Lascivious Swedes and other Vindications of Calvin

Vice magazineLately I’ve been exploring Vice, not the awful habits (those come naturally), but the international print and online magazine by that name. This week I’ve clicked on pieces with such headlines as “A Muslim’s Adventures in Pork,” “Massachusetts Might Force a Women to Share Parental Rights with the Rapist Who Impregnated Her,” and “You Can’t Just Walk Around Masturbating in Public, Swedish People.” The latter story was about a 65-year-old man who did the deed on a public beach in Sweden but was acquitted on grounds that he wasn’t seeking to harass “any specific person.”

But what really drew me into Vice was not a lascivious Swede, but an interview with Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of acclaimed novels including Housekeeping and Gilead, and one of the more clear-eyed observers of the human situation.

When I saw the headline, “A Teacher and Her Student … Marilynne Robinson on Staying Out of Trouble,” my first thought was that she’s a creative choice for a publication called Vice. Robinson has a fresh and thoughtful take on the theological sensibility of John Calvin, who had a searching eye for all manner of human frailty.

Asked if she had any notable vices, Robinson quickly mentioned “lassitude,” apparently alluding to the second definition of that word—“a condition of indolent indifference.” She recalled a comment by a scientist on why creatures sleep—“It keeps the organism out of trouble.” She added, “So every once in a while I sit on the couch thinking, I’m keeping my organism out of trouble,” suggesting another human foible, that of self-rationalization.

“I do get myself involved in things that require a tremendous amount of work. And of course, I’m always measuring what I do against what I set out to do,” she continued. “My other vices—I cannot have macaroons in the house! I’m a pretty viceless creature, as these things are conventionally defined. On the other hand, one of the reasons I have taken [John] Calvin to my heart is that I can always find vices in the most unpromising places.”

Asked what a vice is, Robinson gave a sort of classically Calvinist response, “I have no idea. Underachievement, I suppose. The idea being that you have a good thing to give and you deny it.”

The Trouble with Seeing

The interviewer, Thessaly La Force (a former student of Robinson’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), evinced no interest in the theological side of Robinson’s ruminations. And the part of the conversation I’ll remember for a while had to do not exactly with a vice, but with the decline of a virtue—simple respect for others and their degrees of goodness. Here’s how she unpacks the problem:

I think that a lot of the energies of the 19th century, that could fairly be called democratic, have really ebbed away. That can alarm me. The tectonics are always very complex. But I think there are limits to how safe a progressive society can be when its conception of the individual seems to be shrinking and shrinking. It’s very hard to respect the rights of someone you do not respect. I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.

On the surface, the notion that human beings are deserving of cynicism might seem to be an instinctively Calvinist (read dour) view. But that’s not how Robinson presents this misunderstood man of the Reformation. She has pointed out elsewhere that Calvinism starts with the idea that human beings are images of God, and every time we see another person, we’re encountering this image. The complication is that humans don’t have very good vision, in that regard.

Every act of seeing “tends to be enormously partial, just given the human situation,” Robinson told my friend and collaborator Bob Abernethy a few years ago. We may see things in a person that bolster our cynicism without seeing much else. And so, in her hands, this Calvinist perspective, this awareness that we never see adequately or exhaustively, “sensitizes you to the profundity of the fact of any other life—that people can’t be thought of dismissively.” And yet, that’s exactly how we are often made to think of the other, courtesy of this human situation. …read more

Rich Major, Poor Major

Petroleum engineers: They shall inherit the earth.

Petroleum engineers: They shall inherit the earth.

Researchers at Georgetown made news this week with listings of the college majors that lead to both the plumpest and leanest paychecks. Topping the plump list was petroleum engineering (yes, there’s a major for that), followed by such practicalities as pharmacy administration, computer science, and a slew of other engineering majors. The majors with the slenderest earnings included the performing arts but mostly occupations such as social work, human services, community action, early childhood education, and counseling psychology—in other words, professions defined by helping people.

None of this is surprising, and much of it could be chalked up to the way things are, this side of the Kingdom of God. Still, the Rich Major, Poor Major lists do raise questions about our colleges and universities. Are they simply training students to slot themselves into professional growth sectors like petroleum engineering? Or are they also finding ways to prepare young people for lives and careers of service to their communities and to their world?

