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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Looking for Jesus with Reza Aslan


In 2013, Reza Aslan was at the center of controversy and  popular media attention with the release of his book, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. What really put Aslan in the public eye…while greatly boosting his book sales..was an over the top hostile interview by FOX TV’s Lauren Green. Critics had a field day writing with the thinly veiled condescension of his lack of scholarly credentials, lack of awareness of most recent scholarship, and the validity of his conclusions. At the end of the day, Zealot did not really deserve the criticism or the controversy. It is a good book, extremely (and entertainingly) well written, and with source validation. (Aslan does his notes as essays at the back of the book..)It does not break new ground in the search for the historic Jesus nor are its conclusions particularly radical. It was written not for the  academy but for the general book buying public.

Raised as a Muslim with a brief experience as a “Born again Christian,”  Aslan felt drawn in to his own search for the historical Jesus. (A search I might add that seems less important as time goes by except as curiosity..) After a vibrant and detailed description of first century Palestine, especially Jerusalem and the Galilee, perhaps the best part of the book, Aslan then describes the world of First Century Judaism in which Jesus’ life and ministry will be lived. For anyone who has ever made their way through the intricately detailed descriptions of the Temple and its practises in Leviticus and Numbers, Aslan brings it into life with all its sounds and smells earthiness and wonder. That alone makes the book worthwhile.

After examining  his evidence, Aslan concludes that Jesus was a charismatic working class Jewish activist (with skills in healing arts, magic and exorcism) but mainly a firebrand who was dedicated to ending the shared hegemony of the Roman empire and their ethno-religious elite Jewish collaborators. (Aslan draws heavily from John Meier's A Marginal Jew..) Jesus’ understanding of his own Messianic role remain somewhat uncertain.

He then has the task of trying to determine how this one particular zealot managed to break beyond his own timeline and inspire the creation of a global religion. And here Aslan must explore the difference, and the gap between, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ of the Church. And for all his clarity of the compromised nature of much of scripture, he nevertheless draws much of his information from them. He ultimately finds the church with two realities, one still connected to the Jewish community ethnically and religiously, led by Jesus’ brother James, and the other the global universal missionary religion primarily founded by Paul of Tarsus. And this is the version that will ultimately win out.

In the end, where does this leave us? For Christian social activists, if Aslan’s portrait of Jesus is right, we should spend some time in reflecting on what it means about our commitment to pacifism and non-violent social change. If the “real” Jesus was open to change by any means necessary, what does that mean for us? To the extent that Aslan brings the historic context of Jesus  vividly alive, it’s a call to having an equally detailed understanding of our own context into which we bring our reality of Jesus. it It’s worth spending some time on these questions, even if the truth is that more important than the historic Jesus is the Christ of the Church as he has come to be understood, and known, over all these years.

It is the Jesus of Gandhi and King and the Trocmes and  Dorothy Day that will be definitive for the new radical emerging communities dedicated to Christianity, not as a belief system but as a way of life that demands mutual accountability, discipline and love. A new kind of zealot, if you
 will, informed by the Jesus of history but sustained by the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

Reza Aslan’s is a good read and worth your time, if only for the graphic experience of Jesus ‘ context. 

As one final note, Reza Aslan is one of the advisors and producers for the apocalyptic HBO speculative drama the Leftovers…a show that takes loss and mystery and faith seriously. One more reason to watch….

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Health Class


Health Class

By now, most reasonable Americans are raging with anger over the new American Health Care Act passed by a pusillanimous House that will put health care our of reach for tens of thousands. In reality, even before this legislative fiasco, health and class in the US have been tragically linked. Even myself as a middle class Protestant pastor has not been exempt from the vagaries of the system.
Last year, through a series of bureaucratic errors and personal misunderstandings as I entered into the status of senior citizen, I had the misfortune of falling out of my system for awhile. Long enough ( a few months) to have to make a special appeal to be let back in despite over 40 years in the program. Thankfully, grace prevailed and I am now insured. Well, with two glaring exceptions.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with depression  and ADHD. I was lucky enough to get in to the premier ADD clinic in the US. Even with its ever rising fees, I stayed with them for my med psych needs with 50% reimbursement from my program as an “out of network provider.” But in my senior program, that is no longer possible so I have been off my meds for awhile. 

