Sep 8, 2016
Note: I recently began working with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. One of the things I'm doing in that capacity is compiling worship resources for congregations or religious communities committed to solidarity with prisoners. A couple of Sundays ago I preached a sermon on prison abolition at the First Parish in Needham. Tonight I offer this prayer written on the eve of the September 9th prison strike by my longtime collaborator the Rev. Ian White Maher. If you have a worship resource—prayer, hymn, sermon, liturgy or the like—that you'd like to share please get in touch.
Source of life, God, my darling,
Where does the violence come from?
The violence we do to one another.
Where does the cry for vengeance come from?
Some say it comes from you,
But I don’t believe that.
Why is it so hard for us to want to be in love with one another?
My darling, I think sometimes that we are addicted to this violence.
That we wouldn’t know who we’d be without it.
From the tough talk on TV, to the swagger of the gun toters, to the meanness of our politics, to the cages and cages of human beings we have created.
O, God, the cages.
They make me weep.
What have we done? What are we doing?
How can we look at those cages and then look at ourselves in the mirror and think we are a moral people?
I know what goes on in those cages.
I know their purpose is pain.
I know we damage those people, call them predators.
But sometimes I wonder who is the prey.
My darling, how much of my money have I willingly given to this sadism?
To this spectacle of violence?
Sometimes I feel so lost, like a small droplet in a raging ocean.
What can I possibly do?
Please help me, please help us, find our way out of this addiction, out of the cages, and into the Love I believe is possible.
My darling, give me the vision of a cageless future, give me the strength to weather the accusations of treason, give me endurance to work for freedom even if the journey stretches on beyond the length of my life.
But most of all give me Love so I might be the message I hope to see.
Sep 1, 2016
Aug 28, 2016
Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.
Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.
Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.
My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.
I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.
My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?
Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?
I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.
This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”
The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.
All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.
Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.
I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.
The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.
We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.
All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.
Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.
Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.
Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”
And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.
Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.
As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.
Jun 26, 2016
The politician is my shepherd, I shall not want anything during any campaign. He leadeth me into the saloon for my vote's sake. He filleth my pocket with good cigars; my cup of beer runneth over. He inquireth concerning my family, even unto the fourth generation. Yea, though I walk through the mud and rain to vote for him, and shout myself hoarse when he is elected, yet straightway he forgeteth me. Although I meet him in his own house he knoweth me not. Surely, the wool has been pulled over mine eyes all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of a chump forever.
Jun 15, 2016
A few years ago I included a piece titled “It Takes More Than Direct Action” in the column I used to edit for the Industrial Worker called “Workers Power.” The good folks who edit Solidaridad, the Spanish language blog of the Industrial Workers of the World, have seen fit to publish a translation of it: “Se necesita más que la acción directa.” It’s the first text of mine that’s been translated into another language, which is kind of fun. The piece, incidentally, started as the charge to the congregation at the ordination of Julia Hamilton; think of it as evidence of the long arm of liberation theology.
Nov 17, 2015
During my research today I came across a remarkable quote from "Big" Bill Haywood about World War I that seems apropos:
And it is what this war means to society after this war is over. Somewhere in the files here is jotted down on a piece of paper what is meant by the aftermath of the war. Nothing for a hundred years but war, war, war. Nothing to follow but war cripples, war widows, war orphans, war stories, war pictures and war everything.
Oct 21, 2014
Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my “The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.
Jan 3, 2014
Check out Liberte Locke's new piece for Workers Power "When Organizing Your Workplace Feels Utterly Impossible." I think it is one of the better pieces I've run in awhile, in part because Liberte write about some of the emotional and personal issues that radicals rarely talk about.
Nov 15, 2013
Yesterday Cambridge police arrested and assaulted Jason Freedman during the course of a legal IWW picket in Harvard Square. There was a march against police brutality today that I wasn't able to go to. So, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and Police Commissioner instead. I'm posting it here in case anyone wants to use it as a template for writing their own letter.
Dear Mayor Davis and Commissioner Haas:
I am writing to protest last night’s outrageous actions by the Cambridge Police Department. As you know, yesterday evening’s legal picket against the union busting Insomnia Cookies was broken up by Cambridge police. Video footage from the picket suggests that while the police attempted to disburse the protestors they assaulted Jason Freedman in the process of arresting him. Freedman has since been charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. This despite the fact that he was the one assaulted! Such disgraceful behavior on the part of the police cannot be tolerated. The police are supposed to protect the community not, as appears to be the case, intervene on the side of management during a labor dispute.
