Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

I’m Not Racist!

Here is a must-see video. It’s Joyner Lucas‘ hip-hop dialog between a white man and a black man. When I saw it yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking how good a discussion-starter it would have been in courses I’ve taught.

See what you think.

I only wish that there had been a third participant in the dialog —  someone who might helped the principals see that their anger is misdirected.  They are not each other’s enemies.

No, the real enemy is the system of capitalism run by the 0.1%. Its underlying ideology of extreme individualism, and vicious competition keeps everyone’s eyes off the ball by pitting blacks and whites against one another. Meanwhile, the system enriches the few while failing miserably to provide adequate jobs, wages, education, housing and health care for the majority.

This is an example of the system’s “divide and conquer” strategy that works every time.

Through your comments, please share your reflections.

The Effing Morons Have Taken Over: It’s Time for Revolution!

Moron

Recent events have shown that our government has no legitimacy at all. None.

As a result, we should all be out in the streets every day. We should be joining a revolution in response to the incendiary words of the Declaration of Independence identifying the right and duty of citizens to dethrone abusive governments:

“. . . when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce (the People to) absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

With this posting, I’m inviting us to think about rebellion in the light of the most egregious of the “abuses and usurpations” we have been made to endure.

And here I’m not just referring to the outrageous Trump administration whose “tax reform” ignores the country’s majority and which is in the process of looting our national treasury on behalf of the already filthy rich. Just watch: they’ll soon be coming for our Social Security and IRAs.

[By the way, do you know what that tax plan represents? It’s not just a refusal to tax the rich to pay for schools, hospitals, roads and bridges – and those ridiculous wars. Rather, it’s a plan to borrow from the rich to pay for those senseless conflicts. In other words, instead of having the 1% pay for their oil wars; we’re paying them! Taxpayers borrow from the banksters to meet those “unfunded mandates,” and then PAY THEM INTEREST rather than COLLECT THEIR TAXES!! The result will be an additional $1 trillion in debt over the next 10 years. What a scam on the part of those liars who up until the Trump election were deficit hawks!]

But that’s not what I’m addressing here.

Neither am I referring to Trump’s completely arbitrary, unlawful, and severe provocation of Muslims across the world by his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Everyone knows that Zionist repression of Palestinians is the root cause of Islamic terrorism. Yet (to avoid Rex Tillerson’s more explicit designation) this effing moron is in effect inviting further 9/11s. (Remember that when the inevitable attack comes and everyone’s asking again, “Why do they hate us?”)

I’m not even referencing climate change and the ignorant decision on the part of “the most dangerous political organization in the history of the world” to unilaterally deprive our grandchildren of nature’s abundance. (Those are the words of Noam Chomsky. Regarding such despotism, he has famously said, “The party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.”)

No one has the right to commit such outrage.

All of those acts (and many others) should be enough to persuade us that any trace of democracy we may have once enjoyed is gone. The man in the White House and these criminals in Washington don’t represent any of us – just their club of plutocrats that includes Democrats as well as Republicans.

But even their latest acts of gross ignorance and unprecedented kleptomania are insignificant compared to their greatest outrage.

And here I get to my main point.

It involves not just the Trump administration, but all of the criminals who have run our national horror show since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War II). They’ve all been terrorists and mass murderers. ALL of them: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and now Trump.

According to Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner, every one of them stood ready to use nuclear weapons to incinerate 98% of the world’s population in one fell swoop. Ninety-eight percent! (Ellsberg, of course, is the most famous whistle-blower in history – the one who released The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Now his new book reveals what he learned during his stint as an insider formulating U.S. nuclear war policy.)

That policy was not just about deterrence or response to a first strike by the Soviets. It involved a policy of FIRST STRIKE now so dear to Mr. Trump’s heart. Eisenhower, for instance, was firm in his insistence that in time of crisis there could be no waiting for a Russian attack. For him (and subsequent occupants of the White House) our country had to strike first. In Eisenhower’s mind and in those of his successors, “first strike” was best and “second strike” was a distant second best. “No strike” when provoked was unthinkable.