Then for an issue that really enrages me, there is no more dental coverage offered, It is infuriating that in this country teeth are a class privilege. The wealthy have teeth. The rest, dentures if we are lucky. With a history of peril disease and tooth loss, I am aware of imminent problems that will for the first time be visible, and for me, humiliating. And I have no extra money, savings or credit.

So I Asked my friends. Some have plans, Some go to dental schools. Some go to the Philippines. Or Mexico, I go to Google in search of free clinics and come up with one not too far away in Harlem. Nevertheless, as the day and time approach, I am increasingly anxious. Is it wrong for me to go to  clinic? An I taking someone’s place? That’s the altruistic side. The other side is less noble, as in will I be embarrassed to walk into a clinic? Ultimately necessity sends me on my way.

The clinic is at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary’s, long a beacon of hope in the Manhattanville section. A church where I have spoken, heard Hilary Clinton and met with mourning union members after 9-11. They have an interfaith urban food garden. And a full service clinic.

I walk in and my anxiety quickly disappears. It is bright and cheerful. Open with many round tables for consultations and conversations. The intake volunteers are welcoming and respectful of each person’s privacy and dignity, I discover that not only can I get my teeth looked at but get a psych eval as well.

After a short wait, I’m taken in by a team of two dental students and a supervisor. They take a close look and leave me with a sense of hope. My hope to avoid noticeable gaps is possible. And even affordable. Preserving most of the teeth I still have is also possible. Though I will need to go to a higher level facility for that work. They leave me with a list  of affordable options near where I live. There’s more work ahead for me, but I do feel hope. 

After a few more minutes waiting time, two attractive and warm young psychiatric medical students sit with me at a table and do a full psych eval. I’m amazed at how easy it is to talk with them. I can even smile sometimes talking about depression. My critical and philosophical thoughts about suicide. They ask if my faith helps me in those moments. And I describe how its more not wanting to hurt my family or burden then with having to clean up all the messes I’ve left. I’m aware of how anger ultimately overtakes the sadness. (Not sure what I’d feel if I was alone.) I remember my architect friend of years who leaped off the George Washington Bridge. And my love of how people get through struggles, The beauty and courage if that. Eventually I turn to humor. Here are surprisin  tests like naming presidents. Or counting backwards by 7. They go off to consult with their supervisor. And return with my prescription. And an invitation to return. I am very satisfied.

I learn that while not an official program of Columbia University Medical School, all the volunteers and supervisors are from Columbia. They are all fresh and eager to help and make you feel good about this experience and they are the future cream of the crop of doctors and dentists.

I walk home feeling relieved. Happy that such a program exists, ready to recommend it to to friends who may need to recommend a member. Or even go themselves. Like me. And I am still enraged that my health has ultimately to depend ton the altruism of volunteers, not the obligation of the society I live in. We have a difficult road ahead of us. 

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Monday, May 1, 2017

"Judas" by Amos Oz: traitor? Or?


The writer Amos Oz has been a constant and consistent voice for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict speaking against occupation and for a two state solution since the 1967 war. He has steadily moved left…from Labor to Meretz…while always remaining an unapologetic Zionist. He has frequently supported what he views as “acts of selfdefense” only to quickly move towards opposition as the death toll rises. And he has a history of taking risks to establish and maintain connections with Palestinians, even at personal cost. He is a classic left Zionist with what appears to be a voice that grows ever weaker. And his weariness and frustration shows through his writings. 

His latest novel, Judas, is  an important and valuable resource for a number of critical conversations.  Perhaps the deep question being posed by Judas is that of the nature of betrayal…what does it mean to be a traitor? And is it possible that one who is commonly perceived to be  a traitor may actually be closer to the truth?

Judas tells the story, set in 1959,  of  Shmuel Ash, a Biblical scholar who comes to be a companion to the elderly Zionist Gershom Wald and a mysterious middle aged woman, Attila Abravanel, his widowed daughter in law and daughter of a deceased early Zionist leader, Shealtiel Abravanel, who argued against the creation of the state. 

In what is on the surface a classic coming of age story, Oz can use his characters to explore ideas that are generally taboo. For example, Jewish fascination with Jesus, as a Jew. Oz’ fictional student gives a pretty thorough overview of historic Jewish reactions to Jesus. But Ash has his own fascination centered in the character of the most profound of traitors, Judas Iscariot. For Ash, Judas is “..the first, the last, (perhaps) the only Christian…”. Ash argues that there would have been no Christianity without Judas, the only disciple Jesus could truly trust. ( The gnostic  “Gospel of Judas” published in 2006 makes this same argument.) Oz thus adds his voice to the popular and culturally ambivalent attraction to Judas from Kazantzakis to Jesus Christ Suoerstar. 

