Individual Rights or Solidarity Rights?

I suppose it goes back to the Enlightenment. The scientific revolution triggered the end of the Middle Ages. Instead of being told what to think, people started to think for themselves. And learn. The old doctrines of church and state began to be replaced by empirical investigation and the rise of reason. Not just in the physical sciences, but also in philosophy, culture — and politics.

The Enlightenment had a huge impact on how people thought about their relationship to government and each other. The revolutions in the US and France were major outcomes of these changes.

One of the things that changed was the concept of what Jefferson called “inalienable rights.” A right is something you’re born with. We all have it. It’s not given or even guaranteed by the government, although it can be taken away by someone stronger than you.

Americans have been raised on the recitation of these rights. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Freedom of religion, of assembly, of petition.” “Freedom from unlawful search and seizure.” And so forth.

These freedoms, coming as they did on the heels of millennia of authoritarian government (tribal rulers, kings, princes, emperors, popes and caliphs, etc.), were truly revolutionary in their impact. As the power of the hereditary aristocracy gave way to the power of business tycoons, some of whom like Andrew Carnegie rose from very humble beginnings to the very peaks of success, and as the divine right of kings gave way to the Declaration of the Rights of Man (sic), at last it was possible for individuals to make their own decisions, based not on who their parents were, but on what they could learn, make, think and do.

It was truly liberating. It was an entirely necessary development to create the kind of material wealth that so many of us enjoy today. By “so many of us,” I don’t just mean the 1%. People in the working class in all advanced industrial nations enjoy a standard of living that a king in a dark, dank castle could not have dreamed of. (Except, of course, when it comes to the power to rule.)

Many still consider these rights, these individual rights, to be the height and summation of all that humans can aspire to. Liberty forever! (Equality and fraternity, not so much.)

I’m not writing this to discount the importance of these rights. They are still of the utmost importance to our lives, and will remain so indefinitely. But that is not the end of the story of the development of the concept of rights. There is something else happening. The idea of rights is still expanding. Here’s where I think it is leading.

As important as these individual rights are, they leave large gaps in our ability to provide all people with security, good health, shelter, good nutrition, good education, etc. All of those things remain commodities to be bought and sold on the market. Take health care: you pay for it like you pay to go to a movie or for a Louis Vuitton handbag. But health care is not a luxury, it is something that everyone needs.

Under our concept of individual rights, healthcare will always be a commodity to be bought and sold. Why? Because under individual rights, one person has the right to ask for as much money as the market will bear, and to keep all of it for him or herself, regardless of how that affects anyone else.

Let me repeat that: regardless of how that affects anyone else.

That’s how pollution gets poured into our streams and air. That’s how poor people are evicted from their homes so that some developer can make even more money on the property.

We need another kind of rights, in addition to the individual rights that have done so much for us. We need solidarity rights. These are rights that we hold in common, not ones that each of us has separately. The right to decent shelter, clothing, food or health care is not a personal right. You can’t take these things away from someone else, under our current system, because they own and control them.

Within solidarity rights, things change. The individual doesn’t own something like health care. They can’t use it to extort money out of other people. Same with housing, food, or education. These are rights we have, not rights that have. In sharing good food, for instance, we’re not taking something away from someone else, because it never belonged to them in the first place. They still have a right to be compensated for their labor in producing it, they just don’t get to set the highest rate they can and pocket the profit that they exploited from people who need good food.

When Bernie talks about doing away with college tuition, he’s not talking about “free tuition” as his critics say. He is talking about how we all own education, in common with each other. We’re not trying to take something away from anyone else. That something was taken away from us, when it was made a commodity that someone else could get rich from. Rich off of your back. Rich off of the work you do to provide for yourself and your family. Rich off the choices you have to make, whether to have the good insurance or the car that doesn’t break down.

This idea of solidarity rights will continue to evolve. 50 or 100 years from now, we may realize that there are other solidarity rights that at this time we would not be able to recognize, because in the grand scheme of things, we are still barely out of medieval times and we don’t have the perspective yet.

