Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Solitary Life

As we celebrate Christmas, I want to share a Christmas poem that always seems to speak to me about the power of the life and message of Jesus. Merry Christmas


 He was born in an obscure village 
The child of a peasant woman 
He grew up in another obscure village 
Where he worked in a carpenter shop 
Until he was thirty 

He never wrote a book 
He never held an office 
He never went to college 
He never visited a big city 
He never travelled more than two hundred miles 
From the place where he was born 
He did none of the things 
Usually associated with greatness 
He had no credentials but himself 

He was only thirty three 

His friends ran away 
One of them denied him 
He was turned over to his enemies 
And went through the mockery of a trial 
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves 
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing 
The only property he had on earth 

When he was dead 
He was laid in a borrowed grave 
Through the pity of a friend 

Nineteen centuries have come and gone 
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race 
And the leader of mankind's progress 
All the armies that have ever marched 
All the navies that have ever sailed 
All the parliaments that have ever sat 
All the kings that ever reigned put together 
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth 
As powerfully as that one solitary life 

Dr James Allan © 1926.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Honor, Privilege and Joy of Teaching

Two days ago (Dec 14), my semester of teaching officially ended when I turned in the grades for my fall classes. I am sure there are varying degrees of joy and sadness among my students for the grades earned. However, for me the evaluating of final projects and determining the grades for my students is not only an evaluation of them, but also a time when I evaluate myself as a teacher.

When I was in my doctoral program, I had a professor who shared his philosophy of teaching, which I have since adopted for myself. At the beginning of the course, like my former prof, I always say: Here is my philosophy of teaching. I set high standards for your work and learning; my job as a teacher is to help you reach those standards. So when a course is completed, I find myself asking how well did I do in part in the teacher-learner exchange? How well did I motivate my students to learn? How well did I provide them the opportunities to grow not only in the subject area, but also as persons who think critically and creatively, and care deeply about the suffering in the world? Did they leave my class better informed, and were they stretched and challenged in appropriate ways?  Where did I fail them? Where could I have communicated more clearly? Most importantly, were they able to come away from my course have gained what they needed to gain, and learn what they wanted to learn?

When I tell people I am a college professor, the next question is usually “What do you teach?” I always stumble over that question, because the real question for me is not what I teach but who .  When I start a class I want to know: who are these men and women sitting before? What experiences, skills, and areas of knowledge do they bring? What do they need and want to learn in my class?  How can we together create a learning community that enables all of us to achieve our goals? While  I wonder about them, I also wonder about myself; I wonder: what do I need from them, and how will they teach me and stretch me? You see, for me teaching is really about a relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship through which knowledge and understanding in mediated. At the end of each class, I find that I have grown; have been stretched and challenged; and have had my mind opened to new ideas and new visions of what could be.

Because teaching is so personal and relational for me, I always go through a period of grieving at the end of a semester. That is where I am now. I am grieving the things I didn’t do that I should have done to enrich the learning experience. I am grieving those students who did not seem to grasp or appreciate the material, and wondering if and how I let them down. I am grieving the loss of those brilliant students whose ideas and zeal for learning made me feel like the best teacher ever. Most importantly, am grieving the fact that I will not again have this special opportunity with this particular group of people. Now granted, I will have some of the same students in another class, but each course, and each group of students is special; and I grieve that  I will not have that experience with that group again.

I am fortunate these days to teach graduate students, who are highly motivated, incredibly intelligent, wildly creative, genuinely compassionate, and intensely committed to social justice. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t tell someone how fortunate I am to teach the students I have. However, I have also taught students at the undergraduate and associate level, and have even mentored fellow faculty. Certainly, there are students and groups that frustrate me,  push me to my limits, and keep me humble. However, with most groups of students I feel profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to enter their lives and interact with them in ways that challenge and transform both them and me.

So tonight as I reflect on another semester that has ended, I feel some sadness of what has just past and will not come again, but I also am grateful for having a job that gives me such a profound sense of meaning and joy. I am honored, blessed and privileged to have people who call me their teacher.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Mad as Hell at Plutocracy

At different times in this blog, I have referred to the US government as a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) rather a democracy (rule by the people). Exhibit A of this reality is the current debate in Congress over whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans (those earning over $250,000) while also haggling as to whether or not to continue unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed.  On the one hand proponents of extending the cuts say we must continue the tax cuts (thus foregoing something like $70 billion in potential revenue), while on the other hand they are saying the government cannot afford to continue to support the unemployed. The audacity of this position is so outrageous that Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world, and a group from Boston called Wealth for the Common Good have called for the tax cuts to be allowed to expire on December 31, 2010. Even these 400 wealthy Americans are saying the Republicans’ position on these issues is out of bounds!

