My Interview on Rob Kall’s “Bottom-Up” Podcast/Radio Program

Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.

Don’t Worry about Russians Rigging Our Elections: Long Ago, U.S. Politicians Beat Them to the Punch!

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Readings for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

Everyone’s talking about election hacking these days. In the country’s latest reprise of “the Russians are coming,” we’re all in turmoil about Putin’s interference in U.S. elections.

However, don’t you find it highly ironic politicians on all sides are so worried about “Russian hacking,” while virtually none of them is addressing much more significant forms of election rigging? I’m talking about the criminal fixes arranged by the U.S. officials themselves?

More specifically, these include the retention of the outdated electoral college itself, outrageous gerrymandering of voting districts, super delegates at nominating conventions, voter suppression’s many forms (from voter IDs to felony disenfranchisement laws), Koch brother funding of candidates’ election campaigns (as in Citizens United), and the use of highly hackable computerized technology that miscounts and discounts millions of votes each election cycle. (No wonder so many of us decide on election day, “Why bother?”)

The upshot of it all is that we end up with a system controlled at all levels by a minority party that doesn’t want everyone to vote. That’s because its members could never be elected to the presidency (and its control of the judiciary) if voters exercised their franchise in anything like the numbers in other industrially-developed countries.

And so, we end up with a crisis of political leadership with one-percenters like Donald Trump and George W. Bush running things – and with corporate-funded Barrack Obama trailing not very far behind.

I bring all of this up because the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word is political leadership.

The liturgical image for doing so is shepherding. That pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that the political leaders I mentioned earlier in no way embody those qualities.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah joins us in lamenting the absence of political leaders with the qualities just mentioned. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders even in Jeremiah’s day (all men, of course) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new governance to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark elaborates the theme. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding. Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace – not from the one-percenters of his day – but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in Jesus’ practice.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep.

In Paul’s words, leaders are to foster the emergence of a new kind of person. In the familiar phrasing of Psalm 23, that new version of humanity is not over-worked, but rested, and lives in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink. Shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion. (Read Psalm 23 again with that in mind.)

So, given our broken electoral system, how do we get from here to there – to something approaching the biblical vision just described?

Well, I’ve just read a wonderful book that suggests the path ahead. But, get ready: it involves hard work for all of us. The book is called Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols. It’s written by OpEdNews editor, Marta Steele, and is a magisterial study of the corruption of our electoral system.

To begin with, Steele suggests that we must face up to the facts that:

• The Founding Fathers rejected the notion of democracy (cf. Federalist Paper # 10).
• Their assertion that “all men are created equal” was meant to establish their right to expropriate Native Americans and African slaves of their land and resources. (This is documented in Chapter 13 of my new book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking).
• Instead, the Founders believed (as John Jay said) that the country should be run by those who own it.
• Both the anti-democracy and elite-ownership traditions find their clearest contemporary expression in Paul Weyrich’s statement in 1980 about Republicans not wanting everyone to vote based on their realization that if everyone did cast a ballot, a Republican president would never again darken the White House door (cf. Steele 233).
• Computerized voting machines overwhelmingly favor that minority otherwise unelectable party by miscounting and discounting thousands of votes in each state and millions nation-wide (Steele passim).
• Knowledge of such purposeful malfunctions tempts citizens (like me) to eschew voting itself. And this, of course, plays right into the minority’s hands.
• The only way to restore voter confidence is to revert to paper ballot technology (because it’s better and works) with safeguards against traditional ballot box stuffing methods.
• More specifically, the answer is to:

* Eliminate the electoral college in favor of direct popular vote (Why is virtually no one even discussing this?)
* Abolish gerrymandering by making redistricting a bi-partisan process subject to the approval of an effective Federal Election Commission (see below).
* Establish uniform, nation-wide electoral standards and procedures overseen, not by the states, but by the previously-referenced and truly empowered bi-partisan Federal Commission whose goal is maximizing voter turn-out as well as increasing voter confidence in the electoral process by its transparent certification process.
* Get private money out of the electoral process in favor of public funding.
* Outlaw voting machines altogether and replace them with paper ballots.
* More specifically, implement a system of automatic and verifiable voter registration; revert to the practice of universal hand-counted paper ballots; establish a national voting holiday period (from Saturday to Tuesday), with ballots hand-counted by senior Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on Wednesday.