Interwoven with the exploration of  Jesus and Judas is the story of Shealtiel Abravanel who believed that the idea of a Jewish state was inherently flawed and wrong from the start. That only a multicultural, multi-religious  community could survive, Any other solution would be doomed to continual bloodshed. For this, Abravanel is branded a traitor and forced to leave the leadership circle. (For his efforts to retain relationships with Palestinians, Oz, like Abravanel has also been labelled a “traitor.”) Through Abravanel, Oz is able to express what he may feel but not be able to say on his own.

The cynical Wald, meanwhile, in yet another voice, perceives any effort to “reform the world” as doomed. …”whoever comes along to reform it soon sinks in rivers of blood…” Wald does have a word for dreamers, however. 

“…blessed are the dreamers and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreams and dreamers the curse that lies on us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them…”

One wonders if this may be Amos Oz’ best self-understanding at this point of his life?  With both its longing and its cynicism.

Judas would appear to be a great book for a neighborhood  interfaith conversation of rabbis and ministers, the arguments at a one-step away literary distance but still clear. The questions he raises are well worth exploring.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Two Sundays


The Rundetaarn

It’s Palm Sunday. For the first time in 22 years, I’m not in New York City. I’m in Copenhagen for a two day Transformation Symposium (. )But it’s Palm Sunday and I want to be in a church. Just up the street from the Symposium is the Rundetaarn (Round Tower) home of Trinitatis Church. It was a 17th Century astronomical observatory with an equestrian staircase to take  the the king to the top in his carriage.

I’m hoping that they’ll  be passing out palms, but not so. The young man who is at the door tells me that there’s a worship service starting in 5 minutes. I tell him that’s why I’m there. I open the pew gate and take a seat. Far to the front I see the altar against the front wall.
Altar Trinitatis Church
And half way up one side, an ornate pulpit. I’ve not seen that arrangement before. I notice the light streaming in and that there are plain glass windows, no stained glass. 
Pulpit Trinitatis

There is seating for maybe 900 people or more and on Palm Sunday, there are are maybe 50 people in worship. The music is beautiful. There is a full choir in the loft behind us. As the pastor approaches the pulpit, I notice he’s wearing a black robe and a distinctive crown-like white ruff around his neck. He preaches for about 10 minutes. Then exits the pulpit, goes to the altar for eucharist. When I get to the rail, I see there is a small cup for each person. I take the wafer, the cup, that familiar taste of tawny port that reminds me of the Episcopal Church I worked at in New Haven. The perfect wake up jolt for a Sunday. And I feel for a moment connected to my friends back home. When the service is over, there is coffee and cookies in the back. I take my coffee, shake hands with the pastor on the way out. 

At the Transformation Symposium, I will speak about the difference between forgiveness, which we do for ourselves, and reconciliation, which restores a relationship. But only after a process of acknowledgment and reconstruction. Vaar tells me of a church I should see and I invite her to take Carman and I there and she agrees. 

So we walk down the street to the Our Lady Church …again the simple sun light through plain windows, the altar against the wall, the pulpit on the side.
Our Lady
But this church is neo-classcial filled with the statuary of the famed Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldesen. Vaar walks Carman and I to the front. To see Jesus. Freed from the cross. Seemingly floating. Not in agony but welcoming. it’s an image she likes.
Jesus at Our Lady
She shows us the candles where the Taize group meets on weeknights. I can imagine being here, the repeating chants, building harmonies, glowing candles at night….here’s a spirituality that is living and growing even as traditional church languishes. 
Carman and Vaar

We will go outside, get hot dogs, sit in the sun and talk about transformation and spirituality. Mainly enjoying the feel of the sun. 
On the steps

Kimmo comes and we take a long walk to Christiania, the “free town of Christaina.”  "Now leaving the EU " the sign says as you enter this autonomous anarchy hippy cooperative community.  
Welcome to Christiania

Almost like you froze Haight Asbury around 1973 and it was still there. Psychedelic art and tie dye, arts and crafts and open tables selling weed and hash. I don’t know of any other place like this. (Except maybe the whole city of Portland, Oregon..insert ironic smiley face emoticon here..)  In the Woodstock bar there are a few folks who look like they haven’t moved since1973, still at the same table…after decades of struggle including at least one effort to shut down the trade, accommodation has been reached with the government and the place is quasi-legally owned and organized now. There’s a kindergarten.
We stop and listen to a jazz trumpet player form Baton Rouge, David Dunlap.
Carman and the trumpet player
Carman strikes up a conversation, and the drummer, a New Yorker, comes over. 