You have the power to right this wrong. All charges against Freedman should be dropped immediately. The police officers involved should be suspended pending investigation. Police brutality is simply unacceptable. Cambridge can do better than this.
Rev. Colin Bossen
cc: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, Boston IWW
May 15, 2013
The May 2013 Workers Power column, "Expanding Your Congregation of Fellow Workers," is now on-line. Since I actually wrote it myself, I have included the full text below.
Expanding Your Congregation of Fellow Workers
If you have been active in the IWW for a while, you have probably come across a pamphlet called “Rusty’s Rules of Order”— the pamphlet that serves as a guide to running effective union meetings. It attributes the following pearl of wisdom to Rusty, “an old Wobbly,” who served as a mentor to many younger Wobblies in the 1970s and 1980s: “Always conduct your meeting as if there were 100 people there, to be ready when the time comes when there are 100 people there.”
The IWW’s growth over the last decade has caused me to think a bit more about these words. The union now has more than twice the membership it had 10 years ago. More importantly, the union’s level of labor organizing has increased dramatically. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen pickets and a strike in the Twin Cities, a successful union election in Grand Rapids, Mich., a victory in a struggle for back wages in Portland, Ore., and a wage increase for cleaners in London. What’s more, all of this growth has been matched, or maybe fueled, by the creation of new IWW infrastructure. Since 2000, we have created the Organizer Training Committee and the Organizing Department and revamped the Work People’s College. In addition, the Industrial Worker has become an important place to reflect on organizing theory and methodology.
All of this is great, but it still has me thinking about Rusty’s advice. Why? Because in my time with the union, only rarely have I attended any sort of meeting that was designed for 100 people. Most meetings I have attended are exactly the opposite. They are run like discussion groups between friends. The rules of debate are frequently opaque and difficult for newcomers to follow. New members are seldom instructed on how to participate. Long-time members often dominate the debate.
If the IWW is going to continue to grow, our meetings will not only have to be designed to accommodate 100 people but hopefully 1,000 someday. Maybe that is optimistic thinking. Or maybe it is good planning. The Occupy movement attracted thousands to democratically-run encampments in New York, Oakland and other major cities. I meet more politicized and militant workers in their teens and 20s now than I ever did when I was that age or even in my early 30s. Recent upsurges of organizing by fast food workers and others who have long been considered unorganizable by business unions suggests that the possibility of a revitalized labor movement is on the horizon.
I hope that the IWW will take a major role in this revitalization. In order for that to happen, we will need to think seriously about how we behave organizationally. We will need to ask questions like: What does an IWW branch with 500 members look like? What does one with 2,000 members look like? How are branches of this size different from branches of 10, 20 or even 50 members? How can a branch with 10 members grow from 10 to 50 to 500 members? It might seem strange, but one place I suggest we look to for answers to these questions is the religious community. Organizations like the Alban Institute focus much of their energy on helping congregations address the organizational challenges they face at different sizes and figuring out how to transition between sizes.
There are two things that the institute has observed that might be particularly useful for members of the IWW when thinking about the culture and growth trajectory of branches. First, folks at Alban have noted that different size congregations have different kinds of cultures. Broadly speaking, they have identified five types of size-based congregational cultures: family, pastoral, program, corporate and mega. Each of these cultures has their own characteristics. The description of the family sized one might sound familiar to some Wobs because it “functions like a family, with appropriate family figures... matriarchs and patriarchs [who] control the church’s leadership needs.” While the fit isn’t exact, this might describe many smaller branches where long-time or founding members set much of the agenda and make it difficult for new members to integrate or develop in leadership roles.
The second thing that the people at Alban have observed is that organizational culture is generally stable. Religious communities face developmental tasks if they are going to grow from family to pastoral size for example. Most of these tasks are centered on creating new leaders, increasing programming and developing infrastructure for integrating new members. They are also usually accompanied by conflict. People who had power in the smaller congregation are asked to share it with the new members of the now larger congregation. The details are probably irrelevant for the IWW’s purposes, but the point is crucial: for a branch to grow, intentional changes in culture and infrastructure are almost certainly necessary. And those changes are usually accompanied by conflict. If those intentional changes are not made, or if conflict is avoided, then growth will almost always be temporary, and the organization will revert to its stable, smaller norm.
