Selma, the Sequel

Celebrated as a civil rights milestone, the three marches in Selma, 50 years ago, also ushered in a new style of social and political advocacy. In the March 18 issue of The Christian Century, I write about what many of the marchers went on to do, after Selma, and the faith-based movement they made. (By the way, the Century has a website worth checking every single day.) Here is the Selma piece, in full:

Fifty years ago, thousands marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were led by an eye-catching row of marchers, including a bearded rabbi, an unidentified nun in flowing habit, and Martin Luther King Jr. The third Selma-to-Montgomery march, which began on March 21, 1965, is rightly remembered as a watershed in the struggle for civil rights. Less known is how Selma refocused the lives of many, black and white, who gave the march its spiritual hue.

The trek to Montgomery began with more than 3,000 of the civil-rights faithful, whose ranks swelled by the thousands along the way. In that initial vanguard were several hundred clergy and untold numbers of lay religious activists from around the country. Voting rights became law five months later, just as many who had marched were letting loose their faith in a wider field of activism, taking on a host of social wrongs. They and others forged a new style of advocacy eventually known as the “prophetic style.”

Until the 1960s, white church people were easy to spot at a civil rights protest in the South, because they were scarce. Standing out among them was William Sloane Coffin, the 30-something Yale chaplain and a former CIA agent. In May 1961, Coffin made front-page news nationwide because he was white, well connected—and leading a group of Freedom Riders, who rode interracial buses across state lines to challenge segregated transportation in the Deep South. He emerged as the brash young face of incipient white solidarity with southern blacks.

In the next few years, religious involvement in civil rights—beyond black churches—gradually grew. In Selma, it was finally brought to scale.

On March 7, police brutally assaulted several hundred marchers, mostly young black men attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the event is dramatically and faithfully rendered in the movie Selma. In response, King issued an urgent plea for a “Ministers’ March” to Montgomery. Within a couple of days, an estimated 400 members of the clergy were wandering Selma, many of them having flown in with one-way tickets.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Daniels had an epiphany during a recitation of the Magnificat prayer at the Episcopal Divinity School. The white seminarian dropped everything to go see the humble exalted in Alabama.

In New York, renowned Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel momentarily agonized over whether to travel on the Sabbath. Two years earlier, he had met King at a national conference on religion and race in Chicago, where the two became fast friends. “The Exodus began,” said Heschel at his opening address there, “but it is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Heschel was outspoken, but had never quite taken to the streets before. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, there he was, marching with King in the front row.

After Selma, many intensified their activism and broadened their faith-and-justice lens. Jonathan Daniels stayed in Alabama, living with a black family, fighting in the trenches to register black voters, and earning a stay in county jail. In August 1965, at the age of 26, he was shot dead by a segregationist construction worker moonlighting as a sheriff’s deputy.

That summer, King turned his attention to the subtler humiliations of northern racism. Soon, he and his family were tenanting in Chicago as he shifted his focus from lunch counters and voting booths to knottier problems such as housing and employment. King was also trying to reason with new, harsh adversaries, ranging from white northerners to black militants who dismissed his inclusive, interracial vision of a “beloved community.”

Seven months after Selma, some of its alumni pivoted to a different cause altogether. They formed a national organization that came to be called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. Its leaders included Heschel, Coffin, radical Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and then-Lutheran pastor (later Catholic neoconservative) Richard John Neuhaus. The New York-based coalition spearheaded some of the first broadly based mobilizations against escalated warfare in Southeast Asia.

It was this group that brought King firmly into the antiwar fold, with his then-controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in April 1967. At the time, King called the war “an enemy of the poor,” linking the expense of intervention in Vietnam to the lagging War on Poverty at home. By the end of that year he was announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, an interracial effort for economic justice. It was King’s last crusade, a dream unfulfilled.

Through these struggles, King and others nurtured a style of politics rooted most deeply in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a politics of vehemence and passion.

If this loosely bundled movement had a bible—other than the actual one—it was arguably Heschel’s 1962 book The Prophets. This study of the ancient radicals helped usher out the soothing spiritual happy talk lingering from the 1950s. Heschel wrote jarringly (and admiringly) that the biblical prophet is “strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Hypersensitive to social injustice, the prophet reminds us that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Heschel also explained that a prophet feels responsible for the moment, open to what each hour of unfolding history is revealing. “He is a person who knows what time it is,” the rabbi wrote, checking his watch.

The book caught on among spiritually minded civil rights workers. After perusing its pages, a young aide to King named James Bevel started going around in a knit skullcap, his way of paying homage to ancient Israel’s prophets. On the day of the final march in Selma, scores of other young, black, and presumably Christian men also chose to incongruously sport yarmulkes. Andrew Young, one of King’s top lieutenants, has recalled seeing marchers arrive with copies of The Prophets in hand.