On the other side of the bridge, a kind of gentrification is taking place. Old DIY houses, some beginning with shipping containers, grow, expand, adding floors, levels. The architectural jazz, funk and improvisation is in stark contrast to the architecture by Ikeaness  of many modern Danish homes. 
Carman at the bridge

Kimmo seems to know everyone. There are second generation dealers. We meet one’s father, an original founder, and visit his kiosk of t-shirts and curios and Third World crafts.They’ve survived government efforts to shut down or evict, organized crime efforts to take over or introduce hard drugs, against which a hard line is held. It's not so much  a vision of the future as it is a living tribute to an idealistic past. On our side of the  Christiania gates, it's a lot of broken dreams since its founding. 
Jazz ala Django

I would later learn that when the city believed it was ending the “free town,” the National Museum created a commemorative exhibit complete with hash table. When the exhibit opened, dealers complained that they got it wrong and volunteered to fix it. They’ve been a kind of advisory committee ever since.

Dinner in another neighborhood of DIY houses awaits.

Palm Sunday is almost over…


Uli and Bob on Easter. Niemoller House in background.

 Easter. Berlin. I traveled here by bus and boat. Celebrated a Passover dinner with my family and Israeli friends of my son. Lamb from a Georgian cookbook and pomegranates. And now it is a cool and rainy Easter morning. My son Micah travels with me to the little St.Annen chapel in Dahlem.
St. Annen Chapel Dahlem
Like New York City, the boundaries of Berlin expanded to incorporate smaller villages and towns. Dahlem, home of the Free University, is one of these. There’s an urban farm museum across the street. There’s been a church in this site for 700 years. The walls show the different ages of construction in patchwork masonry.  I preached here once, when our neighborhood clergy group came to visit with Uli.

There ’s a good crowd, older, but I recall a family service and egg hunt will come later. Again, a service in a language I do not understand.
Inside St. Annen
Uli tries a simultaneous translation, but someone behind us shushes him. And so I listen. Later I will learn the pastor spoke of the importance of story. The difference between the various gospel writers. The need to find little resurrections of our own lives. My son Micah, a philosopher by training, said he would have liked a little more awe and wonder. I was missing the traditional opening song ‘Jesus Christ is risen today” and the "Alleluias.”

Following the service, Micah heads home. I stand in the churchyard with Uli. On the other side of the little cemetery is the Martin Niemoller House, surrounded in scaffolding like West Park. He was pastor here in the 30’s. We remember his famous quote:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I remember the times I stayed there before Micah moved here. The reunion of all who had been part of the many groups Uli brought to stay at West Park and explore what living in a multicultural city meant to us. I remember sitting in  the room where young Bonhoeffer watched as Niemoller was taken from his garden by the Gestapo. We greet the pastor.
Greeting the pastor
And another  man who works with refugees. Other friends. 
As we walk down the street in a steady rain, towards a Dahlem coffee shop, for one more coffee before I leave, I am wondering how near we are to our own Niemoller moment. 

By the time we finish our coffee, the sun is out. It is Easter.
Uli and Bob

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Get Out": a review


Another valuable resource...

An important resource in our ongoing conversation about white privilege is the new film Get Out by      Jordan Peele. As opposed to the traditional dramas and documentaries of last year's Oscar worthy films and the shimmering beauty that was Moonlight, Get Out breaks new  ground in the horror genre. More appropriately, like the classics Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby before it   (and TV's The Walking Dead), Get Out is better described as social horror. Like George Romero's Night Of the Living Dead in the sixties, Get Out holds up a mirror to the current state of interracial relationships in our society. And what the eye sees  is pretty scary.

From its cold open with a lone black man stranded in a white suburb, we realize that  the news over the last year or so has changed our idea of what scary is. You can't see this lone black man lost in white suburbia without thinking Treyvon Martin, and so the horror begins.