All of this should remind us that according to Jesus’ highly political metaphor, the Kingdom of God meant “a political system as God would arrange it.” Today’s readings call attention to the fact that such arrangement centralizes human welfare, grassroots leadership, and ardent compassion for all. It places the welfare of “the sheep” at center and includes provision of food, drink, healthy environment, and needed rest. Those are not the goals of our political minority. However, to attain goals like that, “shepherds” must be present, watchful and caring.

To repeat, today’s electoral system gives us nothing similar. And that’s not Mr. Putin’s fault. It’s the fault of our broken system and its unbiblical discouragement of grassroots focus. To fix it will require great commitment and work by all of us.

Marta Steele’s Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols complements today’s readings by thoroughly describing the problem and by offering suggestions about how to fix it.

Do yourself a favor: follow up on today’s readings by consulting the book.

Press Release: The Critical Thinking Manual Progressive Teachers Have Been Waiting For: My New Book

Magic Glasses Cover

Mike Rivage-Seul has just published the book progressive teachers have been waiting for to ground their post-secondary courses on critical thinking. Available on April 17th from Peter Lang Publishing, the book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Rivage-Seul is an emeritus professor of peace and social justice studies at Berea College in Kentucky, where he taught for more than 40 years. He publishes a monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

His approach to critical thinking – to education itself – should be familiar to progressives. It starts from the position that the purpose of such process is not primarily to interpret the world, but to change it. Therefore, critical thinking and education should not be neutral. It should equip students with the tools they need for social activism.

Magic Glasses summarizes what Rivage-Seul considers the most important insights he gathered over his years of travel and study throughout Europe and especially in the Global South – specifically in Brazil, Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and India, as well as in Israel-Palestine.

“As you can tell by the title,” Mike says, “The Magic Glasses could hardly be timelier. The concept comes from the great comedian and social activist, Dick Gregory. He spoke of critical thinking as functioning like a set of spectacles. They confer special insight enabling their wearers to see things quite differently from what is considered ‘normal.’

“However, Gregory warns that the glasses come with three rules. The first is that once you put them on, you can never take them off. The second says that once you put them on, you can never see things the way everybody else does, but only as they truly are. And the third is that you can never force anyone else to wear them.”

In other words, Rivage-Seul’s book might be a dangerous read. For instance, he echoes Global South scholars by seeing sinister intent in the Declaration of Independence’s celebrated statement that “All men are created equal.” With those same scholars, he refers to World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War,” and sees the United States as currently occupying the same global position that Adolph Hitler aspired to attain – with similar effect.

“I’ve been wearing Gregory’s magic glasses for years,” Mike says. “They’ve shaped my all my teaching and have often got students mad at me – at least at first. And you should read some of the comments my newspaper columns get! It’s all because I constantly apply the ten rules for critical thinking that my book explains.”

Those rules include: (1) Reject Neutrality, (2) Reflect Systemically, (3) Select Market (as the root of political differences), (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (8) Quadra-sect Violence, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

As a result of employing those guidelines, Rivage-Seul understands U.S. history, terrorism, the renewed nuclear arms race, world hunger, trade agreements, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and other hot button issues in ways that end up being 180 degrees opposed to the mainstream.

“I’m in good company though,” Mike observes. “I’m trying to channel the spirit of the world’s great critical thinkers. Think about it. None – not Jesus, the Buddha, not Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Helen Keller – was neutral. They weren’t worried about ‘balance’ or offending anyone. For them, speaking truth to power and living with the results were all that mattered.

“I’m hoping that my book falls into that tradition.”