The expansion of solidarity rights will go hand in hand with the expansion of socialism in our economic and political lives. Without greater economic justice, there will be no development of solidarity rights, and without solidarity rights, economic justice will not last.

Workers of the world, you have your chains to lose and a world to gain — for each other!

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Moral March in Raleigh, NC draws thousands

RALEIGH, N.C. — On a lovely, sunny mid-February day, thousands of people came to Raleigh Feb. 11 to let their voices be heard in the 11th Annual Moral March on Raleigh.

Source: Moral March in Raleigh, NC draws thousands

An Opening to the Left

Early in the first quarter of Super Bowl 51, Coca Cola had a commercial featuring people of various ethnicities, singing “America the Beautiful” in a variety of languages.

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when this would have been merely sappy. “Aww, look at Coca Cola, acting like they care about people ‘n’ stuff.”

Today, in the Trump era, it seems sweetly defiant.

It goes to show: since the fall of 2015, space has opened up on the political landscape to the Left in a way I wouldn’t have predicted 18 months ago.

During the Bush years, the scene shifted so far right that there was very little space to maneuver on the Left. The antiwar movement was marginalized and ineffectual. There were very little other than holding actions for racial or economic justice. The events of 9/11 dominated our national consciousness in a remarkable way. Even pacifist and lefty diehards like me were shocked by the destruction of the Twin Towers and at the Pentagon, and were fearfully herded into compliance with decisions that we would not have accepted under any other circumstances.

The Left had already moved way over to the center during the Clinton years. 9/11 completed the process. Efforts to imitate elements that fueled the rise of the Right, such as Air America’s attempt to do what Rush Limbaugh had done, failed miserably. Cringeworthy, to be honest.

When Obama was elected, not much changed. He sort of sucked the air out of the room. He defined liberalism at that time, even though he pursued a strongly neoliberal agenda. The expectations he raised for Hope and Change, the rhetorical charm, and our legitimate pride in having elected the first Black president, kept (and still keep) many from seeing that Barack Obama was not all that liberal. As noted in The Economist, “Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s agendas were in some ways more similar to each other than Mr. Trump’s is to either.”

Even the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature accomplishment, benefited the large insurance companies as much as the little guy. And yet, most on the Left, from those so close to the center they can hardly be called liberal, clear on out into what I think of as the moderate socialists (groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America), all view the ACA as a major accomplishment. I’m not arguing here that the ACA accomplished nothing worthwhile. I’m saying that it has structural weaknesses, that it could have been much better, that it was not anything like a socialist program, and yet there was so little room to maneuver on the Left that socialist groups were forced into supporting it.

But there have been significant events in the last 5 years that have indicated a notable movement to the Left. First, there was Occupy Wall Street. Despite collapsing under the weight of its own process, nonetheless Occupy got thousands of people, especially people new to radical politics, out on the street. Just as important, it brought awareness of wealth inequality into a lasting focus. When you say “the 1%” and “the 99%”, people understand the significance, in a way that “the proletariat” hasn’t done in ages.

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement brought racial justice into national awareness as forcefully as Occupy had made people aware of the 1%. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner in particular energized the racial justice movement in a way that has not been seen since the heyday of the Civil Rights crusade.

Although not a national movement, the Moral Monday activities in North Carolina have had significant impact both in the state and elsewhere. The Moral Monday coalition has protested in favor of voting rights, education, environmental protections, and expanding the Medicaid program, which would have allowed thousands of North Carolinians to benefit from Obamacare.

In 2015, Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Presidency. Initially seen as a fringe candidate, he put together a campaign that came very close to winning the Democratic nomination. He won more votes than any socialist ever has, including the vastly popular Eugene V. Debs.

Most recently, we saw millions of people pour out into the streets on Jan. 21, 2017. Billed as a Women’s March due to Donald Trump’s misogynistic behavior and policies, women and male allies flooded public spaces across the world. Over 500,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., and an equal number turned out in Los Angeles, astounding figures for this kind of event. More than that, millions of others marched and rallied in cities and towns across the globe, including 30 in Antarctica, making it the first occurrence of its kind to have participants on all 7 continents.