The efforts of Buffett and his wealthy colleagues aside, this current Congressional debate illustrates how far we have strayed from what Abraham Lincoln referred to as a government “for the people, by the people and of the people.” However, this is not a new problem. When the U.S. Constitution was originally ratified  in 1787, only white men who owned land were allowed to vote. From the beginning, our country has operated on the principle that the wealthy would rule on behalf of the masses, a kind of benevolent oligarchy. Over time the right to vote was extended to all white men, then men of color, (14th Amendment, 1868) and then eventually women (19th Amendment, 1920). Even so the original notion that governing was for the few and not the many has persisted throughout US history. So it is no wonder that today only those with great personal wealth (e.g. Meg Whitman, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney) or those with access to money (everyone else who can find a lobby or a PAC or special interest to finance them), can afford to run for election.

What is the effect of this trend toward plutocracy? The greatest inequity between the haves and the have-nots in the last 30 years. According to Nicholas Kristof  in 1976 the wealthiest one percent of Americans earned 9 percent of the nation’s income; today that number is 24%. In 1980 the CEOs of America’s largest companies earned 42 times the average worker; today that ration is 531 to 1 – an increase of over 1200 percent! Moreover, the incomes of the highest earners in the U.S. (those earning over $50 million a year) increased fivefold between 2008 and 2009 in the height of the recession.

This increasing disparity has not come by accident. Two noted political scientists, Jacob Hacker of Yale, and Paul Pierson of Cal-Berkley, have studied this trend and documented their findings in a new book, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its back on the Middle Class. Contrary to popular belief, these scholars have concluded that this increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots is not primarily a result of either technology or globalization, but rather due to a pattern of U.S. government policy changes that have continually favored the wealthiest 5-10% of the population.

So for instance, earlier this year The Supreme Court ruled in the “Citizens United"case that the government can not place any limits on the amount of money corporations can give to political campaigns. In 2009 when the Health Care Reform bill was being debated, according to Open Secret.org, the health care lobby spent a combined $545 million is influencing legislation – the highest in its history. And now we find the Congress embroiled in a debate that appears to pit the tax cuts for the wealthy against benefits for the unemployed. According to Hacker and Pierson such a pattern is not something that has just occurred in the last year, but has increasingly developed over the last 30 years (if you do the math that means since Ronald Reagan became president and shifted the tide in that direction).

As much as I appreciate the beneficence of people like Warren Buffett, and the philanthropy of wealthy Americans like Bill Gates, I don’t think the policy change will come from the top. The rich will not have a massive conversion to equity economics. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing wealthy Americans; I come from that stock and literally some of my friends and family are in this group. However, as Frederick Douglass said over 150 years ago “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (1857). Change will only happen when folks get together and demand a redistribution of the wealth: the poor, the working class, the unemployed, the white, the black, the Hispanic, the Asian, the native American – all those who have been shortchanged in the process of wealth redistribution over the last 30 years.

I was fortunate to have come of age during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. I participated in the Clamshell Alliance that stopped the construction of an additional nuclear power plan in Seabrook, New Hampshire. I have participated in many other actions since those early days with more modest success. I have seen what can happen when people get organized, get focused and get busy demanding that justice be done. I am not sure where or how such a movement will emerge, but there are rumblings all over the place. I felt that rumbling in a big way at the U.S. Social Forum  last summer in Detroit, where 15,000 activists gathered to envision a more democratic future.

I am reminded of the famous line from the 1976 movie Network,  where newscaster Howard Beale urged his listeners to go to their windows and shout: I AM MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE !” Plutocracy must go, true democracy, a democracy of the grassroots, must come. Folks must get together and demand equity and justice for all. This cruel foolishness must end before the whole system collapses, and more suffer than already are.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Several years ago I started a personal Thanksgiving tradition that I have continued for all the years since. It had been a particularly stressful year, and I was reading Paul's letter to the Philippians where he wrote these words

 Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
present your requests to God... whatever is true,
                                                whatever is noble,
                                                whatever is right,
                                                whatever is pure,
                                                whatever is lovely,
                                                whatever is admirable
                                                 if anything is excellent or worthy of praise,
                                                 think about such things. (Philippians 4. 6, 8)
After reading those words, I just started listing all the things from the previous year that I had to be thankful for, that in some way met the criteria that Paul outlined in his letter. When I got done I had three pages, two columns filled with names, events, and other things in my life that I was thankful for.

Since then, every Thanksgiving I continued this practice, and each year, I amazed at all have to put on my list, regardless if in my mind it was "good" year, or a "bad" year. So I have learned that there are many blessings.

So take time to give thanks - you may be surprised how much will be on your list!

Friday, November 19, 2010


This past week Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor for bravery and self-sacrifice. When his unit in the Afghan mountains came under enemy attack, Sgt. Giunta ran into the face of enemy fire to save his fellow soldiers; he not only saved his comrades but lived to tell of it. Regardless of what one thinks of the war, Sgt. Giunta’s courageous and self-sacrifical actions are worthy of the honor he received. Most Medals of Honor are awarded post-humously, so the fact that he lived to received it in person is nothing short of miraculous.

