Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Saul Alinsky a Bogeyman?

In his jubilant victory speech after winning the primary in South Carolina on January 21, Newt Gingrich made three references to Saul Alinsky. Some who heard Gingrich’s speech no doubt knew who Alinsky was, but perhaps many people wondered, “Who is Saul Alinsky and why is Gingrich mentioning him?”
Saul Alinsky (1909-1972)
Alinsky was born 103 years ago today, on January 30, 1909. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants living in Chicago, he grew up in the midst of poverty. The suffering and injustice he witnessed prompted him into social activism, and he became one of the original pioneers of grassroots organizing.
Alinsky died forty years ago this summer, in June 1972, but his influence continues—even among people who have not known his name, at least until some heard Gingrich resurrect it. Two days after his victory speech in South Carolina, published an article titled “Saul Alinsky Rides Again as Gingrich Makes Him 2012 Bogeyman.”
Alinsky’s best known book is Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971). In the first chapter’s opening paragraph, he writes, “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
Alinsky goes on to amplify his “radical” vision: “to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment . . .” Why in the world is Gingrich against goals such as those?
In her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008, Michelle Obama told her impressions of Barack before they were married. She said, “Barack . . . spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘The world as it is’ and ‘The world as it should be.’ And he said that all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and settle for the world as it is—even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.”
Political opponents soon pounced on those words, linked them to Alinsky, and labeled Obama as dangerous—a view that Gingrich apparently holds still. For some of us, though, they seem to be consistent with the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is quite noteworthy that Alinsky was the recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 1969, the sixth year it was given. That prize is awarded annually in commemoration of the 1963 encyclical letter “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth) of Pope John XXIII. It is given “to honor a person for their achievements in peace and justice, not only in their country but in the world.”
The Pacem in Terris award was bestowed upon Alinsky four years after it was given to Martin Luther King Jr. and before it was given to Dorothy Day (1972), Mother Teresa (1976), and Archbishop Tutu (1987).
That’s not an award that you would expect to be given to a bogeyman.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Good Word for Paul

Several of my blog postings over the past months have been about politics or politicians. This time I am writing about Paul—but it is the Apostle Paul who is the subject of this article, not presidential hopeful Ron Paul or his son Senator Rand Paul.
Today, January 25, is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, celebrated by the Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. This Feast is also the final day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical observance observed by some churches since 1908.
Most of you who read this blog know well the biblical narrative about Paul’s dramatic conversion as he was on the road to Damascus for the purpose of apprehending and arresting followers of Jesus. He had a blinding vision of and encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
That life-changing event is depicted, with stark realism, in “The Conversion of St. Paul” by the prominent Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). (I find Caravaggio’s painting much more appealing than “The Conversion of Saul” by Michelangelo, 1475-1564, for whom he was named.)
The main matter I call to your attention here is the relation of Paul to Jesus and the question of whether Paul is a faithful proponent of the teachings of Jesus. There are now many Christians, and others, who see Paul more as one who perverted the message of Jesus rather than a faithful proclaimer of that message.
The current tendency among many is to downplay Paul. This is reflected in a new book by the young scholar/professor J. R. Daniel Kirk: the title of his book is Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? (2012).
Kirk (Ph.D., Duke, 2004) says that his book “is, in part, for folks who at times find themselves resonating with the statement, ‘Jesus have I loved, but Paul have I hated’” (Kindle ed., 100). That has especially been the position of many “liberal” Christians.
There are of course exceptions, past and present, but for a long time conservative Protestant Christians (evangelicals) have emphasized Paul’s teaching about Jesus far more than the teachings of Jesus. Those of us who have grown up in that tradition know well the significance of what is sometimes called the “Romans road” to salvation.
But among most non-conservative Christians, Paul’s emphasis on Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection have been downplayed and focus on Jesus’ teaching about working for the Kingdom of God now has become commonplace.
They also see Paul’s teaching about Jesus being exclusivistic, whereas the trend now is emphasis on an inclusive or pluralistic message. The teachings of Jesus can best be utilized for the latter.
Moreover, Paul is often seen as a supporter of slavery, patriarchalism, and anti-homosexual ideas and practices. Certainly writings in the New Testament attributed to Paul have been, and in some circles continue to be, interpreted in that way.
But Kirk rightly argues that Paul can, and should, be seen in a different way, in a liberating way. He makes much of the important words of Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ.”
That same verse is also seen as the key to interpreting Paul in the first chapter of another new book, C. K. Robertson's A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo but Taught Us to Live Like Jesus (2011). Paul is the first of those twelve, and the author contends that “at the heart of Paul’s message was a complete breakdown of all the boundaries and social divisions that he himself had previous guarded” (p. 4).
The conversion of Paul, and his subsequent life and activities, is certainly worth celebrating today, and I am pleased to have this means to put in a good word for Paul.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Bad Supreme Court Decision