Guided by such policy, from the early ‘50s onward, plans targeted every city of over 25,000 inhabitants in Russia and its satellites, and in China too.

The planned destruction is mind boggling.

How many people would be killed? How about 100 Holocausts – 600 million? That was the Pentagon estimate when the world’s population was 3 billion.

And it didn’t even count deaths resulting from Russian and Chinese retaliation!

Neither did it take into account the smoke and debris that would be swept up into the atmosphere blocking out the sun and causing nuclear winter. That climate change would make food production impossible and have any survivors starve to death (except perhaps about 2% of the world’s population near sea coasts that could provide mollusks and other ocean foods).

Pentagon estimates are that about 2/3 of the planet’s population would perish. Actually, (counting deaths from Russian and Chinese responses) the figure would be far closer to 3/3.

No one should have decision-making power like that. In Jefferson’s words, its arrogation by morons amounts to “abuses and usurpations” designed to reduce us all to circumstances equalling “absolute Despotism.”

But it gets worse. According to Ellsberg, no single person had the power to initiate a nuclear war. Many people did (and do) — down to the rank of Major in the field or Pacific Fleet commanders in the navy. If communication were cut off, and if those morons judge they are under nuclear attack, they have the power to respond in kind.

Is that terrifying enough for you? “Abuses and usurpations” anyone?

The fact is we are all effing morons for allowing this non-government to survive without rebellion.

So what should we do in response to such outrages? At this point, I’m not sure about particular steps. But at the very least we should

  • Throw the bums out. In 2018 truly drain the swamp. Get rid of ALL Republicans and their Democrat enablers.
  • Replace them with Bernie Progressives – with a goal of reviving the New Deal that provably raised living standards for all Americans, not just the rich.
  • Institute a special war tax to fund the on-going war on terrorism – to be increased with each new conflict.
  • Before imposing such taxes, hold nation-wide binding referenda on their advisability.
  • Stop dead our country’s nuclear weapons modernization program.
  • Begin serious world-wide negotiations for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
  • Force Israel to honor U.N. Resolution 242, thus removing the major cause of international terrorism.

And if none of that works, make discussion of rebellion and revolution respectable again – in the name of Jefferson’s brave words. It’s our patriotic duty!

 

That Gun in Men’s Pockets: Sexual Assault & Our Militarized Culture

Mae West

Recent furor around the sexual harassment of women by famous men has reminded me of the old Mae West tag, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

It’s made me wish that all of us were as perceptive as Ms. West in implicitly connecting aggressive male sexuality and gun violence – especially in our militarized culture. Such sensitivity might help rid us of danger posed by real guns, which is far greater than “the boss” flashing or fondling his metaphorical counterpart in front of understandably shocked and repulsed female underlings.

In other words, I’m waiting for the day when the female-led sea-change we’re now witnessing around the gun in men’s pockets might attach itself to the weapons in their holsters and on missile launch pads. It would revolutionize our world. There mostly white misogynists currently shape not only Hollywood stories, news reporting, music, and comedy, but also our country’s domestic and foreign policy. There the male solution to everything seems to involve guns, bombing, and threats of violence.

Think about it: Both the gun referenced by Mae West and real guns are pretty strictly male things. Anatomically, women simply can’t exhibit the pocket gun. And strutting about with a Glock on their hips or an AK 47 on their shoulders seems fairly distant from most women’s reality. I find it hard to even imagine a mass shooting perpetrated by a woman. Has one ever occurred? (In fact, mass shooters tend to be white middle aged men with actual records of domestic abuse.)

Why this male fixation?

Feminist commentators as far back as the ‘70s had It figured out. They said that male exhibitionism and aggressiveness with that gun in their pockets isn’t really about sex. No: it’s about power.

