When Hope Dies Last

Studs Terkel, an American original, devoted the last of his great reportage to the people throughout history “who had hope,” as he explained in a 2003 interview. “They did stuff they shouldn’t have done. They discommoded themselves. They could have led nice lives.” Terkel paid tribute to those people—who are called “activists”—in his final oral-history book published that year, Hope Dies Last: Keeping Faith in Troubled Times.

This was a prolific year for activists. With a bow toward the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, Time magazine styled them collectively as the “Protestor,” who was anointed Person of the Year.

What’s an activist? “Someone who does an act,” Terkel, who died in 2008, said in the interview conducted by Missy Daniel for PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (it was carried also in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World). “In a democratic society, you’re supposed to be an activist; that is, you participate.”

Of course someone could act in a way that energizes people for the greater good or just polarizes them. An activist could defend the privileges of the already privileged or speak up for those on the margins of society. Activism could mean standing exclusively with people who look and think like you, or venturing onto different turf.

In my mind, the most creative and meaningful activism today is taking place below the social radar, in the spirited locales of faith-based community organizing. Tom Roberts, my friend and former editor at Religion News Service, occupied some of that space as a reporter while producing his insightful and indispensable book The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself, issued this past fall by Orbis. The book is primarily about the new forms of this hierarchical faith that are emerging from below, from the parishes and communities where Roberts did his remarkable reporting. On that ground he frequently crossed paths with social justice activists and followed some down their own trails.

Roberts on the Emerging Activist

In a chapter titled “Travels on the Margins,” Roberts, who is editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter, profiled activists such as Sarah Nolan. In her case, it was the Society of Jesus that constructed a road to social agitation. She discovered justice issues as a student at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution; after graduating she drew further links between faith and activism while helping women in El Salvador organize soy cooperatives in 2001-2002, as part of a Jesuit program. From there Nolan returned to her home in southern New Mexico and formed a regional affiliate of PICO (which stands for People Improving Communities Through Organizing), a nationwide interfaith network of congregation-based community organizations.

Now married with a small child, Nolan helps people in the region make common cause with uncommon allies—liberal Catholics with conservative evangelicals, Anglos with Latinos and African Americans, and so forth. The causes include poverty, homelessness, and—in one of the dicier tasks of solidarity—immigration.

Roberts writes:

And then there is the occasional surprise, like the rabbi at the local reform synagogue who said his biggest concern was the need to work on immigration, even though his congregation is mostly retired, white, and not from New Mexico. The rabbi explained by recalling Jewish history and its multiple exoduses. He said he viewed the immigration centers as “modern-day concentration camps.” His problem was that he didn’t know any immigrants, and that’s where Nolan came in. “There’s this desire to be in relationship with people who are directly affected by the problem so that they can not only get to know people who are going through this problem, but so they can also have a path for their theology “ [Nolan said] and apply it to the realities that people are going through.

It’s hard to tell just how many faith-based community activists are out there, because nobody seems to be counting. But PICO alone claims more than 1,000 member institutions (churches, predominantly) that, in turn, have one million members in 150 cities and 17 states.

Activists like Nolan are helping low-income people assert their legitimate rights to minimum social goods such as healthcare and housing. At the same time they’re enlarging the tent by including others, such as affluent members of congregations. They’re able to do so because all these faith traditions have theologies that demand concern for the weak and vulnerable, and because, as Terkel insisted, “Hope dies last.” …read more

Master Teachers

Inside the classrooms of six Boston College faculty

At 8:15 one Wednesday morning last January, most of the 40 students in G. Peter Wilson’s 8:30 Financial Accounting class were already present. Wilson waited a minute or two longer, surveyed the lecture room occupied mostly by freshmen in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and said: “Let’s do it.” All heads turned toward a bingo cage on a wooden bench at the front of the room. The professor gave the toy a spin and yanked out a numbered yellow ball—indicating the study group that would report on its research momentarily. Then he rolled a red dice. “And the lucky number is two,” he announced, signaling the student who would deliver the group’s brief presentation. In the back of the room a young man pumped his fist and exclaimed, “Yes!” … read more