Understandably Sgt. Giunta has received a lot of press leading up to his receipt of this honor. However, it is not only Sgt. Giunta who has made sacrifices. Politicians and media personalities regularly note the sacrifice that the men and women of the military, as well as their families, make  (as the phrase goes) “to preserve our freedom” as Americans. In this blog I have regularly questioned whether or not that sacrifice is misdirected; but questions about the war aside, there is no doubt that  these young men and women make a tremendous sacrifice in the work they do.

So it is all the more troubling to me that the spirit of sacrifice that is so highly honored in our military personnel seems to get lost when we look on the domestic front. Many people in our nation are going through difficult times. People are losing their homes, 50 million people have no health coverage, and 9-17% of Americans (depending on how you count) are out of work; times are hard for many. Yet when it comes to those of us who are doing relatively well to make sacrifices on behalf of those who are not, we pull back.

Republicans campaigned and won on a platform that included a commitment to repeal the recent health care reform bill. Just this week Republicans blocked an attempt to extend unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed. In my own state of Pennsylvania, the new Republican governor has vowed to cut back on social services. Across the country rural and urban school districts are vastly under-funded compared to their suburban counterparts. Yet, fiscal conservatives are vowing to allow the tax cuts to wealthiest Americans (those who make over $250,000 per/year) to remain in place, all the while saying the decisions to make cuts in the area of human services need to be done because we can’t afford them. We can “afford” to give corporations and wealthy people tax loopholes and tax breaks, but we can’t provide health care, or unemployment benefits? What’s wrong with this picture?

Where is the praise for the spirit of sacrifice now?

Years ago I wrote a song, which had this line:
            “The people outside say they gotta have, but no one wants to give.”
It seems that line has come true in 2010.

As I have watched friends and loved ones struggle to find a job, or get by without health care; and as I have advocated for equitable schools, and walked in neighborhoods where nearly 50% of the able bodied and willing workers can’t find jobs, I am appalled at the selfishness of our middle and upper middle class populace. I am one of them. Do I want to pay higher taxes; of course not, but I will if it helps someone else. Do I want some of my services redistributed to others? If it means all will be a little better off, then why not?

I grew up in the generation who was inspired by the words of John F. Kennedy who said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy called us to service and sacrifice for others. Out of his efforts came the Peace Corps and VISTA programs. As a people we need to hear and respond to those words again by a willingness to take on a spirit of sacrifice on behalf of others in our midst.

Times are hard – yes they are, but a spirit of sacrifice among those of us who have enough could go a long way toward making life less difficult for the millions in need all around us.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Howard Thurman, Ronald Takaki and the 2010 Elections

Like many people I have been pondering the meaning of Tuesday’s election results. It so happened that during the final stages of this election season, I was reading Howard Thurman’s The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope. I also was reading the reflections of students to Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Both of these books provide me a unique lens through which to look at the supposed dramatic political turn that took place last Tuesday.

Howard Thurman came of age in the segregated South in Daytona, Florida. While he wrote The Luminous Darkness in 1965, his reflections reach back decades earlier to his childhood. He came to realize that in the eyes of whites in his community he was regarded as a non-being, whose thoughts, needs and desires were only important to the extent that they affected the white community. So, early on in life he developed a hatred for white people even though he and his whole family were devout Baptists. He came to regard whites as existing outside of his moral universe, so that his Christian ethic of love did not apply to whites. Likewise, he recognized that to the whites across town, he and his people were also beyond their Christian ethic, and so well meaning, supposedly ethical people carried on without regarding the needs, fears or being-ness of the other. The large difference between whites and blacks during segregation was that anytime whites wanted to exercise their power over against the black community, culture and law allowed them to do so freely. So for instance, most black children in Daytona never went to school beyond the 7th grade because the white power structure decided no more school beyond 7th grade was needed for blacks. Thurman himself was forced to leave home at an early age in order to go to high school as there were only 2-3 black high schools in the entire state of Florida.

Ronald Takaki wrote A Different Mirror in 1992 and then revised it in 2008. He meticulously recounts the histories of non-European ethnic groups who either resided in North America or immigrated to the United States. His history records the oppression, violence and indignities that these groups experienced at the hands of the European colonizers. Starting with the near genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, he goes on to talk about the histories of the Irish, Russian Jews, Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans. In every case, exploitation of these groups was justified for economic reasons, and blessed by the Church with a sense of Divine Providence and Manifest Destiny. What comes thru Takaki’s history is that the United States achieved its current greatness by treating and regarding many people groups as subhuman. This country would not have achieved its economic strength were it not for the free labor of the African slaves, the annexation of Mexican territory, the appropriation of Native American sacred lands, and the exploitation of Irish, Chinese and Japanese labor. Takaki does not recount this history with an ax to grind, but rather to bring to light the fact that the American story is a multicultural, multiethnic story, and not simply the story of enlightened Europeans claiming a new land. He concludes his book by asking whether we will continue to resist and deny our multicultural heritage, or will we move into the future embracing the multicultural society that we are. While at one level we are aware of this history and these questions, Takaki brings them front and center in a well-researched compelling narrative.

