Why I’m Supporting Marianne Williamson’s Run for President

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11 32.

Recently, two very good friends challenged me about supporting Marianne Williamson’s run for president. “She has no chance,” they objected. “You should be supporting Bernie instead.”

Their remarks coupled with today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son have prompted me to explain myself. The parable particularly as re-created by the French Nobel laureate, Andre Gide, is about a person like Marianne Williamson who eventually identified and escaped the oppressive reality we all take as normal. In Gide’s interpretation, Jesus’ parable is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

So, today I want to describe what we might call the “deep politics” of Marianne Williamson. After all, it’s her spirituality (her deep politics) that first drew me to support her candidacy. Because of her more than 30 years of work as a spiritual teacher, we can know her more deeply than any other presidential candidate. And that’s important. Our interior lives – our thoughts and values – are finally shaped by our relationship with what we consider ultimately important. They are shaped by what some of us term “God.”

So, let me first talk about Marianne’s deep politics and then connect it with Gide’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son.

To begin with, I’m supporting Marianne Williamson because she represents the most radical candidate in the field “of thousands,” as she often jokes. Using the term “radical” here, I’m referring to its etymological meaning which derives from the Latin word radix meaning “root.”

Alone in the crowded field of Democratic candidates Marianne puts her finger on what’s really ailing our nation. It’s not primarily an economic or military problem. No, at root, it’s a deeply spiritual malady. Yes, ours is a spiritual problem!

The problem is that rather than “free and brave,” we’re all scared out of our wits. We subscribe to values that are 180 degrees opposed to those identified as ultimate by all the world’s great wisdom traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheistic. At their deepest level, all of those traditions converge identifying compassion rather than fear as the supreme human value.

Ms. Williamson says it clearly: fear (which is the opposite of compassion) has us captive. Fear has us identifying Russians, Chinese, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBT community members, poor people in general, and even (at our borders) children and babies as somehow our enemies fundamentally unlike us and threatening us at every turn.

None of that is true, Marianne says. It’s quite the opposite. All of us have far more in common than anything that can possibly separate us. In fact – as she puts it – “There is really only one of us here.” We are not only sisters and brothers, we are really a single person. What I do to you, I do to myself.

That’s really the authentic teaching of Jesus, isn’t it? That’s the meaning of his words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love our neighbor because our neighbor is our self.

As Williamson explains, that conviction is what moved the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights campaigners and many who brought the Vietnam War to an end. It’s no accident, she says, that so many of the abolitionists and suffragettes were Quakers, that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, and that anti-war activists like the Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests. Those are the great heroes of the land we call “America.” Like Marianne herself, they all recognized our fundamentally spiritual nature.

So, none of us should say all of this is too idealistic. Instead, we should realize that, in effect, Marianne Williamson is challenging Americans to live up to their faith claims. After all, 70% of us claim to be Christian. Then there are the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists I already mentioned, as well as atheists and those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” As I said, all of those traditions, at their most profound level, converge in calls to liberty, equality, and fraternity.

And that brings me to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and its connection with Marianne Williamson’s deep politics. In what I’m about to say, I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about JesusThere, Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

Crossan asks, what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and leaving home for good?

Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there. (Are you hearing overtones of Plato’s parable?)

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him.

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns me to Marianne Williamson, and how in these pivotal times she has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable and calls the rest of us to go over the wall with her – to escape Plato’s cave and pass into the “other world” that is possible if only we take seriously the spiritual teachings of the world’s great traditions. Making that transition, she says, means becoming economically literate, re-learning American history, and internalizing what used to be called “Civics.”

So, don’t expect Ms. Williamson to directly invoke her spirituality during her presidential campaign. She’s won’t stump as some kind of preacher or moralist like Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee. Unlike those other two, Marianne is no come-lately to political analysis and policy recommendations. In fact, twenty years ago in her prescientHealing the Soul of America, she predicted the crisis we’re now experiencing in the person of Donald Trump. No, Williamson will stick to her policy positions – Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college-debt forgiveness, raising the minimum wage, drastically reducing the inflated military budget, making reparations for slavery, and establishing a cabinet-level secretariat for children and youth.

But aren’t those what (since Bernie) have become the standard positions of progressive Democrats? Of course, they are. But in Marianne’s case, such positions are grounded in a vision honed and sharpened over more than 30 years of forging connections between her deep spirituality and her deep politics.

And that personal reality, that long-term genuineness is precisely what’s required for our world to abandon the destructive reality of business-as-usual – to go over the wall of our father’s compound, to leave Plato’s Cave.

The very profundity of her “deep politics” is precisely why I’m supporting the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. If you’re similarly intrigued, and want to hear her voice in the Democratic debates, please go here and contribute at least $1.00. She needs 65,000 donors to be included.