That social activist tradition is indeed developed in The Magic Glasses. And each point is illustrated with movie clips from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and even with the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

In sum, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking represents and attempt to supply secondary and post-secondary teachers with a complete syllabus for a course on critical thinking that will help students radically revision their world in ways that inevitably challenge all of their preconceptions.

As such, Rivage-Seul’s book on critical thinking is not only the one progressives have been waiting for, it’s a page-turner as well. As Rob Kall, the editor-in-chief of OpEdNews puts it in his endorsement:

“I love this book. It’s brilliantly written by a very wise man who’s been serially enriched by spending time with some of the world’s greatest visionaries. And he shares what he learned from his conversations with them. The book is addictively readable. I started to skim the book to see if it was worth putting my time into and found I couldn’t stop reading. Michael Rivage-Seul brings sparkling vivacity to the potentially dry topic of critical thinking. As one who has interviewed hundreds of visionaries, I found this book to offer new perspectives and ways of seeing-which is what building critical thinking skills is all about. This book offers so much more than what its title, at first glance suggests. Have a taste and you, will like me, find yourself wanting to consume all the courses of this delicious meal.”

A Spirituality for Climate Change Activists: Al Fritsch’s New Book, “Resonance”

Al Fritsch

Climate chaos activists and theoreticians are missing the boat, because they overlook their problem’s profound spiritual dimensions. The omission is not trivial, because at heart climate change represents the most pressing spiritual problem of both our age and, no doubt, in the history of the world.

This is the basic thesis of Resonance: Promoting Harmony when Confronting Climate Change.  by Rev. Al Fritsch.

The book points out that indeed many are familiar with the scientific dimensions of climate change. The science has been trumpeted for years by virtually the entire community of climate scholars. Similarly, the problem’s moral dimensions should also be evident in a world where giant corporations make billions by producing planet-destroying fossil fuels while at the same time sponsoring well-funded campaigns to deny that human-caused climate chaos even exists.

Nevertheless, the spiritual dimensions of climate chaos remain soft-pedaled – including by climate change activists. This is true even within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the brave efforts of its own Pope Francis who tried to underline connections between faith and climate change more than two years ago, with the publication of his monumental eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

In making such observations, Father Fritsch knows what he’s talking about. Like Pope Francis, he is a scientist himself. Dr. Fritsch owns a PhD in chemistry. He is also a life-long activist – a colleague of Ralph Nader in the founding of Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. Later on, in his native Kentucky, Fritsch extended his D.C. work to the foundation and direction of Appalachian Science in the Public Interest and most recently of Earth Healing, Inc. (For years, my family and I have benefitted from the daily, down-to-earth practical recommendations Fr. Fritsch’s organizations have publicized in their Appalachia Simple Lifestyle Calendar.)

Most importantly, however, Al Fritsch is a Jesuit priest. His Ignatian spirituality has made him a mystic whose faith in the underlying unity of all creation finds evidence on every page of his inspiring book. Mystics, of course, are convinced that (1) there is a spark of the divine in every human being, (2) that spark can be realized – i.e. made real by expression in daily action, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) every great religious tradition embodies means and methods to facilitate such activation (e.g. meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, repetition of mantras, training the sense, slowing down, one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed others), and (5) once the realization of the divine spark within dawns, the realizer finds that same presence in every other human being and in all of creation.

Even the most casual reader of Fr. Fritsch’s masterpiece cannot avoid perceiving his internalization of such convictions. In fact, they are all embodied in the very title of his book.

“Resonance” is about the harmony present in everything that exists – a synchronizing force caused by a shared divine presence in micro-organisms, plants, animals, human beings, the earth itself, our galaxy and the entire universe.

In the first part of his book, Fr. Fritsch displays his grasp of the scientific and social dimensions of creation’s universal harmony. There resonance is evident, he argues, not only at the physical levels of time and space, but below them in creation’s chemical and biological dimensions.

