Lexington (KY) Bishop Questions Catholic Support of Donald Trump: He’s Brutally Vilified

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 1:4-5, 17-19; PS 7:1-6, 15-17; I COR 12:31-13:13; LK 4:21-30

Last week, the bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, profoundly sharpened the recent controversy involving a student from Covington Catholic High School who confronted a Native American elder after this year’s pro-life march in Washington, D.C.

Writing an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop John Stowe attempted to deepen the entire conversation. He suggested changing it from superficial wrangling about the apparent disrespect the student displayed to a discussion of whether or not Catholics can support the current occupant of the White House and still be true to their faith.

Bishop Stowe said “no.” It’s a matter of faith, he said.

By taking that position, the Lexington bishop created what I would call a much-needed Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment for the church at a time when Mr. Trump exhibits traits and policies reminiscent of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power in the 1930s. (In the name of their faith, Bonhoeffer and members of his Confessing Church separated themselves from German Christians who supported der Fuhrer.)

The bishop’s words also incurred the wrath of Catholic Trump supporters much as Jesus in today’s Gospel selection sparked anger in his own hometown when he called his neighbors’ faith into question.

Let me explain.

First, recall the context of the bishop’s words. Then connect them to our reading and finally to Bonhoeffer and his church of resistance.  

As for context, a video of the stand-off between the high school student, Nick Sandman and the Native American, Nathan Phillips, had just gone viral. Initial viewings led many to condemn the student’s apparent disrespect.

Then, Sandman’s parents hired a P.R. firm to spin his side of the story. As a result, public commentary quickly changed from blaming the adolescent for his apparently offensive smirk. It centered instead on whose version of the story was correct. Was the student (as the PR firm put it) merely smiling in an attempt to deescalate a threatening situation? Or was he making fun of the Native elder by placing his grin inches from the old man’s face?

In an op-ed published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop Stowe reframed the debate by adopting the prophetic tack I just mentioned. He focused on the fact that the young student and many of his companions were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. That’s what the bishop found incompatible with Catholic faith and its comprehensive approach to life-issues.

He wrote:   

“Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.”

In other words, Bishop Stowe was broadening the concept of being “pro-life” – the reason many Catholics back President Trump – to question that support itself. Catholic faith, the bishop implied, cannot tolerate Trump’s policies on immigration, refugees or other words or actions that disrespect Global South countries and endanger life (think capital punishment, drone assassinations, bombings, and illegal wars). Such behavior offends core Catholic beliefs about the inviolable sanctity of human life.

Specifically in reference to abortion, the Lexington bishop added:

“As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky . . . I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person. . .  While the church’s opposition to abortion has been steadfast, it has become a stand-alone issue for many and has become disconnected to other issues of human dignity.”

Still referencing the abortion issue, Bishop Stowe concluded:

“The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.”

Notice how these words unabashedly connect President Trump with racism and policies that embody hatred. They also recognize that many women are driven to abortion by government policies that make unplanned pregnancies problematic.

Now, that brings me to this Sunday’s Gospel reading and to Jesus’ words that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I make the connection because dozens of people chose to comment very harshly on the bishop’s op-ed. Instead of dealing with the more comprehensive understanding of the phrase “pro-life,” they called Bishop Stowe vile names, brought up the pedophilia issue, and defended Donald Trump as God’s servant. I was surprised that some of the on-line language was actually permitted by the Herald-Leader’s editors.

It was like what happened to Jesus in today’s reading. There the Master himself is pilloried by his neighbors in Nazareth for challenging (like Bishop Stowe) their narrow religious prejudices. When Jesus reminds the people from Nazareth that God cares as much about Syrians and Lebanese as about Jews, they actually try to murder him.

As I said, that proved the truth of his saying that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” After all, prophets are those who speak for God. They connect God’s word to events of the day. And that’s what John Stowe did in his op-ed. He made the connection not only between the teaching of Jesus on the one hand and the event in Washington on the other. Echoing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church, he also used the occasion to denounce Catholic support for latter-day fascism.

In similar circumstances 85 years ago, Bonhoeffer and the German Confessing Church courageously published their famous Barmen Declaration. It held that no one professing to follow Jesus could possibly accept Hitler as their Fuhrer; only Christ could hold that position.

In response, both Protestants and Catholics denounced Bonhoeffer and the others as traitors. Pope Pius XII would even persist in endorsing Hitler as “an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.”

The words of Bishop Stowe seem intent on preventing Catholics in his diocese from recommitting a similar error.

As a long-time Kentuckian and member of the loyal opposition within the Catholic Church, I’m proud of his courage. It’s time for Catholics and the rest of us to take Bishop Stowe’s words seriously.

Simply put, people of faith cannot support Donald Trump and still be authentic followers of Jesus. We must do all we can to frustrate Trump’s policies and see that he is not elected to a second term.

Yes, Bishop Stowe is correct: it’s a matter of faith!

A Very Sad Independence Day

Weeping Lady Liberty

The following reflection somehow seems appropriate for the 4th of July when everyone is celebrating our Founding Fathers and our great democratic tradition.