So what do Thurman and Takaki have to do with the election?

The rallying cry of many of the conservatives, who won election last Tuesday, was to “take America back.” People are worried about jobs, taxes, and the threat of terrorists. Simultaneous to the election was a vitriolic debate as to whether Muslims should build n cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. Furthermore, President Obama introduced an immigration reform bill that responded to the ongoing debate about Arizona’s restrictive immigration law. Moreover, the current economic recession has pushed more people into poverty than has been seen in decades. As this election proceeded the people under question were treated as non-beings: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, children of immigrants denied citizenship though raised in this country, and the people living near or below the poverty line. Their needs and concerns did not get any notice or play; they did not matter. Furthermore, these groups of people are not part of the America that conservatives are “taking back” and yet they ARE part of the American fabric. The Conservatives and Tea Party-ers placed a strong emphasis on personal freedom, but little to no words about community and living together amongst our differences. Thurman’s words about how blacks in the segregated South were regarded could easily apply to the current attitude of many Americans toward Muslims, immigrants and the poor. Yet these folks are here, they are part of us, and yet we think and act with no regard to their presence; and we do so to our own moral degradation and spiritual demise.

The United States of the next decades will be increasingly multicultural. By 2040 demographers expect that Hispanics will make up nearly 30% of the US population, and whites will be less than 50%. Nearly every people group on the globe in some way finds representation in our nation. The United States of 2010 is not the European-based nation that was founded in 1787. We are a collection of many voices, languages, cultures and perspectives. To try and ignore that or overpower that with rhetoric of “taking America back” is to piss into the wind; it will only come back on us.

In many ways the hope that inspired Barack Obama’s election two years ago was an attempt to embrace this multicultural future. Tuesday’s election in many ways was a step back from that embrace. I suspect that this back and forth will continue for decades to come, as we come to grips with the inevitable change in our national identity. 

We can not treat vast numbers of people as non-beings forever. Muslims are part of the American fabric and must be given the same respect as any other religious group, no matter how threatening some radical elements of their religion are? (And remember Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh espoused forms of Christianity; do we deny Christians rights because of them?).

The thousands of people seeking to cross our borders despite walls, dogs, and border patrols reflect horrendous living conditions in their home communities, in large part created by the abuse of U.S. business in their home countries. We can call these immigrants “illegal” but the border is an arbitrary line we have allowed corporations to cross without taking responsibility for the impact of their actions. While we may not be able to absorb all who want to come here, we can not ignore the reasons they leave their homes. It is not that the US is so welcoming, but because the conditions at home are so unlivable.

Finally, the political rhetoric has got to incorporate the millions of people in this country who are living on the edge of existence. We complain about 9.7% unemployment, but I know communities in Philadelphia where the figure is over 50%. Urban and rural public schools are under-funded and thus turning out a generation of children who can not function effectively as U.S. citizens. With few other options many of these young people turn to the underground economy, which often includes drugs and violence. While residents of suburban areas may not want their taxes to go up, just a few miles from their homes are people who are going hungry, living without heat in the winter, and seeking just to survive. Despite our denials, such people can not remain outside our moral universe of concern forever, and so at some point they must show up on our political radar screen.

Howard Thurman and Ronald Takaki remind us that to deny people groups’ full participation in the American community is to do so at our own peril. The America that was is not the America that is, and certainly not the America that will be. For many middle and upper class whites in this country that is a frightening thought, but it need not be. The beauty of the American story is that despite our resistance to include the “other” we have continually done so. What we can learn from history is that such inclusion strengthens and enriches us, rather than depletes us.

Not long ago I wrote in my journal: “I envision a society and a world, where my wealth does not come at the expense of the poor and my race does not give me privilege, where I can just be ‘people’ with others.” I continue to do what I can to bring these issues to light, not because I am some bleeding heart liberal, but because I am convinced that we can do better as a nation, and that we can live up to our nation’s founding principles that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that no person should be denied the basic dignities granted to us as human beings created by a gracious God.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some Midterm Election Thoughts

Like many people I will be glad when next Tuesday, November 2 comes just so I won’t have to watch all the annoying, disinforming political ads and won’t be getting the robo-calls for this or that candidate. However, as we come to these midterm elections I do have a few random thoughts.

The anti-Washington Rhetoric
Have you noticed how many candidates are “campaigning against Washington?” It strikes me as very strange that there are so many people working so hard to get to a place they are so critical of. In this scenario Republicans have the edge, but if Washington is such a terrible place, why are they spending so much time, energy and money to get there? I realize that this is just a marketing strategy, but the people who advise candidates need to get more creative. I am sure there is a significant percentage of voters who will go along with the anti-Washington rhetoric, but really candidates, could you please come up with some sort of clear idea of what you will do when you go to Washington because 2 or 4 or 6 years from now, someone will be calling you a "Washington insider."

