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.

…read more

“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

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.

…read more

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

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

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

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

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

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

css.php