A Little to the Left

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a liberal Protestant stalwart who could spot self-righteousness a mile away—and in himself—recalled visiting his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr in 1966. Niebuhr, who had taught social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was in poor health and spending his last years at his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As Coffin entered the room, the great theologian smiled from his bed and said, “Ah, Bill, I heard a speech of yours the other day on the radio. You reminded me of my youth—all that humor, conscience, and demagoguery.”

That visit is recounted in Coffin’s 1977 memoir Once to Every Man. The story came to mind as the youngish bands of Occupy protestors hit the streets earlier in the fall, and again in recent weeks as police broke up their encampments in city after city. What’s next for these dauntless activists who have already introduced a new politics in the United States? What will they do with their anger, passion, and conscience? Might there be a little more humor and a tad less demagoguery?

In reflecting on these and other questions, they and the rest of us may find some wisdom in the words of Bill Coffin, who assumed the mantle of leader among left-leaning Protestants after the assassination of his friend, Martin Luther King, and who died in 2006. This year, Dartmouth College Press felicitously reissued Coffin’s 1999 book The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality. What follows are some nuggets from that slim and veracious volume.

Love and Anger …

• I like St. Augustine’s observation: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

• But in all this talk of anger, there is a caveat to be entered. We have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.

• Socrates was mistaken. It’s not the unexamined life that is not worth living; it’s the uncommitted life.

The Bible and Us …

• I read the Bible because the Bible reads me. I see myself reflected in Adam’s excuses, in Saul’s envy of David, in promise-making, promise-breaking Peter.

• [The Bible] is a signpost not a hitching post. It points beyond itself, saying, “Pay attention to God, not me.”

• It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.

• Christians have to listen to the world as well as to the Word—to science, to history, to what reason and our own experience tell us. We do not honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere.

Might and Right …

• True patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.

• The United States doesn’t have to lead the world; it has first to join it. Then, with greater humility, it can play a wiser leadership role.

• About the use of force I think we should be ambivalent—the dilemmas are real. All we can say for sure is that while force may be necessary, what is wrong—always wrong—is the desire to use it.

The Spiritual and the Knowable …

• Spirituality means to me living the ordinary life extraordinarily well.

• All of us tend to hold certainty dearer than truth. We want to learn only what we already know; we want to become only what we already are.

• We forget that both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are deeply rooted in the soil of mystery. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. …read more

The Inequality Debate: Channeling Adam Smith and the Bible

Ron Sider

A version of the following piece is scheduled to appear in next week’s edition of The Christian Century.

Which view of economic inequality has greater merit? The one espoused by Adam Smith, the father figure of capitalism? Or the teaching that unfolds from the Bible’s pleadings for justice and righteousness?

It’s a trick question. In fact, these two perspectives are broadly the same. Smith, like the biblical writers, was opposed to gross income inequality. For both, how people are faring relative to others in society is not simply a question of envy. It’s a matter of human dignity and social well-being.

There’s another outlook on inequality that has many adherents. Let’s call it the We Got Stuff school of thought. It says, correctly, that almost everyone in the U.S. has things not even the rich had at one time—microwaves, color televisions. And even our down-and-out have a standard of living that eludes most people in destitute nations. That’s what matters, according to this way of thinking. Widening gaps between rich and poor here in the States are beside the point.

One global spokesperson for the Smith-and-scripture position is Pope Benedict XVI. In Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), his 2009 encyclical letter, the pope inveighed against “the scandal of glaring inequalities.” On October 24 of this year, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace highlighted the “urgent need of a true world political authority” to address those disparities within as well as between nations. Its 6,500-word document, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” called for regulations to curtail the “inequalities and distortions of capitalist development.”