Recently I had occasion to speak with undergraduate students who spent the past summer doing internships in the nonprofit and public sectors. These internships are almost invariably unpaid, and most of the students said they would not have been able to take them on, without special grants made available to them by their school—Boston College. They would have been unable to forgo the summer income and come up with the money for room and board in, and travel to, places ranging from Washington, D.C. and The Hague to the Dominican Republic.

“Men and Women for Others”

I say this not to give special kudos to BC (with which I’m associated). Its civic internship program is fairly limited and no more than what you’d expect from a Jesuit institution that speaks constantly of nurturing “men and women for others.” The point is that colleges and universities need to back up their rhetoric about service and the public interest with initiatives of this kind.

What follows is my account in the latest edition of Boston College Magazine, but first—a note about “men and women for others.” It has become a buzz phrase on Jesuit college campuses, and it’s heartening to simply hear a student speak those words, regardless of how he or she chooses to put them into practice. The slogan, though, has more of a theological and social edge than many of them would suspect. Here’s the original rendering, in 1973, by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the beloved Superior General of the Society of Jesus:

Today our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ—for the God-man who lived and died for all the world; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.

 And here’s the piece about the interns:

In late May, Samantha Koss ’14 began a 10-week internship at the U.S. embassy in The Hague, Netherlands, expecting to do research as assigned and otherwise assist embassy staff. She didn’t realize the embassy was shorthanded. And so, about once a week, she found herself walking or riding her bike to the Dutch foreign or defense ministry for a démarche (defined in the dictionary as a “diplomatic representation”). Accompanied by a career foreign service officer on each occasion, Koss would engage in discussion of a U.S. policy position with a Dutch counterpart. Details are classified, but she can say the meetings dealt with matters ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the melting Arctic ice cap. Koss usually had several days to get up to speed on an issue before the démarche session. “It’s diplomacy, basically,” says the international relations major.

For Koss—who aspires to the diplomatic corps and plans to take the notoriously difficult Foreign Service Officer Test in October—it was her dream internship. Just weeks before she was to leave for The Hague, however, reality intruded. “I didn’t have the financial means to come out here and work for free. It wasn’t going to happen,” Koss recalled with a doleful shake of the head during a Skype interview in July. She spoke from the four-bedroom house (a minimalist cube-shaped structure owned by the State Department) that she shared rent-free with another female embassy intern. The Abilene, Texas, native did not start packing her bags until mid-May when Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy awarded her one of its 20 Civic Internship Grants for this year.

Founded in 2008, the Clough Center aims to provide undergraduate students with opportunities to acquire “the skills of civic engagement.” Over the past four summers, the center has presented stipends to 63 undergraduates for uncompensated work in municipal, state, and federal government offices (including the courts) and in nonprofit service agencies, both domestic and international. (A similar Clough Center program underwrites internships of Boston College Law School students.)

Vlad Perju, the center’s director and an associate professor of law, points out that student interns in public service fields rarely enjoy a paycheck. “It’s a big problem,” says Perju, noting that, for the many students who need to make and save money in the summer, full-time unpaid internships are “just not doable.” To qualify for a Clough award, a student must line up an internship before seeking the scholarship. Amounts have ranged from $900 to $4900, depending entirely on how long the internship runs.

“I didn’t have too strong a Plan B,” says Elizabeth Blesson ’15, an award recipient this summer. She adds that she probably would have returned to her job of the previous three summers, filing medical records at a Long Island, New York, hospital. The Lynch School of Education student went instead to the District of Columbia Public Schools headquarters. She helped coordinate job fairs for teachers laid off because of school closings, and she participated in a weekly seminar on education reform and school leadership offered to 80 summer interns.

A student’s academic record is a key factor in deciding on a Clough award. So is the nature of the internship, which has to in some way foster what the Clough Center mission statement describes as “thoughtful reflection” on the opportunities and demands of constitutional government.

