Protest and Civil Disobedience

Protest and civil disobedience is very much a part of the fabric of American culture. Abolition. Women’s rights. Civil rights. This is one way we exercise our right of free speech, a right secured for every American in the adoption of the First Amendment to our Constitution. And while we are not without our very own historic protest events where violence was part of the message and the response to the message, non-violent civil disobedience is especially valued by Americans, as exemplified by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the years following the 2008 economic meltdown, I watched with perplexity as Americans stayed home while citizens of other countries around the world took to the streets to defend their basic human rights in the face of the most cruel economic austerity policies passed by their conservative governments. In the United States there were occasional protests here and there, as issues heated and spiked tensions. In 2010 I was a humanities professor at a public university in Ohio and I attended a protest in the banking district of the city. To my surprise, it did not have the muscle I expected to see, and as I watched bank employees leave the building for lunch, what I saw on many of their faces ranged from banal amusement to glares of superiority and disgust. There was no sense of acknowledgment that they were recipients of an important message.

The protests of the last couple days give me hope for our divided nation. It gives me hope because I see people energized to respond to a human crisis. On the other hand, I am disgusted by the flip side of this motivation.

The flip side of what is motivating our protest is the disgusting cause of the crisis. A poorly vetted (if vetted at all) executive order signed by our president, Donald J. Trump. The executive order banned travel to the United States for 218 million Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, none of which have a history of immigrants (or travelers) perpetrating violent acts on American soil. The vetting of the executive order should have included the head of the National Security Council and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Trump has given his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon and his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus seats on the NSC, while dismissing the director of national intelligence and the chair of the joint cheifs of staff. From disgusting to deeply disturbing. The president does not listen to or even tolerate dissenting voices among his closest advisers.

The signing of this executive order gives the impression that it was done without the kind of circumspection that is demanded of its subject. We should all be reminded of the shallow understanding of the Bush administration who crafted propaganda to lead our country to war in Iraq. What they willfully refused to understand were the complexities of the relationships between Sunni and Shi’a cultures in the Middle East, and the powder keg they were rushing to ignite with a blow torch.

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid to protest and engage in civil disobedience, to stand up to shallow leadership that seeks to control us with fear.

From a Christian perspective we are commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) to embrace the refugee. And this is given in a context of an ethical imperative that has one eye on the present with the other eye on a future and final apocalyptic accounting that God will have with those who claim to have faith, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Matthew writes Jesus’s words:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (RSV, Matt. 25.34-45)

We are also urged in the Johannine tradition to embrace God’s culture of love.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV, 1 John 4.7-8)

Fear is also explicitly spoken to as a vice to be overcome, not to be succumbed to, but to be overcome.

16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (RSV, 1 John 4.16-21)

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid, and do not allow themselves to be manipulated by the talk of fear.

Guns, racism, and people like you and me

We sit in the comfort of our homes and we watch video recordings of arrests that end in death. Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, so many, too many to name. And now Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. It happens more often than mainstream media report. Sometimes the event is recorded and the evidence is clear, sometimes not so clear. And we draw our separate conclusions based on partial evidence filled in by our individual emotional contexts, predictable conclusions that continue to exacerbate an already polarized culture.

I am an academic, someone who tries to look at social problems from as many intellectual angles as I can possibly master. I am also a parish pastor, an experience that has grounded me for the last 25 years in lives challenged by struggle, suffering, loss, and pain. Several years ago the husband of a member of my parish was shot point blank in the back of the head during a dispute over the sale of a gun, in his own home. It was a senseless act of violence committed by someone who held little value for human life. It was a horrific experience of pain and loss for the murdered man’s family.

Members of my own family and friends disagree with me about guns. I grew up in a rural Midwestern context where the legal sport of hunting birds and small game animals is a substantial part of our way of life. I must disclose now that I stopped hunting decades ago, but I have no qualms about the legally regulated practice of hunting. My disagreement with family and friends has always been about the idea of unregulated gun ownership. They argue the slippery slope, the camel’s nose in the door of the tent. I argue compromise and the willingness to give up some extreme freedoms (that used to reside on the edges of our experience) to enjoy other freedoms that can be characterized as more commonly shared experiences (that now are viewed as too limiting).

