Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Freedom's Orator

Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (2009) is the title of a book by New York University professor Richard Cohen (b. 1955). I have not read Cohen’s large tome (more than 540 pp.), but I am interested in its subject.
Mario Savio (1942-96), was the brilliant leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, the largest and most disruptive student rebellion in American history. He risked his life to register black voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and did more than anyone to bring daring forms of non-violent protest from the civil rights movement to the struggle for free speech and academic freedom on American campuses.
Savio is most famous for his passionate speeches, especially his “put your bodies upon the gears” address given in front of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, on December 2, 1964. That day after giving his speech in front of 4,000 people, he and 800 others were arrested.
In his 12/2/64 speech, Savio said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine [of corporate society] becomes so odious . . . that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
On 12/2/97, less than 13 months after Savio’s death, the steps in front of Sproul Hall were named the Mario Savio Steps. A Memorial Lecture Fund was also set up to honor Savio after his death. The first lecture was given by Howard Zinn in 1997, and other speakers include Cornel West (2001), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (2008), and Elizabeth Warren (2010).
Robert Reich, 11/15/11
This year the Mario Savio lecture was given by Robert Reich, the Berkeley public policy professor who was Secretary of Labor (1993-97) under President Clinton. Reich (b. 1946) gave the lecture entitled “Class Warfare in America,” which can be heard at this link.
Reich, declaring that “the days of apathy are over,” linked the activities and interests of Savio in the 1960s to the Occupy Wall Street movement going on now. He praised the Occupy Cal protesters for their “moral outrage,” and said democracy depends upon “the ability of people to join together and make their voices heard.”
Not long before the 11/15/11 assembly on and around the Mario Savio Steps, Rachel Maddow had an 18-minute segment on her program comparing the OWS movement to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. She included clips of Savio’s speech as well as an interview with Reich. If you haven’t seen that segment, it is well worth watching (available at various websites including here).
Right-wing radio hosts and even potential Republican presidential candidates continue to badmouth the OWS movement. A Fox News host recently referred to the OWS protesters as “domestic terrorists.”
Peaceful protests and “speaking the truth to power,” though, are terrifying only to the powerful and those who seek to maintain the status quo for their own benefit. Just as the country needed to hear the message of “freedom’s orator” in the 1960s it needs now to listen attentively to the pleas of the protesters in the OWS movement.

Friday, November 25, 2011

”The Only Real Pluralism”

Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition is an excellent series of lectures by Dr. Tyler Roberts, professor at Grinnell College in Iowa.
Roberts (b. 1962), who has a Th.D. degree from Harvard University, gives 36 lectures in the DVD series produced by The Teaching Company. I have heard only about a fourth of them to this point, but I have been impressed with him and his lectures.
A few days ago I watched and listened to “Pluralism—Religious and Secular,” his 35th lecture in the series. In it Roberts identifies and discusses five possible contemporary models for thinking about religious diversity.
He begins with a discussion of the usual three: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, the tripartite analysis presented by Alan Race in 1983, although he doesn’t mention Race. (I wrote about Race and my dissatisfaction with his threefold division in my blog posting on 8/10/10, which can be accessed here.)
Roberts goes on to suggest two more possibilities: “postmodern confession” and “secularism.” I plan to write more about secularism soon, but now I want to think more about the fourth position, which I found pregnant with meaning.
Postmodern confession is an idea developed by John Milbank, a British theologian best known as a leader of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement.
I have not read Milbank sufficiently, but according to Roberts he (Milbank) argues that there is really no such thing as pluralism. The idea of religious diversity or religious pluralism, he says, is a concept that developed in the modern West.
In reflecting upon the world religions, I think Milbank is correct on that point. Certainly Judaism has never been pluralistic, except for some modern (liberal) expressions of that ancient faith in the U.S. And Islam does not recognize pluralism, with maybe, again, a few exceptions of liberal Muslims in the U.S.
Hinduism and Buddhism may well be considered inclusive religions, but it would be a push to call the position of traditional or most contemporary Hinduism or Buddhism pluralistic. Milbank seems to be right: religious pluralism is a Western idea that has been developed mostly by liberal (or cultural) Christians.
Roberts summarizes Milbank’s position: “Christian exclusivism is the only real pluralism because it is the only real respecter of difference.” He makes that contention because of the centrality of love to (true) Christianity.
This sort of Christian exclusivism is, as Milbank suggests, paradoxically, “the only real pluralism,” for, properly understood and practiced, it is the position which respects differences and enables people of any or all religious traditions to flourish.
Milbank’s ideas resonate with what I have been thinking recently: I respect adherents of other religious traditions not because of their faith (that is, not because I have thoroughly examined them and judged them worthy of respect) but because of my faith in Jesus Christ.
Since Christ taught, and exemplified, love for all people, I respect (love) others with different religious faiths or worldviews because that is the demand of love. Accordingly, I accept and affirm the freedom of all others to believe and to practice whatever they think is right and good, so long as it is not injurious to others.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shameful Coaches and Obscene Salaries

