When Hope Dies Last

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts on the Emerging Activist

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

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

Roberts writes:

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

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

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

A Little to the Left

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

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

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

Love and Anger …

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

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

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

The Bible and Us …

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

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

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

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

Might and Right …

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

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

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

The Spiritual and the Knowable …

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

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

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

Idol Chatter, Public Discourse

Genuine idolaters (courtesy of JewishSpiritualRenewal.org)

A couple of weeks into the Occupy Wall Street uprising, the movement began to reveal a “spiritual side,” as USA Today headlined it, and since then the prophetic showing has been emphatic at the demonstrations in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. Like other occupiers, the spiritual ones are piqued by corporate greed. A number of them take the further theological step of declaring that Wall Street worships false gods, namely money.

In a detailed roundup for Religion News Service, correspondent Jack Jenkins described one bracing scene in New York on October 9:

On Sunday, a diverse group of New York religious leaders marched to Zuccotti Square carrying a handmade golden calf fashioned to resemble the iconic bull statue near the New York Stock Exchange.

“We think Wall Street has become idolatrous,” said the Rev. Donna Schaper, senior minister at New York’s Judson Memorial Church and one of more than 50 clergy who joined the New York protest, independent of the chaplains group.

“I’m not saying God is against the people of Wall Street, but I think God is sick of Wall Street taking more than they deserve.”

The golden calf harkens back of course to the Exodus account of when Moses went up Mount Sinai, leaving the Israelites to their own spiritual devices for 40 days and nights. Not knowing when or if he’d get back to guide them in faith, the Israelites molded the object out of golden earrings, and bowed to it.

The biblical motif is resonating in the choir lofts of the 99 percent. “We believe that too many in our culture worship the false idols of profit and selfishness, which all too often comes at the expense of others,” declared the Washington group Catholics United, which is an organizing a “Catholics Occupy K Street” presence at D.C. rallies.

Where’s the Path?

It’s hard to argue with the proposition that greed is ungodly and that it helped trigger the financial dissolution that has finally sent people into the streets. Still, pronouncing on the mortal sins of one’s political opponents—as much fun as that could be—isn’t the only option for faith-based activists. It’s possible to speak up for economic justice without declaiming against idol worship and other evil-doing.

The spiritual occupiers have offered glimpses of this possibility, even as they’ve paraded with the young bulls. As Jenkins noted, they’ve also held signs reading “Blessed are the Poor,” which is a social theology in itself. They’ve invoked biblical teachings like the Golden Rule, which would, in this context, discourage behavior that enriches some people while impoverishing others.

All of the major faith traditions represented in the occupation (and they are a big interfaith tent) have systems of social ethics with teachings about wealth and poverty. These include what is phrased in Catholic social teaching as “the social mortgage” (fortuitously, in light of Wall Street’s mortgage meltdown), which fixes a public claim on a portion of private wealth. Part of the idea is that the accumulation of wealth is inconceivable apart from social relationships and public institutions.

And yes, there are times when a faith community has to name certain patterns of social, political, and economic behavior as sinful (if not demonic, which is a sort of nuclear option). It’s hard to get this right, when speaking in the public square. How do you balance prophetic denunciation with public discourse that continues rather than ends the conversation? Where’s the path to moral and political consensus?

This past weekend at the dedication of the new monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall, President Obama spoke intently to the question. He said King realized that to “bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.” The president added that King would remind us today that people can and should “challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.”

And that’s what the occupiers, both spiritual and not so much, have been doing on their good days. …read more

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