The Myth of the Political “Race”
Nearly every night for the last 3 months or more, we have been hearing about how the respective candidates are doing in their “race’ against each other. Emails tout that one is pulling ahead or closing the gap. If I didn’t know any better, one would think that the candidates were involved in some sort of cross-country marathon. The fact is on November 2, we show up, we vote, the count is taken and the winner is announced. It’s a singular event in a singular day, not a marathon (except for those of us listening to the reports).

The myth of “the race” is created by the media to bring drama to an otherwise singular event. It keeps them from using their news time to actually give us information on the candidates’ experience, their past actions and their stated positions. Instead of giving us information that can help us evaluate the ads that barrage us, they report on the ads themselves – how nasty they were and how much they cost. They run endless polls trying to determine who is voting, and what they are finding is that a huge percentage don’t know or aren’t telling. When they day comes, they will vote.

There is no “race” – that’s another media create illusion. Instead of getting us caught up in a mythical drama, how about taking time each night to share the fruits of an analysis and investigation of where candidates stand, and what they have done in the past; the drama will be in informed voters voting intelligently rather than emotionally.

My Thoughts on the Democrats
The other evening I received a call from the Democratic party (not for my specific candidate) but the party as a whole. Two years ago I gave money to Obama’s campaign and they wanted to know if I could help them out again. When I declined, the caller asked “Is it for political reasons?” and I replied “No, I am still voting Democrat.” The call quickly ended, but afterwards I wish I had said more.

This is what I wished I had said (and will, if some poor unsuspecting volunteer from the DNC calls me again.).

 “I am voting Democrat not because I am so enamored with the Democratic party; in fact I am profoundly disappointed. With a 60% majority in the Senate, a significant majority in the House, and a President with progressive ideas, the Democrats blew it. They could not pass a Health Care bill that really provided coverage for the most vulnerable; could not bring significant reform to the way Wall Street operates; wimped out when the President proposed to raise taxes on the wealthy Americans; and got us more deeply entrenched in a pointless, unwinnaable war in Afgahnistan. They were as easily persuaded my lobbyists’ money as their Republican counterparts, and when it came time to push thru some important legislation, time and time again, they had no spine. Many blame Obama for the sluggish economy, but I blame the bank and corporate executives who were able to get bail out money and gave themselves bonuses, while holding back on hiring folks and foreclosing homes; I blame the lobbyists from the insurance, bank and financial institutions who poured record numbers of dollars into the pockets of leaders on both sides of the aisle, so that they would shout and holler and do nothing to change the system as it is; and I blame the Democrats in Congress who did not back Obama when he tried to stand up to them.  When Obama’s party needed him, they wimped out. They aren’t a party with any clear agenda or principles, they are simply a fund-raising machine.

“Now you, DNC, call me asking for money with all sorts of scary scenarios about what the Republicans will do. I am sincerely concerned about the polarity amongst our political leaders. I am concerned about the “take back America” language coming from political conservatives; that can only mean even worse times for the poor, the immigrant, the person of color, and the marginalized in our society. I am concerned about the mean-spirit I hear in the Tea Party rhetoric of God, guns and patriotism. Yes, I am scared, so I will vote.

“But give you money, so you can put attack ads that distort the record and do nothing to inform the public of what a candidate actually said, did or believes? Not going to happen.

“Go and make some significant campaign finance reform. Reverse the Supreme Court decision that made it possible for corporations to give as much in campaign contributions as they want, with no stipulations. Take the money you are raising to improve inner city schools, or provide housing for people losing their homes or making health care accessible to all or putting real gun-control legislation in place; instead of those annoying adsa. But to support the kind of disinforming drivel that I have been watching for that last several months?

No, I don’t think so – so have a nice day.”

Real Democracy

I have long ago taken a cynical perspective on electoral politics (I know its not that obvious!), but I still believe in democracy; not the game that goes on in Washington, but real people getting together at the grassroots community level to make decisions about the health and welfare of their community. As I have said before what goes on in “the halls of government” is not democracy, but plutocracy (the rule of the rich). In order to get and stay elected a person must have or have access to a lot of money. A man or woman with leadership abilities and great ideas, but no money, is unelectable. However, at the grassroots level people can come together to make a difference.

When I was living in southern Minnesota in the late 1980’s I participated in the caucus system where residents came together to discuss issues and vote for the primary candidate of their choice. Then representatives of that local group went to the regional meeting which did the same thing, and then went on to the state. Those meetings were filled with impassioned, substantive political debate and while we did not always get our way, we were informed and our voice was heard

I have worked with a church in West Philadelphia that helped organize its community and got the city to board up or tear down dozens of abandoned buildings, and is now in the process of negotiating to get affordable housing for the people of that community. When a young man was beaten up by police officer, they called the residents together and had the police and city come and hear their concerns. I have also sat with residents at a local high school debating and discussing what they want for their kids and how they want their school to be run; again this was meaningful, substantive democracy in action.