After King’s assassination in 1968, Heschel and many other Selma veterans pressed forward (though not for long, in the case of Heschel, who died in late 1972). In 1968, Coffin became a household name as he stood trial for aiding and abetting draft evasion through his counseling of young men. So did Berrigan, who exceeded Coffin’s comfort zone by napalming draft records. In keeping up their prophetic ministries, they and others also spawned an assortment of imitators.

In the late 60s and early 70s, student antiwar radicals mimicked the so-called “prophetic style,” denouncing and confronting like the spiritual radicals but adding contempt and sometimes even violence to the mix. They designated themselves, in the words of counterculture leader Tom Hayden, a “prophetic minority.” Later on, from another ideological galaxy, came Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which explored the boundaries between prophetic denunciation of perceived social evils and demonization of one’s opponents.

In these and other imitations, much of the prophetic spirit was lost—and the tone. King and likeminded clergy of the 1960s may have been quick to denounce and confront, but they scarcely if ever demonized or even denigrated. Typically they managed to blend strong moral convictions with degrees of civility and good will often unseen in politics today.

Issues that galvanized the 60s clergy still haunt us today. Racism, poverty, and war remain with us; even voting rights is a present-day cause, due most notably to the voter ID laws passed by a majority of states. The “Black Lives Matter” uprising against police violence has exposed racial chasms in many cities. Jails are increasingly packed with poor people who committed minor offenses or were unable to pay court-imposed costs. In 1968, King considered the level of the federal minimum wage to be beneath dignity; today, adjusted for inflation, it’s worth substantially less.

Such challenges invite a theological perspective—and a prophetic one. It’s not hard to find people acting on that impulse, people like Kim Bobo of Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, who has crusaded against wage theft while invoking Nehemiah’s censure of plundering the poor. She and many others breathe life into a far-flung movement that hit stride 50 years ago on a bridge in Selma.

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“Selma” On My Mind

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (with Dr. Ralph Bunche in between), marching from Selma to Montgomery

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (with Dr. Ralph Bunche in between), marching from Selma to Montgomery

After weeks of controversy over “Selma” and especially the scenes of head butting between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson, I was a little surprised when I finally saw the movie during this MLK day weekend (I do not live in a city that was graced with the pre-release). As I quickly learned, “Selma” is not essentially about MLK or LBJ. It is, of all things, about Selma.

Its 42-year-old director, Ava DuVernay, says of the film: “It honors the people of Selma, but it also represents the struggle of people everywhere to vote.” This it does faithfully and movingly. “Selma” illuminates a struggle—a movement of church ladies, teenagers, and old men—that materialized in a small town long before King entered the picture.

Still, there are questions. These begin with the portrayal of Johnson but extend to other gaps in the film—including what I’ll describe for now as the case of the missing yarmulkes.

Thankfully, the makers of “Selma” did not want to produce what DuVernay refers to as yet another “white savior” movie. Best known of this genre is “Mississippi Burning,” a film I enjoyed even though the designated saviors were FBI agents (the men who otherwise stalked and harassed King with a fervor they did not generally bring to the fight against the Klan). It was long past time for Hollywood to serve up a civil-rights movie with “saviors” of color.

Thoughtful people, however, are asking if DuVernay really had to cast Lyndon Johnson as the antihero, the one who stood in the way of voting rights for southern blacks, until he got out of the way. I’m not sure if she did.

True, the movie overdramatizes the LBJ-MLK tension. Arguably, the real conflict between the two came not over civil rights, in 1965, but over Vietnam, in 1967. “Selma” also depicts Johnson as moving more slowly on voting rights than he truly did. At the same time, the film doesn’t paint LBJ as an enemy of voting rights. It makes clear enough that his issue was not with the concept of black voting rights, but with the timing of legislation to make that happen. The distance here between fact (as related by biographers such as Robert Caro and Taylor Branch), and fiction (in this movie) is well short of what some critics had led me to expect. And don’t forget we’re talking about a Hollywood movie, not a PBS documentary.

Johnson was no villain, and I don’t think he is portrayed as one, in “Selma.” I can’t say plainly that any major figure is cast as pure villain (even the depiction of segregation-loving George Wallace is somewhat nuanced), or as pure savior, for that matter. That’s what makes the film so compelling and humanizing.

Some have argued that the problem with the film’s narrative strategy goes beyond its treatment of LBJ. As Leida Snow writes in the Jewish Daily Forward, these have to do notably with “the contribution that thousands of white people, many of them Jewish, made to the Civil Rights Movement.”