The piece comes out of a family discussion that took place about three weeks ago. In the exchange, I ended up characterizing the detainment facilities for refugees and migrants attempting to cross our borders as “concentration camps.” I was told in no uncertain terms that my comparison was inflammatory since it evoked inappropriate connections with Hitler’s extermination camps – an implied comparison that, for my conversation partners, was way “over the top.” We have no extermination camps, they said.

From there the conversation spun to more detailed comparisons of the United States to Hitler’s Third Reich and to what I and so many others perceive as a return of fascism, which I connected with capitalism. Once again, my observations were dismissed as wildly exaggerated, too general and jumping all over the place, bringing up issues not germane to the topic at hand. My references were to Iraq, Yemen, police brutality, xenophobia,

All of that drove me to compose the following essay more for myself than for anyone else — to clarify my own thought. To repeat, it seems appropriate for publication here on this 4th of July.

Hitler Redivivus:
How He Has Returned Triumphant in the Person of Donald Trump

Let me begin this piece on the contemporary return of fascism with an “easy essay” I wrote back in 1993. Today, the essay’s description of the triumph of “Hitlerism with Hitler” is proving far more prescient than I realized in the moment of its composition. Its form follows the spirit of Catholic Workers’ co-founder, Peter Maurin, who invented the poetic “easy essay” genre when he wrote for the Catholic Worker newspaper which he founded with Dorothy Day.

This particular imitation of Maurin’s style references Marge Schott, an infamous admirer of Adolph Hitler. Schott is the deceased owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. She was a racist and collector of Nazi memorabilia. Besides disdaining some of her players as “nigger millionaires,” she once famously said that Hitler was originally “a good guy,” until he “went too far.”

As you’ll see, the essay is about Ms. Schott’s hero and how he and the system he embodied actually did win World War II and has reincarnated today in thinly disguised form. That is, Hitlerism with its fascism, concentration camps, and genocide have in this era of Donald Trump more evidently returned to our world than seemed possible to most 25 years ago when I first published my own easy essay.

For starters though, here’s the Maurin-inspired piece as I originally wrote it:

Hitler, Bonhoeffer, Jesus and Us
(An “Easy Essay” with apologies to the memory of Peter Maurin and thanks
to Marge Schott)

Following Germany’s defeat
in “the First Inter-Capitalist War,”
the system was in trouble in das Vaterland.
It also foundered world-wide
after the Crash of ‘29.
So, Joseph Stalin
convoked a Congress of Victory
to celebrate the death of capitalism
and the End of History —
in 1934.

Both Hitler and F.D.R.
tried to revive the corpse.
They enacted similar measures:
government funds to stimulate private sector production,
astronomically increased defense spending,
nationalization of some enterprises,
while carefully keeping most in the hands of private individuals.
To prevent workers from embracing communism,
both enacted social programs otherwise distasteful to the Ruling Class,
but necessary to preserve their system:
legalized unions, minimum wage, shortened work days, safety regulation, social security . . .

Roosevelt called it a “New Deal;”
Hitler’s term was “National Socialism.”
Roosevelt used worker discontent
with their jobs and bosses
to get elected four times.
Meanwhile, Hitler successfully directed worker rage
away from the Krupps and Bayers
and towards the usual scapegoats:
Jews, communists, gays, blacks, foreigners and Gypsies.

He admired the American extermination of “Indians”
and used that model of starvation and internment
to guide his own program for eliminating undesirables
by hunger and concentrated slaughter.
Hitler strictly controlled national unions,
thus relieving the worries of the German elite.
In all of this,
he received the support of mainline churches.
Pius XII even praised der Führer as
“an indispensable bulwark against communism.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German “Confessing Church”
resisted Hitler’s program
of social Darwinism, patriotism and persecution of the undeserving.
Confessing faithful were critical of “religion”
which combined anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriotism and xenophobia
with selected elements of Christianity.
They insisted on allegiance
to Jesus alone
who stood in judgment over soil, fatherland, flag and blood.
They even urged Christian patriots
to pray for their country’s defeat in war.
Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler
and explored the promise of
Christianity without “religion.”

Hitler initially enjoyed great popularity
with the powerful
outside of Germany,
in Europe and America.
He did!
Then as baseball magnate and used car saleswoman, Marge Schott, put it,
“He went too far.”
His crime, however, was not gassing Jews,
but trying to subordinate his betters in the club
of white, European, capitalist patriarchs.
He thus evoked their ire
and the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.”

Following the carnage,
the industrialists in other countries
embraced Hitlerism without Hitler.
They made sure that communists, socialists and other “partisans”
who bravely resisted German occupation
did not come to political power,
but that those who had cooperated with Nazis did.

Today, the entrepreneurial classes
still support Nazis, whenever necessary.
The “Hitlers” they love have aliases
like D’Aubisson (El Salvador), Diem (Vietnam), Duvalier (Haiti), Franco (Spain),
Fujimori (Peru), Mobutu (Zaire), Montt (Guatemala), Noriega (Panama), Peron (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Resa Palavi (Iran), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Somoza (Nicaragua), Strossner (Paraguay), Suharto (Indonesia). . . .
The list is endless.