Regardless of what happens on November 2, the real democratic process will continue, and we will tolerate the games that go on among the plutocrats who like to think of themselves our leaders. I still believe in Barack Obama and his agenda. I share his community organizing spirit, but he needs help; so in the mean time I will put my energies into real democracy at the grassroots level.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

White Anti-Racist Heroes

Every fall semester, I teach a course entitled “Race and Ethnic Relations.” A major component of the course is studying the history of racism and ethnic discrimination beginning in medieval Europe to the present day, and examining how that history can both help us understand the current status of race and ethnic relations in North America, and then guide us in our exploration of the way forward toward a multi-cultural society where all racial/ethnic groups have an equally accepted and authentic voices. As the history of racism is reviewed, most white students and some students of color are not only shocked by the intentional oppression of African, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other peoples of color, but also deeply distressed by the active complicity of Christian leaders in that oppression. Usually my white students are left with overwhelming feelings of guilt, despair and powerlessness in the face of the horrific historical facts.

A few weeks ago the class, which is primarily comprised of white and African-American students, came to that point of despair. The African American students have many heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement after whom they can model their activism; figures such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, Rosa Parks and many more come to mind. However, the white students feel like they have no such models in their attempts to develop an anti-racist lifestyle. At that point I exhorted them to find white anti-racist heroes after whom they can model their lives. While the sacrifices of white anti-racists are great, they in no way approach the sacrifice of those people of color who challenged the white establishment. Even so white anti-racists models from the past can point the way forward whites who want to work alongside their counterparts in building a society free of racism.

What follows is my brief list of the anti-racist heroes who have served as an inspiration and guide for me as I work to contribute to the building of the Beloved (multiracial ) Community that Martin Luther King spoke about 50 years ago. May the examples of these folks serve to inform all whites that they too have anti-racist ancestry upon which they can draw.

Some White Anti-Racists from U.S. History

William Wilberforce – Member of British parliament whose tireless efforts eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in England.

Elijah Lovejoy – abolitionist journalist killed in Alton, IL for his anti-slavery views.

 Thaddeus Stevens –Congressman from Pennsylvania during the pre-Civil War era who argued tirelessly for the abolition of slavery.

John Woolman – Quaker farmer who in the 1700’s personally convinced 100’s of Quaker slave-owners to renounce slavery and set their slaves free. By 1787 when the United States became a nation, hardly any Quakers owned slaves thanks to John Woolman.

Levi Coffman – Quaker abolitionist in Ohio who supported the Underground Railroad.

John Rankin – Presbyterian minister in Ripley, Ohio who safely ushered hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom.

John Brown – avid abolitionist who sought to ignite a slave rebellion thru his raid on the US Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

AJ Muste, - labor organizer who was also active in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

Myles Horton – founder of Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, which was a meeting place for black and white civil rights workers in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Clarence Jordan- founder of Koinonia, an intentional multi-racial community established in the 1940’s in South Georgia.

Jimmy Carter –former US President and tireless Civil Rights advocate.

Will Campbell – Southern writer, minister and activist who actively sought to befriend members of the KKK to change their minds and attitudes.

Alice  and Sarah Grimke – early suffragettes and abolitionists in the pre and post Civil War era.

Susan B. Anthony – early advocate for both women’s and African-American rights.

Charles Finney – Baptist evangelist in the 1800’s whose evangelistic message always included a call to fight slavery; the founder of Oberlin College.

Dorothy Day – Co-founder of the Catholic Worker and advocate for the poor and oppressed.

Curtiss DeYoung – evangelical pastor/writer who has tirelessly advocated for racial reconciliation.

Chris Rice – long time member of Voice of Calvary (now at Duke University) who along with Spencer Perkins (until his death) lived in intentional inter-racial community and writes extensively on racial reconciliation.

May this list guide and inspire other white anti-racist to actively live into the hope and promise of a society where racism is not tolerated and diversity of all kinds is embraced.

Perhaps you who read my “hall of heroes” can add to the list.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Will the Elders Please Step Up

This past week as part of the Urban Studies residency I had the opportunity to spend an intense week with a group of talented, highly motivated graduate students preparing to work in urban communities across North America. However, my most impressive encounter was not with a student but with a grandmother in West Philadelphia who spoke to some of my students about her ministry with young people in her community. This woman, who I will call Clara, moved into the neighborhood from her suburban home and decided that instead living in fear of the young people on her block, she would open her home to her grandson and his friends to teach them some basic life skills such as cooking and maintaining a home. Every week she repeats the act with a widening group of teenagers.