A Scene from Selma You Won’t See in “Selma”

Indeed, a mini-dispute has surfaced over Selma and the Jewish question. (Snow’s article is titled “‘Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.”)

The most celebrated among Jewish civil rights activists was Abraham Joshua Heschel, the incomparable theologian, philosopher, and rabbi. Heschel was a close friend of King’s, and he rushed to Selma after MLK sent him an urgent telegram, asking for the rabbi’s help. There, he marched with King in the front row of demonstrators on their way to Montgomery. A United Press International photo of the rabbi, with his unruly white hair, bushy beard, and yarmulke-beret, became a lasting image of the civil rights movement, and of black-Jewish relations. It’s an iconic scene from Selma, the march, you won’t see in “Selma,” the movie. The film, in its final scene, shows the front row of marchers as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But, unless I blinked and missed something, it appears to be, imaginatively, an all-black row. There’s no Heschel figure.

I wish there were such a character or clear image in “Selma.” I wish we could see the yarmulkes worn not only by rabbis including Heschel but also throngs of young black men who donned them in solidarity with the Jews who had turned out. In the movie, the James Bevel character does go around in a knit skullcap, which the real James Bevel (one of King’s lieutenants) had been sporting for years, in homage, as he often explained, to the Hebrew Prophets. His wife, Diane Nash (played by Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned black Catholic from Chicago, is portrayed in her plaid, parochial-school skirt.

Anyway, the skullcaps of Selma became a symbol not just of black-Jewish relations. They signaled an interracial, inter-religious movement that hit stride in Selma, in March 1965. The civil rights movement was universalized as never before, at that moment. It was no longer just an African American movement.

This is hypothetically another movie I’d wait in line to see, but it’s not DuVernay’s movie, and why should it be?

Her way was to channel the likes of Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) along with other grassroots activists. A Selma citizen, Boynton had been active since the late 1940s in a small group of locals called the Dallas County Voters League. She was the one who, first, invited the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to set up shop in Selma, and then, in 1965, called in King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Fittingly, in the movie, when King (David Oyelowo) decides to lead a third march, a third and successful attempt across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Boynton is in the room. King turns to her and says: “We’re going to finish this, I promise you that, Miss Amelia.” It’s one way that DuVernay “honors the people of Selma.” Miss Amelia is, by the way, still with us, at 103 years old.

Many others from far off places did eventually come to Selma, especially for that last march all the way to Montgomery. These were people not of color, for the most part, but of faith. They were nuns, priests, ministers, rabbis, church ladies, and others.

Some of them were undoubtedly so-called “24-hour prophets,” who flew in for the day, for the thrill, rarely if ever to be heard from again. Most were the real thing. They tended to espouse a theology grounded in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, whose greatest articulator was Rabbi Heschel. Simply put, it was a theology that called for standing with the weak and, when necessary, confronting the strong.

“Selma” the movie is what happens when the weak, or formerly powerless, finally get to tell this story, using their own lens. …read more

Of Martyrs and Murderers

Students at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, reenact the slaughter.

Students at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, reenact the slaughter.

Who is a martyr? The question comes to mind 25 years after what has become known as “the Jesuit massacre” in El Salvador.

On November 16, 1989, an elite battalion of the Salvadoran military forced its way into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America, or UCA, in San Salvador. Most of the soldiers had received counter-insurgency training in Georgia, at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. They proceeded to murder six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter.

Unlike the martyrs of ancient Christianity, these men were not killed simply because they professed the faith. They were targeted specifically for speaking out on behalf of the impoverished and against persecutions carried out by the U.S.-backed military. Still, in the view of many, they died for the faith no less than the martyrs of old.

This happens to be subject to dispute in some quarters. The argument has surfaced mostly in connection with the sainthood cause of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a paramilitary death squad while saying mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital in San Salvador, in 1980.

Friends of the cause would like to see Romero declared a martyr, a move that would unblock his path to beatification (the next-to-last step to sainthood) by making it unnecessary to prove that he performed a miracle. In other words, if you’re a martyr, you don’t need to be miraculous, at that critical stage of the process. Your advocates do need to prove just one miracle, though, in the final lap of canonization.

Those less thrilled with this prospect say Romero was not a martyr, because he didn’t die defending Christianity in general or a core doctrine such as the Resurrection. In this right-leaning view, Romero perished because he defended something so ancillary to the faith as the rights of the poor and powerless.

The argument is a little tendentious. It’s a bit like saying Derek Jeter doesn’t deserve a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame because he didn’t hit all that many grand slammers. All he did was rack up 300-plus batting averages, steal bases like they were gold, and, speaking of which, walk off with five Golden Glove awards. Of course, all of that counts in Major League Baseball, just as standing up for the lowly and dispossessed matters in Christianity. The analogy veers off, because Romero was more than the theological equivalent of a great singles hitter. He knocked the ball out of the park in a way he could have never done by merely self-identifying as a Christian or endorsing the doctrine of transubstantiation.