A think tank qualifies. Damian Mencini ’14 worked with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent, nonpartisan research center in Washington, D.C. Using news sources such as Al Jazeera television and the English-language Libya Herald, Mencini, who is from Denver, helped to track the movements of jihadist groups in a region spanning central Asia to North Africa. “We call it the arc of instability,” says Mencini, whose research will figure in the project’s coming publications. Narintohn Luangrath ’14 spent her summer helping to track the worldwide movement of migrants and asylum seekers, at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. She drafted background papers on the forced migrations that followed crises such as the 2011 Libyan uprising.

Highly partisan activities, such as political campaigning, do not qualify for Clough internship support, but a responsible position with an elected officeholder does. In Trenton, New Jersey, Christopher J. Grimaldi ’15 aided Governor Chris Christie “as a medium between the Christie administration and the media,” he said. The political science major’s chief task was to draft press releases for which he researched policy issues and dug through the Republican governor’s past speeches. Other Clough interns assisted Democratic legislators from New York, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, and Texas, working either in Washington or in district offices.

Six Clough students went to the State Department—all (except Koss) in Washington. In early June, military threats emanated from Egypt—and that caused Andrew Ireland ’14 to drop everything he was doing at the department’s Office of Conservation and Water. The threatened target was Ethiopia, now building a dam that Egyptian leaders say could hinder the flow of water through the Nile into their country. Ireland’s supervisor asked him for a quick background paper on a conference in Cairo at which politicians spoke incautiously of bombing Ethiopia or arming its rebels. Within a day, he prepared a three-and-a-half-page summary based on press items retrieved from an unclassified Central Intelligence Agency database.

On many other days, Ireland, a biology major and international studies minor, drafted memos on illegal trafficking of tusks, horns, and fangs extracted from endangered elephants, rhinos, and tigers, mostly in Africa. His research served as briefing material for higher-ups. “The assistant secretary of state is as high as I’ve seen it go,” he said, lifting a hand above his head in a July interview by Skype from his family home in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. He was speaking of Kerri-Ann Jones, head of the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs. Ireland and 20 staff members in his office met weekly with Jones.

Ecological concerns took Alexandra Moscovitz ’15 to the Dominican Republic, where she interned for the nongovernmental Caribbean Sustainability Institute. She had been there the previous summer and, with a local potter, created a gasification stove with an 18-inch-high, oval-shaped ceramic chamber. Gasification stoves run on crop waste (seeds, leaves, and other residue) rather than firewood that requires tree-cutting. “We weren’t able to find another ceramic gasification stove, so I think we made the first,” she says, explaining that ceramic is more durable than the metal often used in stoves of this kind. Returning this summer with assistance from the Clough Center, Moscovitz helped dozens of families swap out their inefficient conventional fuel stoves for her environmentally friendly ones.

Other Clough interns were Bridget Manning ’15 at Boston-based United Planet, which links young people to service opportunities abroad; Rebecca Kim ’15 at the Supply Education Group in New York, which is piloting low-cost private schools in developing-world slums; and Daniel Ryan Cosgrove ’16 at the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, district courthouse. In the fall, all will become Clough Center Junior Fellows, with the opportunity to attend Clough-sponsored forums, meet with guest lecturers, and participate in other activities that might include contributing to the Clough Undergraduate Journal of Constitutional Democracy, published each spring.

The expectation, says Perju, is that Clough Civic Interns will “bring their experiences back to the campus” and contribute to an environment of “thoughtful and informed discussion about public matters.” But, he adds, the ultimate purpose is to help nurture “the next generation of leaders in the civic sphere.” …read more

Was the March on Washington Really Part of a Violent Struggle?

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

There have been many threads of coverage and commentary surrounding the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, and one of them is naturally about nonviolence: The nation’s leadership had assumed that the march would turn violent, but August 28, 1963, turned out to be one of the most notably peaceful days in the history of the District of Columbia.

Still, the nonviolent character of the movement that the march defined is being questioned. There has been some interesting historical revisionism surrounding Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures who, unlike Martin Luther King, were less-than devoted to nonviolence as an abiding moral principle. (For my take on that, go here.) And now comes a book that, among other provocations, makes the case that King’s struggle was arguably a violent one.

