My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)

Zimbabwe

So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica,  where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa. 

Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?

That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.

However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.

Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?

Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.

When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.

The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all.  Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York.  The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms.  Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel.  The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture.  At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.

It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any   counter-revolution.

Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.

Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.

Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.

Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare.  It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America.  Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery.  At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring.  With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.

Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World.  The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day.  The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them.  As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income.  At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in.  Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so.  It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired.  We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”

This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?

My Experience in Cuba (13th in a series on critical thinking)

Cuba

My first trip to Cuba took place in 1997. Berea College sent me there as a delegate with The Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a Cuban specialist from our college spent a month on the island teaching a January Short Term course for Berea students. It focused on “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” Years later, I attended a two-week Conference of Radical Philosophers in Havana. Then there were those trips I earlier referenced with students from the Latin American Studies Program I taught with in Costa Rica. My wife and I also co-taught a summer semester course in Cuba three years ago – just before President Obama began lifting travel restrictions for Americans.

To repeat, those experiences gave me the chance to examine a culture and system of political economy attempting mightily to implement Marx’s critical theory. The efforts have continued for more than 50 years, even in the face of fierce and often terroristic opposition from the most powerful country in the world, located not 90 miles from Cuba’s shores.  Despite those impediments, and since 1959 Cuba has largely succeeded in providing for itself what human beings care most about.

(And here, I’m sorry to say, my time on the island has made evident the real “fake news” and analysis into which Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 50 years. For I am about to present a series of “alternative facts” that illustrate the need for critical thinking beyond the Propaganda Model Noam Chomsky exposed in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions.)

So what do human beings really care about? Most would probably say that they care about their health and that of their families. Education would also be important. They want safety in the streets. They even desire some years of retirement toward the end of their lives. Most also care about the well-being of the planet they’d like to leave to their grandchildren.

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – my trips to Cuba show that Marx’s critical theory has guided Cuba to provide a way of life that far outstrips even the United States. That’s right. Consider the following:

* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.

* Health care and medicine are free.

* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels!)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is virtually non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

Of course, there’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as:

* Health insurance
* Medicines
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Global South countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba is embracing reforms that include:

* A reduction of the government bureaucracy.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy (see below).
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a Cuban friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax.”
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

And don’t think that after the implementation of Obama’s new strategy for overthrowing Cuba’s government, that the island is about to descend to the levels of other countries in the former colonial world. Yes, the island has opened itself to capitalist investment, but it’s been doing that with European countries at least since 1989. But the opening is taking place on Cuba’s own terms – tightly controlled by government regulation. At the same time, Cuba is vastly expanding its already strong cooperative sector, while reducing its state-run monopolies. Fostering cooperatives means that workers collectively own the enterprises that employ them. They receive the same kind of aid from the Cuban government as that extended to capitalist enterprises in the United States and elsewhere in the Neo-liberal world. In Cuba, the aid takes the form, for instance, of tax breaks, subsidies, holidays for workers, vacations, etc. The idea is to have co-ops enter into competition not only with other cooperatives, but with private sector concerns on a level playing field.

The hoped-for response from workers isn’t hard to imagine. All of us prefer being our own bosses and controlling our own workdays, rather than taking orders from Starbucks in Seattle.

As I write, my wife, Peggy is in Cuba for three weeks with another class of Berea College students. It will be interesting to hear her report when she returns.

(Next week: Zimbabwe)

My Journey towards World-Centric Consciousness Continues (9th in a series on critical thinking)

Berea College

 (In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)

After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.

Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.

Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.

All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.

I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.

Brazil

My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.

My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there.  I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.

As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.

(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)

On Re-appropriating My Priesthood

 

Ordination[1]

I’m so appalled at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the threats it poses to everyone and everything I care about:  the environment and climate chaos, avoidance of nuclear war, victims of torture and false imprisonment, Muslims, drone attacks, wealth disparities, women’s reproductive rights, people of color, the LGBT community, our public school system, the right to privacy, human rights in general, labor unions – my children and my grandchildren.

In fact, as I’ve written recently, a Trump presidency portends the dawning of a Fourth Reich, where the victims of incineration will be not only Jews, but all of us, as the White House teems with climate change deniers whose policies threaten all species and the continuity of human life itself.

So the question is, what can we do about it? What talent does each of us have to respond to Trumpism? As parents and grandparents, teachers, writers, counsellors, school board officials, musicians, public speakers, church members, and public citizens, what does each of us have to offer these unprecedentedly dangerous times.

My own answer is my priesthood.

Only gradually and reluctantly have I come to that conclusion. After all, 40 years ago I exited the Catholic priesthood, got married and raised a family of three outstanding children. I remained active in my local church. And as a professor at Berea College and associate of Costa Rica’s Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), I continued my role as a theologian with a doctoral degree from Rome’s Academia Alfonsiana. For years I taught in a Latin American Studies Program that took students to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In those capacities, I wrote books and articles and offered courses connected with liberation theology.  However, I resigned myself to my role as lay person – a member of the church’s “loyal opposition.”