In essence, Romero’s detractors are arguing that justice and the poor aren’t all that central to revealed faith. So, if you were forced to lay face down on the grass in the courtyard of UCA’s Jesuit residence, before shots were fired into your head, you didn’t have to go through all that trouble on account of your religious convictions. It was a sort of private choice you made, on the basis of your left-of-center political preferences, according to these skeptics.

But what happens if solidarity with the poor and marginalized is no small part of the story told in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? What if the so-called “preferential option for the poor,” articulated over the past generation in Catholic social teaching, means something?

I asked a Jesuit about this, specifically in the context of martyrdom. The Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., is no random member of the Society of Jesus. He is the former president of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, and he knew the UCA Jesuits as a refugee worker in El Salvador during the late 1980s. The six priests were Ignacio Ellacuría (UCA president and internationally renowned theologian), Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Amando López, Joaquin López y López, and Juan Ramón Moreno. They were slain together with Julia Elba Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Maricet Ramos.

Privett and many others refer to all of them simply as “the martyrs.” He explained why, in an article I did for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, on the 25th anniversary of the predawn rampage at UCA. (The full story is available here, and my follow-up piece was also posted yesterday at the Conference’s site, www.jesuit.org.)

“When you sacrifice your life because of your active support for the marginalized, you are a martyr in the traditional sense. You are witnessing to a transcendental reality that is not comprehended by others, particularly the folks who are wielding the power,” explained Privett, underscoring that work for justice is an inherent part of his faith.

“I think the church needs martyrs in every era, to remind us that we can never be comfortable with the world as it is. We have to work for a better world, and often we pay a pretty heavy price, but that price is not that heavy when you look at it through the lens of the Resurrection, or through the eyes of the martyrs,” Privett added, putting a doctrinal and specifically Christian spin on the matter. “It’s a really important part and a dynamic piece of our tradition that keeps us moving and engaged, never comfortable with any status quo this side of heaven.”

For now, Privett and others will have to remain content with this supernatural form of justice. That’s because, in the case of the six Jesuits and two women, human justice was never done. None of the top military commanders who gave the orders to kill was ever prosecuted for the crimes. And we know their names, thanks in part to a 1993 report by a United Nations truth commission that investigated the atrocities.

Human-rights activists, including the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, would like to see some long-delayed justice in this matter. So would Spain, which is now claiming jurisdiction in the case because five of the six Jesuit victims were Spaniards. Prosecutors there are trying to extradite some of those named by the U.N. commission. International justice might be catching up with the murderers, as one way of honoring the memory of the martyrs. …read more

Pope Francis and His Tribe

After a long hibernation, TheoPol is stirring and muttering something about a review in the current issue of America magazine. It’s an appraisal of the latest book about a pope who continues to surprise, and about his colorful tribe, the Jesuits.

The recent Vatican synod on family issues has invited skepticism about how strongly Papa Francesco is prepared to push for his Church-altering ideas. But what the skeptics might be overlooking is Francis’s “Jesuit DNA,” as limned by the acclaimed journalist Robert Blair Kaiser.

The book is Inside the Jesuits: How Pope Francis is Changing the Church and the World (Rowman & Littlefield). Here’s the review, published under the headline, “Spiritual Exercisers.”

In July of last year, aboard a plane returning to Rome from the World Youth Day celebration in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis made clear to the world that he was pontificating in a new key. He walked back to the press compartment and stood in the aisle for 81 minutes, answering every question in a spontaneous exchange with reporters and uttering his now-emblematic “Who am I to judge?” remark about gays. Scarcely noted was another comment by this product of the Society of Jesus: “I think like a Jesuit.”

Robert Blair Kaiser contends that the latter quote is most revealing about the Jesuit pope and where he is taking the Catholic Church. Kaiser’s book—idiosyncratic though interesting at almost every turn—is largely a journalist’s probe into what it means to think like a Jesuit in the Age of Francis. He argues at the outset that Francis “has been driven by his Jesuit DNA to make changes in the Church that have been up to now unthinkable.”

Kaiser is a former award-winning religion reporter for The New York Times, CBS News, Newsweek and Time (which sent him to Rome in 1962 to cover the Second Vatican Council), and so his journalistic credentials are palpable. He is not, however, a detached observer. Kaiser spent 10 years as a Jesuit in the California Province, leaving the order before ordination for a career in journalism. He says he remains “a Jesuit at heart.”