After World War II, men resented the entry of women into the public sphere. Harassing them sexually was one way of putting them back in their place. “You don’t belong here; get out” was one message. Another was, “Unless you ‘put out’ for me, you won’t be hired or advanced.”

Both messages drove many women away or into jobs like teaching or nursing where female community was easier to find.

In other words, sexual harassment represented male response to female threat to their traditional territory and power.

Might something similar be said for men’s love affair with real guns – for their fascination with their size and power and capacity for multiple bursts? Is it a response to a world where women and other outsiders have entered white male bastions?

Consider the evidence provided by the most testosterone-soaked bastion of all, the U.S. military. There at least 25% of women report having been sexually assaulted; 80% say they have been sexually harassed. And, of course, rape of “enemy” women has long represented one of the spoils of war – including for U.S. servicemen. If they are so willing to sexually assault their colleagues, what do you think our soldiers do with enemy women?

The answer for all of this is a profound change of patriarchal systems designed to denigrate, harass, intimidate, silence, devalue and assault not only women, but anyone who threatens male privilege. The answer is for men to take the lead in betraying our fondest ideas of masculinity and our reliance on weapons to solve political problems. It is to deconstruct completely our misogynist culture.

That means imagining and crafting a world run by women – or at least where without harassment or assault, women are allowed to achieve proportional representation in national assemblies. In such a world, diplomacy, dialog, and compromise, would predictably represent the default diplomatic position rather than immediate resort to military hardware.

Simply put, our militarized patriarchy isn’t working on any level. Predatory masculinity has been exposed in the workplace. For those willing to see, the harmful failure of its martial equivalent also stands evident in the world at large.

Acknowledging that exposition and countering it with female energy would change everything.

The Republican Tax Plan Prefers Caesar to Jesus & God’s Kingdom

Tax Plan

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112717.cfm

Today’s readings raise the central political question of our day: what is the purpose of government? Is it simply to protect the private property of the well-to-do? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?

For the last thirty-five years or so, the former view has carried the day in the U.S. So it has become fashionable and politically correct even (especially?) for Christians to advocate depriving the poor of health care to help them achieve the American Dream, “ennobling” the unemployed by removing their benefits, criminalizing sharing food with the poor, and “punishing” perpetrators of victimless crimes by routinely placing them in solitary confinement.

Today most prominently, the idea that government’s task is to help corporations even it means hurting the poor, elderly, and newly arrived is embodied in Republican tax reform plan. It amounts to a giant give-away to billionaires including the Trump family. Today’s poor, middle class and future generations will pick up the tab for that particular wealth redistribution upward.

Today’s readings reject all of that. And they do so on a specifically political liturgical day – the commemoration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Yes, this is a political liturgy if ever there was one. It’s all about “Lords” and “Kings” and how they should govern in favor of the poor. It’s about a new political order presided over by an unlikely monarch – a king who was executed as a terrorist by the imperial power of his day. I’m referring, of course, to the worker-rebel, Jesus the poor carpenter from Nazareth.

Today’s readings promise that the rebel – the “terrorist” – Jesus will institute an order utterly different from Rome’s. That order recognizes the divine nature of immigrants, dumpster-divers, those whose water has been ruined by fracking and pipe lines, the ragged, imprisoned, sick, homeless, and those (like Jesus) on death row. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what we celebrate on this “Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.”

(Btw: in the eyes of Jesus’ executioners, today’s commemoration would be as unlikely as some future world celebrating the “Solemnity of Osama bin Laden, King of the Universe.” Think about that for a minute!)

In any case, today’s readings delineate the parameters of God’s new universal political order. To get from here to there, they call governments to prioritize the needs of the poor and those without public power. Failing to do so will bring destruction for the selfish leaders themselves and for the self-serving political mess they inevitably cultivate.