In Memoriam: Dan McGinn

I got word that a very important person in my life died on March 6th. His name is Fr. Dan McGinn. Like me, he was a member of the Society of St. Columban. Dan was 15 years older than me. He came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Before I met him, he had been a missionary in Japan for seven years. I studied with him in Rome from 1968 through 1972.

Dan and I hit it off as soon as he arrived at Corso Trieste 57, my second year in Rome. There, while I was moral theology at the Academia Alfonsiana, he worked in the Vatican – at the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

Dan usually sat directly across from me at our long dining room table, where the 20 or

so men stationed with us in Rome ate three times each day. Three of us were Yanks, the others were Micks, Aussies, Brits and New Zealanders.

It was there that we all had such lively and memorable conversations about our studies, the church, theology, politics, and world events in general. Dan usually took great delight in playing the provocateur. The resulting discussions were intense. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything as consistently stimulating since those heady days following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Dan used to say that if he ever became a bishop (fat chance!), he’d do the expected and adopt an episcopal coat of arms for himself. He never described the shape of the shield he’d design.

But he was clear about the motto he’d have emblazoned on the banner below it. It would read, he said, “No More Bullshit!”

That was the kind of priest Dan was. He was a rebel. And, I guess, so was I. In many ways, I wanted to be like Dan. I considered him my mentor.

More than anything else, he taught me how to say Mass. I remember the first time I concelebrated with him in our chapel at the Columban house. There were probably five of us participating, and Dan had the lead role. He astonished me. He made the whole thing up.

No reading of prayers. No following the prescribed and inviolable eucharistic scripts. Instead, everything was ad-lib. For instance, even at the consecration – the most sacred part of the Mass – Dan said something like: “On the night before he died, Jesus was there in the Upper Room eating supper with his friends. He took a piece of bread and broke it like this (Dan broke the host) and asked them, ‘Do you see how I’m breaking this bread? This is the way my body will be broken for you. Yes, I love you all that much. This is my body which will be given up for you.’”  The form varied each time Dan said it.

It all struck me as so natural – as the way the Mass must have been celebrated before the Roman obsessive-compulsives established such complete control. I resolved then and there that I’d celebrate my Masses like Dan from then on. And that’s what I did.

Even when I got back to the states and worked in Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), that’s the way I celebrated Mass. And, like me, most of the people in the parishes I served there found it all so natural, very meaningful and completely acceptable. Even now, I marvel that I got away with that.

Dan also helped me when (towards the end of my time in Rome) I found myself re-evaluating my decision to remain a priest. I broke the news to him during a retreat we were on together at the Mundo Migliore Center at Roca di Papa on the edge of Rome. I remember walking together and discussing my “crisis,” and Dan’s advising that it might be a good idea for me to do a year of discernment before taking a final decision. I followed his advice and spent that year I just mentioned working in central Kentucky with CAP.

After I finally left the active priesthood and was working at Berea College, I spoke with Dan a few times on the phone. He told me once that he thought President G.W. Bush was “absolutely the worst we’ve ever had.” (At the time, of course, neither of us knew it could go down-hill a lot  further.)

During those years, I also got on Dan’s mailing list for the poetic political commentary he wrote on what amounted to his blog. Then, at the reunions the Columbans held every three years or so at their former seminary-turned-retirement-home in Bristol Rhode Island, I visited Dan each time I attended – once with my wife, Peggy. At one point he was volunteering as a docent at a local museum.

My last encounter with Dan McGinn came last summer during our most recent Columban reunion. By then he was confined to a nursing home. He no longer remembered me, nor our time in Rome. I found that both sad and threatening. He had been so bright, so engaged, so witty and daring. I admired him so.

With that deep admiration, dear Dan, I send you off. Thank you for your friendship and for being such a good priest. Thank you for teaching me how to celebrate Mass. Thank you for your kind guidance. Know that I’ve tried to adopt your motto as my own. I’m trying to remain, like you – committed to a “no more bullshit” life. You succeeded at that for sure! Thanks again.

New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern’s Example of Lenten Repentance

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex. 3:1-8A, 13-15; Ps. 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; I Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9

The entire world was shocked last week when a right-wing gunman and admirer of Donald Trump slaughtered at least 50 worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

At the same time, the world edified when the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest head of state, donned a hijab in a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community. The Muslim worshippers, she said “are us.”  She resolved immediately to change her country’s gun laws (in defiance of the international gun lobby) including a ban on assault weapons.

Her response contrasted sharply with that of President Trump following a similar massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October. Then, instead of calling for solidarity and disarmament, the president famously advised placing armed guards at synagogue doors.

Prime Minister Ardern’s words and symbolic action were a demonstration of the very type of repentance to which the non-violent Jesus called his own community (and us!) in the puzzling episode recounted in today’s Gospel reading for this third Sunday of Lent.