I remember a conversation I had with one of my brothers and some cousins. It was shortly after President Ronald Reagan signed into law a ban on fully automatic assault rifles. The trajectory of the conversation was predictable. They argued that there should be no regulations against gun ownership. I argued that if there ought to be no regulations then we should be able to own tanks and cannons and other high caliber automatic weapons (a hypothetical suggestion that is today in part a reality, at least the high caliber automatic weapons part). My memory is that they conceded the point. They, of course, probably remember it differently. Today the argument sounds simplistic, but we’re talking about 1987, almost thirty years ago.

The issue of gun regulation and the freedom to own assault rifles has morphed dramatically since 1987. A lot of water has passed under the bridge, both in terms of the expansion of gun ownership and the growing numbers of victims of gun violence. The assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004. Since then, “13 of the 26 worst mass shootings [in U.S. history] occurred between 2005 and 2014 (after the expiration of the assault weapons ban).”

The problem is not just with assault rifles. Handgun deregulation has reached a near fever pitch, to the point where 25 states have legalized concealed carry without a permit, the kind of insanity that makes me long for 1987 again.

It’s no wonder that law enforcement officials are living on the edge. And this is not an apology for non-prosecution of police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. This is a complicated issue, as President Obama has said; “it makes the job of law enforcement harder.” How does it make their job harder? The combination of racial profiling for criminal arrests and our exacerbated fixation with gun deregulation is a vicious, brutally violent cycle.

The systemic racism embedded in our subconscious emotional responses that fill in the gaps of partial evidence is a socially constructed paradigm that we need to face together and overcome together. Our subconscious emotional responses that we rely on to fill in the gaps of narratives that are only partially constructed by video recordings of violent acts are themselves conditioned by our own individual contexts, and we have to be honest about that.

We need to rise above our self-serving, stultified arguments hardened by fears stoked in contexts of ignorance and profit-making corporate narratives. We have to be honest with ourselves about the ugly realities of racism that have twisted and distorted our own experiences, our personal stories, constructing barriers of hatred, nurturing fears, that limit our lives together as members of the human race. We need to have this conversation. We need to listen more and talk less.

The insatiable American appetite for wealth and power and its fascist underpinnings

This came through my inbox via Naked Capitalism this morning and I could not pass up the opportunity to share. It is a must read as so many of the conservative persuasion decry the loss of liberty (religious liberty in particular), while they fail to see the real reasons for this loss. We think the loss of liberty is the result of moral dissolution and we rail against the beast with an indignation of superiority. But every instance of what are claimed to be the moral failures of our society is given a narrative of prejudice that is carefully orchestrated to divide. Division renders our population powerless. And every divisive narrative that we embrace is another nail in the coffin of our democracy, another brick in the wall of our growing fascist corporate state.

A pithy and sarcastic critique of the corrupted American electoral process

This is about three weeks old now. Don’t know how I missed it. Maybe because I can’t read everything, even though I try. Andy Borowitz over at the New Yorker wrote a pithy and sarcastic critique of our corrupted American electoral process by pointing out the fact that Bernie Sanders has disqualified himself for the 2016 presidential nomination process. Sanders is incapable of raising the billion dollars required these days to run for presidential office. As Borowitz correctly points out, the system works by giving billionaires control of the process, who crush the hopes of everyday Americans by rigging the system to exclude populist candidates like Sanders.

The perpetual struggle between democracy and oligarchy … a concise history of neoliberalism

This video recording of Tony Benn talking about the entrenchment of neoliberalism in Great Britain should resonate loudly with the history of neoliberalism in the United States since the 1970s. (Thanks to our friends at Naked Capitalism.) The challenge we face is not abortion or gay marriage. Those are two moral issues masterfully manipulated by the powers to keep our society divided and distracted. If you don’t think this is true, then you have to ask yourself, why do we virtually ignore the commandments against coveting, stealing (corporations and businesses), and lying (our beloved politicians), in order to obsess about the commandments prohibiting murder and sexual infidelity? The challenge we face as a society is the age old struggle against power, concentrated in the hands of a few because of their wealth, whose self-understood mission is to control policies to enrich themselves rather than improve the lives of the workers who make their wealth possible. As Benn points out, the model of work as slavery (in all its forms, including oppressive wage exploitation) persisted throughout human history until the early nineteenth century. Just let that sink in for a moment. It wasn’t until the workers started banding together that their lot began to change. There have been slave rebellions throughout history. Always brutally and unflinchingly put down in order to preserve the “order” of society as it was envisioned by the wealthy few. Now, in our time, we face the same struggle. What the wealthy powerful don’t understand is that we don’t want to eliminate them. We only want what is fair. Fair. That’s another word that is manipulated in the social and political discourse. “Life isn’t fair,” is one of the primary neoliberal rules that’s intended to keep the masses on their heels and noses to the grindstone. But the concept of economic fairness is biblical, and it is as American as the constitution. Read it for yourself. It’s there. We’ve just been conditioned by the neoliberal rule to no longer see it and to no longer expect it. It’s time to come together and fight, not to eliminate the wealthy powerful, but to demand and take our own share of power through standing together (against all the wedge-issue prophecies of the neo-liberal god), and to demand and take our fair share of wealth in an economy that works for all.