University football coaches have been much in the news recently, and it hasn’t been good news. In fact, it has been downright shameful.
The most widely publicized, of course, is the child-abuse by an assistant coach at Penn State University. The problem, as you know, was not just the abuse of young boys but the lack of preventive or punitive action by the head coach and by the university. Shameful!
And then here in Missouri the arrest of the Missouri University football coach on DUI charges. While certainly not nearly as serious, for a man who is supposed to be a mentor of the young men on his team as well as the larger community to be arrested is a shameful thing also.
But I also find it obscene how most coaches at the major universities are paid such extravagant salaries. A front-page story in the 11/17 USA Today was “Coaches’ pay soars again: Average salary at top schools tops $1.47M.”
In six seasons the average pay for top coaches has increased by nearly 55%—and that in a time of a severe economic recession in society as a whole. The Florida State coach got a raise of around $950,000 last year, after just his first season there. His salary is now $2,750,000.
Thirteen coaches are bringing in salaries of more than three million dollars a year, the highest being the coach at Texas University whose salary is more than $5,000,000!
Part of the problem I see with these exorbitant salaries, is that they are 20-25 times more than the salaries of most university professors, who are doing what a university is supposed to do: teaching students who entered the university to get an education.
I know, a winning sports program not only brings in a lot of money for the university, it also produces a lot of positive publicity for the university. Still . . . .
Speaking of high salaries, many people are now complaining about the high pay for U.S. Congresspersons—and that is probably a legitimate concern. There are now said to be 250 millionaires in Congress, close to 50%. But the salaries of those in Congress don’t come close to being as much as that of football coaches in the major universities across the country.
The pay and long-term benefits of Senators and Representatives may, certainly, be too high. But they are surely not as outrageous as the pay of football coaches. And the men and women in Congress have vastly more important things to make decisions about than, say, whether to go for it on fourth and one. (You football fans will know what that means.)
And those who think Congresspeople trusted with making decisions affecting the well-being of all the citizens of the country as well as the future of the nation are too high surely realize that their pay-scale is modest compared not only to football coaches but also professional athletes, movie stars, TV personalities, and others. (Oprah’s yearly salary is said to be $350M, Dr. Phil’s, $80M, and David Letterman’s, $40M.)
Perhaps it is high time for the USAmerican public to reconsider its priorities. And surely adding a surtax to the income tax of football coaches and other overpaid people in our society is not an outrageous idea.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Where's the Middle?

The cover story of the November 5 issue of The Economist is about “America’s missing middle.” The cover picture shows Uncle Sam looking at a large hamburger bun with nothing in the middle between the top and bottom of the bun.
Currently, in the country as a whole, and particularly in the U.S. Congress, it seems as though the political position of the population is far more like a “well-shaped curve” than the traditional bell-shaped curve. In the latter, the peak includes far more people than those on the far right or the far left. But in the former, those in middle are far fewer than the number on the far right and the far left.
Unfortunately, that seems to be what is developing in the Christian/theological world as well. Even though in the last chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism I call for support of and identification with the “radiant center,” I sense that that is not descriptive of where most Christians are now.
Back in 1923, J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism was published. Machen (1881-1937) was a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary between 1915 and 1929, but then led a conservative revolt against the modernist theology at Princeton and founded Westminster Theological Seminary as a more orthodox alternative.
In his book, Machen refers to liberalism as a religion “entirely different” (p. 6) or “totally different” (p. 79) from Christianity. He makes that assertion by comparing liberalism’s views of God, human beings (sin), the Bible, Christ, salvation, etc. with that of traditional Christianity (as he understood it).
From the time I first read Machen’s book years ago (although I didn’t read it when it first came out!), I thought he was overstating the case. Now I am not so sure.
Recently I have been reading Marcus Borg’s new book Speaking Christian (2011). In the Introduction, Borg (b. 1942) says that “Christians in this country (and elsewhere) are deeply divided by different understandings of a shared language” (p. 1). In fact, he goes on to assert, “The differences are so sharp that they virtually produce two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language: (p. 2).
I am beginning to think that Machen and Borg may be right and that the hope for a strong “radiant center” may be just a pipe dream.
Earlier this month June and I went with our daughter Kathy and her family to their strongly evangelical church. Even though the sermon was based on 2 Chronicles, it stressed the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, consistent with their statement of faith confessing that Jesus “died for the redemption of man’s sin.”
It dawned on me that it had been a long time since I had heard that kind of emphasis in a sermon. Moreover, that emphasis is completely different from Borg’s ideas set forth in “The Death of Jesus,” his eighth chapter. Borg clearly rejects the idea of Jesus’ death being “substitutionary atonement” for sinful human beings.
It seems that most Christians now tend to agree either with the evangelical viewpoint (similar to that of Machen’s in 1923) or with the viewpoint of Borg and expressed by many contemporary liberal theologians/churches. Still, I would like to find, to enlarge, and to enjoy being a part of the radiant center, maybe wide enough to include the middle third, emphasizing both/and rather than either/or.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Fiery, and Futile, Protest