To make his point, Jesus comments on two contemporary tragedies that were “in the news of the day” as prominently as last week’s New Zealand catastrophe. Then he adds an explanatory parable underlining the time-urgency of his summons to non-violence. All three elements are highly relevant to Christchurch and our president’s and our culture’s tendency to solve everything with violence.

The similarities between Christchurch and the Gospel’s first-mentioned tragedy are undeniable. Like what happened in New Zealand, it involved the slaughter of worshippers by reactionary outsiders who despised their victims’ religious faith. Some Galileans (no doubt identified as insurgents) were killed by Roman soldiers while offering sacrifice in the temple.

Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he answers his own question, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

The second tragedy had eighteen people killed by the collapse of a tower located in the section of East Jerusalem called Siloam. In this case, it seems that a tower had fallen by chance and killed some innocents.

Regarding that second tragedy, Jesus asks, “Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were guiltier than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

But what does Jesus expect his audience to repent from? Does he want them to stop being insurgents against Rome? Does he want them to be more faithful to the Ten Commandments or something?

As Jesus would say, “By no means!”

How then do these two events connect?

To get the connection, put the incidents in context. There they become statements about violence, counter-violence and the need for non-violent resistance. Again, that contextualization sheds light on the Christchurch tragedy and our own culture’s worship of guns, as well as the permission it gives our military to kill people in their mosques and schools, at their funerals and weddings.

This approach takes seriously the political intent of the news item shared with Jesus at the very outset. Luke tells us, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”

No doubt, this was not news to Jesus. The opening words of today’s gospel were not meant to communicate news but to complain about the Roman occupiers. Those introducing the topic were looking for sympathy and agreement. Jesus does not disappoint.

Pilate, of course, would have claimed that his temple victims were insurgents against the Roman occupation; they were “guilty” as terrorists, he would have said. That was his official line.

Jesus says, “Don’t believe it” – as if his audience were tempted to believe Roman lies. “Do you think they were guilty?” Jesus asks. “By no means,” he answers.

Here Jesus is agreeing with his Galilean compatriots. If the ones Pilate killed were terrorists, he says, so are all Galileans; we’re all guilty in Pilate’s eyes. None of us wants the Romans here, Jesus implies. After all, it wasn’t the Galileans who threw the first stone; it was Pilate and the Roman soldiers who did so by invading Israel’s sovereign territory.

But then Jesus suddenly takes another tack. He connects Pilate’s butchery with another headline of his day – an act of counter-violence taken by the “Zealot” forces Pilate was attempting to punish. (Zealots were the revolutionary force committed to ousting the Roman occupiers from Palestine.) Pilate’s action, Jesus suggests, started the cycle of violence that evoked a disaster at Siloam at a spot near the Fountain of Ezekias. Siloam was the location of a small arsenal, where the Romans kept their swords, shields, battering rams and other weapons.

According to Maria and Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, a group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower with hopes of seizing the weapons and turning them against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the entire construction to suddenly collapse. The falling tower claimed the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the arsenal.

Jesus point: Pilate is certainly a bloodthirsty man. None of us want him or his armies on our soil. However, those who resist the hated Romans by resorting to arms are bloodthirsty too. And if we follow their example, we’ll all drown in a bloody deluge. Or as Jesus put it, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

And time is running short, he adds with his parable about a fig tree. The bloody deluge has been building for at least three years. We have maybe another twelve months before the chickens of the deadly cycle of violence come home to roost. Without repentance, without replacing violent resistance to Roman butchery with non-violent tactics, we’ll all be cut down like a barren fig tree. (Later on, remember, Jesus himself demonstrates the kind of non-violent direct action he had in mind, with his “cleansing” of Jerusalem’s temple.)

Jesus’ prediction of bloodbath, of course, eventually came true, but not as soon as he thought. The Romans would defeat the Zealot uprising in the year 70, and definitively squash all Jewish rebellion in 132. Jesus was right however about the extent of the slaughter. It was horrific resulting in the deaths of more than a million Jews. Such disaster is inevitable, Jesus teaches for all who “live by the sword.”

What does all of this say to us today? The message is quite relevant. It reminds us first of all that empire represents the systematized oppression of the poor and defenseless by the rich and powerful. That was true of Rome; it’s true of U.S. empire today. We’re still killing those identified as insurgents in their churches and mosques. In fact, our soldiers do it every day. And far from being outraged, we applaud them as heroes.

Secondly, this passage calls us to non-violence and warns us about where the cycle of violence will inevitably lead. Christchurch NZ provides a window into the world created by the worship of guns. Another window is provided by Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the general impoverishment of our country and world brought on by so-called “defense” spending. All of it has us drowning in a deluge of blood. And it promises to get worse and eventually destroy us all. How much time do we have before our chickens come home to roost – three years, one year. . .?

Christians represent about 30% of the world’s inhabitants. There are more than two billion of us. Imagine the world we’d create if we insisted on following the call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel!