The basic frame is a visit to the white suburban parents by an interracial couple. From there it's a journey into the heart of elite white liberal land with occasional appearances by strangely docile African Americans. Part of the painful reality of the film is that the true monsters are not Deliverance style rednecks loosed by Trump's election.  They are instead white liberals, like the father who would have "voted for Obama for a their time." We're deep in Hilary country here.  And Get Out is brave enough to go there.

 Peele touches all the right buttons from the painfully hip father and his use of "My man" and "th
ang" to the old white golfer  who "knows Tiger" to the TSA black friend who humorously (and presciently) warns about going to "white girls' parents' houses" and "  the "sex slave thing." Even the psycho bro brothers' absent minded yet menacing play with his lacrosse stick has a resonance.

Get Out eventually earns its horror benefides by going all Grand Guignol in the last reel. I'm really not interested in going into detail or spoiler alerts at this point. You can find that elsewhere.  But before we get to the horror finale, we get schooled through brilliant metaphor as to the historic impact  and continuing deforming reality of slavery in the US. The bottom line is that after blood soaked struggle for survival, our hero sees what should be the salvific sight of police car lights. And our heart sinks. Because we know. You'll have to see the film yourself to see how it turns out.

To really understand this movie, go to an urban movie house. Maybe your closest Magic Johnson theatre. Let your body and spirit experience the sound of the reaction to the redemptive violence of the final act. Really feel that. That's where we are. One could say that this movie comes from an auteur who believes our situation is hopeless. Except that this movie was shared with us,

The ongoing work of deconstructing white privilege is a long and continuing project. Get Out is a valuable resource.....the most important movie yet this that project. Allow yourself to be shaken.

Friday, March 31, 2017

facing white privilege: a film series...


Facing White Privilege: A six part film series

As we continue deeper into this presidency, the project of deconstructing white privilege becomes ever more important. This year we have a valuable resource from a surprising place, i.e., Hollywood. After the embarrassment of 2016’s #oscarssowhite, there was actually a solid list of African-American themed films both nominated…and winning, not the least of which Best Picture winner Moonlight. (Leaving aside the whole embarrassing scene around the presentation of that award, metaphoric in its own right.) There were in fact enough films to create a film series that a congregation or study group could use to explore white privilege from the perspective of African-American artists.

Let’s take a look at these films:

First, Hidden Figures. ( nominations…Best Picture, Supporting actress Octavia Spencer and Adapted Screenplay). This, the most traditional of the films, tells the story of three African-American women Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson who were vital to the success of the Mercury 7 space launch. The film depicts the prejudice that was the norm at the NASA facility in a segregated Virginia. (It also secondarily shows how sexism limited the roles of women.) The women through grit and determination survive the racism and take their rightful roles with the assistance of a supervisor, Al Harrison,  who realizes the importance of the best, no matter what, we all cheer when he takes a sledge hammer to the colored bathroom sign, and astronaut John Glenn. It becomes clear that racism was holding the US space program back and a choice had to be made between maintaining old structures and having a program be as successful as it could. All the right heart strings are rigged as the women succeed.

From a movie about a true story, there were 3 significant actual documentaries.  The winner, OJ: Made in America, was a actually a five part 7.5 hour long ESPN series. ( You watch, are amazed at how much we forget and see the story of OJ in its context. You see his rise to fame as a “safe” (ie, deracinated black man), the trauma of the Rodney King era LAPD relentless assault on the black community. And how the trial became a touchstone in our national drama. Underneath the prosecution’s bungling of the case (why did this make me think of the Clinton campaign?) and irrespective of OJ’s guilt or innocence, Attorney Cochran weary showed that whether or not they planted evidence intros case, the LAPD certainly could have based own its attitudes and culture. Cochran didn’t so much play the race card as revealed what was already there. In Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson has pointed out how for black Americans, this case was payback. And more than one juror in the  film attests to that reality. It’s important to remember that 95 million  Americans watched OJ’s white bronco run…more than the Superbowl. The nation was transfixed. It is tragic that the Rodney King videos look like they could have been on this morning’s news. 

13th is required watching.(Best documentary nomination    The title refers to the 13th amendment which abolished slavery…except for criminals. It shows how that loophole was used to criminalize blackness and find anew way to enslave African-Americans. In illustrating what Michelle Alexander has named the New Jim Crow,  Ava Du Vernay’s film clearly shows the connection between mass incarceration and police violence. (To which one could add gentrification) Today’s mass incarceration is a direct (chain) link back to US slave history and  until this issue is truly wrestled wth, slavery is not only a legacy but an unsealing wound in society.  Consider: one of every four African-Ameriocan males will do time in  prison...