Socially, such harmony is also found in human communication, and in artistic creations, especially in music. Resonance then reaches its human apex in love, compassion, and in the type of human collaboration that enhances civilization. Entire chapters are devoted to each of these topics making Resonance a kind of reference work that can be delved into where interest and personal or research needs demand.

However, it is the second part of Resonance that makes its most important contribution. For it specifically addresses the spiritual dimension whose omission, Fritsch argues, deprives climate change activists of the enthusiasm necessary for continued hope-filled struggle in the face of odds stacked against their efforts by the previously noted forces of corporate greed and deception.

“Enthusiasm,” Fr. Fritsch reminds us, is related to his essentially mystical outlook. Etymologically, the word means “in God.” It refers to the energy derived from awareness that (as St. Paul puts it) we all live and move and have our being in a profoundly divine reality (ACTS 17:28). Without that awareness enhanced by daily prayer and meditation and frequent communal celebration of life (e.g. in the Eucharist) weariness, despair, and burnout easily replace the energetic action necessary for the long-haul struggle required of those aspiring to effectively defend the earth.

Accordingly, chapters in the second half of Resonance address specifically mystical resonance as exemplified in Jesus the Christ. For many, Christ’s Spirit, Fr. Fritsch emphasizes, promises to awaken that earlier-referenced consciousness of the divinity resident at the heart of everything that exists. That consciousness in turn awakens compassion for the suffering earth and its vulnerable and wounded inhabitants.

But Fr. Fritsch’s call to spiritual awakening is by no means confined to those sharing the Christian faith or any faith at all. With homage to Karl Rahner, the author recognizes “Anonymous Christians” who can recognize the harmony of creation exposed in Part One of Resonance. Despite their lack of formal faith, they too need the spiritual centering of meditation practice that need not be Christ-centered or religious. To repeat: without such grounding, they run the risk of despair and burnout.

Resonance is a welcome complement to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Activists, teachers, and discussion groups will find it an inspiration and source of practical energy fueling their efforts to save the planet for their grandchildren and generations to come.

James Patterson’s “Woman of God”: Its Call to Reform the Catholic Church from Below

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James Patterson surprised me recently by publishing a book about the Catholic Church and faith. Usually, of course, Paterson deals with the world and adventures of ex-F.B.I. agent Alex Cross. There Patterson’s fiction revolves around spies, the C.I.A., terrorists, murder and general mayhem.

So I was intrigued when I came across Woman of God. I was even more surprised to find it addressing the problem of reform in the Catholic Church. In fact, the book might be seen as a parable – if we understand parable as a fictional story inviting its audience to conversion and action. The action in question is transformation of the Catholic Church independent of established church authority.

Woman of God traces the life of Brigid Fitzgerald, a not particularly religious physician, whose first assignment takes her to Africa’s Sudan. There horrendous experiences with grinding poverty, terrorist attacks, battlefield operations and dying children drive her to rediscover her long-abandoned faith.

The book is filled with prayers and mystical reflections about the unity of creation and of humankind. It also details Brigid’s series of romantic relationships and marriages that all end tragically. As a result, I sometimes thought I was reading one of those Christian romances where each and every plot turn is cloyingly related to God, faith and prayer.

But Patterson somehow pulls this one off.

With her faith deepening with every chapter, Brigid’s second marriage joins her with a progressive Catholic priest. Together they start the Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Catholic Church. It offers an alternative to the local parish, but stubbornly continues to identify as Catholic, even over the objections and threats of the local bishop. Eventually, Brigid herself becomes a priest – ordained by a dissident prelate.

Gradually JMJ becomes a movement that spreads across the United States. So does Brigid’s fame as a married female cleric. Accordingly, she receives threats from conservative Catholics and accolades from almost everyone else. A final seal of approval comes from the pope himself, when Brigid (and her daughter) are summoned to Rome to meet the Holy Father. When he eventually dies, there is even speculation that Brigid herself might be chosen pope.