Today’s first reading gets quite specific about that mess. There the prophet Ezekiel addresses the political corruption Lord Acton saw as inevitable for leaders with absolute power. Ezekiel’s context is the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. It found itself under immediate threat from neighboring Babylon (Iraq). In those circumstances, the prophet words use a powerful traditional image (God as shepherd) to inveigh against Israel’s pretentious potentates. In God’s eyes, they were supposed to be shepherds caring for their country’s least well-off.  Instead, they cared only for themselves. Here’s what Ezekiel says in the lines immediately preceding today’s first lesson:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! . . . But you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

In other words, according to Ezekiel’s biblical vision, government’s job is to address the needs of the weak, the sick and the injured. It is to tenderly and gently bring back the wayward instead of punishing them harshly and brutally.

A great reversal is coming, Ezekiel warns. The leaders’ selfishness will bring about their utter destruction at the hands of Babylon.

On the other hand, Judah’s poor will be saved. That’s because God is on their side, not that of their greedy rulers. This is the message of today’s responsorial psalm – the familiar and beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . “)  It reminds us that the poor (not their sleek and fat overlords) are God’s “sheep.”  To the poor God offers what biblical government should: nothing but goodness and kindness each and every day. Completely fulfilling their needs, the divine shepherd provides guidance, shelter, rest, refreshing water, and abundant food. Over and over today’s refrain had us singing “There is nothing I shall want.” In the psalmist’s eyes, that’s God’s will for everyone – elimination of want. And so the task of government leaders (as shepherds of God’s flock) is to eradicate poverty and need.

The over-all goal is fullness of life for everyone. That’s Paul’s message in today’s second reading.  It’s as if all of humanity were reborn in Jesus. And that means, Paul says, the destruction of “every sovereignty, every authority, every power” that supports the old necrophiliac order of empire and its love affair with plutocracy, war and death instead of life for God’s poor.

And that brings us to today’s culminating and absolutely transcendent gospel reading. It’s shocking – the most articulate vision Jesus offers us of the basis for judging whether our lives have been worthwhile – whether we have “saved our souls.” The determining point is not whether we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal savior. In fact, the saved in the scene Jesus creates are confused, because their salvific acts had nothing to do with Jesus. So they ask innocently, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”

Jesus’ response? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

But more than personal salvation is addressed here. Jesus homage to Ezekiel’s sheep and shepherd imagery reminds us of judgment’s political dimension. So does Jesus’ reference to the judge (presumably himself) as “king.” And then there’s the church itself which centralizes this climactic scene precisely on this Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. All three elements say quite clearly that “final judgment” is not simply a question of personal salvation, but of judgment upon nations and kingdoms as well. To reiterate: in Matthew’s account, the final judgment centralizes the political.

And what’s the basis for the judgment on both scores? How are we judged as persons and societies? The answer: on the basis of how we treated the immigrants, the hungry, ill-clad, sick, and imprisoned.

On that basis, Jesus’ attitude towards the United States as earlier described ought to be quite clear. It’s the same as Ezekiel’s when he predicted the destruction of Israel at the hands of Iraq:

“Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”

Ironically enough that “fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is today being stoked in Iraq just as it was in the days of Ezekiel. This time the Babylonians call themselves the Islāmic Caliphate.

As Ezekiel might say, “You read it here first.”

Feminists as Our Natural Leaders: Reflections on the 40th Annual Meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association

 

Angie

Last weekend I attended the 40th annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in Baltimore, Maryland. I accompanied my wife, Peggy, who directs the Women and Gender Studies Program (WGS) at Berea College, where I taught for 40 years (1974-2014). Peggy was there with a colleague and seven of her WGS students. The gathering’s theme was “Feminist scholars and activists engage the movement for Black Lives.”

Given the theme of the conference, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the diversity of attendees. Nonetheless, I was astounded by what I saw. It seemed to me that 50% or more of the attendees were women of color (WOC).

From the opening plenary, the atmosphere was absolutely electric and energizing.