Finally,  Raoul Peck’s “I am not your Negro” (Best documentary nomination). This documentary follows an essay by Baldwin dealing with the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. It s both revealing as to Baldwin’s subjects but also to his internal life. It captures the searingly beautiful lyricism of Baldwin’s prose. One early intercut views of recent police violence illustrates…again and yet again…how little has changed. We see the tragedy that the US could not understand the opportunity that Evers, King and Malcolm X offered. And it shows that King snd Malcolm had arrived at virtually the same place vis a vis American society. Through Baldwin’s voice, we hear his unrelieved anguish and tragic lack of hope  for the future. We hear why he had to go in exile  to Paris and then had to return. We hear in the awkward words of Dick Cavett our inability to even find the language to talk about our struggles with this issue. Baldwin’s look in response captures the knowing bemusement, resignation and sadness of the reality. While he had loving relationships with individual white people, his sense of hopelessness is a stern warning  to any who see us in a post racial society. 

Fences and Moonlight serve as bookends. Through the very particular lives of individual black people in specific contexts in two eras, film with no significant white characters whatsoever, we gain insight into the universal human reality. Through the lens of blackness. Between the two of then they garnered a dozen nominations ranging for best picture too score.  

Denzell Washington’s Fences brings the work of August Wilson to the screen and makes it  available etc those may not have been able to experience his plays. Wilson may be the quintessential American playwright of the 20th Century. His 10 Play cycle…one for every a vibrant, passionate, loving and lyrical portrayal of African-American life through the century. Once complete, he died soon thereafter. I have had a special love of Wilson’s plays because all but one are set in Pittsburgh and show me the tie of my home town I never knew. For those who say the words are too poetic, I disagree. When I go around the corner from my apartment  on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, Boulevardrd, in front of the liquor store, and listen to the men, I hear the braggadocio, the metaphor, the dance and parry that is Wilson’s language. In Fences we are taken to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the mid-50’s.  We see a world shaped and controlled by white people, even when invisible, including the commonness of the prison experience, and its impact on one man, Troy Maxon and his family. August Wilson opens for us a world we would otherwise never see….or hear….

Moonlight accomplishes the same thing in a different era. It is in short an exquisite motion picture. A true film in every way from cinematography to sound. It’s beauty takes us into a world where white people are fro all intents and purposes irrelevant. Like Wilson, Barry Jenkins gives us characters who are complex, not easily categorized. We find, for example, drug dealers who can be caring and compassionate and valuable to their community as well as destructive. (One can think of the similarities of legal jobs of white people that are destructive been when the individuals may be more complex..) We also get to see how that world looks though the perspective of queerness. It gives us the opportunity to talk about what moves us, what we connect with, in a story in which we collectively have no visible role. 

Together these films give us a sound insight into what white privilege means and what our societal reality is like for the African-Americans who live within it. We get a broad and deep view without having to ask any African-Americnas we know to….. once again…. be our tour guides int blackness. The journey is very long. It’s time to start….

Friday, March 17, 2017

Hegemony How-To: a review

A Review

Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals
A review by Robert Brashear

As one who was profoundly occupied by the Occupy movement, both literally and figuratively for years, I jumped in to Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To…with great anticipation.  The book is both a critical analysis of that moment in US social history and also a valuable road map to organizing for broad based social change. For those of us who not only want to imagine a better world but actually help create it, this book is a very valuable tool. More explicitly, for those who understand that we must not only remove a President but an entire infrastructure that runs through the cabinet and congress, this may be the most important book you may read right now. 

First, the word hegemony has for most of us negative connotations.  While I suspect Smucker is being playfully provocative, for him in this book, hegemony is defined as  leadership or predominant influences exercised by one group within national, regions or local political spheres. For those of us who are experienced in classical community organizing, Smucker provides a potential bridge from the local to the national. And therein is the value.  Smucker’s analysis comes not only from a close look at Occupy, but at the 60’s movements Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). 

As a trained organizer, Smucker begins with stating the importance of power. He reminds us, that as Dr. King said, …power is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose…and that the refusal to use power is both political suicide and the abdication of moral responsibility.. He likewise makes us take a closer look at coercion as an appropriate tool, rightly pointing out that from strikes to community organization actions, change is achieved through coercion. What is critical is the content and practice of that coercion. 