The connections between Woman of God and bottom-up reform of the Catholic Church are obvious – especially in the light of prospects that threaten the very continuity of human life on our planet. As parable, the book calls committed Catholics to actually do something by way of resistance that calls upon the Church’s long (a neglected) social justice tradition. it’s time, the story suggests, to start a JMJ church of our own.  Committed Catholics must become the change Pope Francis called for in his landmark Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Chris Hedges’ recent article on the state of our country intimates something similar. We’re living in circumstances that parallel events in 1933 Germany, he says. As Hedges argues, all of our institutions – government, military, police, media outlets, schools and universities, churches and synagogues – have been too long silent. We’ve simply gone along with their own gradual corruption. When it’s all over, we’ll stand there scratching our heads and wondering how we could have let it all happen.

Regarding the role of churches, Hedges predicts we will ask:

“Where were the great moral and religious truth tellers? Why did they use the language of identity politics as a substitute for the language of social justice? Why did they refuse to condemn as heretics those on the Christian right, which fused the symbols of the state with those of the Christian religion? Why did they collaborate with the evil of corporate capitalism? Why did they retreat into churches and synagogues, establishing exclusive social clubs, rather than fight the injustice outside their doors? Why did they abandon the poor? Why did they replace prophetic demands for justice with cloying political correctness and personal piety?”

Chris Hedges suggests that only a deeply engaged spirituality focusing on social justice can save Catholics from repeating the “go-along-to-get-along” mistakes they committed under Nazism. We need the U.S. equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church. We need a JMJ community that will make its business resistance of all forms of Trumpism in the name of Jesus’ God.

Recall what Bonhoeffer, Pastor Niemoller, Karl Barth and others did when Adolf Hitler came to power. They saw their churches silent at best, and at their worst actually cooperating with Hitler by giving him their blessings. So they started their “Confessing Church.” Originally the movement concentrated on ecclesiastical threats from Hitler. Later however those foci broadened to embrace persecuted Jews. In the face of concentration camp atrocities, its members ended up asking

“Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain. (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9)

Catholics should make the Confessing Church’s question our own as Nazism has morphed into the contemporary Alt-right. In the face of its current unprecedented threat, corresponding action is required that works every day for the defeat of the neo-fascism Trumpism represents. And the Catholic Church with its unparalleled social teaching (recently expanded by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’) offers us the guidance we need to shape the responses of a present-day Confessing Church.

Following the parabolic example of Brigid Fitzgerald and her JMJ Church, here’s what we might do:

  • Admit that in most cases, present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of the Neo-Fascist Alt-Right.
  • Recognize the power of the Catholic tradition as expressed by Pope Francis as he addresses climate change, environmental destruction, income inequalities, racism, xenophobia, and interminable wars.
  • Publicly move out of our local church building.
  • Open store front JMJ Catholic churches with names such as “St. Francis’ Catholic Church of Resistance.”
  • Invite former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publish the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meet in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empower faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gather in the storefront on Wednesday evenings to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.

Certainly there will come objections from sincere Catholics. They will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections Brigid Fitzgerald might reply:

  • As baptized Catholics, we have all the authority we need. Given the unprecedented threats we face, none of us can wait for top-down leadership to address them adequately. (This was the conclusion of the Confessing Church.)
  • Reform from within? Remember: some of us are operating in churches where announcements deemed “too political” are forbidden. Some parishes don’t even have Peace and Social Justice Committees.
  • Division in our churches? The divisions that already exists are precisely the problem. Papering over such fissures actually prevents even naming the problem of Trumpism.
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? The times will not allow us the luxury of such pietism in the face of a threat that is truly planetary.
  • Too old? Christian faith will not allow us to identify with the physical as if we were primarily bodies with souls. Our spirits are ageless. The truth is that we are primarily ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Moreover, the JMJ movement promises to invite energetic college students (and others) to join us as leaders in our community.

This is not time for those with experience to step back and relax. Like Brigid Fitzgerald our experiences have caused us to mature. They have made us wise. That wisdom tells us that time is running out – for us personally, for our children and grandchildren, and for the planet itself. These unprecedented times call for radical response.