Imagine the country we’d create if our politicians followed the example of Jacinda Ardern ‘s identification with the Muslim community instead of following the divisive policies of Donald Trump and endorsing the genocidal violence of our armies.

Don’t Be Cowed by the Right: Support the Green New Deal

With everybody finally talking about the Green New Deal, progressives should make sure that remains in the national spotlight. They should focus their efforts on improving and promoting the proposal which is now in early draft mode.

However, many seem reluctant to do so. Apparently intimidated by establishment nay-sayers, liberals have instead more often conceded to the shop-worn tropes of climate-change deniers and neo-liberal advocates of trickle-down economic theory. President Trump has characterized the proposal as “socialist.” House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi dismissed it “the green dream or whatever.” 

Such dismissiveness has some progressives repeating the right-wing canard that GND provisions like the following have no connection with fighting climate change:

  • Family-sustaining wage guarantees, especially for displaced workers
  • Enhanced Social Security for the elderly
  • Free higher education and the cancelling of student debt
  • Universal health care with adequate family medical leave
  • Affordable, energy-efficient housing for all
  • Remedies for systemic injustices among the poor, elderly, and people of color

In dismissing those provisions as “irrelevant to climate change,” “unrealistic” and “only aspirational,” liberals and progressives have been apparently cowed by climate-change deniers or at least to those whose remedies would principally benefit corporations, politicians, lawyers, and the infamous 1% instead of our country’s majority. Rather than fully commit to wind, solar, and geo-thermal technologies, the former would prefer retaining present economic arrangements while taxing, sequestering, and trading carbon pollutants.

Despite such diversions, the argument here is that the GND represents the best available response to the climate-change crisis. It deserves the full support of progressives because:

  • It’s already prominently “on the table;” everyone’s talking about it.
  • It boldly confronts the failed neoliberal economic model at its root – capitalism-as-we-know-it – supplying a green jobs-program-with-benefits that, in the past, have normally been associated with decent employment.
  • Far from being off the wall, its provisions are intimately connected with the inevitable dislocations produced by adoption of a carbon-neutral economy.
  • It has successful historical precedent.
  • The funding for its implementation is readily available.

The GND Is on the Table

I recently attended a meeting of climate change activists where some participants spoke as if we are still searching for some means of getting people to recognize and respond to the problem of climate change. Participants wondered, should we endorse the recommendations of the Sierra Club, or perhaps of 350.Org, or maybe the Environmental Defense Fund? It was suggested that we take the best recommendations from such NGOs and select the ones we’d like to endorse.

It was even proposed that our group author a “manifesto” in hopes that a celebrity like Oprah Winfrey might get behind it.

All such approaches fail to recognize that the problem of climate change is already very much on the table and has huge popular support. It’s there because we all know about the unprecedented multi-billion-dollar disasters like hurricane Maria and the uncontrollable California wildfires that have afflicted us in recent months.

And just since the beginning of the new year, a whole series of dispiriting reports have emerged from the scientific community to underline the point. The studies have scientists warning us that our window for response is closing rapidly. Current estimates are that we have no more than a dozen years before we reach the point of no return on a run-away train headed for a disastrous precipice. That’s the crisis staring us in the face as our train’s engineer commands: “Full speed ahead.”

All of that has already elicited massive support for the Green New Deal proposed by Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Unlike any alternatives, the GND now has scores of co-sponsors in Congress. Every Senate Democrat running for president has endorsed it. The easy-to-understand proposal has 80% of Americans supporting its provisions.

GND and Capitalism

Perhaps the real reason for progressives’ fears about the Green New Deal is that its proponents dare to identify the elephant in the room – capitalism-as-we-know-it. Understandably intimidated by McCarthyism along with 75 years of pro-capitalist propaganda, liberals have a hard time following suit. They shy away from any positions that might be caricatured as critical of capitalism. They bend over backwards to assure debate-opponents that they are not (as one member of our activist group put it) “crazy socialists.”

Progressives need to put those fears aside. We need to follow the bold example of the youngest and most dynamic member of the House of Representatives and that of one of our most senior senators; neither ever backs down in the face of such epithets. In that, both AOC and Bernie Sanders are increasingly joined by Americans under the age of 35. According to Gallup polls, the majority of them prefer socialism over capitalism.

In any case, the Green New Deal is not socialist. Instead, it is merely a green jobs program with the kind of benefits that used to go along with every decent job. In fact, those benefits are what every employer and government official demands for himself or herself – including health care, sound retirement, and remuneration sufficient to buy a house and send their children to college without incurring life-long debt.

Moreover, all the benefits in question are associated with the severe dislocations associated with transition to a carbon-neutral economy: universal health care to remediate problems caused by the fossil fuel economy; universal post-secondary education to equip workers to participate productively in the new high-tech culture; low-cost energy-efficient housing that will accommodate those forced to move from old fossil-fuel-related jobs to new green employment opportunities perhaps far from their current homes; and reparation for the long-standing practice of locating polluting industries in poor and minority communities.