The global elite deflect worker hostility
away from themselves
towards communists, blacks, gays, immigrants and Muslims,
towards poor women who stay at home
and middle class women who leave home to work.
Today, Christians embrace social Darwinism
while vehemently rejecting evolution.
Standing on a ground of being
underpinning the world’s most prominent culture
of religious fundamentalism,
they long for Hoover,
and coalesce
with the right.

In all of this
is forgotten the Jesus of the New Testament
who was born a homeless person
to an unwed,
teenage mother,
was an immigrant in Egypt for a while,
came from the working poor,
was accused of being a drunkard,
a friend of sex workers,
irreligious,
possessed by demons
and condemned by the state
a victim of torture
and of capital punishment.

Does this make anyone wonder about Marge Schott,
the difference between Hitler’s system
and our own,
and also about “religion”
and how to be free of it,
about false Christs . . .
And who won that war anyway?

Fascism

Having summarized my general argument in that easy essay, the first point to be clarified is the nature of fascism. As I argue in my new book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news, fascism is really a species of capitalism. In my book, I call it “capitalism in crisis.”

What I mean is, fascism is the form capitalism often assumes when the free market’s endemic dysfunctions (periodic downturns, creation of obscene wealth disparities, inability to address environmental pollution, labor unrest, etc.) endanger its very survival. In its fascistic form, the system morphs into a police state.

With such enforcement, fascism’s essence may be summarized in three points. It is (1) Police State capitalism, (2) that favors the culture’s elite, and (3) blames the system’s disfunctions on scapegoats – in Hitler’s case on communists, socialists, Jews, Gypsies, blacks, and the disabled.

That’s the 1930s form capitalism took not only in Germany, but in Italy, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere during the Great Depression following the systems worst crisis ever precipitated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

However, since pure capitalism does not really exist in unregulated, free-market form, it is not exactly accurate to describe fascism as a kind of capitalism. That is, especially since the Crash of ’29, to insure its survival, capitalism has had to adopt elements of socialism such as: social security, minimum wages, severe limits on income, rent control, unions, guaranteed health care, public schooling, food subsidies, creation of national parks, etc. Economists call such provisions combined with free markets, “mixed economies.”

To cope with the problems of the Great Depression, such accommodations with socialism became so common that it is now true to say that neither capitalism nor socialism in their pure forms exist today – if indeed they ever did. Instead, mixed economies are all we have in the world. All economies are mixtures of capitalism and socialism.

This, however, does not mean that all economies are the same. The crucial question distinguishing, for example, Hitler’s mixed economy from that of Franklin Roosevelt is: “Mixed in favor of whom?” Hitler’s economy was mixed in favor of blond, blue-eyed Arians. Roosevelt’s with its social security and high taxes on the wealthy was modestly mixed in favor of working classes.

Or to put it in more contemporary terms, “Mixed in favor of whom?” is the crucial question differentiating Cuba’s mixed economy from that of the United States. The United States economy is unabashedly mixed in favor of the wealthy on the theory that the abundance enjoyed by the rich will trickle down to the general population. Cuba’s on the contrary is mixed in favor of the working classes based on the observation that the system’s “trickle” is never enough to provide a decent standard of living for entire populations.

Fascism Today
Its Concentration Camps

The argument in my earlier quoted easy essay was that Hitler’s system, whatever we might call it, persisted following his presumed defeat in 1945. More specifically, in our own day, our country has been taken over by fascist criminals like Hitler. But, let’s be clear: this is not a new phenomenon begun with the presidency of Donald Trump. No, the take-over has been in process at least since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War in 1945.

In fact, the argument can be credibly made that our country was founded by such criminals. Using rationale supplied by John Locke, our Founding Fathers committed genocide against North America’s indigenous peoples, eventually confining them in concentration camps (called “reservations”). They employed the same logic to enslave workers kidnapped from Africa imprisoning them in labor camps (called “plantations”).

For Locke, who inspired Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the crucial and ironic pronouncement behind such operations was that “All men are created equal.” But note well that in his formulation, the statement had no liberating relevance for Native Americans, African slaves, women or propertyless whites. Instead, its expressed intention was to establish the right of imperialists like him and his cohorts to steal land and resources from the continent’s indigenous inhabitants.

Locke’s point (as explained in The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking) was that just because the “Indians” were here first, they had no special claim on the lands they called home. That is, since (in Locke’s estimation) huge tracts were not being farmed as they would be in England, they were there for the taking by the Indians’ equals from Great Britain.

Locke said that a refusal by the Indians to recognize such equality amounted to a declaration of war against the British. So, the natives could be exterminated with abandon – a task our country’s great Indian Fighters took on with enthusiasm and relish creating a holocaust that killed millions.