Since then, there have been spontaneous demonstrations against the ban on Muslims entering the US, when people poured into airports to protest this xenophobic action by the Trump administration. There was the Day Without Immigrants on February 16th to highlight the negative effects of the suddenly increased deportations. There is a Day Without A Woman planned for International Women’s Day on March 8th, when women and their allies are asked to take the day off from paid and unpaid labor, avoid shopping in any but women- and minority-owned businesses, and to wear red in a show of solidarity. On Earth Day, April 22nd, there will be a March for Science in Washington, D.C. and over 100 cities worldwide, on behalf of the scientific process and the need for evidence-based public planning and legislation.

All of this points to an important fact: Radicals on the Left no longer have to settle for shoring up the center to prevent the Right from gaining even further ground. While the Right remains a formidable adversary, both in the US and in many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, it is now possible for the Left to be the Left. Genuinely socialist programs, and genuinely socialist candidates, have a chance to win that they have not had in the lifetime of most Americans (the median age in the US was 38 years old in 2016.)

This means that groups on the Left need to make the most of the opening that has taken place. Organizations such as DSA and the IWW, that are making the most of this and stating their program in strong and clear language are growing by leaps and bounds. (DSA has more than doubled its membership since the November 2016 election.) Yes, there is a need to protect what was won in previous years, and yes, there is a need to push back against the ascendancy of the Right. But neither of these will make the most of the opportunity that now exists. Besides sustaining and protecting, it is time for the Left to explain socialism to those who are newly accepting of it, to promote uncompromisingly socialist programs, and to move forward with all the power we can muster.

Do you think there is an opening to the Left that we can make use of?

Women’s March January 21, 2017

Bonnie and I went to the local march today. Several hundred people had gathered in Union Point Park; not bad for a small Southern town of 25,000 people. Black, white and Hispanic, old and young (very young), female and male. Had some speeches, some of them pretty stirring, and then marched off to the federal courthouse for some more speeches. Originally the plan was to march to the county courthouse, but it wasn’t enough space for the numbers that showed up so they had to change. Now, that’s cool.

It was good to see so many folks I know among the crowd. The mood was not somber! People looked determined, but there were also a lot of smiles and high fives going around.

This is why we went. Going into the Trump era knowing we are not alone, knowing that there are others right here in our home community who are ready to stand up, to resist, to fight for each other.

And then we got home and started looking at all the news reports from around the country and the world. Photos that friends in many cities put up on Facebook. Videos of people marching. One friend took a photo in Greensboro, NC, as the march went past the Woolworth’s where a famous lunch counter sit-in took place back in 1960 (now home of the International Civil Rights Museum.) Now that ties things together, doesn’t it?

And the numbers kept rolling in. Half a million in DC. 150,00 in Chicago — no, wait, it’s up to 250,000. 100,00 in LA. 200,000 in New York City. 100,000 in Denver. 75-100,000 in Madison, Wisconsin. 50,00 in Philly. 35,000 in Austin, Texas. London. Berlin. Paris. Sydney. Cape Town. Vienna. 30 people in Antarctica. Antarctica!

I’ve been to a lot of demonstrations, from my first small local Moratorium on the War in Vietnam in October, 1968, to Solidarity Day in 1982, and the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington (“I Have a Dream.”) Some of them were huge, hundreds of thousands of people. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

There’s been a lot of despair floating around since the Trump Gang won the election in November. I’m glad to say, although I have moments of thinking I’ll wake up and it will be over, I have not given into hopelessness. From election night on, I’ve been saying, paraphrasing IWW organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, “Don’t Despair, Organize!”

But I get it. I know why people have felt scared and hopeless and alone.

Not today. No one had to be scared, there were too many of us. No one had to feel hopeless; the determination was palpable. And we were not alone. Not with millions around the world turning out on the streets in solidarity.

¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

Why I Call Myself a Communist

I used to call myself a Marxist, to distance myself from “those communists.” Now I know better. I’d be a card-carrying communist, if they issued cards.

We’ve been lied to about communism. So much, and so emphatically, that anti-communism is more like religious fundamentalism than serious political inquiry.