The author is Benjamin Ginsberg, and his forthcoming title is The Value of Violence (Prometheus Books). This month, the Johns Hopkins University political science professor summarized his thesis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ginsberg declares in the article that the tactics used by proponents of nonviolence (he names King and Gandhi) “were far from nonviolent.” How so? Because they were “designed to provoke violent responses” from local authorities and thus elicit sympathy from the public.

He cites the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama (though a much better example would be the Birmingham crusade in the spring of ’63, which was clearly aimed at getting Bull Connor to respond with brutal force). He also points out that the Selma action led to the Voting Rights Act passed five months later and—more significantly in his mind—to an “army” of federal law-enforcement officials in the South. These authorities “wielded the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.”

Ginsberg contends that “in essence,” the Selma protest succeeded because “the protesters’ allies”—meaning the feds—“had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes.” (A bold assertion, considering the foes included men who had a capacity for lynching.)

It’s not a new idea. During the movement’s early years, the representatives of respectable opinion, including those in the Kennedy administration, argued similarly. They worried that the civil rights campaigners were fomenting violence in reaction to their confrontational brand of nonviolence. For his part, King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that those who engage in such resistance merely “bring to the surface” and shine a light on the violence inherent in an unjust system. It’s a long stretch to call this violence.

The confusion was understandable at the time. Those were the days before people had any real grasp of nonviolence as a strategy of social change. Circa 1963, you were either a pure pacifist (passive, in other words) or someone who preferred the violent approach. There was no separate category for active nonviolent resistance, as there has been since not only the civil rights victories but also other great nonviolent struggles, notably the ones that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe.

Now there is such a well-known category, although not quite in Ginsberg’s thinking. Police dogs, peaceful (though provocative) protests—they’re all the same. They’re all part of the scheme of political violence, as he sees it.

I should quickly add that Ginsberg, who chairs the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins, isn’t critical of the historic civil rights movement, on that score. He has a broader agenda—to debunk the now-familiar view in some quarters that violence is “not the answer” to our problems. It is very often the answer, he asserts. “Violence and the threat of violence are the most potent forces in political life,” he writes contrarily, in a challenging thesis that bears revisiting when the book comes out. …read more

Of Presidential Vacations and Diminished Leisure

Posted today in Tikkun Daily

At a time when too many people are out of work and too many others are holding down two or three jobs just to survive, it might seem a bit frivolous to lament the lost art of leisure. But leisure—restorative time—is a basic human need. And fewer people are getting the benefit of it, apparently even when they’re on paid vacations.

A new Harris survey finds that more than half of all U.S. employees planned to work during their summer vacations this year—up six percent from the previous year. (Email is a prime suspect in this crime against leisure.) Soon enough, all of us will be taking presidential-style vacations like the one starting tomorrow. That’s when the Obamas arrive on Martha’s Vineyard, no doubt just in time for the president’s first briefing on national security.

In my mind, no one has gone to the philosophical and theological heart of this matter more tellingly than the German American thinker Josef Pieper in his 1952 classic, Leisure: the Basis of Culture.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if man himself is capable of leisure,” he wrote. In Pieper’s book, workaholics are not the only ones who might be leisure challenged. Some of the most avid vacationers, with clear goals in mind for their getaways, might also be missing the point.

To understand why, one must appreciate the degree to which leisure is a state of mind, “a condition of the soul,” as Pieper styled it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness. “Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” he explained, resting on St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that virtue resides in “the good rather than the difficult.”

Those looking for useful tips on how to get more out of their leisure will not find them in Pieper’s meditations. Leisure is not something we do to “get” anything, in fact. According to him, it is worthwhile in itself, not merely a means toward an end.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. “Messing about” was how G.K. Chesterton put it. So a Chestertonian leisure activity could be almost anything—say, tennis. But the purpose wouldn’t be to “work on my backhand,” as they say.

What is the ultimate form of leisure? Pieper’s answer is not what many would give, including those of us who have experienced the unrest of being with fidgety children in a house of prayer. But for Pieper, the very image of leisure is divine worship.