Adolph Hitler himself took inspiration from the examples just cited. He liked the concept of concentration and work camps. He was expressly impressed by the efficiency of U.S. extermination of our continent’s First Peoples. It inspired him and evidently the minds behind contemporary concentration camps.

With all this in mind, it is no exaggeration to say that the camps are reincarnating today before our very eyes. Our government has set them up world-wide. They are so ubiquitous and normalized that they remain practically invisible. But consider their contemporary equivalents in:

• The U.S. prison-industrial complex itself for blacks, browns and poor whites transforming “Americans” into the most imprisoned population on the planet
• Guantanamo Bay for holding “terrorists” who after years of internment and torture have yet to be charged with crime and which Fuhrer Trump promises to fill to the brim
• Black Sites concealed throughout the world where kidnapped Muslims and others disappear without a trace and are tortured without mercy
• Fort Bliss (sic), a concentration camp for immigrant children
• Baby Prisons for infants as young as four months
• Detention centers for refugees from U.S. wars of aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere
• Family prisons immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America as they await trials which can be postponed indefinitely
• The Gaza Strip, the world’s largest open-air prison for Muslim Palestinians, “the Jews’ Jews” – unconditionally endorsed by U.S. politicians of all stripes

Fascism Today
Its Genocides

In such hell-holes the criminals (often the guards) commit murders, rapes and inflict torture with impunity. Nonetheless, since Hitler, it is no longer permissible for such polite company to crudely incinerate victims in ovens or to poison them in gas chambers. (That would be too “inhumane” and reminiscent of the unspeakable.) So, today’s executioners murder and incinerate Muslims (today’s “Jews”), and others on site. (It saves the trouble and expense of packing them into box cars.)

In other words, the executioners travel to the victims’ countries of origin in the Middle East and Africa and do the dirty work there – often from 10,000 feet in the air, where the screams of incinerated Muslim children cannot be heard. They cremate their victims more humanely in the targets’ own homes with napalm and white phosphorous. Alternatively, “pilots” seated comfortably in their air-conditioned “theaters” send automated death squads (killer drones) to decapitate those suspected of evil thoughts. In the process, the system’s butchers have massacred millions far exceeding anything imagined by that little man with the toothbrush mustache:

• Already by 1978, John Stockwell, the highly decorated ex-CIA Station Chief in Angola, estimated that his agency’s “Secret Wars” had killed more than six million in its dirty wars against the world’s poor. In Stockwell’s own words, every one of those wars was illegal and “bloody and gory and beyond comprehension almost.”

• Add to that
o The hundreds of thousands slaughtered during the 1980s in El Salvador,
Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras
o More than a million victims in the completely illegal war in Iraq
o Untold fatalities in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ethiopia,
o The 10,000 already killed in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle
East – with the numbers increasing each day from cholera and
intentionally-inflicted starvation

Again, the numbers are staggering – far beyond anything accomplished in Hitler’s death camps.

Meanwhile, at home, “Americans” are dissuaded from protest by a militarized skin-head police force of body-builders and thugs. “Dressed to kill” in their black or camouflaged flack suits, and anonymous under their helmets and behind polarized face-shields, they stand ready with batons, tasers, and AK47s – as well as employing surplus military tanks, and Humvees – to punish anyone who dares opposition.

Conclusion

Connect such apparently disparate issues – Hitler, concentration camps, extermination, the prison-industrial complex, U.S. wars of aggression, Stockwell’s calculation of 6 million victims, Guantanamo, torture, militarized police, Palestine, unpunished police killings of unarmed blacks, Black Lives Matter, black sites, Muslim bans, baby jails . . . – and one might well get accused of “changing the subject” or “jumping all over the place” or of being a negative alarmist.

But the truth is, the dots, though scattered, are there just waiting to be linked, just as they were in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. As then, the basic connection is the crisis of capitalism as described in my earlier-shared easy essay. With that crisis becoming more evident each day, fascism’s arrival has been clearly signaled, though its concentration camps and holocausts have been effectively renamed and camouflaged. As a result of such stealth and rebranding, the system’s reappearance has passed almost without notice.

However, patriots like John Stockwell have seen it coming since 1978. More recently, so has Michael Moore. It’s high time for the rest of us to take note!

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

woman-of-god-image

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.

Charlie Hebdo: a Thought Experiment

 

 

Jews 1

If World War II Jews did in Berlin exactly what the Charlie Hebdo killers did in Paris, they would be considered heroes, not terrorists. That realization alone should help us re-vision what took place in Paris last week. It should make us more careful about using the term “terrorism” in the context of our country’s so-called “War on Terror.”

To get what I mean, perform the following thought experiment.

Imagine Germany in 1943. The country is at war with Russia, Great Britain, France, and the United States. The Jewish holocaust is in full operation. German newspapers and magazines are full of anti-Semitic propaganda including grotesque cartoons (like the one above) depicting Jews in general and their Jewish faith in particular. The ones attacking Judaism and Moses are especially offensive to devout Jews throughout the diaspora.