Over and over, for more than 150 years, we’ve been told the Big Lie about communism. There are a lot of little lies that shore up the big lie. The big lie is that communism is always and everywhere a form of tyranny that will take away your freedom, property, and dignity, leaving you in poverty and slavery.

All the while, the rich are robbing you blind, making democracy a sham by buying politicians, ruining the environment, supporting dictatorships all over the world, degrading your working conditions when they aren’t shipping your job elsewhere, charging you more for health care and medications, keeping you in wage slavery, ravaging the environment … The list goes on.

They lie to you about communism because they want to maintain the system they have. This system is enormously, unbelievably rewarding to a very few at the top, much less so to those in the middle, and absolutely punishing to the many at the bottom.

This state of affairs is called capitalism. In capitalism, everything – where you live, where you work, what kind of work you do and how you get compensated, what happens when you’re sick, what happens if you’re a person of color, what happens if you are female, what happens if you are LGBTQ, what happens if you belong to an indigenous people, what you eat, drink or breathe – it’s all subordinated to profit.

Profit is a technical term in economics for what most of us call greed. Profit is what makes the handful of people at the top of the current social structure so incredibly rich and powerful. Profit is why one person has billions of dollars, while billions of people live on less than two dollars a day.

Let’s look at some examples of how this works.

For instance, how do capitalists benefit from racism? Several ways. One, it helps them make more money to have a sector of the work force that is kept in poverty, who will be more willing to take crummy jobs for low pay, and keep their mouths shut about working conditions because they can’t afford to lose even a lousy job. Second, it helps keep people in line. If white workers blame black or Hispanic workers for their own miserable jobs or unemployment, then they won’t blame the bosses. Very handy – if you’re the boss.

Same thing with gender. If you pay a woman 69% of what you’d pay a man for the same job, you get to keep more money for yourself. And if the dominant culture allows or even encourages men to take out their frustrations on women, then men won’t see the need to struggle to change the system that keeps everyone – not just women – locked into low pay, substandard living conditions, the cycle of debt, second-rate schools, and all that. (These are not the only ways racism and gender discrimination affect our working class brothers and sisters, just a few brief examples.)

It’s even more obvious why capitalists exploit the environment. If they can take oil, or coal, or wheat, or trees, or any natural resource without having to worry about safety, pollution, or sustainability, then it’s more money in their pockets. If there’s an oil spill and they have to spend $50 million to clean it up, why, it’s just the cost of doing business. If cancer causing chemicals are killing people and they have to pay large settlements, even $500 million bucks is nothing compared to the billions of dollars they’ve kept for themselves.

By using money and power (including violence), the ruling class keeps the laws in their favor. In America, this is done through a two-party system. Both parties are run by the ruling class. This powerful elite is not always in agreement about the best way to run things; this is why they have two parties.

The Republicans think they can win if they get most of the money and lots of people, and the Democrats think they can win if they get most of the people and lots of money. If the Republicans win, then they have to please the people with the money – the plutocrats or 1% – and enough of the voting public to stay in. If the Democrats win, they have to please the voting public and enough of the “plutes.”

So, while the Republicans are more likely to favor the rich people who only care about money, and the Democrats are more likely to favor the rich who want to do something to help “the less fortunate,” both favor the rich one way or the other and keep them in the driver’s seat.

Either way, the billionaire class is less than 1% of the population, so their power is enormously out of proportion to the power of the voting public. This is why both parties cater to the billionaires, the real ruling class. (The 20 wealthiest people in the US have more wealth than the lower half of the total US population. Does “ruling class” sound like an exaggeration to you?)

Both parties will use diplomacy and military intervention as needed to keep America in political and economic power over the rest of the world. Lyndon Johnson was as big a hawk as Ronald Reagan, and did far more damage in Vietnam than Reagan did in Central America. Barack Obama was more restrained than his predecessor George W. Bush, but expanded the use of drones for assassination, and has bombed extensively in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, countries with which we are not technically at war.