Even more, I was pleasantly surprised by the radical nature of everything I observed there. It put me to shame in terms of revealing my own timidity that restrains me from being more outspoken and calling things by their real names in this time of unprecedented crisis. By comparison with what I heard and observed in Baltimore, my own writing, speaking, and teaching are far too understated. As one of the presenters I heard put it, “civility is overrated.” The times cry out for thoughtful radicalism.

“Radical” in this case means discourse attempting to uncover the roots of our world’s problems identified by NWSA speakers as the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. On feminist analysis, that’s what’s behind today’s resurgent fascism with its racism, misogyny, cult of denial, massive incarceration, voter suppression, police violence, gun worship, daily mass shootings, universal surveillance, union-busting, climate-change reversals, threats of nuclear war, pay disparities between men and women, and overriding fear of immigrants, Muslims, and the heterogendered. In the language of NWSA presenters, the problems are “intersectional” – the results of inter-related elements of a multi-faceted oppressive system with patriarchy as its taproot.

Put otherwise, women aren’t merely victims of some monolithic patriarchy; they are oppressed by misogyny, racism, ageism, and prejudice against queers, immigrants, the aged, and the differently abled. Resistance to such oppression is signaled today by coalescing movements that include black queer feminists, domestic workers, home health care providers, restaurant employees, and agricultural laborers.

With such inclusivity, the discourse I heard at the NWSA was far from the blah, blah spouted by the overwhelmingly conservative, white, elderly and protofascist males who continue to run our country. Unlike the self-described “bad ass organizers” in Baltimore, the academic representatives of the predominantly male political class typically cultivate silence and equivocation in the service of their own professional advancement disguised as intellectual respectability.

For their parts, the NWSA women were far more incisive. That’s because their scholarship is rooted in their insurgent activism. Embracing the role of “outsiders within” (the academic establishment), the goal of feminist hell-raising and scholarship is a just distribution of society’s benefits determined not by what humans can work for or achieve, but by what everybody needs. Their focus is not so much piercing the infamous glass ceiling that prevents the well-educated and wealthy from advancing within corporate hierarchies, but protecting and repairing the floor boards splintering and eroding beneath the very feet of women at the bottom of neoliberal constructions.

Take, for instance, the opening plenary presentation. It centralized a conversation between Angela Davis and Alicia Garza.  Davis, of course, is the iconic and by now septuagenarian Black Panther scholar and activist who once led the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Her current efforts are directed towards abolitionism – the uprooting of prisons, policing, and education as we know them.  Alicia Garza is one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). A widely published activist, she currently directs special projects for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. (When, at the beginning of her remarks, Garza asked for any who had participated in BLM demonstrations to stand, a third of the audience, it seemed, got to its feet and received a warmly appreciative ovation.)

Here are some of the (paraphrased) key thoughts Davis (AD) and Garza (AG) shared with us on opening night:

  • AD: At this otherwise depressing moment in history, I’m encouraged by the activism evoked by the ongoing right-wing revolution. Left-wing revolution is once again in the air. With the Boycott, Divest & Sanction Movement (BDS), Palestinian liberation is now openly part of the agenda. Together we stand on the left, but on the right side of history.
  • AG: Revolution is a process, not a destination. It is the transformation of how power operates – a passage from punitive, predatory, power-over models to cooperative, interdependent ways of operating. Revolution in this sense expands the notion of “our loved ones.”
  • AD: The world does not revolve around the United States. The struggle is global. We must learn some humility and be willing to sit at the feet of liberation movements in the Global South – for instance, from the black feminist movements of Brazil.
  • AG: Black Lives Matter is not an instance of “identity politics,” as the FBI alleges by inventing the category “black identity extremists.” The FBI category represents just one more official attempt to dismantle BLM. The underlying assumption of its phrasing is that we’re not all in relationship with each other and with over-arching institutions. On the contrary, identity is shaped by capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. It’s not that BLM cares only about its particular group. It’s that BLM realizes that when black people get free, everyone gets free.
  • AG: Feminism is about challenging normativities.
  • AD: We need art, because we can’t say it all.