One dark morning in Berlin, two Jewish gunmen burst into the offices of Lustige Blatter , the German humor magazine which as part of Germany’s war effort specializes in the publication of anti-Semitic cartoons. The gunmen know the particular cartoonists they’re looking for. They’re delighted to find them protected by a couple of Ordnungspolizei.

The gunmen open fire.

With their bloody work finished, the killers leave twelve bodies of Lustige Blatter cartoonists, copy writers, and Orpo bodyguards dead on the office floor. The assassins flee the premises.

Later on, they’re cornered and killed in a fire fight with the Gestapo.

How would the world outside the Reich’s orbit react to that sequence of events?

  • Would it consider the Jewish perpetrators “terrorists”?
  • Would it sympathize with massive protests defending the press freedom of the Lustige Blatter cartoonists to make fun of Jews and their religion?
  • Would it admire those waving banners declaring “Ich bin Lustige Blatter” while demonstrating in Berlin’s central Paris Square on behalf of the right to insult Jews and their faith?
  • Would it expect their leaders to join Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Tojo at those demonstrations?

The answer to each of those questions is probably a resounding NO! Most likely, the only ones considering the shooting an act of terrorism would be supporters of the Third Reich.

If that’s true, the thought experiment puts into perspective the events of last week surrounding the horrific events in Paris connected with the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It enables us to see this latest event in the “war on terror” from the viewpoint of the other side.

It reminds us that.

  • The Charlie Hebdo killers are combatants in a war and have grievances as real as any that Jews had in 1943.
  • For example, over the last fourteen years, western governments have daily killed untold (literally) numbers of Muslim civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere throughout the world.
  • More specifically, their recent attacks on Palestinians killed more than 2000 in Gaza (mostly civilians) including 500 children.
  • By some counts, more than one and a half million Muslims (mostly civilians) have been slaughtered in the allied invasion of Iraq since 2003.
  • In war, both sides kill one another; retaliations are routine and to be expected; they are part of war, not to be considered acts of terrorism.
  • In war (as the above thought experiment shows) most would consider propagandists and psy-ops agents as vital cogs in the combat machine, and hence legitimate targets.

And now a final thought. . . .

What if, during WWII, again during the holocaust, a group of 19 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto somehow hijacked three Lufthansa airliners? And suppose they flew two of them into Berlin’s tallest building housing the offices of companies like AIG Insurance, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Krupp Aviation, and Volkswagen — all vital to the German war effort?

How would we remember those Jews? Would we consider them “terrorists” or heroes?

Hmm.

The bottom line is this: if western governments insist on fighting a “War on Terrorism,” they have to expect counter-attacks even on what the “enemy” considers war propagandists and psy-ops personnel.

Simply put, that’s war.

Twenty Lessons I learned from My 40 Years of Teaching Social Justice

mike teaching

During the fall semester of 2014, I taught a Religion course at Berea College called “Poverty and Social Justice.” The course was personally significant because it rounded off 40 years of teaching at Berea, where my first class convened in 1974 – exactly 40 years ago. I remember how I came to Berea, fresh from leaving the priesthood, on fire from Vatican II, sensing the increasing importance of liberation theology (see below) and (naively) ready to change the world.

In this 2014 semester, nineteen students (mostly juniors and seniors) participated in REL 126. The students were engaged, committed, funny, energetic and smart. They, along with our readings, films and required community activism, taught me a great deal.  And that, by the way, has been my consistent experience since 1974 – I’m the principal beneficiary of the courses I’ve taught. (I’m thankful every day for the path Life has so gently led me follow.)

In any case, I’d like to share twenty of my own specific learnings here. Of course, none of my students would be able to draw these conclusions. After all, they were exposed to the underlying historical events and to the resulting ideas for the first time during the course. However for me, as I’ve indicated, REL 126 represented a kind of capstone to forty years of teaching and nearly half a century of trying to understand the world from the viewpoint of its disenfranchised majority. Grasping that understanding, I’ve come to realize, is the only hope of salvation our world has.

But before sharing those conclusions, let me tell you a bit more about the course itself.  Like all of my courses over the years, its basic purpose was to stimulate critical thought about poverty, hunger and what the Christian tradition teaches about social justice. Our readings included Ron Sider’s Just Generosity, Cynthia Duncan’s Worlds Apart, and the Bread for the World 2014 Hunger Report. We also analyzed the (still relevant) 1973 Pastoral Letter by the U.S. Catholic bishops of Appalachia, “This Land Is Home to Me.”

In addition, all of us attended monthly meetings of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) and volunteered for their “Get out the Vote” actions. A KFTC activist spent two of our class periods leading us in a game of “Survive or Thrive,” a wonderfully instructive game she had invented to replicate the problems of international “free trade” agreements. The activist wasn’t our only class guest.  A grass roots entrepreneur from a clothing factory in Nicaragua and a Glenmary priest-activist campaigning against Appalachian mountaintop removal also graced our classroom.

Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and taking Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as our guiding image, the course had us attempting to re-vision U.S. history from the viewpoint of the poor and disenfranchised rather than “the official story” of presidents, generals, the rich and the famous.

