17 September 2020

Secular evangelists

Declining trend, but we're hoping for tonight's promised rain to wash away at least some of the smoke.
(Screenshots from airnow.gov.)

Last week I said that if the nation's exhaustion level is making Donald Trump vulnerable in the current U.S. presidential election campaign, maybe that makes Joe Biden's so-called consensus-building style an advantage -- the sort of advantage that a more ideologically driven (i.e., stress-inducing) opponent wouldn't have.

Where does that leave the democratic socialists and other progressive activists in the U.S. political arena? The most popular line of thinking among many in my social circles seems to be:

  1. Unify all possible allies in a diverse coalition to defeat Donald Trump, for the sake of democracy.
  2. On Inauguration Day 2021, begin restoring the essential norms and firewalls that prevailed before 2017.
  3. Apply unrelenting pressure on the Biden administration to go beyond the consensus-based, centrist program associated with the Obama-Biden brand.
Top priorities for point three vary among the leftist groups who express dissatisfaction with Biden's supposedly timid and capital-friendly philosophy (in other words, the groups whom Trumpian alarmists accuse of being the puppeteers who already control Biden!): 
  • replace the Affordable Care Act with something closer to a single-payer health finance system; 
  • get urgently serious about climate change, both domestically and globally; 
  • demilitarize our roles in overseas conflicts without withdrawing into isolationism;
  • defund the police (though this slogan remains under dispute);
  • reform or eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); 
  • rebalance the USA's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You can probably add more points of priority. These are all in addition to the more generally accepted centrist concerns such as confronting structural racism, revising the division of labor between police and social services, and restoring sanity to the Cabinet-level departments of Health, Labor, Commerce, Education, and other units of government that have been deliberately sabotaged over the last four years.

(By the way, I do not define "centrist" and "moderate" as meaning "weak" or "unenthusiastic." The bread-and-butter governmental functions that emerged from the New Deal / Fair Deal era are not unimportant. In many cases, they suffer not just from recent mismanagement but from their timid implementation all along.)

In some democratic countries, even the list of progressive priorities listed above under "unrelenting pressure" would seem strikingly moderate! Given the truncated political spectrum that we work with in the USA, compared even with Canada's inclusion of a democratic socialist party in mainstream politics, some activists don't put much hope in lobbying a Democratic presidency or legislature. Their traditional prescriptions include everything from strikes and walkouts to massive civil disobedience campaigns, and all the way (as some of Trump's tacticians would like you to fear) to armed revolution.

I've got a bit of a split personality. My heart is often with those who are discontented. Why has it taken so long for Americans to confront systemic racism, dramatic levels of environmental degradation, health crises as the most common cause of personal bankruptcies, declining school systems, and the rapidly increasing gap between the richest and poorest in our country? Isn't there something we can do to make faster progress on these fronts? What is the particular responsibility of Christians, for whom these challenges bear directly upon how we love (or don't love) our neighbors?

I need to remind myself that there is no unanimity within the Christian family about our obligations to seek justice, and how to deploy our various spiritual gifts toward that end. Many of the Christian leaders I admire most are engaged in evangelizing not just nonbelievers (as important as that is) but the rest of us Christians, to mobilize our pray-ers, teachers, prophets, mystics, healers, and all the rest of us, for the sake of pulling down strongholds of oppression and offering solidarity and companionship to all who suffer.

Gordon Browne. Source: FWCC
One of my models is Gordon Browne, who was the head of the staff at Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, during most of the ten years I worked there. He didn't just believe abstractly in the peace testimony of Friends; he strongly felt that his tax dollars should not finance the Pentagon. In the early 1960's he and Edith Browne began refusing those taxes. At Friends World Committee, he set up a process to permit other employees to follow his example. He insisted that if, as a result of our tax refusal through the FWCC payroll, the government were to seek to confiscate our wages, they would have to deal with him personally. He wanted to limit the exposure of other employees, who might have various opinions about tax refusal, to legal risks as the result of the organization's stand.

At the same time, Gordon supported the organizing of a committee to promote discussion among Friends meetings and churches to discuss war tax concerns, collaborating with a wealthy Cincinnati Friend, Wallace Collett, who was also a military tax refuser. Wallace Collett didn't just evangelize among Friends for this cause; every time the government went to his bank to attach money, this gave him a chance to talk about his faith with the nonplussed bank staffers! I vividly remember Collett speaking at an Indiana Yearly Meeting session about his war tax experiences. Clerk Horace Smith, clearly moved by Collett's testimony, spoke for many of us when he thanked God for Collett's faithful public stand.

I later drew on Gordon's and Wallace's work in drafting Friends United Meeting's tax refusal process.