Smucker also critiques the idea of the righteous few, that is the tendency towards insularity and self-selection that can lead inevitably to encapsulation, e.g., how SDS ultimately left behind the thousands who were being attracted to it and morphed into the Weather Underground. At less dramatic levels, progressives can be drawn towards that same tendency, viewing ourselves as the righteous few. 

What is missed is Pablo Freire’s  question: What can we do now in order to do tomorrow what we cannot do today? Or the responsibility to improve real people’s lives, mitigate real suffering and oppression in the here and now.. (That debate that we engaged in around Bernie vs. Hilary vs. non-participation. A debate that now feels like a luxury.)  That responsibility is the main motivator of most organizers I know. 

Smucker appropriately points out the difference in tasks of achieving moral legitimacy vs. political legitimacy, the symbolic contest vs. the institutional contest. For example, Occupy succeeded in winning the symbolic contest by introducing the inclusive concept of the 99%. A potentially large we. The political opportunity, the potential to realize actual institutional change was squandered. 
To build real power, it is necessary to move beyond self-selected groups like OWS and learn how to incorporate already existing blocs, as the SCLC did in the Civil  Rights Movement. As Alinskyite like the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations do at the local level by being an organization of organizations. 

It’s also helpful to consider how we recruit people to demonstrations, for example.  Most progressives continue to argue the moral point even with people who already agree with them. The most important question get me to show up is what will  be  accomplished? Most of us have the 3-6 people who if they ask us to show up we’ll be there,no questions asked, because we know they will never waste our time as we will  not waste their’s. An organizer needs credibility on the outcomes side. Moral Mondays works because it’s moral grounding has actual political demands. It also works because MM shares a common moral language with the North Carolina legislature.

The leads to a conversation about shaping the meta narrative, or put another way, shaping what is understood to be, what Smucker calls  common sense. The everybody knows…Smucker looks at this as an achievable task. There is a spectrum of positions related to what is important to us: active opposition, passive opposition, neutrality, passive support, active support. The goal is to, through the use of dialogue and conversation, not debate, seek to find common  moral values, getting someone to shift just one position to the left on the spectrum. That is enough to bring about meaningful change. It’s what Smucker calls narrative insurgency, changing the narrative, the common sense,  from the inside out. 

As many progressives have come from a post-modern philosophical perspective, Smucker raises a caution as to the problems in finding moral common ground in a post-modern society. (That’s what makes New York a more complicated environment than North Carolina for a Moral Mondays type movement to be effective.) 

Related to OWS, Smucker believes that the allergy to leadership and refusal to be political along with its paralyzing commitment to hyper-democratic concensus decision-making were fatal flaws. I would, for the  most part, agree. 

Smucker connects the emergence of OWS to the preceding anti-World Trade Organization protests, the Battle of Seattle, etc. And that is his background. But there were other streams as well, e.g., disaffected Obama campaign volunteers who felt their hope betrayed and brought passion and highly developed social media skills with them. There was always a constant tension between anarchist and movement politics that became paralyzing, in my observation.  (I continue to be curious as to how the Occupy culture came to be. Who proposed the working groups, spokescouncil structure, facilitation methods, etc? That will be someone else’s book…)

Likewise, I have tended to be defensive about the accepted wisdom that OWS was a failure. I sincerely appreciate Smucker’s assessment that changing the common sense around income inequality was a significant victory. His critiques are equally valid. But I would add what is not so directly visible:

  1. The radical success of Occupy Sandy that will have long term political effects in Staten Island and Rockaway 
  2. Occupiers who remained and embedded themselves in New York City politics and had a real impact on City Council elections.
  3. OWS veterans providing broad based logistical support for the Climate Change march. 
  4. OWS veterans providing logistical support for Black Lives Matter 
  5. OWS veterans in the heart of the Bernie Sanders campaign                                                                           There is a through line there that can’t be ignored. We are at a moment when a broad based national movement not only to resist but to reshape and reform needs to come into being. In that regard I appreciate his criticism of the word activist. It is a contentless word describing activity, not commitment.  What is clear  is that a class of professional activists…and accompanying 501c3’s… has emerged whose livelihood depends on  the continuation of their own issue situation within a system of dominance and privilege, i.e. the status quo. We need to ask what churches, and/or communities of faithful resistance, are called to be and do. What we need are values driven communities of mutual accountability and commitment that can begin the organizing work. Jonathan Smucker has given us a valuable tool for that project.