The alternative to capitalism is socialism. Socialism values the good of society as a whole over personal gain. Everybody would still own their own home, clothes, TV, whatever. This is called personal property, and it will still be there for your personal use. You would still be paid for the work you do.

What would change is that one tiny group of people wouldn’t own all the places where we work, people who do none of the work yet make all the rules and reap all the wealth that we create.

Under socialism, some of your compensation would not need to be given to you individually. If we all have health care, you don’t need money to pay for an insurance policy. If child care is freely available, we don’t need to earn enough money to pay for that. If higher education is free, you don’t have to go into debt to go to college.

Under socialism, some jobs will be valued more by society, so people who have them will earn more. Teachers might be paid more than taxi drivers, because we value our kids’ education so much and we want good teachers. But vast inequalities in wealth and income would no longer exist as they do today under capitalism. Everybody would be working class.

There are varieties of socialism. The best known is based on the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Some people who agree with Marx just call themselves socialists. Okay by me. Some call themselves Marxists. Some call themselves communists. Marx, who wrote “The Communist Manifesto,” considered himself a communist.

An important difference between socialists and communists is this: socialists, often called democratic socialists, think that socialism can be voted in. Communists know that the ruling class will not give up without a struggle, and they will make it ugly.

Since Bernie Sanders mounted his campaign for President, the term “socialism” has once more become an acceptable part of our political conversation in the US. Socialism has never been the dirty word in many other countries that it has been here. Many countries have active communist parties with widespread public support.

Communists have done a lot of good in the world. In the US, for instance, communists were crucial in the gains made for working people by the labor movement in the 20th century. They were involved early on in the fight for gender and racial justice. In Asia, Africa, and South America communists have fought for economic equality and an end to colonial domination. Socialists on every continent have established educational programs and affordable medical care for people who had been kept in illiteracy and illness by their capitalist bosses.

The African National Congress, which spearheaded the fight against apartheid, has been allied with the South African Communist Party (SANC) since 1955, and is itself a member of the Socialist International. Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela was a member of the SANC for a time, and was greatly influenced by the anti-imperialist views of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Other famous communists include: novelist Simone de Beauvoir; professor Angela Davis; poet Amiri Baraka; screenwriter Dalton Trumbo; scholar and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois; president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta; author Albert Camus; folk singer Woody Guthrie; nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer; actor and singer Paul Robeson; journalist John Reed; philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre; novelist Howard Fast; labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; painter Diego Rivera; and many more.

Capitalists, and their minions, stooges and patsies demonize communism so you won’t even consider it as an option. They’ve been doing this since communism first appeared. They have used jail, violence, black-listing, character assassination, and more to scare people away.

There’s no question that some who call themselves communists have done some unspeakably horrible things. Such crimes cannot be explained away. But remember this: in that insane calculus in which deaths caused by communists are abominable but those caused by capitalists are merely “unfortunate”, there is neither justice nor integrity.

“But right now, as bad as we may be, as many atrocities as we may commit, we are not as bad as Russia. I mean in America, at least the police don’t shoot you — unless, of course, they do.” (Jordy Cummings)

Criticisms of socialist societies by those whose wealth was built on slavery and Jim Crow, who support the butchery of Augusto Pinochet and the mass incarceration of African Americans, who talk about the dangerous Soviet police state while making excuses for the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and so many others, rings more than hollow. It’s just not believable, so we have to ask what motivates such a fraud? Support of the status quo, that’s what.

For many years, I believed those lies. I’d been raised on them, and didn’t have the knowledge to refute them. Now I do. The truth is not hard to find if you try, and it’s worth looking for. Unless you are one of the 1%, who wouldn’t want a world where people mattered more than greed?

Gringo Liberation Theology: Temporarily On Hold 

It’s too important to be  doing Liberation now. Events are taking place here in Babylon that demand our attention, our action, our hearts, minds and souls. Still have to make a living, too. 

I hope to post some material here from time to time, but lately my energies have been engaged in struggling against incipient fascism, as represented this time around by Babyhands and his gaggle of moguls. 