My memories of these engaging Friends -- Edith and Gordon Browne, Carrie and Wallace Collett, and others who inspired me along the way -- reminds me of what might be needed among those whose hearts are rightly discontented by persistent political and social injustice. We need an energy that is somewhere between simply measuring consensus on the one hand and rebellion on the other. We need strong advocates. We may not need or find colossal heroes for these causes, but we do need evangelists. We need people to engage in the hard work of making these causes hopeful and attractive beyond the activist subcultures and their internal dogmatics.

What's the alternative? If we are discontented with Biden and Harris as consensus-builders, unlikely to go beyond what their broad communities of support will tolerate, to whom would we turn? Do we become elitists and appear to assume that we know better than our benighted neighbors, and therefore ought to impose our revolutionary solutions upon them? If we are not content with expanding the arena of consensus and, instead, seek coercive or manipulative shortcuts, I fear that the lessons of history will catch up with us, and the forces we unleash will overwhelm us all -- if the forces of reaction don't kill us first.

(Concerning "knowing better than our neighbors": this is more than a rhetorical question. In many cases, we might very well "know better," because we have insights into the hypnotic effects of individualism and affluence that reduce people's motivation to look critically at social structures. However, that doesn't necessarily make us immune from elitism and arrogance and temptations to use power rather than honest persuasion.)

When I think about secular evangelists, the first contemporary model that comes to mind is Bernie Sanders. I have never thought of him as a credible president, because I simply don't know how he would operate as an executive under the pressures of a hundred daily crises that have no ideological solutions. But when he spoke to the faculty and students at Liberty University (video here) back in 2015, he did his best to convey his passion for morality and justice in an arena where ideological sympathies would have fallen flat. Only the actual merit of his argument had any chance of success.

Among younger activists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a similar ability to communicate progressive goals and pathways beyond the activist community. This may be why her enemies try so hard to marginalize and trivialize her. Little do most of them realize that her comparatively moderate version of democratic socialism may effectively prevent a far worse and more realistic danger: the complete disintegration of the USA along the chasm between affluent people and those in financial danger. That disintegration would not only make suffering worse for millions, there is no guarantee that most of the affluent classes would survive a collapse. And while all that is going on, the climate-change clock ticks on.

In my dream, the secular evangelists for political and social justice, and the Christian evangelists who connect the dots between piety and politics, ought to know and enjoy each other's company. In the best cases, there will be significant overlap! But there's also a difference. I want the Christian evangelists to remember that the center of their ministry is not simply political persuasion. Their mission is to maintain and widen access to the community which gathers around Jesus, learning from him daily what it means to live at peace with all. I don't want Christians to pretend we have a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas about justice and stewardship. The arrogance of such a position would reduce, rather than widen, their appeal to those already dealing with more oppression than they can handle.

There's another dilemma in my thinking about consensus-expanding vs violent revolution: the awkward fact that, when people are oppressed or violated long enough, we can wish that a nonviolent, consensus-expanding alternative would arise among them, but our wishes do not govern! History shows that revolutions happen, however messy the process or outcome might be. You put any group of normal humans under enough stress, you can expect ugly outcomes. As Gandhi acknowledged, even violence is preferable to fatal passivity in the face of oppression.

This reality does not justify advocating violent revolution, but it ought to increase our investment in mobilizing all our creative resources to incubate and encourage a wider commitment to justice, reframing our ideas and making them more communicable across cultural lines, and building honest alliances wherever possible -- including between secular prophets and Christian evangelists.

Nada Moumtaz's donation dilemma.
When my friends in the US and Canada asked me for trusted initiatives for [Beirut-related] post-explosion relief and aid to contribute to, my list was ready. But I hesitated.
Lawfare Podcast's Benjamin Witte interviews Alina Polyakova about what we've learned about the Aleksei Navalny case. (Note: the interview does not seriously consider the possibility of a cause other than Russian government-initiated poisoning. I think other causes are unlikely but not impossible, and should have been given more consideration.) Polyakova: 
That's always the conundrum in Russia: It's always a combination of incompetence mixed with leaving a mark, a calling card, and the brazenness of then denying that, and knowing that the United States or Europe and anyone else won't do anything about it.... The person dies, doesn't die -- it doesn't matter that much.
The Polyakova interview was recorded a week ago. Here's an interesting update. And here's an analysis of Russian treatment of the case.

Emily Provance on social identity, conflict, and her Facebook experiment.

Why columnist Jennifer Rubin dropped the word "conservative" from her profile. (And a link to my consideration of the "conservative" label.)

Mark Russ counts the cost of the blessed community. (Found via the link on Mark's blog.)

Charlie Musselwhite and Charlie Baty pay tribute to Little Walter.

1 comment:

kfsaylor said...

In the fullness of the presence of Christ, I am drawn out of the reflective nature and process this piece is engages and promotes to guide and inform human relations. Through Christ's presence in my conscience and consciousness, the power and influence of the reflective nature through the outward agency of prophets, teachers, ministers, politicians, etc. (and the political, religious, and social institutions they promote and work through) is fading away in the glory of the immanent and self-evident being of the spirit of Christ itself in itself.