She sees her effort as a contribution to the quality of life in her neighborhood. On that same day my students (who were walking the neighborhood looking for positive signs of God’s activity in the community) met three other senior citizens who likewise had decided to reach out to the young people on their block. They also heard from a 51 year old father who every Friday night brings together 20 adolescents just to talk about the struggles in their lives. What we saw were elders who decided that instead of complaining about young people, they would step up to offer their services as elders, mentors and caregivers.

Contrast this with efforts by many elders to put distance from themselves and the younger generation. Not far from my suburban home, there is a gated community for people 55 and older; the homes start in the $350,000 and no children are allowed to reside in the community. Senior living communities dot the area. In this same area there is a taxpayer group again made up of the community’s older citizens who fight every effort by the school board to raise revenue for the schools, even though our district has the lowest tax rate in the county. So I find it quite striking that Clara and the others I met this week decided to open their lives to young people rather than shut them out. No doubt there are seniors like Clara in my community and elsewhere who reach out to young people in their own way, but unfortunately there are far too few.

While it is easy for those of us who are older to shake our heads at the lack of care and concern in the younger generation, what is needed is for many of us to step out like Clara and open their lives and their homes to them. We talk about the aimlessness of kids, but are we willing to serve as mentors, guides and friends to these young folks whose lives may be shattered? When parents can’t or won’t serve that role, where are the elders who are willing to step in and love kids in spite of their faults, attitudes and craziness?

Thank you Clara, for reminding all of us, that it is never too late, nor are we ever too old, to provide young folks with the guidance and love they so desperately crave.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Party

The Republicans announced that sometime soon they will come out with their legislative agenda for the coming legislative term. I, along with a lot of other people, have come to refer to the Republicans as the “Party of NO” because up to now their strategy has been to filibuster and block any legislation, great or small, that is proposed by the Obama administration. If the president is for it, they’re “agin it.” Their most recent victories were to block debate on the Dream Act (a bill that would legalize children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age and have spent virtually their whole life in the US), and the army’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (which would allow gays and lesbians in the military to be open about their sexuality and still serve in the military). Now granted both bills were tacked on to a military expenditure bill, which unfortunately was the only way proponents thought they could get debates on these issues. However, it is dreadfully sad that two bills deserving a hearing were denied even the possibility of debate.

Based on these latest ploys I have changed my designation of the Republicans from “The Party of No” to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Party” because their agenda and strategy has been to engage in a high level politics of denial. The reality of undocumented immigrant children and gays and lesbians serving in the military are NOT the figments of someone’s imagination, they are real people undergoing real suffering because of our legislators’ inability and unwillingness to face and deal with that reality. Apparently Republicans (and some Democrats) believe that as long as they don’t ask about some of the grave issues facing people in our nation, they won’t have to do anything about those issues. They are not only “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” on the gays and children of immigrants, but on a whole host of other issues as well.

They are “don’t ask, don’t tell” on health care, as they want to repeal the health care reform bill that was passed a year ago. Just don’t tell them that the 40,000 uninsured Americans that existed when the bill has passed has now reportedly risen to 50,000. They scream about Medicare and higher health care premiums for a relative few, while 50,000 people go with no health insurance at all. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are “don’t ask don’t tell” when it comes immigration. Don’t ask them to seriously consider why people are coming over the border because they might have to look at U.S. corporations that are exploiting the workers south of the border. Don’t’ ask the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who up until recently were for immigration reform because they saw the undocumented workers as a ready supply of cheap labor. Don’t ask them to compute how much money working immigrants give back to this country in terms of taxes and social security , the benefits of which they will not receive. They don’t want to face those facts. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are "don’t ask don’t tell" on climate change. Some don’t even think there is such a thing as global warming. So don’t’ ask them to look at the scientific data on the effects of global warming and the need for a radical reversal of our use of oil based products and coal based fuel to feed our carbon rich lifestyles. They don’t ask why oil companies get government subsidies while companies trying to develop alternative green  energy sources must scrape with relatively little. They don’t ask the oil companies to pay their fair share instead of going off with record profits year after year, quarter after quarter. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are  "don’t ask, don’t tell" on taxes too. They don’t want to hear about repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. They scream about how it will hurt small business persons (when in fact only three percent of all small businesses fall into this category). If they really cared about people paying their fair share, they could make changes in the law for the small business people. But no, they want to protect their wealthy friends because their wealthy friends fund their campaigns. (In this too I must say Democrats are no better than Republicans).

They don’t’ ask what must be done to hold banks accountable. They don’t ask about addressing the serious problems in public education. They don’t’ ask about the terrible waste of life and resources spent in meaningless wars overseas. They don’t’ ask about REALITY, but rather choose to operate in the politics of denial.

And the truly sad thing, is that we let them get away with these lies. In some cases we even support them because it personally benefits us, and we fail to ask the bigger questions about where this politics of denial is taking us as a people and as a global community.