If we were to apply these observations to the IWW, we could study the different size branches that exist in the union and look at how their cultures differ. We could try to figure out if there were particular patterns of conflict, cultural or organizational change that occurred when branches moved from 10 to 50 or 100 members. And we could begin the process of imagining the kinds of conflict and culture change necessary to grow a branch from 100 to 500 members.
So maybe Rusty’s advice shouldn’t be taken quite so literally. Instead of thinking about how a meeting with 10 people should be run as if it were a meeting with 100 people, maybe we should be thinking about how to grow a branch with 10 people to a branch with 100 people. That might mean we are intentional about how we function within branches of both sizes.
May 14, 2013
May 13, 2013
Juan Conatz maintains the Workers Power archive over at libcom. He's fallen a bit behind with the archive this year but in the last few days he's put everything that run in the Industrial Worker thus far in 2013 on-line. The March Industrial Worker featured a great column by the ever fabulous Liberte Locke called "Christmas at Starbucks." Read it here.
Apr 1, 2013
Recently, I wrote a paper for a course I took with Harvey Cox on the theological views of the civil rights activist, labor lawyer and radical theorist Staughton Lynd. I interviewed Lynd as part of my research and he's given me permission to publish the transcript from the interview. I hope to turn the article into a journal article over the summer. As such, I am not posting it.
Reading through your work it seems to me that you place a great emphasis on the centrality of conscience as a source for moral authority. Is that correct?
I don’t think either I or Quakerism is unique in that. Quakerism speaks of that of God that is in every person. Marcus Rediker at University of Pittsburgh uses the big word antinomianism to describe the direct connection between the believer and God. And that too points to conscience because it emphasizes that connection over and above the idea of some sort of institutional church.
You place a great deal of emphasis on spontaneity and, it seems to me, also tradition. Is there a tension between spontaneity and tradition?
I am not quite sure where tradition comes into that. I did not grow up in any specific religious atmosphere. My father had gone to Union Theological Seminary. An experience he had as a summer preacher greatly influenced me. My mother grew up in a congregational church and took that very seriously until she got to Wellesley and read Hegel.
It is also the case that from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade I went to Ethical Culture schools in New York. That was a kind of Reformed Reformed Judaism. Above the platform was the slogan “The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” I am very attached to that place, that school, those words. I have been astonished to speak with some of my closest childhood friends and they do not remember those words. That was, and remains, about all the religion I had. That is, when we gather together to imagine the most, the highest, we can something sacred is going on.
Has Ethical Culture continued to be a factor in your life?
It is a difficult to know what that would mean. There are not very many Ethical Culture societies around. In the early 1960s my wife and I joined the Quakers. The Quakers have a great deal in common with Ethical Culture. So to that extent I did continue in that specific tradition.
Have you experienced a tension between the Left and religion?
It depends on the particular period of my life. In the South from 1961 to 1964 there wasn’t much tension because the Southern Civil Rights movement was permeated with something that could be called spiritual or religious. Its leaders were often ministers. People often met in churches. The moment of the most religious awareness that I experienced in the South was during the orientation for the summer of 1964. It was when, in Oxford, Ohio, word came to us that James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were missing, and, we presumed, dead. There was then a small meeting of SNCC staff and myself. I was there because I was going to play an important role with the Freedom Schools. When I say small I mean no more than a dozen. The very first thing that happened was the singing of a song that to my great anger is parodied as a summer camp song, Kumbaya. [Lynd then recited lyrics of the song from memory.] That was most intensely religious moment of my years in the Southern Civil Rights movement.
When you go onto other movements, it gets more complicated, because there wasn’t the same spiritual or musical component in other parts of the movement. We were in connection with the draft resister movement in Chicago. I remember we gathered to send some young people off to appear in court, where they might be sentenced to years in prison for draft resistance. We sang “Amazing Grace.” That was a song from the 18th century British anti-slavery movement. That was the best we could do in that situation.
In Youngstown, where Alice and I have lived since 1976, what has come closest to that is singing the song “Just my hands/ Just my hands can't tear a prison down” at the end of a meeting. That song has had a religious feeling to it when we have sung it in a circle. But nothing like the religious atmosphere of the Southern Civil Rights movement has come my way in the last fifty years.
Do you think that it is a reason for, and I am not sure of the right adjective, the success, the strength, of the Southern Civil Rights movement?