Celebrating God in a holy place is leisure at its most sublime because it’s something we do purely for its own sake (or else it is not divine worship), Pieper taught. He explained that when people are truly at leisure, they are transported beyond the workaday world into another realm. And this is what transpires in the rituals, he submitted: “Man is carried away by it, thrown into ecstasy.” I’d call it a “mystical” realm or simply a “restorative” one before I’d say “ecstatic.”

It’s getting harder to plumb those depths of leisure, even if you’re blessed with paid vacation time (and increasing numbers of Americans are not). Still trickier, it doesn’t really work if you’re trying. …read more

In the NSA Debate, Where’s the Common Good?

TheoPol is off its weekly schedule, running occasionally during the summer.

As I scan the headlines and hear the radio talk about the federal surveillance program, one thought keeps coming to me: Why don’t I give a poop about any of this?

Maybe it’s because I don’t understand the implications of collecting domestic telephone data. Or maybe it’s because I cling to the rustic notion of the common good, in which personal liberties are of course balanced with the needs of community. That would basically mean balancing my right not to be surveilled with our need not to be bombed.

There’s a chance I’d react differently if the NSA’s algorithms were to spit out a particular innocent person—me. And I guess there are real questions that need to be answered about the NSA program, questions framed well by the Times today. But I don’t feel that the government is necessarily trampling upon my liberty, by scanning for networks and patterns of telephone use. Google already knows more about me than I know about me.

And then there’s that quaint idea of the common good. What is it, anyway? Someone in the field of Catholic social ethics once said that defining the common good is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But that hasn’t stopped theologians and church authorities from hammering away at it.

For instance, the Second Vatican Council defined the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members ready access to their own fulfillment.” There goes the gelatin, dribbling from the wall.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to get more of a handle on the concept, by breaking it up into pieces. The Catechism cited three components of the common good: 1) “respect for the person” (including individual freedom and liberties); 2) “social well-being and development” (including rights to basic things like food and housing); and 3) peace—“that is, the stability and security of a just order,” the Catechism said.

It’s abstract, but I like it. The Catechism’s rendering makes it clear that this principle is about balancing, not choosing between, various personal and social goods.

But I think the common good will always be subject to the Potter Stewart rule of knowing it when you see it. I see it in a raft of initiatives like gun control and progressive taxation, and yes, maybe even in Obama’s surveillance program. The critics of that program have real concerns about personal liberties, but these ought to be balanced with “social well-being” and “the stability and security of a just order.” The common good would seem to call for that. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 2

Filed under the heading of everybody-and-his-aunt-wants-a-higher-minimum-wage:

Madeline Janis, on "Moyers & Company"

Madeline Janis, on “Moyers & Company”

And we kept seeing this, something that we thought was wrong. We had to be in an Alice in Wonderland story or something. We would see a “Romney for President” sign and a pro-Tea Party for Congress and “Yes on the Living Wage,” all on the same lawn. And that’s because the idea of a living wage for people and their neighbors to be able to spend money in local stores resonated.

Madeline Janis made this comment in a Bill Moyers PBS interview earlier this month. She led a campaign in Long Beach, California, to enact a startling $13-an-hour minimum wage—specifically for hotel workers in that city. That’s almost six dollars above the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. The measure appeared on the ballot last November and passed easily with 63 percent of the vote.

In the interview, Janis’s main point was that small business owners rallied behind the voter referendum. Their reasoning was, “We want more customers. We want these hotel workers to be able to buy our clothes and our food,” as she related.

But surely, this is an anomaly. Or is it? Small business owners are typically cast as dogged opponents of the minimum wage. Is it possible that most are actually in favor of jacking up the minimum?

It’s more than possible.

Late last month, the organization Small Business Majority released the results of a national poll on raising the minimum wage. Small business owners were asked whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:

Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses. This will increase the customer demand that businesses need to retain or hire more employees.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed agreed with this boilerplate case for a more generous minimum wage. What’s more, 67 percent of these business owners agreed with the idea of taking a higher minimum (a dollar figure wasn’t specified) and “adjusting it yearly to keep pace with inflation.”

You might ask: Was the polling sample skewed toward bleeding-heart-liberals, the kind who set up shop in hip districts of Boston and southern California? It doesn’t seem that way. Forty-six percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republican, 35 percent as Democrat, and 11 percent as independent.