So we made sure that our current events source reflected those usually neglected viewpoints. To that end, students watched and reported regularly on “Democracy Now.” We even spent some class time watching and discussing a number of interviews with street-level newsmakers by the show’s anchor, Amy Goodman. Additionally class participants researched and reported on issues highlighted on the program including climate change, police militarization, prison privatization, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, reparations to descendants of African slaves, the campaign for a living wage, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and Israel’s bombing of Palestinians in Gaza.

In line with our commitment to understanding the experience of the actually poor and disenfranchised, our approach to the Christian tradition in this religion course was that of liberation theology – understood as “reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of those working for the liberation of the poor and oppressed.” Our readings here were drawn from a series on the topic which I had authored and published on my blog site.

A screening of the film “Romero” along with some other shorter documentaries, put flesh on those intentionally brief to-the-point readings. The documentaries emphasized U.S. sponsorship of third world dictatorships under genocidal U.S. allies like Pinochet (Chile), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), the Duvaliers (Haiti) and Somozas (Nicaragua), Mobutu (Congo), and Diem (Vietnam).

Together our intentionally subversive approaches to history and faith were intended to expose students to the untold history of the United States, and to the untold story of Jesus of Nazareth.  From all of this, I drew the twenty conclusions I mentioned earlier. Remember, my students could never reach such conclusions. My hope is that someday (if they continue reading outside the dominant culture) they might:

  1. Historically speaking, the United States is the country Adolf Hitler and his backers imagined Germany would be had they triumphed in World War II – the absolute ruler of the capitalist world at the service of corporate interests. In short, the U.S. has become the fascist police state Adolf Hitler aspired to lead.
  2. As such the principal enemies of the United States are those Hitler imagined being the protégés of “Jewish Madness”—viz. the world’s poor and disenfranchised.
  3. These are (and have been since the end of World War II) the objects of what C.I.A. whistle-blower, John Stockwell, has termed the ”Third World War against the Poor” located throughout the developing world. It has claimed more than seven million victims.
  4. This war by the United States has made it the principal cause of the world’s problems in general and especially throughout the former colonial world, as well as in the Middle East, Ukraine, and in the revived threat of nuclear war, along with the disaster of climate change.
  5. Its war against the poor has made the United States a terrorist nation. Compared to its acts of state terrorism (embodied e.g. in its worldwide system of torture centers, it unprovoked war in Iraq, illegal drone executions, the unauthorized bombings in Syria, its preparations for nuclear war), the acts of ISIS and al-Qaeda are miniscule.
  6. Far from “the indispensable nation,” the United States is more aptly characterized (in the words of Martin Luther King) as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Without the U.S., the world would be far less violent.
  7. At home, “our” country increasingly tracks the path blazed by Nazi Germany. It has become a state where corporate executives and their government servants are excused by one set of laws, whereas U.S. citizens are punished by another. Following this regime, law-breakers go unpunished; those who report them are prosecuted.
  8. This type of law is increasingly enforced by a militarized police state in which law enforcement officers represent an occupying force in communities where those they are theoretically committed to “protect and defend” are treated as enemies, especially in African-American and Latino communities.
  9. As a result, new wave of “lynchings” has swept the United States at the hands of “law enforcement” officers who execute young black men without fear of punishment even if their murders are recorded on video from beginning to end.
  10. In addition, disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos have been imprisoned in for-profit gulags that rival in their brutality Nazi concentration camps.
  11. The point of the militarized police state and prison culture is to instill fear in citizens – to discourage them from constitutionally sanctioned free speech, protest and rebellion.
  12. As in Nazi Germany, the dysfunctions of “America’s” police state (including poverty, sub-standard housing and schools, drug addiction, and broken families) are blamed on the usual suspects: the poor themselves, especially non-white minorities. They are faulted as undeserving welfare dependents and rip-off artists. Systemic causes of poverty are routinely ignored.
  13. In reality, welfare and other “government programs” represent hidden subsidies to corporate employers such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds. These latter pay non-living wages to their workers and expect taxpayers to make up the difference through the programs just mentioned.
  14. Government programs such as food stamps could be drastically shrunk and limited to the disabled, children, and the elderly, if all employers were compelled to pay their workers a living wage adjusted for inflation on an annual basis. Currently, that wage must be at least $15.00 an hour.
  15. Moreover, since education quality and achievement are the most reliable predictors of students’ future poverty levels, the U.S. education system should be nationalized, teachers’ salaries should be dramatically increased, and all facilities K through 12 regardless of location should enjoy highly similar quality.
  16. All of this should be financed by declaring an end to the so-called War on Terror, withdrawing from foreign conflicts and reducing by two-thirds the U.S. military budget.
  17. Instead, the current system of corporate domination, state terrorism, war against the world’s poor, and lynching of minority men is kept in place by rigging the nation’s electoral system in favor of right wing extremists. They control the system through practices such as unlimited purchase of government (the Citizens United decision), voter suppression tactics (e.g. voter I.D. laws), redistricting, and rigged voting machines. They do not want everyone to vote.
  18. U.S. citizens are kept unaware of all this by a mainstream media and (increasingly) by a privatized system of education owned and operated by their corporate controllers.
  19. As a result, revolution has been rendered inconceivable.
  20. The only hope and prayer is for a huge general economic crash that will awaken a slumbering people.