And the opposition was absolutely called for. Over the years I’ve found myself dismayed as two consecutive regressive popes (John Paul II and Benedict XV) waged a vicious campaign against liberation theology and systematically removed from the hierarchy and Catholic seminaries progressives and theologians like me. The result over the two generations has been the production of a largely reactionary Catholic clergy who long for the good old days before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

So as a lay person, I’ve often found myself sitting passively in my pew while rebelling internally against the reintroduction into the Catholic liturgy Latinisms and even Latin itself. I’ve listened uncomfortably to well-intentioned priests offer ill-prepared pious platitudes in their homilies rather than reflections connected with the historical Jesus and his relationship to the problems that householders like me face in our private and public lives. And, to speak truly, I was blaming them unfairly. After all, how could they possibly offer what their retrenched seminary training prevented them from receiving?

Still, it struck me as ironic that hundreds of people in my parish come together for about 2 hours each Sunday to reflect on their most dearly held (Gospel) values, but come away having barely tapped into the unlimited power for changing their personal lives and the world itself that those values supply. What a waste, I thought – not only for the parishioners directly involved, but for the world.

Then came a breath of fresh air reminiscent of Pope John XXIII’s famous “opening of windows” more than 50 years ago. Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis – a man intent on recovering the spirit of Vatican II. Deeply influenced by the liberation theology his predecessors had warred against, he published “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.) and then his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (L.S.). Both publications were bolstered by unprecedentedly honest and refreshing public statements. (Who can forget his question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”)  Francis not only called the church to profound reform; he called the world itself to a “bold cultural revolution.”

As for church reform, Francis called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the Church to embark on a “new path” (J.G. 1, 25) on which things cannot be left as they presently are (25). He called for new ways of relating to God, for new narratives and new paradigms (74). He wanted new customs, ways of doing things, new times, schedules, and language (27) — with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159).

Despite (lamentably) continuing to exclude women from the priesthood, the pope ordered the church to expand their roles in church life.  He recognized women as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

Clearly, then, the pope was speaking (as he said) not primarily to pastors and bishops, but to everyone (33). Decisions about change, he said, should be guided by the principle of decentralization (16, 32). They should be made at the parish level, because parishes are more flexible than Rome or the local chancery, and more sensitive to the specific needs of local people (28). The inventiveness of local communities should not be restrained, he said, but limited only by the openness and creativity of the pastor and local community (28). Such decisions should be respected by local bishops (31).

As for connecting the gospel with world issues, Pope Francis identified the struggle for social justice as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). He saw “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (192, 213). He also completely rejected war as incapable of combatting violence caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Pope Francis rejected unfettered markets and the “trickle down” ideologies as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

In Laudato Si’ the pope issued an urgent call to the Church and the world to address issues connected with human-caused climate chaos.  In this the entire encyclical (see my book, Understanding Laudato Si’: a Discussion Guide) might be seen as a complete rejection of Trumpism and of the entire Republican Party’s denial of that problem.

So, once again: what to do about it?

Experience shows that the anti-Vatican II clergy resistant to Pope Francis remains incapable of responding either to the latter’s Apostolic Exhortation (J.G.) or to his eco-encyclical (L.S.). Much less has it demonstrated a willingness to address the issues of political-economy, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, war, torture, etc.  raised by the emergence of Trumpism. (Once again, it is wrong to blame the clergy for this. Their training has made effective response impossible.)

So I’ve decided to do something about it myself. I’ve decided to reactivate my priesthood.

Honestly, I have to admit that the process of doing so began about 5 years ago following my retirement after 40 years of teaching at Berea College. It was then that I set goals for myself. One of them was an ill-formed, vague resolve to “reclaim my priesthood.”

As a preliminary step, I started a blog. Its center piece was the publication of a “Sunday Homily” each week. The reflections tried to connect world events, personal, and family problems with each Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Eventually, my homilies were picked up by OpEdNews – a completely secular progressive news source run by a Jewish editor. Over the years, I’ve published more than 200 such homilies covering Catholic lectionary readings for all three liturgical cycles. The result has been the creation of a kind of cyber community of readers that averages 1600 views of each reflection every week.

Now, in view of the crisis of Trumpism, I’ve decided that my contribution to resistance will be to translate that cyber community into a real-time assembly of faith. It will actually attempt do something to implement Pope Francis’ summons to church reform, and address in particular issues connected with climate chaos.

What I’m proposing is not a Protestant or even an ecumenical gathering. Rather my call is to an alternative Catholic “parish” in my town. Of course, this is not unusual; most towns of any size have more than one Catholic parish. Though specifically Catholic, all people will be welcome – Catholics, Protestants, atheists . . . In particular, “drop-outs” from our local community of faith are encouraged to join.