People like me often talk about the need to nurture a moral consensus on important questions facing our society. But I find it hard to talk that way, when it comes to the minimum wage. And that’s because we already have a moral consensus on that issue. (See my previous post, on public opinion.)

Apparently, most Americans agree pretty much 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 for some reason, our political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968. Special interests are trumping national consensus.

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

TheoPol will skip the week of Memorial Day and resume the following week. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 1

Minimum wageIf the word “democracy” means anything, it means that the people usually wind up getting their way—after careful deliberation by representative bodies and broad public debate. Much has been made of the fact that the American people haven’t gotten their way lately with regard to gun control. Recent polls indicated that nearly 90 percent of Americans thought universal background checks were a sensible idea, but 54 members of the U.S. Senate disagreed. As a result, a modest bill to that effect was gunned down.

Gun control is probably not the most eye-raising case of public sentiment ignored, however. That distinction might well go to a bread-and-butter issue: the minimum wage.

The people began favoring stricter gun laws only recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, and it appears the trend is already letting up. On the other hand, for decades polling has shown support for a higher minimum wage rocketing somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, depending on factors including the size of the raise. Americans aren’t polarized on this issue; the politicians are.

In March, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of the people favored President Obama’s proposal to lift the bottom wage to $9 an hour. That’s $1.75 more than the current federal minimum; it would also be the largest increase ever passed by Congress. Past polling indicates that if people were simply being asked whether they support an unspecified increase in the minimum, or a somewhat lesser amount, the backing would be even stronger.

50 Percent of Republicans

Try to identify a single major subgroup of Americans that doesn’t want to see the minimum wage go up.

You’d think, for example, that self-identified conservatives would be pretty down on the idea. They aren’t, according to the Gallup survey. They favored the $1.75 hike by a clean 54-44 percent margin. Meanwhile the support among self-identified “moderates” was rather immoderate (75 percent). Republicans were the only subgroup that didn’t give clear majority support to the proposal—but even they backed it by a plurality, 50-48 percent.

And keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively big jump for the minimum wage. The numbers, again, would undoubtedly be higher if the boost were smaller. Very, very few people would be opposed to a raise, in principle.

There appears to be a common moral sense among Americans that a full-time wage shouldn’t keep a family in poverty; it should get a family out of poverty. Whether the federal minimum wage is the only way to do that is, of course, debatable (there’s also the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance). In any event, Obama’s $9 an hour wouldn’t get a family there. It would deliver a $3,000 a year raise to minimum wage workers, a bump up to $18,000 a year. That’s more than four thousand dollars below the official (and badly outdated) federal poverty line for a family of four.

And that’s why liberal Democrats recently pushed a bill that would have ramped up the minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Even that higher amount is quite a bit lower than what the minimum wage would be today if it had merely kept up with inflation since the late 1960s. There were no takers, however, on the other side of the aisle.

On March 15, Republicans in the House of Representatives unanimously rejected the $10.10 proposal. Six Democrats joined them, in voting it down 233-184. If there’s a common moral sense on this issue, it doesn’t seem to be broadly shared in Congress.

Note: for Part 2, go here. …read more

Inertness, U.S.A.

Posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Part of what fascinates me about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is that, through these upheavals, America changed. Compare that to today’s inertness: we can barely budge on gun control and the minimum wage (for examples), despite overwhelming support among Americans for change on those fronts.

Yes, there are real questions about how much progress towards racial justice we’ve made. What’s clear is that a little over a year after the May 1963 “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And five months after the Selma to Montgomery march came the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Which particular piece of landmark legislation has followed the Occupy Wall Street protests?

More to the point: How did change happen, half a century ago?

That question often comes up—and is answered all too readily. Many are quick to credit the vision, courage and sacrifice personified by the civil rights heroes. Others just as quickly recite with Bob Dylan that the times they were a-changin’. (Consider the reforms that washed over the Catholic Church during those years at the Second Vatican Council, which bookended Birmingham and the Civil Rights Act from 1962 to 1965.) Many still would single out the strategy of nonviolent confrontation, the purpose of which was to create an air of crisis.