I never got to the post about how South American Liberation Theology is built on the communities of the base, the poor, humble and disenfranchised millions who gather together to love God and each other enough to stand up against the power of the billionaire class. Well, we’re going to have to make it up as we go along, because it can’t be done alone. I reckon that’s a good way to do it. 

Keep the faith, sisters and brothers. Love each other and the whole world,  because it’s going to take all the love we got to save the people and the planet from the onslaught of greed,  hate and ignorance that is being unleashed. We can do this.  

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 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.

Praxis: Faith and Practice

It is a tradition among Quaker Yearly Meetings to have a sort of constitution. They usually consist of two parts. The first, often in the form of a collection of quotes, describes the uniquely Quaker view of God, man, society, faith. The second portrays the agreements by which the Yearly Meeting conducts business and puts its decsions into actions. This book is called by most Yearly Meetings “Faith and Practice.”

Faith and Practice. Our Quaker tradition has always emphasized the interchange between the two. Our practice is informed by our living faith, the actual experience of being led by the Spirit as we have divined it within our Meetings. That faith is nurtured and developed in its turn by the experience of seeking to live up to it in the world. I say “we” to emphasize the communal basis of this faith and this practice. It is an ancient Quaker discipline to test one’s leadings for clearness among other seasoned Friends, and within the wider Friends fellowship.

The Theology of Liberation as it has grown in Latin America and elsewhere has these same traits, given certain important cultural differences. Practice is informed by faith; faith is informed by practice; theological reflection requires participation in both, and within a community of the faithful. This is called “praxis.” Not an academic exercise, but the give and take of prayer, inspiration, creativity, reflection, repeated within relationships with their brothers and sisters in faith. This circle of activity, from the inner to the outer and back again, is known as praxis.

Theology thus comes out of a living faith — out of the struggle to embody our faith in our choices and actions. This is the only authority for doing theology. Everything else is notional: talk which resembles gossip about theology, not the doing of theology itself.

This undertaking is not easy, and only humility makes possible any measure of success. Simplistic answers, formulaic responses, and self-righteous certainty all display an aggressive, domineering attitude that produces only more oppression. Insistence on the prominence of certain scriptural texts, rather than viewing each in the light of the whole of scripture, for instance, is a sure recipe for the disaster which we see, enacted by our fellow humans every day all over the world. It leads to the failure of love and the imperium of ego. The thrust toward certainty is so appealing, so seductive, so misleading. Faith is not about certainty; at least, not that kind. The certainty of faith lies in knowing that God is with us even when all is dark and confusion reigns. A God whose will is known in every detail is no God at all, but an idol to our own narrow predilections, obsessions, and fears.

Humility tells us,always and everywhere, that it is better to be loved than to be right. Beware of those who tell you it is because they love you that they are telling you what to think or feel, as they put you on the rack.

To find fulfillment, a theology of liberation must address the needs of the middle class as well as the poor. This is not to contradict the “preferential option for the poor” which has been the hallmark of liberation theology since its inception. On the contrary, the middle class must learn to adopt that stance for themselves, within their own lives, in order to have an authentic faith. Not by pretending to be poor, not by a Lady Bountiful approach to charity, but by learning how to stand in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the despised. the forgotten, the neglected.

The middle class should take joy in their opportunities for health, education, meaningful work, sufficient income, material comfort, relative freedom of choice and of behavior. The poor want these things for themselves, and by right should have them; to discount them would be to discount the reality of the struggles of the poor to achieve them.

From what, then, is the middle class to be liberated? From our complicity in the structures which which maintain oppression and privilege. From the smug self- absorption that supposes that everyone shares our values, preventing us from having real relationships with others. From greed. From our own aggressiveness. From prejudice of all sorts. From anxiety, the fear that no matter how much we have it is never enough. From feeling unloved and alone.

Liberation, though, is not just “freedom from.” It is also “freedom for”: for joy, for contentment, for love, for a sustainable prosperity. And there are the “freedom of’s”, natural to the citizens of a republic: of speech, of assembly, of religion, of the press, of being secure in our person and property. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

To enjoy any of these freedoms, we must work to see them extended to everyone. “An injury to one is an injury to all”, as the IWW preamble puts it.