When I watch what goes on in the House and the Senate, I wonder if the Republicans (and some Democrats) are really that blind that they don’t see the needs around them, or are they so callous they just don’t care. I am of the mind to tell them they are both blind and callous; but then they weren’t asking me, were they.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Taking Us Back to The Real Past

One of the benefits of being a university professor is that often I get to pose questions to my students that I am asking myself. Unbeknown to them my students become my counselors to my personal queries. This fall I am teaching Race and Ethnic Relations, a course in which we look at the struggles around race and ethnic discrimination, the injustices that discrimination has created, and approaches to addressing those injustices. As you can imagine it is a course that is unfortunately always relevant and tends to leave us with more questions and answers.

The first assignment is to have my students read George Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History. In the context of reading about the historical origins of racism, I ask my students this question: In what ways should the history of racism be incorporated into our culture’s dominant historical narrative?  My conviction is that history not only tells us where a people has been, but helps us understand that people’s present identity as they try to shape our future. In this country the history of racial and ethnic discrimination is a history we pay lip service to, but a history from which we have not learned some important lessons. It is not that that the history we recite in our schools and in political speeches is untrue, but rather that it is just not the whole truth.

The importance of learning from our history seems quite relevant as conservative Republican and Tea Party candidates says they want to “take back” the country. As I have shared elsewhere in this blog, that statement always makes me want to ask: Take back from whom and to what end? So for a few paragraphs I would like to look back at a few key moments to see what they might teach us about where we are today.

I would start this retelling thousands of years ago, rather on or around 1492 as we usually  learn in school. I would point us to a time when groupings of indigenous peoples inhabited the land we now call North America. Many of them lived lives of basic subsistence, close to the land, and in harmony with their surroundings. Those in the fertile Northeast grew maize and other crops, while those wandering the Great Plains followed the buffalo. There were the Cherokee, a federation of tribes whose form of governance would be reflected in the U.S. Constitution. Some of these indigenous groups were peace-loving while others were war-like. They had practices that seemed barbaric to European minds, but they had also had an ability ot live in harmony with their surroundings. Only when Europeans came with their insatiable need for “growth” and "progress” did the ground go barren and species of buffalo, wolves and other wildlife begin to disappear. As today we reap the consequences of this ecological neglect, grapple with the effects of global warming, and literally see our ecosystem seek to rediscover a balance with hurricanes, floods and other “natural disasters” we could learn something from how our Native American forbears learned to revere the land as they lived on it and off it.

I would then take us back to the 1620’s when the first African slaves were brought to this country in Jamestown, VA. I would recount the brutal way in which  those slaves were treated and their families were arbitrarily split up, and I would have us recall their fierce resistance to this oppression. I would point out that  resistance is a sign of the human spirit that will not allow itself to be silenced. I also would point out that the tremendous economic growth in the South and the North during the early centuries of U.S. history was achieved on the backs of that free slave labor. So when employers today seek to move their operations to places where they can pay employees $8/day and avoid safety and environmental regulations, as is the case many U.S. companies operating in Mexico, and when people on both sides of the border react with violence, resist border  guards and break laws seeking to restrict their free movement into this country, I would remind our leaders that slavery didn’t work then and won't work now. Moreover I would remind us of the terrible legacy of pain and injustice slavery has left us, from which we have yet to fully recover, and I would ask: Do we really want to do this to ourselves again?

Then I would tell the stories or religious minorities and how they were treated and yet persevered. I would talk about the Know Nothing Party of the mid 1800’s that preached that all Roman Catholics should be driven from this country, and which spearheaded a violent repression of East European and Irish immigrants. I would also talk about Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormons), and how they were driven from communities by Christian groups in upstate New York and Illinois, and migrated west until they found a place called Utah where they could be left alone. I would talk about their tight communities with a strong emphasis on family has produced great athletes, thinkers and leaders. Then, I would remind Mormons like Glen Beck and Mitt Romney (as well as Christian and Jewish groups who themselves at one time were persecuted) that seeking to denigrate and exclude Muslims from basic freedoms today is  exactly as their ancestors were once unfairly treated. Like these earlier religious groups, Muslims seek a the freedom to worship and live out their religious convictions in harmony with their neighbors, and to deny that is to repeat the injustices of the past.

So I agree, let’s take back the country. Let’s take us back to learn from the past we have hidden from ourselves and from which we refuse to learn.

Let's not go back to some mythical past that never actually existed, but rather go back to the real past, Let's  learn that how we are treated the poor, the slave, the immigrant, and the religious minority was a terrible injustice then, and is equally so today. If I was to incorporate the history of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination into our dominant historical narrative, I would also tell it in such a way that those of us who are the benefactors of these atrocities would be so ashamed of that part of our past, that we would say "never again." I would want us to continue to honor the accomplishments, but also to reflect on the failures, and learn from both.

The past of Beck, Palin and their Tea Party conservatives is a myth, and a dangerous one at that, because it only serves to blind us from the atrocities we are creating in the name of some history that never existed.

That's a past I don't want to relive - so I say let's go back so we can learn from it.