Women like Angela Davis and Alicia Garza are inspiring. They evince much more courage than most males I know – or, let me say it clearly, much more than me! Once they enter the realm of critical consciousness, feminists become our natural leaders. Somehow they seem less attached to the cult of personality. They know how to cooperate. This isn’t the movement of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or John Lewis. Its leadership is more collective than that – more empowering and inclusive. Their range of issues are more, well, “intersectional.”

That’s the hope I found at the 40th anniversary meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association meeting. I’m glad I went.

Be Like Pope Francis: Bury Your Talent, Oppose Capitalism as We Know It!

Francis

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31, PS 128: 1-5; I THES 5: 1-8; MT 25: 14-30.

Today’s gospel story, the familiar “Parable of the Talents,” is about economics. It’s about the world of investment and profit-taking without real work. It’s also about dropping out and refusing to cooperate with the dynamics of finance, interest and exploitation of the working class.

The parable contrasts obedient conformists with a counter-cultural rebel. The former invest in an economic system embodied in their boss – “a demanding person harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter.” In other words, like the system of capitalism itself, the boss is a hard-ass S.O.B. who lives off the work of others. The conformists go along with that system which to them has no acceptable alternative.

Meanwhile, the non-conformist hero of the parable refuses to go along. And he suffers the predictable consequences for doing so. Like Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, the non-conformist is marginalized into an exterior darkness which the rich see as bleak and tearful (a place of “weeping and grinding of teeth”). However, Jesus promises that exile from the system represents the very kingdom of God. It is filled with light and joy.

In contemporary terms, today’s gospel selection could hardly be more pertinent. It contrasts two current understandings of the contested terrain that is today’s Christianity. One understanding endorses our polarized economic system where “everyone who has is given more so that they grow rich, while the have-nots are robbed even of what they have.”

That concept is embodied today in President Trump and his Republican cohorts. The other finds its personification in Pope Francis.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s faith in the capitalist system, Pope Francis himself is trying mightily to distance himself from it. He’s like the servant in today’s parable who buried his talent in the ground refusing to invest it in a corrupt system that invariably widens the gap between the rich, like Trump, and the poor the pope is attempting to champion.

Francis couldn’t be clearer about rejecting the elements of capitalism celebrated by the U.S. president. The pope has repeatedly urged action to secure the basic entitlements the poor deserve. These include rights to land, housing and work as well as to higher wages, unions and social security – all of which are abhorrent to Republicans.

Francis even connected being Catholic with communism. “It’s strange,” the pope said, that “if I talk about this, there are those who think that the Pope is Communist. . . The fact that the love for the poor is in the center of the gospel is misunderstood.” Fighting for the poor, he added, doesn’t make me a communist; it makes me Catholic.

(Did you really hear what the pope just said: “THE LOVE FOR THE POOR IS IN THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL.” THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL!)

Obviously, the statement suggests significant overlap between Marx’s critique of free market capitalism and the social teachings of the church. The pope’s words certainly don’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the free market.

And how should Catholics express their love for the poor? Clearly not by endorsing the dynamics of the free market Trump and his allies lionize. In the “Joy of the Gospel” (JG) – published in 2014 – the pope identifies the unfettered markets so dear to Republicans’ hearts (along with their “trickle-down” ideologies) as homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). He sees “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).

And it gets worse for the Republicans’ position. Their party, of course, loves the free trade agreements that are at the heart of the corporate globalization the pope deplores. One wonders how Catholic members of the GOP reconcile advocacy of free trade agreements with the pope’s uncompromising words “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm.”

Clearly, the debate about unfettered capitalism is settled in the pope’s mind. He has condemned the system without equivocation. And in doing so, Pope Francis has established himself  as the foremost moral leader of our time. Virtually alone among world leaders, he has the courage to call us away from the worship of Market and Money.

The alternative, he assures us, is not a world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a kingdom of light and joy.

It is time for Jesus’ would-be followers to join that conversation – about getting from here to there in the name of the gospel.