn’t have to be inevitable. I can easily imagine ways in which this split could have been avoided. Acknowledging the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light in everyone, that the true light which enlightens everyone has come into the world, really means “everyone”, would have been a good place to start. Sticking to ancient Friends’ practices of seeking that Light on all decisions, rather than making choices based on doctrine, dogma, or what George Fox called “notions,” would have been another. Recognizing that West Richmond Friends might have been offering a prophetic voice to IYM, rather than an errant and defiant one, would have been a third.

But people being what people are, this is where we’ve gotten.

I welcome the New Association of Friends into the world. Already, 13 Meetings have affiliated with it. It seems more arrive every week. I expect that they won’t all be from IYM, either; Wilmington Yearly Meeting has its own internal conflicts, and some of their Meetings may find the New Association to be a better fit.

Whatever the case may be, I pray sincerely that IYM may find its way forward without falling victim to the Scylla and Charybdis of further dissension and hemorrhage on the one hand, and doctrinal rigor mortis on the other.

And I pray that the New Association will take its place as a healthy, hearty new thread within the Quaker tapestry.

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