None of that is off the wall or disassociated from combatting climate change effectively.

New Deal Precedent

All the controversy is like what happened with Roosevelt’s original New Deal.

Back then, with their focus fixed firmly on Wall Street, Republicans objected to the apparent overreach of FDR’s proposals. What, they asked, do Social Security, legalized unions, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and the “alphabet soup” of programs like the WPA (Works Progress Administration) with its FMP (Federal Music Project) and FTP (Federal Theater Project) have to do with reviving the Stock Market? To them such enactments seemed completely off-the-wall. They wanted top-down solutions that would focus on Wall Street – bail-outs, tax breaks, and government subsidies.

However, for Roosevelt and his constituencies none of the New Deal programs were far-fetched. What Republicans failed to acknowledge (but what Roosevelt saw clearly) was that those living on Main Street needed to believe that response to the national crisis of depression would take them into account as well as the rich who had little need of government assistance. Wage-earners needed jobs with benefits. They needed laws to improve their living standards. They needed a tax code benefitting them rather than the already wealthy. Enactment of programs based on those convictions got FDR elected four times in a row. After Lincoln, he’s generally remembered as the greatest American president.  

Funding the GND

But how will we pay for the Green New Deal?

In short, it should be financed in the same way FDR paid for his original program – by drastically increasing taxes on those most able to afford them. In Roosevelt’s time (and up until the 1960s) the highest tax bracket was 91% on incomes over $400,000. AOC has suggested a 70% tax on incomes over $10 million.

The truth is that enactment of some version of the GND with its transition away from carbon-based energy provides another rich income-source as well. The Green New Deal promises to make wars-for-oil obsolete. The elimination of such adventures will also go a long way towards eliminating blow-back in the form of international terrorism. As a result, our government should be able to shrink its military budget by at least 50% and to reinvest the resulting resources in GND programs.

Conclusion

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at a point where Americans have a proposal before them that they can both understand and whose provisions they overwhelmingly support. It’s got the public’s attention. So, progressives should make it their business to support its general direction and to take part in refining its provisions. Everybody needs to get involved in that project: wage earners, mothers, fathers, children, the unemployed and homeless, and not merely the usual suspects, viz. politicians, lawyers, economists, and business leaders.

Widespread citizen involvement should have progressives pushing for hearings on the GND throughout the country and well before the Democratic presidential debates. Then the suggestions of local meetings should be collated and processed into a final form that the majority can get behind.

To reiterate: this is not merely or even principally the job of professional politicians, but of our national community. After all, the Green New Deal is by no means a finished product.

The bottom line is that progressives should not be intimidated by gas-lighting nay-sayers, technocrats, politicians and lobbyists. Remember, their precise point is to discourage as unrealistic what the world needs to effectively meet the unprecedented emergency presented by climate change.

The Green New Deal is best understood as a green jobs program with benefits. It’s what we all need; it’s what we all deserve.  

Why Progressives Should Focus Exclusively on Promoting the Green New Deal

At last, the Green New Deal (GND) has our country debating climate change in an urgent and understandable way. Though the topic of environmental chaos was totally ignored in the 2016 election cycle, that definitely won’t be the case during the coming election season. We have Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), and Ed Markey (D-MS) to thank for that.

With everybody finally talking about the Green New Deal, progressives should make sure that the conversation continues. Unlike its alternatives, the GND is easy to understand, and 80% of Americans support its provisions.

For that combination of reasons, scores of Democrats have already co-sponsored the Cortez-Markey proposal. Editors at the New York Times (NYT) have cautiously supported the GND proposal as “better than our climate nightmare.” The AFL/CIO has demanded inclusion in discussions about the scheme’s final shape. Republicans, of course, are generally ridiculing the proposal as too expensive and based on “fake science.”

This is what a national debate looks like. The Green New Deal has finally given climate change the attention it deserves.

Objections to the Green New Deal  

None of this is to deny that the debate has often been contentious even among those with unquestionable commitment to solving the problem of climate change. Some have characterized the GND’s general proposals as “off-the-wall.” They ask: what do issues like universal health care, free post-secondary education, fair housing, paid vacations, state-sponsored childcare, enhanced retirement, and increased minimum wage have to do with climate change? For their part, union representatives have expressed fears that the proposal will adversely impact the good-paying jobs of their rank and file.

Perhaps the NYT editors best expressed the currently prevailing skeptical approach when they asked, “Is the Green New Deal aimed at addressing the climate crisis? Or is addressing the climate crisis merely a cover for a wish-list of progressive policies and a not-so-subtle effort to move the Democratic Party to the left?”

In summary, contrarian assessment so far seems to be that the Cortez-Markey proposition is just too ambitious and disconnected from the actual issue of climate change.