One of the book’s early chapters is a fleeting history of the nearly 500-year-old Society of Jesus, beginning with St. Ignatius Loyola and the early Jesuits, who “had a conviction that most problems have solutions and that they should try to solve them with imagination, perseverance, and an openness to new ideas.” Managing to figure into the 10-page overview is the West Coast Compañeros Inc., Kaiser’s group of former Jesuits (“Like Marines, we have a special identity,” he writes). Less oddly, Jorge Mario Bergoglio plays a standout role in this remade history. Kaiser surmises that Bergoglio was a “lousy leader” serving as Argentina’s Jesuit provincial during the 1970s, a dark period of bloody repression there. The author concludes that the man now called Francis is “a poster boy for Cardinal Newman’s observation that ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’”

The most thematic chapter is “The Jesuit DNA.” Kaiser traces no small part of this genetic structure to Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which turn Jesuits into “men who are self-aware, with a confidence and a sense of freedom that compels them” to take risks for God and the greater good. At that point, Kaiser runs with another Pope Francis quote, that “the Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form.” This methodology brings us to the least edifying part of the book, as Kaiser devotes 28 pages to his own Jesuit story. Along the way he settles old scores with fellow Jesuits and religious superiors who underappreciated his ministerial talents (he supplies real names). Part of the literary problem here is that Kaiser is cribbing from his engaging 2003 memoir, Clerical Error, a genre better suited to these recollections than a book subtitled How Pope Francis is Changing the Church and the World.

Kaiser is perhaps most eloquent when writing about Vatican II and the Jesuits (John Courtney Murray, for one) who helped shape the Council, which in turn “helped us all be more real, more human, and more loving.” He is simply brilliant when profiling contemporary Jesuits including the likes of Paolo Dall’Oglio, “a tall, animated man on the move with flashing eyes,” who has devoted his ministry to dialogue with Arab Muslims. The Italian calls himself “a Jesuit Muslim …because Jesus loves Muslims, the same Jesus who is alive in me.” Kaiser also throws much light on the world of former Jesuits, with profiles of several including California governor Jerry Brown.

Throughout the book, Kaiser’s contentions and observations are rarely dull and often intriguing.

In a chapter on liberation theology, he digresses into the question of priests who fall in love, naming among them Karl Rahner, the preeminent 20th-century Jesuit theologian. He also infers (partly from the 2013 biography Francis by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué) that Bergoglio was one such priest. The pope has spoken of a passing infatuation with a woman he met while a seminarian, but Kaiser speculates about a 50-year-old Bergoglio, in Germany, pursuing a doctorate. The author resumes this conjecture later in the book, writing, “No wonder Francis can laugh at himself: he, a sinner, who is also now a pope.”

Kaiser’s conclusions are lively and often bracing. In the final chapter, he argues that Francis is perfectly positioned to “bury the Church’s thousand-year-old blunder, the non-biblical understanding of papal primacy.” Francis is already reorienting Catholicism with his message that “we should care more about Jesus than the Church,” he writes, alluding to a back-to-basics Christianity that preaches “in the key of mercy.” (On the other hand, Kaiser acknowledges Francis’s limitations and urges reform-minded Catholics to cut him some slack—“If birth control is a sin, Daddy cannot give them permission to practice it. And if it isn’t, he doesn’t need to.”) He links these and other expectations to Francis’s Jesuit genes, which program him to reach for the “magis,” or more without fear of failure.

One suspects Kaiser is saying unreservedly what many Jesuits are whispering among themselves. If this is so, and if Francis does think like a Jesuit, then there are undoubtedly more papal surprises in store.

William Bole is an editorial consultant at Boston College and an independent journalist.

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Minimum Wage: Rare Case of Moral Consensus

TheoPol is on hiatus, as its author explores other projects.

Picture a world where politics is not so polarized. Imagine that the American people are flat out in favor of a plan that could lift more than a million of their neighbors out of poverty. And they’re arriving at this position not out of narrow self-interests—most Americans aren’t poor—but for essentially moral reasons. Actually, not much imagination is required. At least not when it comes to public opinion on a perennial issue: the minimum wage.

For decades, polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage ranging somewhere between unambiguous and unbelievable. In November, a Gallup survey found that 76 percent of the people would vote for a hypothetical national referendum lifting the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be more than any increase ever passed by Congress. Last summer, a less independent poll conducted by Democratic-leaning Hart Research Associates found eight in ten Americans flocking behind a $10.10 per-hour minimum wage.

Try to identify a considerable subgroup of American opinion that’s content with the $7.25 regime. You’d think, for example, that self-identified Republicans would want to either freeze the wage or tamp it down. You would be mistaken, according to the Gallup breakdown: Republicans favored the $1.75 hike by an unmistakable 58-39 percent margin. Meanwhile, in a previous Gallup poll, the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent).