As for the We Got Stuff school, this summer the Heritage Foundation issued Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today? Following political scientist James Q. Wilson, Heritage senior scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield declared that the poor today live better than the rich did a century ago, and they enjoy conveniences that the middle class couldn’t afford in the recent past.

Using Census Bureau data from 2005, Rector and Sheffield scanned the home of the average family living below the federal poverty line. They found that, for example, “In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.” Also spotted were washing machines, ceiling fans, cordless phones, and coffee makers. They commented, “Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table. ”

We don’t Live in Botswana

Rector and Sheffield are right that we shouldn’t take our society’s material progress for granted. But the trouble with this line of reasoning is that Americans today don’t live in the 1890s or another bygone era. And they generally don’t reside in the bush of Botswana or some other impoverished land, either.

As is customary for humans, Americans inhabit a particular space and time. They are embedded creatures; they live in communities and need access to the resources that will help them participate fully in those communities. This calls for some basics such as a decent-paying job, health insurance and retirement security. At present it also often means having stuff like cell phones, computers and reliable cars.

The biblical social ethic reflects this sense of particularity. The Jewish prophets and Jesus were not bowled over by the fact that the poor of their times lived large compared to the cavemen. They spoke precisely against the marginalization of economically disadvantaged people within their social contexts.

Ronald J. Sider, a theologian and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, offers a compelling analysis of this biblical tradition in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America ( 2007). For example, in the Hebrew Scriptures the poor are cast as on the verge of “falling out of the community,” as Sider puts it. He quotes Leviticus 25:35-36: “If members of your community become poor in that their power slips with you, you shall make them strong … that they may live with you.” That’s Sider’s emphasis on “with you,” which underscores the inescapably relative quality of economic wellness..

Lest a Few Oppress the Many

Behind this ethos is a levelheaded account of human nature. “Precisely because of what scripture tells us about sin and power, biblical people must always oppose great extremes of power,” Sider writes. “In a fallen world, powerful people will almost always take advantage of weak neighbors. And money, especially in a market economy, is power. Therefore, great extremes of poverty and wealth threaten justice and democracy.”

In this connection Sider invokes John Calvin, who, in commenting on the biblical call for debt forgiveness every seven years (during the “sabbatical year”), wrote:

In as much as God had given them the use of the franchise, the best way to preserve their liberty was by maintaining a condition of rough equality [mediocrem statum], lest a few persons of immense wealth oppress the general body. Since, therefore, the rich if they had been permitted constantly to increase their wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put a restraint on immoderate power by means of this law.

Or we could take it instead from Adam Smith and his doctrine of “necessaries.” As Smith explains in The Wealth of Nations, these human needs include not just the rudimentary supports of life but “whatever the customs of the country render it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without.” Smith’s examples are linen shirts and leather shoes. While ancient Greeks and Romans could live comfortably without them, custom has rendered each “a necessary of life in England,” he wrote in 1776. “A creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty….”

Notice that neither Smith nor the Bible argues against the existence of any economic inequality. That’s life, this side of eternity. What they warn against are gaping divides in which people grapple to keep from “falling out of community.” Millions of Americans—the unemployed, the working poor, the uninsured and many others—have been falling for quite some time. That some of them may be doing so with cordless phones in their hands is not much consolation. …read more

Body and Soul, in the Checkout Line

The latest anti-consumerist campaign

Last week, on the second day of Advent, a message arrived in my inbox from the headmaster of the Catholic prep school that my daughter attends. It was addressed to parents—a reminder, appropriately, of the importance of accenting the spiritual and the liturgical during a season otherwise given to shopping. But what reeled me in was the headmaster’s instant acknowledgment that complaining about the commercialization of Christmas is “a cliché.” It’s hard to do that, he admitted, without seeming “preachy or strident.”

A year ago, I encountered a similar self-consciousness in a discussion circle made up of graduate students at Boston College. Roughly a dozen of them turn out once a month for a spirited student-led conversation about faith and society. Last year, four days after Black Friday and one day after Cyber Monday, they came together at the graduate student union building to consider consumerism.