My argument here will be that it is neither. To get what I mean, first of all consider the natural threat posed by climate chaos and then how the Green New Deal ingeniously attempts to meet that threat in ways that surpass any of its alternatives.

The Climate Change Threat

Never in history has the human race faced such peril. We all know about the unprecedented multi-billion-dollar disasters, like hurricane Maria and the uncontrollable California wildfires that have afflicted us in recent months. In January, the Rhodium Group identified unbridled economic growth and factory emissions as the main causes of such disasters.

Then, just since the beginning of the new year, two other dispiriting reports have emerged from the scientific community to underline the point. A study in the journal Science pointed out that the planet’s oceans are warming 40-50% faster than previous UN estimates. The result, we’re told, will be even more virulent hurricanes and other weather events (like tsunamis) in the near future. Meanwhile, the proceedings of the National Academy of Science warned that Antarctica’s huge ice reserves are melting much faster than predicted. As a result, ocean levels are about to swell and swallow up huge areas of coastal plain along with entire island-nations creating possibly billions of climate refugees in the process.

Alarmingly, scientists are warning that our window for response is closing rapidly. Current estimates are that we have no more than a dozen years before we reach the point of no return on a run-away train headed for a disastrous precipice. That’s the crisis staring us in the face as our train’s engineer commands: “Full speed ahead.”

Despite all of that, however, we shouldn’t be discouraged. After all, crises have two aspects. As President Kennedy reminded us 60 years ago, emergencies even like the one before us present a danger, but also an opportunity. I’ve just referred to the dangers; they are obvious to all but the willfully blind.

Incentives to Wall Street

The genius of the Green New Deal is that it highlights the opportunities. Instead of waving the banner of austerity, it upholds the flag of all-inclusive prosperity. It points out unprecedented prospects for improving life on our planet. Yes, it underlines astounding benefits for Wall Street. However, its main beneficiaries live on Main Street. They include our grandchildren yet-to-be-born.

The benefits for Wall Street are surprising but logical at least according to prevailing economic theory. Changing from a carbon-based economy to one based on wind, solar, and geo-thermal energy, promises to create opportunities for innumerable new businesses and entrepreneurs. The UN estimates that the transition will add $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Twenty-six trillion dollars! That’s good news for investors.

And they’re beginning to embrace the prospects. Nonetheless, the unaided market gives little indication of mobilizing fast enough or of being focused enough to avoid the impending train wreck. Inducing Wall Street to apply breaks, lay new track and change direction will take time.

Conventional wisdom holds that Wall Street’s market-based solutions will also require hard-to-understand, top-down remedies such as carbon taxes with rebates, carbon sequestration, and carbon trading.  None of those have much hope of gaining the popular understanding or traction needed to inspire the mass mobilization required to address climate change effectively.  

Additionally, market-based solutions necessitate powerful incentives from the government in the form of tax breaks, deregulation, and outright subsidies to corporations. While virtually no one has trouble with the logic of providing such incentives, the crisis at hand requires immediate action that cannot wait for stimulants to kick in any more than it might wait for market solutions to provide timely response to attack by a foreign enemy.

Incentives to Main Street

And that brings us back to the genius of the Green New Deal. The latter recognizes that government must step in to meet a threat much larger and overwhelming than any attack ever experienced in American history or the history of the world. Doing so necessitates government-directed restructuring the economy from the bottom-up. Washington must take charge just as it would during war time – just as it did during World War II. It means DC’s becoming the employer-of-last-resort in new enterprises that Wall Street has proven incapable of sponsoring or even identifying in timely fashion.  

The GND also extends to Main Street the incentives that conventional wisdom routinely offers businesses but is unwilling to distribute to wage-earners. GND proponents understand that responding effectively to the crisis of climate change will require an unprecedented mass mobilization of a population that as yet has exhibited little awareness of the problem’s immediacy. Moreover, the public has been subject to mind-numbing propaganda on the part of powerful climate-change-deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry and by politicians bankrolled by those interests.

GND advocates understand the impossibility of mobilizing an audience like that under the banner of austerity and reduction in living standards. Instead mobilization requires convincing ordinary citizens that responding to climate change will improve their lives and make them more prosperous. It entails providing incentives for them to get on-board just as we saw it might for Wall Street investors.

And no one should object to that. It’s like what happened with Roosevelt’s original New Deal.

Back then, with their focus fixed firmly on Wall Street, Republicans objected to the overreach of FDR’s proposals. What, they asked, do Social Security, legalized unions, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and the “alphabet soup” of programs like the WPA (Works Progress Administration) with its FMP (Federal Music Project) and FTP (Federal Theater Project) have to do with reviving the Stock Market? To them such enactments seemed completely off-the-wall. They wanted top-down solutions – bail-outs, tax breaks, and government subsidies.