In January of 2010, the Supreme Court made one of its worst decisions in years, if not decades, and maybe even the worst since the Dred Scott case in 1857. In a 5-4 split decision, the Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization who had sued the Federal Election Commission.
That landmark decision by the Supreme Court means that it is now unlawful for the government to ban political spending by corporations in elections. Thus, as a consequence of Citizens United, corporations and unions are now free to use their financial resources to air ads explicitly calling for the election or defeat of federal or state candidates for political office.
The justices in the majority ruled that corporations have the same First Amendment right to free speech as individuals, and for that reason the government cannot stop corporations from spending to help their favored candidates.

But a majority of the people of this country does not believe that corporations are people, in spite of what the Supreme Court has ruled.
Justice Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion. Among other things, he lamented that the Court “voted to overturn over 100 years of legal precedent by giving corporations the same status as individuals,” and by removing “legal barriers in place to protect the electoral process from corporate and legislative corruption, which is what the laws for the past 100 years were in place to do.
Just a few days after the Court’s decision in 2010, President Obama gave the annual State of the Union message. In that talk the President averred, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.”
Justice Stevens and the President were right: the Supreme Court made a bad decision.
  • That is why last November six U.S. Senators introduced a constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the Citizens United ruling and restore the ability of Congress to properly regulate the campaign finance system. That proposal is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (You can read more about that proposed amendment here.) 
  • That is why Common Cause, the highly regarded nonpartisan advocacy organization, and other similar groups, are working diligently to reverse Citizens United
  • And that is also why today’s “Occupy the Courts” activity is so commendable. Today, January 20, is a national day of protest linking the Occupy Wall Street movement with the activities of the Move to Amend organization. This is a (part of) one day occupation of Federal courthouses across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in protest of the Court’s Citizens United ruling.
(Here in the Kansas City area, the Occupy the Courts protesters will be at the federal courthouse at 400 E. 9th St. from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There will also be a “post-protest celebration” Saturday evening at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St., KCMO.)

The "Corporations are not People" slogan is one that needs to be taken seriously by all of us who are U.S. citizens. For the sake of our democracy, the bad Supreme Court decision of 2010 needs to be opposed--and reversed.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Free at Last!"

Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., is well-known by every USAmerican adult as that is the place where President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.
Last week when I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in a hotel not far from Ford’s Theater, and I visited there for the first time. I expected to see only the inside of the theater and the balcony where Lincoln was sitting when he was tragically shot.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that there is a small, but excellent, museum under the theater, focusing, of course, on Lincoln’s life and work. While I was there I bought Who Was Abraham Lincoln? for my soon to be eight-year-old granddaughter Naomi.
Naomi’s new book naturally mentions the Emancipation Proclamation, which was announced by Lincoln 150 years ago this year, in September 1862, and which went into effect on January 1, 1863. That famous proclamation did not free all slaves though; it applied only to those in the Confederate states.
And, of course, there was no way to enforce the emancipation of slaves until the Union won the war. As Naomi’s book says, “Just because the proclamation told Southerners to free their slaves, it didn’t mean they would. Lincoln knew this. He said he felt like someone trying to make a law to change the behavior of a comet” (pp. 69-70).
Even with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery remained legal in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, for those four slave states stayed with the Union. Even though I was born and schooled through college in Missouri, I did not know (or remember?) until last year that Missouri, and some other States, also issued an emancipation proclamation.
On January 11, 1865, Governor Thomas Fletcher, nine days after assuming office, issued the proclamation freeing all the slaves in Missouri. Even though he was raised in a slave-owning family, he became an ardent abolitionist in his boyhood.
(Fletcher was born in 1827 just south of St. Louis in Herculaneum, and he became the first Missouri governor to be born in the state. He was a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention, where he supported the nomination of Lincoln for the presidency. Fletcher also served as a colonel for the Union army from 1862 to 1864.)
But, as everyone recognizes, in spite of slaves being emancipated in the Confederate states in 1863, in Missouri and elsewhere by proclamations in 1865, and then nationally by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 6, 1865, much prejudice and discrimination toward former slaves and their descendants continued for more than a century and has not yet been fully eradicated.
It took the dream, as well as the life, of Martin Luther King, Jr., to further realize the full freedom of African-Americans. As we celebrate his birthday today and tomorrow, let us join in praying for and working for that day “when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Combating Racism/Sexism

The Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, and I was happy to be able to attend it again, as I did last year in New Orleans.
One of the enjoyable things about going to academic meetings such as the SCE is seeing old friends and acquaintances, even though since I spent most of my career in Japan I don’t know very many of the people at such gatherings here in the U.S.
Two of the people I did enjoy seeing again this year were graduate school friends and colleagues of my daughter Karen. Miguel De La Torre and Stacey Floyd-Thomas were in the Ph.D. program with her at Temple University, and both of them were speakers in the same session I attended last Friday.
Miguel De La Torre
Miguel is a Cuban-American, and he talked at some length about the prejudice and mistreatment of Cubans-Americans (and Latinos/as in general) in the U.S. Stacey is African-American, and she talked, also at some length, about the prejudice and mistreatment of African-Americans in general and especially of African-American women. But in spite of the odds against them, Miguel and Stacey have become two of the most prominent members of the SCE.
Those who attended the SCE meeting this year, as every year, were perhaps close to 80% white American males. But Miguel, who is a professor at Illif Theological Seminary, was elected president of the SCE for the coming year. And Stacey, a professor of Vanderbilt Divinity School, is currently serving as the Executive Director of the SCE.
In spite of their minority status Miguel and Stacey are in positions that by far most of the “privileged” white males will never find themselves in. And they are certainly deserving of the positions they hold in the SCE, for they are outstanding scholars—and outstanding human beings.
Thus, it is obvious that some people can and do rise above the discriminatory structures of society. Miguel and Stacey are prime examples of that. Miguel shared some about the struggles of his mother, an illiterate Cuban woman, in this country. But he has become a widely respected scholar and ethicist, attested to by the fact that he is now the SCE president.
I certainly agree, though, with Miguel and Stacey in what they say about the entrenched prejudice against people of color, against people of recent immigrant families, and against women. And I appreciate the work they are doing to combat that prejudice.
In spite of people such as Miguel and Stacey, why are a disproportionate number of the homeless, unemployed, and financially struggling people in this country people who in race, gender, and ethnicity are the same as these outstanding scholars? The lingering deep-seated prejudice toward Blacks, Hispanics, and women is, no doubt, one of the foremost reasons.
Can only a very select few, people with outstanding intellect and character traits such as are evident in Miguel and Stacey, overcome the odds against them? Perhaps. That is why we need to join them and other like-minded people in continuing to work against the entrenched racism and sexism in a society that continues to be characterized by white (and male) privilege.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hope in the New Year

Hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Those are memorable words of Václav Havel, who died last month.
Havel also contends that hope is “a state of mind, not a state of the world. . . . It is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”
(The above quotations are from Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace, 1990, and also found on page 82 of “Orientation of the Heart,” a chapter of excerpts from Havel’s book in Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, 2004.)
 Václav Havel (1936-2011)
Havel, born in Prague in 1936, was a playwright, poet, and politician. He was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He was also nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1977, Havel co-founded an organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in the face of Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Two years later, his human rights activism earned him a four-year sentence to a labor camp for “subversion.” Undeterred, he was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution, as the peaceful uprising in 1989 that overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was called.
It was hope that kept Havel going while he was in labor camp. That was also true for Nelson Mandela during the 27 years (!) he was in prison. After he was released and elected president of South Africa, Mandela said in his inaugural address in 1994, “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people.”
These two political leaders both embraced hope and inspired hope—far different from Kim Jong-Il, the supreme leader of North Korea from 1994 until his death last month, on the day before Havel died.
Havel, Mandela, and Kim were all in power for several years at the same time—but what a difference in those three men! Perhaps it was hope, and the lack of it, that was the primary difference.
Havel emphasized that hope “is definitely not the same thing as optimism.” That is something I first heard stressed by German theologian Jürgen Moltmann back in the 1960s and have accepted as true.
Optimism is sometimes “Pollyannaish,” out of touch with reality. Thus, optimism can easily end up in disappointment, discouragement, and even disillusionment. But, as Havel says, hope is an “orientation of the heart.” Consequently, hope keeps us cheerful in spite of adversity, forward-looking in spite of setbacks, and positively active in spite of discouragements.
So in this new year, one that will likely be filled with many challenges, both personal and collective, I pray that we all may be able to nurture hope as the orientation of our hearts and to act with the vitality that hope produces.