Squeezing into billowy sofas and chairs around a coffee table blanketed with pizza boxes, the students listened as one of their own, a young man sporting several earrings, made an ambiguous statement. “Advent is about waiting for a gift to come rather than seeking [acquisition] on Cyber Monday,” he said at the start of his presentation, adding—“although there were some sweet DVD deals yesterday.” Members of the circle, helping themselves to portions of pizza with seemingly every known topping, chuckled at the intended irony.

Many thoughtful people feel a need to almost apologize or assume a somewhat ironic pose when warning of material excess, especially at Christmas time. This is not just understandable. It’s refreshing, given how the discussion of consumerism seems to perennially devolve into handwringing and dour pontification. The headmaster and the grad students realize that people are tuning out the crankier critiques of consumerism. And that’s partly because people are consumers, although that’s not all they are. Most of us hunt for values, in both the retail and moral senses of that word.

The Gnostic Temptation

Theologically speaking, the human person is a composite of body and soul—of the material and the spiritual. An alternative theology is encapsulated in Gnosticism, which sees the material world, instead, as evil or illusory; only the spiritual universe is real. Hence, the Gnostics, who proliferated in the first few centuries after Christ, believed that Jesus was somehow a purely incorporeal being. The Word was never made flesh.

Today, much anti-consumerist rhetoric seems to slouch toward Gnosticism. This school of mysticism has its secular adherents: Many of them apparently congregate around AdBusters, a Canadian-based anti-consumerist movement founded in 1989. This year, the organization is running a campaign, #OccupyXmas, in which activists hold Santa sit-ins at shopping malls and bid customers to scissor their credit cards. Some anti-consumerists are reportedly filling up carts with items and then leaving them at the checkout line.

“Christmas has been hijacked for us,” Adbusters magazine editor Kalle Lasn recently told the Toronto Star, explaining the call for such antics. “It’s become this ugly, soulless, consumer fest.” #OccupyXmas was launched on Black Friday this year, on the magazine’s 20th annual Buy Nothing Day.

If the material world is to be deeply distrusted, then all this makes undeniable sense. And it becomes useless to ask questions like how to better integrate our bodies and souls, our buying and our being—because the immaterial is all that counts. But on some level, these are the questions many people ask. How do I consume without being consumed by the desire for more stuff? What sorts of things bring real value into my life?

A Consumerist Test

One of the best ethical guides through the consumer jungle was and remains John Kavanaugh’s 1981 classic Following Christ in a Consumer Society (updated in 1991). Kavanaugh, a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and columnist for America magazine, is no apologist of consumerism. He worries, rightly, that consumerist values have undercut other values of life, such as family, friendship, intimacy, nature, simplicity, and service to others.

“If we have to spend more time working, more time buying, more time relating to our products, that’s good for capitalism, but it’s not necessarily good for the quality of our relationships,” he told me a few years ago.

All the same, Kavanaugh echoes the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding that material goods are, well, good. Especially when they’re used thoughtfully and with moral purpose. With that in mind, Kavanaugh says the real test of a consumer acquisition is whether it deepens our relationships. For example, a Wii in the living room or a swimming pool in the back yard can enhance human life by drawing together families and neighbors.

Here we have a non-dualistic view of spirit and matter, and it’s of a piece with the distinctive theology of the Christmas season: the Incarnation. By that doctrinal light, Jesus was not, as the Gnostics would have it, a discarnate being.

William S. Stafford puts it nicely in an article running in the current issue of Sewanee Theological Review, titled “Advent’s Mad Rush and the One Thing Needful.” Stafford, an Episcopal priest, based the article on a sermon he delivered two Advents ago, in which he declared: “We are here to await the coming of a person in whom material concreteness and divine mystery are one and the same.” Sounds like a pretty good description of human as well as divine nature. …read more