I imagine the gathering will be very simple – nothing of a show or performance. Rather, people will gather in my home (to begin with). We’ll sing or chant for a while, read the week’s liturgical selections, and share reflections. Afterwards we’ll gather at the dining room table for a brief Eucharistic breaking of bread followed immediately by a pot-luck meal. The week’s meeting will conclude with a planning session outlining activities for the coming week to resist the inroads of Trumpism.

All of this reminds me of the activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church” in the 1930s when Lutherans and others decided they had to do something to resist Hitler’s fascism. What I’m proposing here is an analogue, where people of faith call on their tradition to confront fascism’s re-emergence.

I’m convinced that only resistance fortified by deep faith can effectively combat that reincarnation. And even if only two or three join me in this proposal, I’m determined to go through with it. After all Jesus did say: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20).

Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“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.

What Am I Doing with My Life? A Reflection on a “Left Forum” Event

Pam Africa

“I don’t care if you’re 100 people, or 50, or 10. If there’s just one of you going against these mother f_ _ kers, it’s enough. Together we can warm their asses up!”

Those were the words of 70 year old grandmother, Pam Africa. I heard her speak last weekend at the annual meeting of the Left Forum – an organization of progressive thought leaders and activists. The meeting took place at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (CUNY). Its theme was “Rage, Rebellion, and Revolution: Organizing Our Power.”

Ms. Africa was talking about the necessity of organizing and taking to the streets in order to confront U.S. political, social and economic institutions she said were based on theft, murder, and perjury. The entire system, she added, has lost its legitimacy having become increasingly unresponsive to human need, and ever more violent in repressing those demanding their rights.

Pam Africa’s long experience gave her words credibility. She is the former Minister of Confrontation of the Move Organization, the Philadelphia African-American liberation community whose homes were bombed by Philadelphia Police Force back in 1985. Since that time, as the coordinator of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, she has been working for the release of Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners.

That was the theme of the panel discussion where Pam Africa was speaking – political prisoners.  It was the most inspiring of the events I attended, having chosen 6 of them from the more than 400 panels, workshops, and events that filled the Left Forum’s Events Directory.

There were 10 participants in the Political Prisoner presentation. About half of them were African American. Seven were women. Only 3 appeared younger than sixty. All but 1 had spent time in prison. And each and every one of them had dedicated their lives to the struggle for social justice. They’ve done so in the face of a Prison-Industrial Complex that reaps a fortune from the increasingly privatized criminal justice system currently incarcerating 2.3 million Americans – more prisoners per capita than any country in the world. The annual cost of doing so ranges from $24,000 to $47,000 per inmate.

Think of what could be done with that money, we were urged. What if it were it invested in housing, education, or mental healthcare rather than in prisons-for-profit?  Instead, those human warehouses have become a repressive government’s de facto programs for the homeless, poorly educated and mentally ill. Prison activist Anne Lamb described political prisoners there as “the most humble people you ever want to meet.”

How do so many prisoners end up behind bars?  Most of their cases do not go to trial, we were told. Instead plea bargains are struck. An arrestee is typically given the choice to plead guilty to one of a whole list of charges to avoid spending 15 rather than 5 years in prison. On the other hand, those who choose to go to trial get the book thrown at them. They end up doing 20 rather than 5 years and are held up as examples to potential plea bargainers. “You don’t want to end up like him, do you?” is the threat. The whole system saves (i.e. earns) the for-profit system millions.

Witnessing the intensity, commitment and sharp focus of participants in Pam Africa’s panel raised existential questions for me.

“What am I doing with my life?” I scrawled in my notebook. “Playing golf??”  I mean, I’m in my life’s final stage. And there is still work to do – especially around nuclear disarmament, climate change, and prison reform. As Pope Francis has pointed out, all of those issues are inter-related. Everything is! And the sad fact is that I’m largely avoiding the task.

Meanwhile, Pam Africa and the other panel discussants are out there in the streets. Once again, I’m not.

For me, the most logical response to the experience I’ve been describing here is to get involved in the Bard Prison Project. It’s a program for securing college degrees for prison inmates. Two years ago, Berea College (my former employer) was invited to join. I was asked to take part. I and other invitees did some preliminary work. Since then I haven’t heard anything.

It’s time to pursue that possibility.

As one of last weekend’s panelists put it, “We need to stand on the neck of the system and make it cough up justice.”

Dan Berrigan: in Memoriam

Dan Berrigan Resist

I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available).  The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!

Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.

All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.

During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.

Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about.  In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.

On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).

I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!

I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.

He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.

Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky.  (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.

Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it.  “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.

One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.

I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”

I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.

In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers.  The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).

I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk.  I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book.  I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.

Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!”  That’s his message to us today!

Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.