One could also be impressed by the accidents of that history, arguably including the career of Martin Luther King. Earlier this year, I wrote about how, in 1954, the young MLK had a dream—to become a tweedy tenured theology professor. A year later, Rosa Parks sat on the bus and catapulted the reluctant neophyte pastor into the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Add to this the accidental presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. One could argue we wouldn’t have had a Civil Rights Act in 1964 or a Voting Rights Act in 1965, without LBJ in the White House. Or those landmarks might not have been enacted until later. But it’s also true that King, Parks, and other storied figures, with their moral vision and mass movement politics, expanded the realm of the possible. That enabled Johnson to work his legislative magic.

Mysteries of Social Change

In their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath made the simple observation: “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” Nonviolent direct action was one clear innovation. As King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, those who engage in such resistance are not “the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” in an unjust system. In Birmingham, the explicit strategy was to bring the brutality of segregation into the open by provoking it.

In addition, during the early 1960s King and other spiritual radicals—notably his friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel—resurrected the tradition of prophetic discourse. That is, the style of denouncing social evils and chastising the powers that be, while envisioning a radically better future, as King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Such a religious challenge to the status quo was a distant cry from the soothing spiritual happy talk of the 1950s. King and company issued their jeremiads, but they also usually managed to join prophecy with civility, social struggle with social friendship.

Those varied elements converged in Birmingham 50 years ago. In early May of 1963, thousands of children as young as six years old strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown. And, in a bracing display of cognitive dissonance, King declared: “Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.”

During the protests, King projected through his megaphone not only resoluteness, but also a longing for what he had limned on other occasions as a “beloved community.” It was a vision of solidarity between whites and blacks, rich and poor. And it was vitalized—with not just love but power, with both confrontation and a spirit of cooperation.

Whether that rare combination of moral and political sensibilities made the civil rights crusade successful is hard to say with certainty. There are too many imponderables. It should be noted too that King, depressed and guilt-ridden at the end of his abbreviated life, began to see himself as a failure, partly due to the unrealized dream of economic justice for all, both blacks and whites.

What we know is that by the end of the Birmingham campaign, there were thousands of freedom-chanting children jamming the city’s prisons. There was the thick air of crisis that King and others had prayed for, and there were the heartfelt pleas for love and reconciliation in the throes of intense agitation. All that provided what every movement for social change seems to need—the element of surprise.

I wouldn’t venture much further in trying to explain the developments of May 1963, any more than I’d pretend to unravel the mysteries of change. Perhaps these are best left as perennial questions. …read more

May 2, 1963

D-Day in Birmingham

D-Day in Birmingham

On this day 50 years ago, African American children began laying their little bodies on the line, in Birmingham, Alabama. Streaming out of schoolhouses by the thousands, they poured into downtown to join in the civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King. My friend Kim Lawton has crafted the best piece of broadcast journalism I’ve seen or heard, on that extraordinary moment in America’s history.

This past weekend she filed the report for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and one of the people she tracked down was Freeman Hrabowski III, now president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He was 12 years old when he came up against the arrayed forces of Bull Connor. The police chief issued the order to turn fire hoses and unleash German Shepherds on the young, nonviolent protesters.

The water came out with such tremendous pressure and, uh, it’s a very painful experience, if you’ve never been hit by a fire hose, and I thought, whoa. You know, I got knocked down and then we found ourselves crouching together and trying to find something to hold onto. People ran, people hid, people hugged buildings or whatever they could to keep the water hoses from just—just knocking them here and there.

After Lawton further described the scene with the police dogs and billy clubs, Hrabowski continued.

The police looked mean, it was frightening. We were told to keep singing these songs and so I’m singing, [he sings] Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round … keep on a-walk’n, keep on a-talk’n, march’n on to freedom’s land. And amazingly the other kids were singing and the singing elevates when you can imagine hundreds of children singing and you feel a sense of community, a sense of purpose.

And then …

There was Bull Connor, and I was so afraid, and he said, “What do you want little nigra?” And I mustered up the courage and I looked up at him and I said, “Suh,” the southern word for sir, “we want to kneel and pray for our freedom.” That’s all I said. That’s all we wanted to do. And he did pick me up … and he did spit in my face, he really—he was so angry.