Look at it from the other end. Those who want to hold down the minimum wage are a highly distinct opinion group in American politics. They’re of a size with the percentage of Americans who, according to other polling, are certain that aliens from outer space have visited the earth, and yet, they predominate on this issue, certainly at the national level. There hasn’t been a raise in the federal minimum wage since 2009, and few are betting heavily on the Fair Minimum Wage Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, which calls for a $10.10 minimum in three, 95-cent strides over the next three years. Just looking at the numbers, it’s as if UFO believers were dictating America’s air defense strategy.

Not that you have to be nuts to balk at a minimum wage.

Arriving at a dollars-and-cents figure will always involve a prudential judgment about how high the wage could go before it burdens hiring. And there’s plenty of room for debate over whether the legislated minimum should resemble a “living wage,” enough to adequately support a family. Even Msgr. John A. Ryan, the pioneering American Catholic progressive, did not go to that length in his classic 1906 study A Living Wage. Ryan envisioned a statutory minimum wage (unlegislated nationally until 32 years later) that would fall shy of a decent family-supporting income. Filling the gaps would be social insurance policies; prime examples today include Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers.

But those are economic policy considerations. The politics of the minimum wage is a question of its own that begs attention.

Over the past few decades, public support for that policy has soared even as the value of the pay has sunk. By all accounts, if the minimum wage had merely kept pace with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be perched at well over $10 an hour today. What conclusions ought to be drawn from this thwarting of the public’s resolve? What does it say about the state of our democracy and the relations of power in our society?

A relatively benign conclusion might be that Americans aren’t particularly animated in their advocacy of a minimum-wage upgrade. In other words, the opponents may be a small choir drowning out the congregation, but that’s because the congregants aren’t trying hard to lift up their voices. That’s bound to be partly true in many policy debates including perhaps this one, but it’s equally true that those in the choir lofts of the U.S. economy have extraordinary means to project their voices, especially at a time when money is talking more loudly in politics than it has in almost a century. Lobbyists for trade groups such as National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may have relatively few kindred spirits, on this question, but they’re heard above all in Congress.

A (Martin Luther) King’s Wage

The more likely conclusion is less benign: As wealth has consolidated into fewer hands, so has the power to overrule the public on bread-and-butter issues.

Those of us who subscribe to religious social teaching often speak of the need to nurture a moral consensus on matters affecting the common good. That laudable goal, however, is beside the point when it comes to the minimum wage (and some other issues of economic fairness, such as restoring the Clinton-era tax rates on the highest incomes). And that’s because we already have such a convergence.

The impulse behind the minimum-wage consensus is a moral one, in that it’s not rooted plainly in self-interests: boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most Americans. They would seem to agree with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But the political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains far lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem seems to be that the American people aren’t. …read more

Why Mandela Forgave the Butchers

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Back in the early 1960s, black South African lawyer and activist Oliver Tambo was asked to describe a colleague who had just gone to prison for resisting white minority rule in that country. He replied that this man is “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” Tambo was talking about his law-firm partner, Nelson Mandela—remembered today for his grace, humor, and empathy, as well as his remarkable courage and leadership.

What happened to Mandela in prison, what changed him so radically, is still a bit of mystery in my mind. He was often asked about a slice of this question—how he let go of the anger he felt specifically toward whites—and his responses were usually of a fairly standard therapeutic variety. Bill Clinton, in an interview aired last night by CBS Evening Newsrelated one such exchange with Mandela.

I said, “Now, Mandela, you’re a great man but you’re a wily politician. It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and put the heads of the parties that imprisoned you in your government. But tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom the last time, didn’t you hate ‘em?” He said, “Yes. Briefly I did. I hated them and I was afraid. I hadn’t been free in so long. And then I realized if I still hated them after I left, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.” He said, “That’s what you have to do. That’s what we all have to do. We have to let it go.” I mean, that’s the kind of thing he would say to me just in ordinary conversation.

“They would still have me.” How true. But does this explain the difference between the petulant man sized up by Oliver Tambo, circa 1963, and the Nelson Mandela we came to know and revere? Former Time managing editor Richard Stengel, author of Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, has offered some further insight into Mandela’s personal transformation during his 27 years locked up in a tiny cell. Asked in an interview if prison was one of Mandela’s great teachers, he said:

Yes. Because prison changed that young man, and it burned away a lot of the extraneous parts of his character. And again, part of it was through his own self-analysis, but part of it is through this imposed control that prison has on you. I mean, the only thing you could control when you were in prison for all those years was yourself.