Why Did Capitalists Support Hitler?

hitler financed

[This is the fifth entry in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”(The previous mini-essays are found under the heading “Hitler and Christianity” just below the masthead of this blog site.) I’m running the series because the triumph of “Hitlerism without Hitler” led by the United States is becoming more evident by the day. (Citations here are from Jackson Spielvogel’s text, “Western Civilization,” a source commonly used in courses by the same name in colleges and universities. John K. Galbraith’s “The Age of Uncertainty” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977) and Hagen Schultze’s “Germany: A New History” (Trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1998) are also cited.]

Capitalists supported Hitler because he would not threaten the most important element of their system (private property), because he would keep their working class antagonists under control, and because his anti-Semitism promised to eliminate a major source of commitment to the victims of social Darwinism. Consider the first two points here. The reasons for Hitler’s anti-Semitism will be discussed later.

To begin with, the most important component of the capitalist system is private ownership of the means of production. To save that, capitalists during the 1930s generally agreed that it would be necessary to tinker with the system’s two other defining elements, viz. free and open markets, and unlimited earnings. That is, to save the system, the German government would have to intervene in markets and modestly limit and redistribute some income. Despite pressure from some in his party, Hitler assured his powerful backers that he would not generally nationalize German industry. Once again, Spielvogel makes this clear:

“In the economic sphere, Hitler and the Nazis also established control, but industry was not nationalized as the left wing of the Nazi Party wanted. Hitler felt that it was irrelevant who owned the means of production so long as the owners recognized their master. Although the regime pursued the use of public works projects and “pump-priming” grants to private construction firms to foster employment and end the depression, there is little doubt that rearmament was a far more important contributor to solving the unemployment problem” (799).

Again, as we shall see below, Hitler’s approach to Depression economics was not far removed from Franklin Roosevelt’s. Consciously or unconsciously, it was classic Keynesianism with its refusal to nationalize extensively, and with its public works and “pump-priming” grants aimed at ending widespread unemployment. John Kenneth Galbraith, Roosevelt’s chief economic advisor, makes this point.

“The Nazis were not given to books. Their reaction was to circumstance, and this served them better than the sound economists served Britain and the United States. From 1933, Hitler borrowed money and spent – and he did it liberally as Keynes would have advised. It seemed the obvious thing to do, given the unemployment. At first, the spending was mostly for civilian works – railroads, canals, public buildings, the Autobahnen. Exchange control then kept frightened Germans from sending their money abroad and those with rising incomes from spending too much of it on imports. The results were all a Keynesian could have wished. By late 1935, unemployment was at an end in Germany. By 1936, high income was pulling up prices or making it possible to raise them. Likewise wages were beginning to rise. So a ceiling was put over both prices and wages, and this too worked. Germany, by the late thirties, had full employment at stable prices. It was, in the industrial world, an absolutely unique achievement.” (Galbraith 213-14)

Galbraith’s words concretize the basic elements of John Maynard Keynes’ interventionist approach to economic reform, which Hitler unwittingly adopted. The key was borrowing and spending with abandon. Railroads, canals and superhighways renovated Germany’s economic infrastructure for capitalists, while putting the unemployed to work. Public buildings were given new faces when administration centers, court houses, libraries and post offices were renovated or rebuilt. Meanwhile, local industry was protected by way of exchange controls preventing the well-to-do from not “buying German.” And, as Galbraiath says, it all worked. Unemployment plummeted; wages, prices and profits rose. Hitler then applied wage and price controls, all with such great success that by 1935 Germany had already largely emerged from its depression. Capitalism had been saved. Socialists and communists had largely lost the grounds for their critique of the system.

Besides his reassuring approach to private ownership of the means of production, Hitler attracted capitalist support because of his labor policy. For one thing, he eliminated labor unions independent of the state. Thus employers were relieved of the threat of strikes and of the necessity of protracted collective bargaining sessions. For their part, workers were impressed by Hitler’s spectacular job-creation programs. They also saw their benefits packages improve, along with free time activities (Schulze 256). The key concept here was that of control. Secretary of Labor, Robert Ley, made sure mollified workers would not prove threatening to their employers.

“The German Labor Front under Robert Ley regulated the world of labor. The Labor Front was a single, state-controlled union. To control all laborers, it used the work-book. Every salaried worker had to have one in order to hold a job. Only by submitting to the policies of the Nazi controlled Labor Front could a worker obtain and retain a workbook. The Labor Front also sponsored activities to keep the workers happy” (Spielvogel 800).