However, for Roosevelt and his constituencies none of the New Deal programs were far-fetched. What Republican cognitive dissonance failed to acknowledge (but what Roosevelt saw clearly) was that those living on Main Street needed incentives too. They needed to believe that response to the national crisis of depression would take them into account as well as the rich who had little need of government assistance. Wage-earners needed subsidies too. They needed laws to improve their living standards. They needed a tax code benefitting them rather than the already wealthy. Enactment of programs based on those convictions got FDR elected four times in a row. After Lincoln, he’s generally remembered as the greatest American president.  

Paralleling FDR’s response to the Great Depression, proponents of the Green New Deal recognize that climate chaos “changes everything.” It impacts our standard of living; it threatens our family life, our health and longevity; it makes irrelevant old kinds of jobs (e.g. in fossil-fuel-related industries); it calls for new kinds of homes adapted to new weather patterns. It calls for massive re-education, and for reparations to those victimized by the old fossil fuel order.

With that in mind, the GND provides new kinds of jobs to do work that the private sector has proven unable or unwilling to provide. It offers massive re-education that will emphasize not only science and technology, but the arts, literature, philosophy, and theology (where the wisdom and moral roots of human civilization are to be found). More specifically, to meet the severe dislocations related to understanding our changed world, to health problems caused by the fossil fuel economy, to energy-inefficient housing, to declining living standards caused by job-loss in a more traditional economy, and to the practice of locating polluting industries in poor and minority communities, the GND demands:

  • Free higher education and the cancelling of student debt
  • Universal health care
  • Affordable, energy-efficient housing for all
  • Family-sustaining wage guarantees, especially for displaced workers
  • Paid vacations for all workers
  • Adequate family medical leave
  • Retirement security for everybody
  • Remedies for systemic injustices among the poor, elderly, and people of color

Grandchildren as Overriding Incentive

As already indicated, all of that is easy to understand and far more likely to secure popular buy-in than cap-and-trade explanations or complex discussions of carbon sequestration or carbon taxes with mathematically calculated rebates for the poor. Everyone can understand higher wages.

However, what’s easiest of all to understand are the benefits such buy-in, popular mobilization, and rapid response will secure for our grandchildren whose very lives are threatened by the inaction rendered likely by those more arcane measures.

To begin with, the Green New Deal will secure for those younger ones we love not only a healthier planet, but longer lives less threatened by war and terrorism. That point is by no means trivial and even goes a long way towards answering the question: How will you pay for it all?

Certainly, the Green New Deal will have to be financed in the same way FDR paid for his original program – by drastically increasing taxes on those most able to afford them. In Roosevelt’s time (and up until the 1960s) the highest tax bracket was 91% on incomes over $400,000. AOC has suggested a 70% tax on incomes over $10 million.

The truth is that enactment of some version of the GND with its transition away from carbon-based energy provides another rich income-source that will benefit our grandchildren. The Green New Deal promises to make wars-for-oil obsolete. So, our descendants will not have to fight such wars or worry so much about the blow-back from “terrorists” created by those foreign adventures. That in turn will enable our government to shrink its military budget by at least 50% and to reinvest the resulting resources in GND programs.

To put a finer point on it: what we’re talking about here is a kind of inverted thinking about military spending. That is, to meet the challenge to national security represented by climate change, we must reduce and redirect rather than increase our bloated military budget. Meeting the financial challenges presented by an alienated and angry Mother Nature calls for a drastic disinvestment from the military and reinvestment in the provisions of a GND – precisely on national security grounds.

Conclusion

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at a point where Americans have a proposal before them that they can both understand and whose provisions they overwhelmingly support. It’s got the public’s attention. So, progressives should make it their business to support its general direction and to take part in refining its provisions. Everybody needs to get involved in that project: wage earners, mothers, fathers, children, the unemployed and homeless, and not merely the usual suspects, viz. politicians, lawyers, economists, and business leaders.

Widespread citizen involvement should have progressives pushing for hearings on the GND throughout the country and well before the Democratic presidential debates. Then the suggestions of local meetings should be collated and processed into final form. To reiterate: this is not merely or even principally the job of professional politicians, but of our national community. After all, the Green New Deal is by no means a finished product.

In short, our unprecedented climate crisis calls for New Beginnings – for a fresh start. That’s what the “New Deal” meant historically. It’s what the Green New Deal should embody today. None of its general provisions are “off the wall.” Each is connected to an actual dislocation caused by the switch to a non-carbon-based economy.

So, progressives should not be intimidated by gas-lighting nay-sayers, technocrats, politicians and lobbyists. Remember, their precise point is to discourage as unrealistic what the world needs to effectively meet the unprecedented emergency presented by climate change.

Give Up Devil-Worship for Lent: Work and Pray for the Defeat of U.S. Empire

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13.

Last Tuesday’s edition of “Democracy Now” had Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewing Daniel Immerwahr, and associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. Dr. Immerwahr has just published a book called How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.  For me, it was an eye-opening conversation, because it described the actual extent of U.S. empire that remains hidden even, as Dr. Immerwahr noted, from PhD historians.