Thank you, James Patterson for your parable and its summons to Catholics. It remains for us to respond.

Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

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“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”

I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.

The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.

All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.

But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.

That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.

In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.

Fidel on Communism & Christianity

Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).

  • “There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
  • “I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
  • “. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
  • “. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
  • (Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).

Fidel on Liberation Theology

  • “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
  • “I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
  • “It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
  • “We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
  • “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).

Fidel on Cuban Democracy

  • (Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
  • “It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
  • “An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
  • “In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
  • “Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
  • “All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
  • “In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
  • “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).

Conclusion

But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?

I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.

Here’s what Cliff said:

  • The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
  • More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
  • Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
  • Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
  • Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
  • Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
  • So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
  • And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.

My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.

Domesticating Laudato Si’: Our Milk Toast Diocesan Study Guide

Science-vs-BS

This week (Just in time for Lent) the Lexington Catholic diocese published a study guide for Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ outspoken encyclical on the problems resulting from climate change. The guide called Discovering Laudato Si: A Small Group Study Guide.

Following two introductions – one to the social teachings of the church, the other to the booklet itself – Discovering Laudato Si’ consists of eight two-page chapters and a “Final Reflection.”  In each “chapter,” one page is devoted to excerpts from the pope’s encyclical. The second page lays out three or four questions related to the chapter’s selections.

That plan is indeed helpful for small group discussions in the parish settings for which it is intended. It means participants can avoid homework. They can actually read an assigned chapter during the relevant meeting itself.

That seems, perhaps, a positive contribution.

The booklet’s liabilities however overwhelm that modest asset. That’s because Discovering Laudato Si’ does exactly what Pope Francis refused to do in his authoritative letter to the entire church. The diocesan guide bends over backward attempting not to offend.

In his encyclical, the pope might well have said “The topic of climate change is controversial. Some see it as caused by humans and threatening to the very existence of the human race. Others say that climate variability is cyclical and natural, and can be remedied by human technology. Of course, such matters are too complex for non-experts and even for the Church to decide. So while the experts are resolving that “big picture,” let’s be practical. Let’s all take a deep breath, slow down, and avoid environmental crusades. Let’s determine the ‘small tasks’ that little people can do to mitigate the environmental damage our lifestyles may be causing. Let’s reduce, reuse, and recycle. You see, environmental crusading might offend those with opposite opinions. And remember, Christians must be nice. On these matters, the faithful should ‘bend to the pastor’s direction’.”

The pope avoided all of that. But it’s the actual argument the diocesan discussion guide makes!

True: it lets the pope’s encyclical speak for itself on the first page of each chapter. But the question page often subtly retracts what the pope’s overall document says. For instance, the questions at the end of Chapter One create a false equivalency between the 97% of scientists who recognize that climate change is caused by humans, and the 3% who deny human causality. “This debate will not be resolved anytime soon,” the study guide sagely observes!

The pope however did nothing of the kind. He was not concerned with possible offense to the 3%. Instead, he called for “a bold cultural revolution” (114). He denounced capitalism-as-we-know-it (190). He called for “radical change” (171). He identified climate deniers as “obstructionists” (14) He demanded “reparations” (wealth redistribution) for global south countries wounded by the climate crimes committed by their rich colonizers (30, 51, 52). He suggested a form of world governance (53, 173-‘75}

All of these are “big picture” items that the diocesan guide recommends we leave to the experts. In fact they are the very stuff of elections, political campaigns – and wars. For that reason, Francis’ document has evoked the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and the entire Republican establishment.

Limbaugh said, “Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’ . . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”

Why did the pope avoid the milk toast approach of the Lexington diocese?  It’s because he knows that we’re on a train that is speeding 200 mph down a track and headed for a precipice just a mile away.

In the face of such impending calamity telling people of faith to take our time, be “deliberate,” avoid “rash actions,” “ecological crusades,” and “headlong rush into the fray,” is misleading in a real and tragic sense of the word.