Roger LaPorte may be a name you never remember hearing. And you may not even remember the tragic incident associated with him. Just like me until a few weeks ago.
I write this, though, in memory of Roger, who died of burns, self-inflicted. He poured gasoline over himself in front of the United Nations Building in New York City and set himself afire. He died the next day, on November 10, 1965.
Why in the world would a young, 22-year-old man engage in self-immolation? In his case it was in protest over the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. was becoming increasingly involved.
Roger LaPorte, a former seminarian, was a volunteer worker with the Catholic Worker community in New York. He had also met and talked briefly with Daniel Berrigan, about whom I posted recently.
Father Berrigan was asked to officiate at a memorial service for Roger, and he did so in spite of being advised by his Catholic superiors not to do so. Shortly afterwards, Berrigan’s Jesuit superior and New York’s Cardinal Spellman ordered him to leave the country at once. He was exiled to Latin America, unable to return to the U.S. for several months.
Among other things, Berrigan questioned whether Roger’s act was a suicide. Rather, he suggested the young man’s fiery protest should perhaps be seen as an act of “misguided heroism,” the giving of life rather than the taking of life. Shortly before he died, Roger reportedly had said, “I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.”
Roger’s self-sacrifice in opposition to the Vietnam War was actually the third which occurred in the U.S., all in 1965. Earlier that year an 82-year-old woman died by self-immolation in Detroit. And just one week before Roger’s deadly protest, Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker, had set himself on fire right below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office.
Unfortunately, these drastic protests failed to bring the war to a halt.
And so, three years later the shameful My Lai Massacre occurred. Five years later (in 1970) the U.S. began the questionable invasion of Cambodia. And then in 1972 Kim Phuc, “the girl in the picture” about whom I posted in July was napalmed.
Finally, eight years after Roger’s extreme protest, the war officially ended, although it was not until April 1975 that the last U.S. soldier was killed in Vietnam and the last troops left that country--largely with a loss of face for the United States. There was almost nothing positive to show for the war being prolonged all those years after the fiery protest of Robert LaPorte. What a tragic waste of lives and resources!
Now there are few protests about the U.S. war activities, which by next month will (we hope!) be only in Afghanistan. But there are significant protests continuing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
So in addition to the war on terrorism that continues in south Asia, domestically we now see what some call “class warfare.” (And the upper class clearly seems to be winning.)
Let us hope and pray that the protests now occurring will be heeded before there is an escalation of violence, and before some protesters resort to more extreme measures.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Hurting 80%

The Occupy Wall Street protesters divide the country into two groups: the wealthiest 1% and all the rest, the 99%. I question whether that simply bifurcation is the best way to analyze the current financial situation of the people in the U.S. (or any other country).
In criticism of the OWS activities and public appeals, an opposition movement has been started and promoted by fiscal and political conservatives (Tea Party types). They call themselves the 53%—as in the 53% of Americans who pay federal income taxes. And they are making their voices heard on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere as they tout personal responsibility and the work ethic.
I have serious questions about the rhetoric of the 53% people, who speak mainly in opposition to the 47% of the USAmericans who do not pay any income tax. They stress that they, the 53%, are the “righteous” ones, those who are paying the taxes that support the government assistance received by many of the OWS protesters.
As you have probably seen, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007,” a document released last month, indicates that after-tax income for the highest-income households grew more than it did for any other group.” That information was hardly a surprise.
(The CBO is a federal agency within the legislative branch of the U.S. government that provides economic data to Congress. It was created as a nonpartisan agency in 1974).
CBO finds that, between 1979 and 2007, income in the U.S. grew by:
   * 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households,
   * 65 percent for the next 19 percent,
   * Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and
   * 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.
The above summary shows a considerable difference between the top 1% and the next 19%. But still, the latter aren’t hurting all that much. In a previous posting I mentioned the fact that the top 1% possesses 42% of the financial wealth of the nation and the bottom 80% has only 7%. But that means that those who in the 2%-20% bracket hold 51% of the financial wealth on the U.S. So they should be making it all right financially.
(The statistics given above are based primarily on the work of Dr. G. William Domhoff, a research professor at the University of California. Domhoff first published Who Rules America? in 1967, and he has updated that bestselling book several times. Domhoff also presents his updated research on financial power in the U.S. on his website. )
It seems to me our main concern ought not to be directed toward the 99% in opposition to the wealthiest 1%. Rather, if we have any compassion for hurting people, shouldn't we be most concerned for the 80%, including the vast majority of the 47% whose income is so low paying taxes is not required? They are the people in our society who are hurting the most, and people who need help rather than criticism.