I mean, I remember when I first went to his cell in Robben Island. And I walked in, I walked—nearly walked in, but I gasped when I saw it, because—I mean, Nelson Mandela, as you know, is a big man. He’s 6’2″ inches tall, he has big hands and a big head. And he is larger than life in a literally and figurative way.

And this prison cell—I mean, he couldn’t even lie down and stretch out his legs. I mean, it could barely contain him. But what he learned and what he taught himself was how to contain himself, how to practice the self control that he actually didn’t have before he went into prison.

I don’t know if even this explains how someone becomes a strikingly different human being, although prison has been known to bring about extraordinary changes in people. What’s clear is that Mandela left prison with forgiveness in his heart—but there’s no getting around the politics.

Mandela’s Politics of Forgiveness

Mandela understood the difference between personal forgiveness and forgiveness in politics. In one of many symbolic and deeply personal gestures, he made his white jailer an honored guest at his presidential inauguration in 1994. But he knew that something else was needed in dealing with the larger ranks of white South Africans (often in the police and military) who had committed terrible human-rights violations. Mandela did not, as is widely believed, simply let those people go free, unconditionally. They had to do something in return for political amnesty. And that something was enshrined in the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he set up with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

Human-rights abusers had to go before this tribunal, whose proceedings were televised, and tell the whole truth about their atrocities. They had to reveal, in some cases literally, where the bodies were buried, and they did so often in grisly detail. Or else, they faced criminal prosecution.

This is not garden-variety forgiveness. It is not a single, unconditional act of letting bygones be bygones. Political forgiveness is different. It is a process, usually a negotiated one. It calls for truth and acknowledgment, if not necessarily repentance, and there are trade-offs and conditions. Without the conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution. It ceases to have a reason for being in politics.

Mandela knew this. At the same time, he realized that justice alone (investigations and prosecutions) was not the answer. For one thing, there might not have been a negotiated settlement with the apartheid regime, without clear provisions for amnesty. In other words, there might have been the bloodbath between white and black South Africans that many had predicted.

Beyond that, Mandela had other pragmatic considerations that didn’t arise simply from the goodness of his heart. His clear-eyed view was that the stability of the New South Africa depended on a well-calibrated process of reconciliation. He went down this road at least partly because there was no real alternative. As a politician as much as a person, Nelson Mandela knew there was no future without forgiveness.

Posted today also at Tikkun Daily. …read more

JFK Understood

JFK and MLKDuring this past week of JFK commemorations, a number of commentators have pointed out that Kennedy’s thinking on civil rights “evolved” during his three years in office. That’s always a pretty safe way to describe a gradual change in policy, which clearly did happen in the Kennedy administration. But what this explanation misses is that Kennedy, from the start, understood what African Americans were saying about their subjugation in the Deep South—unlike Eisenhower before him. At the same time, Kennedy was also able to compartmentalize the challenge of civil rights, as he was known to do with issues in his private life.

The two-part PBS documentary marking the 50th anniversary of his assassination offered a snapshot of this civil-rights compartmentalization. Kennedy went before Congress in May 1961, shortly after the Freedom Riders boarded their integrated buses, and he said not a word about them and their near-slaughter at the hands of a segregationist mob in Alabama. In that special joint session of Congress, he turned attention to what he saw, at that early moment, as the transcendent cause of his time: the liberal Cold War.

Still, for a white man of power, Kennedy had a rare grasp of African American self-understanding. It was an existential understanding—especially of those black leaders who had run out of patience with puny steps toward civil rights. Kennedy talked about these questions repeatedly with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even when he was being contrary with King—usually for political or strategic effect—he knew better.

During a June 1963 meeting at the White House, Kennedy was advancing the argument that the civil rights movement should refrain from street protests while the administration negotiated with Congress on a civil rights bill. King was there with four other civil rights leaders; also present were RFK, Lyndon Johnson, and labor chief Walter Reuther.

Kennedy told King—according to a paraphrase by King biographer Stephen B. Oates—that he “understood only too well why the Negro’s patience was at an end.” But the president warned that more high-profile demonstrations would give some wavering members of Congress an excuse to say (in Kennedy’s words, quoted by Oates in Let the Trumpet Sound): “Yes, I’m for the bill, but I’m damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.”

Kennedy was arguing specifically against plans for a March on Washington (which materialized two months later). King replied, “It may seem ill-timed. Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct action movement which did not seem ill-timed.” Then King added, invoking the successful demonstrations that spring in Birmingham, Alabama: “Some people thought Birmingham ill-timed.”