A wild-haired Jew preaching to present-day conservatives who themselves claim to follow a first-century Jew, but their actions suggest otherwise

This was posted on the Sanders for President Reddit page. It’s the response of a former Liberty University student, a conservative Evangelical who was reminded by Sanders what his religion, what his Savior, had to say about the way we should treat the poor.

“So here’s the interesting thing. When I was watching Bernie Sanders talk at Liberty University, I was just really shocked, and something kind of magical happened for me, because as I watched that guy stand up on that stage, here’s what I saw. I saw a wild-haired Jew crying out in a hoarse voice, in a very forceful and forth-speaking way, he was convicting the Christian leaders and religious leaders in that University and calling us out for being complicit in the abandonment of those who suffer: ‘The least of these.’ And siding with the powerful and the rich and the masters of this world. And he was convicting us, and calling us out. And we scorned him, and we stared him down, and with sour faces we thought, ‘Who is this whacko? And why do all these people seem to follow him, seem to like him? This wild-haired Jew, crying out from the wilderness of the political Left, in his hoarse voice?’”

Politics and the American culture of authenticity

Authenticity is all the current appeal. It’s been that way for a while, but it’s still current. I remember speaking at a conference a few years ago when I argued that excellence was something you should value when it comes to doing what you do. If you do something, do it with excellence, not mediocrity, and people will be attracted to whatever it is you’re doing.

That’s a generalization, of course, but at the conference I was speaking about Christian liturgy. Someone in the audience during Q&A time said that authenticity was more what people were interested in these days rather than excellence. My response was basically that words can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to mean.

The person who made the point about authenticity was actually trying to narrow the church’s use of liturgy to exclude more contemporary expressions of the church’s conversation with God. In this case it was a matter of manipulating words. The word that preceded this use of authenticity in relation to liturgy was “orthodoxy” (and it was used with almost ruthless exclusivity). Words and their applications change. Human manipulations of words are essentially constant.

Authenticity is one of those words that doesn’t make sense as its own referent. What I mean is, something (or someone) must be authentic with reference to something else. For example, you can’t just say someone is authentic and expect everyone to know what you mean. You may have a vague sense of what you mean in your own mind, but authenticity is one of those words that requires a more explicit referent. “He’s an authentic baseball player” means he’s good at what he does—hitting, fielding, throwing, running, etc., etc.

Donald Trump is being touted as “authentic,” because as a GOP 2016 presidential primary candidate he is, for now, enjoying a certain level of popularity in the polls. His authenticity, the pundits say, is the reason for his popularity. Well, Trump is authentic with reference to what? Does he enjoy popularity in the polls, does he draw such large crowds just because he is … authentic? What is it that draws people to Trump’s “authenticity”?

Trump speaks his mind. Everyone knows this. But so do the other candidates. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, they all speak their minds. So what is it that sets Trump apart as being “authentic”? What is Trump’s edge over the other candidates? According to the popular view of Donald Trump, he is authentic because of the way he speaks, not because of what he speaks. He is considered authentic because he has no filter.

That has become the crass, popular, now edgy definition of authenticity. You can be a misogynist, a narcissist, a liar, a cheat, and a megalomaniac. You can be authentically all of those, but what has come to matter most to the crass mass (as Horace once referred to the low-information populace of Rome) is the authenticity of your vulgarity. We laugh. We boo. We cheer. So what. You’re just like us. No political double-speak. No filter. Just from the gut. That we understand. And that’s all that matters. It’s all in the way you say it, and not at all in what you say.

The one candidate that seems the most “authentic” to me is Bernie Sanders. Like Donald Trump he speaks his mind and doesn’t care what the consequences are, whether those consequences come from the media that chooses to mischaracterize who he is, or whether the consequences come from the big corporate campaign donors Senator Sanders so naturally criticizes. But Sanders’ authenticity isn’t defined by the way he talks. It is all about what he says. And he has a lot to say. I hope we’re listening.