There are questions about the right adjectives. In the case of the Southern Civil Rights movement, after obtaining the Federal Voting Rights Act, and even before that, the movement pretty much disintegrated. Similarly the movement against the war in Vietnam, while it was successful, has not prevented what we used to call the seventh war from now. We are now about seven wars from Vietnam.
Alice and I made several trips to Central America in the 1980s. We have since continued and made several trips to Mexico. Our daughter Martha lives in Guatemala. We have had a deep encounter with liberation theology. I would say personally for us, the most important religious experience has been encountering Latin American liberation theology. Not everyone has had that experience and not everyone can go to Latin America.
Although, I have some questions about it. When we attended the neighborhood church in Managua, Nicaragua, they used as their liturgy the peasant mass. Part of that mass says that we know you Jesus. You are with us when we stand in line to get paid at the end of the week and you are with us when we go across the street to get a snow cone. That’s a very attractive image and there are certainly passages in the New Testament that suggest it. But there are also many passages, many parables, that I find baffling, that suggest that we should turn to the master, the absentee landlord, for an answer. I don’t understand how the person of Matthew 25 can dispense that kind of wisdom. Liberation theology has been very influential but I don’t take it hook, line and sinker. If you want an example of the problem look for the parable called the wicked husbandman. That parable, in almost the identical language appears in the synoptic gospels, but also in the Gospel of Thomas. You tell me how the person who took the side of the absentee landlord in that situation could be the Jesus of liberation theology.
I have noticed reading through your work, and certainly in your recent Accompanying, an increasing reference to religion. Has religion become more important to your thinking as you have gone on? Or is that a misreading on my part?
I would put it this way, growing up, although I don’t pretend to have mastered Das Capital, I think was pretty familiar with the Marxist classics and pretty much accepted them. Religion came later. When my father or mother would refer to a particular bible passage we would look at them perplexed. We didn’t go to church on Sunday. We went hiking instead.
Over the years, I have become more interested in the Christian tradition. If someone put me up against a wall I would say that Christian metaphysics strike me as childish. Metaphysically I am more-or-less a Buddhist. The ethics of Christian tradition are stronger than anything else that I have found. I would also say that I haven’t abandoned Marxism. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone can make sense of where this country is at without talking about Marx and Marxism, capitalism and imperialism. However, perennial critic, I very much adhere to the strain in Marxism best represented by Rosa Luxemburg. She said that Lenin had a soul of overseer and was in general much more oriented to working class self-activity than Marx or Lenin. I would go easy on the notion that I have foregrounded Christian New Testament and backgrounded Marxism. We have been to half a dozen retreats by John Dominic Crossan. I am trying to find a way through what is left of my life with the two lamps of the New Testament and liberation theology ethics and Marxism to guide me.
In your recent work, though there are suggestions of it earlier, you emphasize the importance of decency in working for social change. Does that call for decency have religious roots?
I do think, that, Todd Gitlin in his book on the sixties, refers to my sweetness of character. I think it is true that both Alice and I have sought to recreate the group atmosphere that we experienced in the Macedonia Community Cooperative when we were in our mid-twenties. That was more than fifty years ago. We have tried to describe it, in Liberation Theology for Quakers, it just left an impression on us. Sitting in a circle, by a fire, someone would offer an idea and we would listen, put another log on the fire, and someone else would offer an idea or respond. Quaker meetings attempt to replicate that atmosphere, though we never have experienced it as deeply as we did at Macedonia.
Stokley Carmichael has described the seeking of consensus in the Southern Civil Rights movement. He talked about how consensus was important because people were taking risks with their lives and you couldn’t ask them to do that if they didn’t agree with the decision that had been made.
I was distressed beyond the words by the way that the way both SNCC and SDS crashed. I have often said that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when it comes to national meetings and organizations. I have found that young people in the Occupy movement seem to say that it was all Cointelpro. Yeah, Cointelpro was part of the scene but basically we did it to ourselves. I have seen the same thing in the trade union movement. A reform slate gets elected to a local and pretty soon they are tearing themselves apart.
Decency then is very important thing to me. And I don’t think that you can say religious people have any particular claim to it. You certainly don’t find it in all the texts from the first Christians. Also, Alice and I have encountered religious people who have fared very poorly as members of families. I tend to think that nature has given us the family as a sort of first model of the way the world might be. We devote a lot of attention to our three children, our seven grandchildren and our two great grandchildren. That is the model that life provides. At the very least we have the challenge of making something of that model.
Dec 7, 2012
Oct 1, 2012