For weeks, the protests against Birmingham’s segregated public facilities had been for adults only. Those acts of civil disobedience (marching without permission) had little effect, however. They were petering out by the time of the so-called “children’s crusade.” It was during April of ’63 that King also wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but that literary classic fell on deaf ears at the time, as Robert Westbrook relates in his piece about the 50th anniversary of the letter, in the April 8 Christian Century. (A half-century later, King’s letter has finally received a proper reply from a group of tardy clergymen, as Adelle Banks reported last month in Religion News Service.)

The children’s crusade turned around the Birmingham campaign—and the nation. It prompted John F. Kennedy, a month later, to go on national television and call for civil rights legislation.

In a recent post, I floated a broader question: How did it happen? How did America change so quickly (there’s room for debate about the degree of change), and on the most polarizing issue of the time, race? I’ll get back to that next week. …read more

Sacred Space, at the Corner of Boylston and Berkeley

At Boylston and Berkeley, 8:00 a.m., Monday April 22

At Boylston and Berkeley, 8:00 a.m., Monday April 22 

Prepared for today’s edition of Tikkun Daily.

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was asked in a public radio interview if there would be a permanent memorial to the victims of that horrific act. Patrick understandably felt it was too early to speculate about such a memorial—this was before the dramatic lockdown of Boston and surrounding communities. He went further to say that the most fitting tribute would be to return next year with the biggest and best marathon ever.

That surely would be a testimony to the city’s spirit, but it seems the governor, as a good technocrat, was missing the point. Fact is, people were already finding makeshift ways to memorialize the event. And if past atrocities are a guide, they’ll eventually find a permanent space for that solemn purpose.

If I didn’t know this already, I’d have found out just by standing for a few minutes near Copley Square this past Monday morning, at the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley streets.

Boylston, a crime scene, was still closed at the time. But people stood silently on a sidewalk at the corner, leaning against a police barricade in front of a popup memorial. They gazed at the flowers, flags, candles, handwritten notes, and other items left by anonymous people. They stared at three white crosses in the center of that growing memorial—in remembrance of the three who perished in the twin bombings of April 15. The shrine to eight-year-old Martin Richard was teeming with Teddy Bears, balloons, and children’s books.

People will memorialize, because they know hallowed ground when they see it. It’s extraordinary, when you think about it—how the heinous and the hallowed can share the same space, how a site of evil can be transfigured as holy. But this seems to happen every time. It happened at the Twin Towers, at the Murrah Federal Building at Oklahoma City, at Pearl Harbor, and most profoundly, at Auschwitz. Each of those names marks out a distinct space in the timeless realm of evil. And each space is inviolable.

But how about Boylston Street, or a consecrated corner of it? Is it now part of this geography of the sacred? It is, if you think of such space the way historian Edward Linenthal does. In an interview adapted in a book I did some years ago with Bob Abernethy of PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, he said:

My definition of a sacred space is a simple one. Any place that’s capable of being defiled is by definition sacred. You can’t defile ordinary space. Any place that for a group of people is so special that a certain way of being there would be an act of disrespect means that that place is charged with a particular kind of meaning.

Linenthal, who now teaches religious studies at Indiana University, continued:

I tell my students, if they were sitting in the parking lot at K-Mart with a boom box, no one’s going to really care. They might be irritated that the noise is too loud. But if they had a boom box at Gettysburg or in the grove of trees at Shanksville [into which United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania] or in a church, a mosque, or a temple, it would be considered an act of defilement.

This is why questions about what to do with these places fraught with meaning can be so vexing and contentious. Consider the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. The decision to store the unidentified remains of victims in an underground repository—rather than a more visible place of tribute—stirred resistance from victims’ families.

Sure enough, a debate erupted this past week over the impromptu memorial at Boylston Street—how to preserve it, where to move it. Such a discussion would have been ludicrous, if this were ordinary space. If it were incapable of being defiled.

And that’s just a prelude. A few days ago, Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s office let it be known that the process of figuring out how to permanently memorialize the bloodshed at Boylston has begun. …read more

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