Such pro-capitalist policy and the manipulation of the German labor movement led some on the left to see Hitler as a puppet of “monopoly capitalism.” For instance, a 1932 cover of AIZ Magazine portrayed the “real meaning of the Hitler salute.” It pictured der Fuhrer’s extended right hand raised, palm open, to receive money from a huge bourgeois figure standing directly behind (Schulze 239). The cover’s intention was to unveil the ultimate source of Hitler’s power.

Hitler capitalism

Hitler and Capitalism

John Ralston Saul

[This is the fourth entry in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”(The previous mini-essays are found under the heading “Hitler and Christianity” just below the masthead of this blog site.) The entry below follows a third installment which attempted to clear up some common misconceptions about fascism which many see as threatening to take over the U.S. today just as it did Germany in the early 1930s. Fascism, the last entry concluded, might best be defined as “capitalism in crisis.” The current installment looks more specifically at Hitler’s relationship to capitalism. (Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to Jackson Spielvogel’s text, “Western Civilization,” a source commonly used in courses by the same name in colleges and universities.)]

To understand Adolph Hitler’s connection to capitalism, it helps to distinguish common perceptions from what textbooks like Spielvogel actually say. Common perceptions are that the German economy was devastated following World War I. The impositions of the Treaty of Versailles are well-known. Images of Germans marshaling wheelbarrows full of deutsch marks to pay their grocery bills are fixed in everyone’s mind. After the Great War, inflation was rampant. In such context, Hitler’s rise to power is typically explained as the reaction of a humiliated German people to the Allies’ shortsighted demands for war reparations and border concessions inherent in their Treaty. Germans were so desperate, the story goes that they turned to a madman, Adolph Hitler, to restore their national pride.

Of course, there is truth to such understanding. Germany’s economy was in a shambles after World War I. Inflation had reached unprecedented levels. Ordinary Germans saw their earnings and pensions disappear. They were humiliated, desperate and in search of an alternative to the Weimar Republic which was under fire from factions on both the left and the right.

However, two key realities, relevant to the argument at hand, are often overlooked about Germany’s post-World War I situation. The first reality is that by the time Hitler emerged as a serious factor in the German political scene, the country’s economy had long since been intensively and triumphantly capitalist. Already by 1870, Germany had become Europe’s undisputed industrial leader, replacing Great Britain in that role (Spielvogel 682). By the 1920s, the country’s real reins of power were firmly in the hands of capitalist giants.

Germany’s most effective leadership came no longer from the aristocrats of William II’s Empire. Much less was it provided by Paul von Hindenburg, the backward-looking monarchist who succeeded Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann to head the country in the mid-twenties. Instead, leadership and power found location in the private enterprises today being sued for compensation by those they employed as slave labor during Hitler’s Reich. That leadership resided in banking industry giants such as Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank; in auto-makers, Volkswagen and BMW; in chemical and pharmaceutical companies Bayer, Hoechst, and BASF; in industrial firms Degussa-Huels, Friedrich Krupp and Siemens; and in the Allianz Insurance Company.

Secondly, Spielvogel makes it clear that Germany’s economy had largely rebounded from the devastation inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, from 1924-1929, the country actually participated in “the Roaring Twenties.”

“The late 1920s were . . . years of relative prosperity for Germany, and, as Hitler perceived, they were not conducive to the growth of extremist parties. He declared, however, that the prosperity would not last and that his time would come” (796).

Hitler, of course, was correct that his party’s time had not yet come. During the ‘20s, Hitler’s Nazis remained a minor right-wing faction. For example, in the elections of 1928, the Nazis gained only 2.6 percent of the vote and only twelve seats in the German Parliament (796).

Hitler was also correct that his time would come. It arrived with the onset of the Great Depression (796). The collapse of market economies throughout the industrialized world had their leaders scrambling to save a system that seemed moribund. Socialists and communists were gleeful and ascendant. Indeed, in 1934, Josef Stalin convoked a “Congress of Victory,” to celebrate socialism’s apparent triumph over capitalism and what he called “the end of history.”

As Spielvogel reports, such threats from the left forced German capitalists to turn to Hitler as their Messiah. Industrialists and large landowners provided the firm base of support he needed. More specifically, the elite were fearful, because the Depression’s economic hard times had given heart (and popular appeal) to socialists and communists who in Russia had seized power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Spielvogel writes:

“Increasingly, the right-wing elites of Germany, the industrial magnates, landed aristocrats, military establishment, and higher bureaucrats, came to see Hitler as the man who had the mass support to establish a right-wing, authoritarian regime that would save Germany and their privileged positions from a Communist takeover” (796).

The capitalist nature of Hitler’s system stands clear in this description – though it is fogged by circumlocutions. The attentive reader should note that, along with the military hierarchy and government administrators, the powers behind Hitler’s takeover of Europe’s leading capitalist nation are the captains of industry and large landowners.

Spielvogel’s avoidance of the term “capitalists” seems dictated by concerns about “political correctness” in a textbook intended for educational institutions whose mission is to inculturate rather than to raise consciousness. Once again, such avoidance contributes to general misconceptions about the nature of the Nazi regime.

(Next week: Capitalist Support for Hitler)