At that moment, Kennedy interjected, no doubt with a smile—“Including the attorney general,” RFK. Aside from seizing an opportunity to tease his little brother in the room, John F. Kennedy was acknowledging in his witty way that, yes, “the Negroes” could not wait any longer for their God-given human rights. JFK understood. …read more

Go Jonny Gomes: Political Gratitude in Play

Official Red Sox Photo

Official Red Sox Photo

If I were looking for a nearly perfect expression of social or even political gratitude, I’d have to look no further than Jonny Gomes and his remarks last night after the Red Sox beat the Cardinals 4-2, tying up the World Series. The Sox leftfielder was a last-minute stand-in for Shane Victorino, whose lower-back problems were acting up, and in the top of the sixth, he jumped on a sinkerball that didn’t sink and drove it over the leftfield wall in Busch Stadium. The three-run homer put the Red Sox on top, where they stayed.

Speaking to the press afterward, Gomes—who had a heart attack when he was 22, survived a car accident that killed one of his best friends, and was no stranger to poverty and homelessness while growing up in northern California—had this to say when asked for his thoughts:

What’s going on inside here is pretty special, magical. There’s so many people and so many mentors and so many messages and so many helping paths and helping ways for me to get here, that there’s a lot more than what I could bring individually.

Among the “helping paths” that Gomes was alluding to were those provided by the town and citizens of Petaluma, California, which saw to it that he and his older brother had enough to eat and a place to sleep through many hard times. A visible sign of his gratitude is the “707” stitched into his glove and shoes. It is the area code of Sonoma County, which includes Petaluma.

I realize that Gomes wasn’t trying to score a political point here, but he wasn’t just talking baseball, either. At that news conference, the 32-year-old was delivering what amounts to a countercultural message. The fashion of the day is to preach some variation of the I-did-it-all-by-myself gospel. In contrast, Gomes teaches the a-lot-more-than-what-I-could-bring-individually ethic.

And who are the did it it all by myselfers? In our time, they are often the ones who have reaped the greatest rewards from our winner-take-all economy, and who are troubled by the notion that they may have obligations in return. Not just personal but social obligations—taxation and other duties related to the common good.

What’s missing from the wealth gospel is a breath of reality: Truth is, government and society are involved in the production of wealth, from top to bottom. But what’s really lacking in these preachments is political gratitude. My definition of that—in our social context—is fairly simple, and minimal. Political gratitude is an acknowledgement of the tangible benefits one receives from living in the political community we call the United States of America. If you’re an oil company executive, for example, this means acknowledging the special benefits derived from leasing millions upon millions of acres of public land from the government, at what amount to rates far below any conceivable market value. For everyone, it means acknowledging the many ways that the public aids personal wellbeing and private wealth accumulation.

Aristotle said that if you want to understand what virtue is, look at a virtuous person. On the day after Game 4 of the Series, we could say: If you want to know what political gratitude is, listen to Jonny Gomes. …read more

Were the Shutdown Republicans Prophetic (After a Fashion)?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

During the 16-day government shutdown, Tea Party Republicans rose above, or somewhere beyond, earthly politics. Their aim was to stay true to their principles, to be faithful, not necessarily effective. At their meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday, House Republicans began not by calling themselves to order, but by singing all three verses of “Amazing Grace.” In other words, the shutdown Republicans were prophetic in their own way.

By this, I don’t mean they accurately predicted a future state of being. If their stance foreshadowed anything, it was probably some dark days ahead for the GOP. But they were prophetic in the sense that they exhibited the style, if not the substance, of ancient biblical prophecy.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the prophet is “an assaulter of the mind” who speaks “one octave too high.” This biblical figure is given to “sweeping generalizations” and “overstatements.” He is often “grossly inaccurate” because he concerns himself primarily with meaning, not facts, as Heschel explained in The Prophets, his classic 1962 study.

“Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist,” wrote Heschel, who looked the part of an Old Testament prophet, with his disorderly white hair and conspicuous white beard. The rabbi-philosopher-activist also believed that what a prophet says is radically true. It’s God’s truth, not merely the human variety.

The Tea Party crowd in Congress would seem to fit much of this description, but the truth part is problematic. Normally a prophetic stance involves speaking out for the lowly and oppressed. Prophets do not necessarily take the right stands on every issue, but they stand in the right places, biblically speaking—with the poor and vulnerable.

The job of a prophet is to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah declaimed. Arguably, in contrast, the people who brought us the shutdown are more often found strengthening the strong hands, including those of upper-bracket income earners and, at one peculiar turn in the shutdown brawl, medical device makers specifically. And to be fair, many politicians of both parties are often up to these same old tricks of that trade.

Still, the government shutdown tossed light on what you could call, especially if you edit out some biblical material, the prophetic personality.

Posted today in Tikkun Daily. …read more

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