The Affordable Care Act and the legal fallacy of the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism

This morning the US Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies, for states that have refused to set up their own insurance exchanges, are a part of the overall intent of the law. The challenge was based on an isolated wording of the law indicating that individual states had the authority to accept or refuse the federal subsidies, which would have a very clear impact on the implementation of the ACA.

It is not so much the details of the law that I am focusing on here. The key issue is the hermeneutic that led to the challenge in the first place. Hermeneutic, in academic terms, is a method of interpretation. The method of interpretation employed by those who read the words of the ACA and challenged the law was to isolate a few words and to read them out of the overall context of the statute.

The fact that opposition to the ACA comes almost entirely from conservatives is only part of the dynamic that drove this challenge. There’s another dynamic at play that is virtually lost in the analysis. I call it the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism.

As a parallel development of the Neo-conservative movement in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan, James Baker [the bulldog who was sent to further entangle the election mess in Florida in 2000], James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Jean Kirkpatrick, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al., et al., ad nauseam), the Religious Right and the Moral Majority (Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham [American revivalism], Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) grew out of the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact it’s still around.

One of the basic hermeneutical assumptions of fundamentalism is that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This is very much akin to the approach of Islamic fundamentalism in its assumptions about the Qur’an. Here is how the syllogism of prooftexting works. If our scripture is the inspired word of God, then every syllable is sacred without human contribution. And if every syllable is sacred without human contribution, then every word, every sentence, has a timeless message for all of humankind.

There are multiple issues that follow from this basic syllogism of American Christian fundamentalism, but here I am only interested in one of the implications this has for interpretation within fundamentalist communities, and that is prooftexting. Prooftexting, as religiously justified on the grounds of the fundamentalist assumption of inspiration, is a method of selecting a text out of its context to “prove” the fundamentalist assumption. From a historian’s perspective, this is an egregious misuse of reading texts. But fundamentalists justify it, because it supports the assumptions that undergird the formation of their faith. The closed circularity is so obvious that it shouldn’t warrant pointing out.

Fundamentalism has historically been a separatist movement, choosing to separate themselves from a corrupt society in order to avoid the impurity of the sinful world. Since the emergence of the Religious Right (Moral Majority) movement and its combination with the Neo-conservatives in the 1980s, fundamentalists have shifted their separatist perspective to one of engaging the culture as warriors in God’s army whose mission it is to win back for God the United States as a Christian nation. Never mind the separation of church and state imbedded in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Into the culture war fundamentalist Christian politicians and activists bring with them their refusal to compromise theologically (now politically) and their prooftexting hermeneutic. Hence their challenge of the ACA in the Supreme Court by reading a few words of the statute out of their context while conveniently ignoring the overall intent of the law.

Fortunately, six of the nine Supreme Court justices were intellectually honest enough to understand that reading a few words out of context is a very clear problem. On the other hand, whether the two conservative justices, Roberts and Kennedy, who voted to strike down the challenge voted this way because of their intellectual integrity or because they were politically motivated to pull the GOP’s collective butt out of the fire in view of the gathering storm that would have exploded had they taken health care coverage away from millions of American citizens, well, I suppose that becomes a matter of opinion. Or we could let their legislative track record speak for itself, beginning with their appointment of George W. Bush as president in the 2000 election. Imagine how the entire world would be different had they not followed the fascist path to solving the problems of that election.

White privilege, racism, and myth

This from my colleague and friend Jim Perkinson over at Radical Discipleship. Jim is a poet, an artist, a thinker, and a radical activist who lives it. Racism isn’t just the transgression of polite boundaries. It is an ugly, systemic hatred imbedded in our psyches, an embodied fear that has evolved for generations. It’s a good read. It will make you stop and consider your own adherence to a narrative that denies the many ways we participate in a culture of racism.

An internal discussion among the IMF staff regarding income inequality

IMFStaff members of the International Monetary Fund organization just published a document for debate regarding the global scope of income inequality. And while I dislike the phrase “income inequality” and prefer the phrase “opportunity inequality”, the document makes important points about what is probably the most serious issue of our times. The disclaimer at the beginning of the document warns against associating the findings of this paper with the IMF and that the paper should be taken as the views of its authors. That’s fine. It presents a lot of facts for serious consideration. The one overarching fact is that paying people more in real wages, rather than exploiting the working poor and gutting the middle class, makes for an environment that allows the economy to work for everyone, not just a privileged few. It’s worth the read.