Yet more importantly, for today’s reflections on this first Sunday of Lent, the interview revealed how the hidden U.S. empire actually involves our country in devil worship as defined by this Sunday’s Gospel episode.

Actually, that’s been the case for Christians in general ever since the 4th century of our era, when their predecessors threw in their lot with Constantine’s Roman army. Since then, they’ve (we’ve!) been worshipping Satan while calling him “God.” Today’s Gospel calls attention to that contradiction. It implies that Christians should no more support their country’s foreign policy (or what pretends to be the Christian Church) than if it were run by Hitler or the devil himself.

Let me explain.

Begin with Dr. Immerwahr’s description of the hidden U.S. Empire. He traces its inauguration to the period immediately after our country’s founding. It was then that settlers incorporated territories seized (in clear violation of treaties) from Native Americans. Then in 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first and then [after the Mexican-American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had added Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, and Wake Island.

If we add to this the implications and actual invocation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) in order to control the politics of Latin America, we can see forms of U.S. colonialism extending throughout the western hemisphere.

Coups in Africa [e.g. Congo (1961), Ghana (1965), Angola (1970s), Chad (1982)] established U.S. hegemony there. Similar interventions in the Middle East (e.g. Iran in 1953) along with the establishment of Israel and Saudi Arabia as a U.S. proxies controlling political-economy throughout the region established United States control there.

Factor in the 800 U.S. military bases peppered across the world and one’s understanding of our empire’s extent expands exponentially. (Russia, by contrast has 9 such bases; the rest of the world has virtually 0). To understand the sheer numbers involved, think of our continued military presence in South Korea (35,000 troops) Japan (40,000), and Germany (32,000). Besides this, of course, there are the active troops who daily kill civilians and destroy property in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. In total we’re told that there are about 165,000 troops deployed in 150 countries throughout the world – though, in the light of what I’ve just recounted, even that number seems vastly understated.

In any case, all of that describes an extensive, highly oppressive, and extremely violent American Empire.

And we’re proud of it. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson thought of colonialism as marvelous. However, by the first decade of the 20th century, politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with “the ‘C’ word,” and exchanged references to colonies for the gentler euphemism, “territories.”

But whatever name we give it, the reality of U.S. empire stands in sharp contrast to today’s Gospel reading and its description of Jesus basic proclamation with its negative judgment on empire and colonialism.

As a prophet and actual victim of empire, Jesus made his fundamental proclamation not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.

According to Jesus, everything would be reversed in God’s Kingdom. The world’s guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).

That basic message becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation described in today’s Gospel episode. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because an evil spirit has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

However, Jesus responds,

“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”

Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 (today’s first reading) to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.

Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? Seriously, these were the questions!

However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!

Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

Yet, as Dr. Immerwahr attests, those very people living in the West’s former colonies in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are the very ones ceaselessly victimized by the empire historians have so well-hidden from our consciousness.

As described in Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, colonialism and neo-colonialism are diabolic abominations in the eyes of Jesus’ God. They represent nothing less than a system or robbery currently bent on confiscating the rich resources of the Global South. Authentic followers of Christ can never support such depredations.

On this First Sunday of Lent, we should pray sincerely and work tirelessly for the defeat of such abominable practices.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent begins tomorrow. March 6th is Ash Wednesday.

But what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?

The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” Son of God swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”

But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found those conditions unbearable and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by those wearing Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.

The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them (MT11:19). He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders” (LK 6:24, MT 23:27).

What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday March 6th, 2019?

I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.

Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”

Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that Pope Francis save the church from itself by healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, and eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination?

Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.

Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So, it’s time to get to work.

As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. Over the past two years, I’ve been keeping a spiritual journal to make sure I stay focused.

For the past two years, I’ve also been taking A Course in Miracles (ACIM) as explained by now-presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson. I’m going through the manual’s 365 lessons for a second time and find it absolutely challenging. It’s helping me distance myself further from the world’s shadows projected in our Plato’s-Cave-world. It’s giving me, what I described in another context, a set of “magic glasses” that confer a world-vision 180 degrees opposite the one that reigns here in the United States.

During Lent, I’ll continue my ACIM work – including redoubled efforts on behalf of Marianne Williamson’s candidacy. Regardless of what one might think of her chances of success, her message needs to be taken seriously. In the end, it’s about replacing politics driven by fear with policy shaped by the compassion of Jesus and the most admirable people in history. (Marianne’s candidacy forces the question on believers: Do we really believe Jesus’ words? Do we?)

I hope anyone reading this will feel free to offer other suggestions. I’m sure you agree that these are extraordinary times. They call for extraordinary political and spiritual commitment. In the spirit of Yeshua and all those saints I mentioned, we need to pool our resources.