Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Changing the Direction of the Wind

        Jim Wallis, Executive Director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal and well-known progressive evangelical preacher, likes to say that for lasting, progressive change in society to happen, “it is not enough to change one polititian with his/her finger to the wind for another in the same pose; we have to change the direction of the wind.”  Polititians are infamous for responding more to polls, lobbyists, and the pressures of special interest groups (the political “winds”) than they are for standing for principles and doing what is right.  So, although casting votes and changing elected officials may be one part of what it takes to make changes that bring about a relatively more just and peaceful society, it is not enough.  (For my previous reflections on whether Christians should join political parties, click here and here.) We also need grassroots organizing in order to change the terms of conversations, change the direction of political winds. 

      For instance, in 1964, right after President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told him that the next step was a strong voting rights act.  LBJ replied that he had exhausted his political capital in getting this legislation passed. A voting rights act was at least 10 years away.  Dr. King replied that he would find LBJ the votes “in the streets.” Less than a year later, Dr. King was at the signing ceremony for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Admittedly, it was one tough year!) Change often happens slowly, too often it happens TOO slowly when it is change for justice.  But if enough people are organized and committed, sometimes they can make enough changes in conditions–changing the direction of the wind–that rapid social change for justice, for peace, for human dignity, for the care of Creation, is possible.

    I want to offer some encouragement along those lines right now.  Progressive Christians and others of good will and strong conscience are beginning to change the political winds in directions of justice, peace, and earthcare.  We don’t have hurricane force winds in such directions, yet, but there are some indicators of weather vanes starting to turn in good ways.  It is important to name and celebrate those small victories.  This is something my teacher, Glen Stassen, taught me.  Peace and justice folk, he repeatedly told his classes, are usually lousy at celebrating small victories.  We win a Congressional vote defunding a new nuclear weapons program and before the first cheer is out we note how many thousands of stockpiled nukes are still out there.  Fill in your example.  This makes us killjoys and wetblankets, which makes it harder to recruit others to our causes because we are no fun to hang around.  It also leads to burn-out, approaching all our work out of guilt rather than out of gratitude for God’s delivering love and empowering grace.  Instead, celebrating small victories (recognizing God’s work in the world) gives us strength, helps us act out of grace and joy rather than guilt and burdensome duty.  An ethic of joy and grace fits better with a theology of God’s grace:  Our peace and justice work is part of our witness to God’s redeeming work in the world, especially in the victory of Christ in cross and empty tomb. But without celebration and joy our work is more in danger of being a liberal form of “works righteousness,” a temptation to violence as we fool ourselves into thinking that it is our job to “make history come out right.” (The phrase is Yoder’s but I don’t have the reference handy.)

So, here are some small victories(and they are all the more important to note in a week that saw several unjust decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court!) –some ways we are at least beginning to change the direction of the wind.

Iraq.  Many peace folk are understandably frustrated that we made the Congressional elections of ’06 a referendum on ending the war only to have Pres. Bush ignore the recommendations of his own hand-picked Iraq Study Group and push for a bloody troop surge, instead, one that, as predicted, hasn’t worked. It’s frustrating to realize that we haven’t had the votes in Congress to pass a resolution de-authorizing the war (much less with a 2/3 majority necessary to override a presidential veto) or even to defund the war.

But we HAVE changed the conversation among at least the Democratic presidential candidates.  In January, only Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-OH) and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) had any real plans on how to get us out of Iraq.  Most of the other candidates preferred not to even discuss it.  Former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) apologized profusely for voting to authorize the war in ’02, but wanted to quickly turn to his efforts to battle poverty. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) rightly touted his opposition to the war in ’02 and since, but wasn’t putting much effort into ending the war.  Worst of all (on the Democratic side), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), whom national polls put as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, was dismissive of peace voters altogether.

   That has all changed.  Edwards has put forth a peace plan almost as detailed as Richardson’s or Kucinich’s and has been using the internet effectively to pressure Congress to end the war as soon as possible.  Obama has stepped up his anti-war activity in both the Senate and on the campaign trail.  Every Democratic presidential candidate in Congress except Sen. Joe Biden (D-DL) (a DLC-corporate Dem if there ever was one) voted against adding more funds for the war in the latest budget.  Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), usually a moderate who doesn’t make waves, even vocally championed cutting off funding for the war–beyond what Sens. Clinton and Obama were doing.  Even Sen. Clinton, who has so angered Democratic peace voters in the last 7 years with a foreign policy that has not differed much from Bush’s, and who was originally so dismissive of peace voters, has changed her tone. She is now co-sponsoring, with Sen. Dodd, legislation to reverse authorization of the war and is talking complete withdrawal in a time frame measured in months, not years–whereas before she talked about leaving “military support” in Iraq for years after “phased redeployment” that sounded much like Bush’s plans for shifting troops from Iraq to fight a new war in Iran! The difference in Clinton is especially noticeable:  At last year’s annual Campaign for America’s Future, she argued against any timetable for withdrawal (to loud boos!), this year, seeing signs that said, “End the war now” Clinton replied, “I see the signs. That’s what we’re trying to do.” Whoever gets into office will be more peace oriented if we change the direction of the wind than if we don’t.

   We aren’t where we need to be on Iraq, yet, although polls show the U.S. public ahead of almost all the presidential candidates!  Unfortunately, the only Republican candidate for ending the war (since Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB) chose not to run) is Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), a virtual Libertarian in economics whose non-war-related policies would exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor in this nation! Getting major pro-peace voices in G.O.P. and Independent circles is still a major task if we are to change the direction of the wind, but we are seeing some signs that the lock-step loyalty behind Bush on the war is weakening in GOP circles.  Not just moderate Republicans, but party pragmatists, are realizing that if they continue in this direction, it’s appease the base, but alienate the center–and that’s a recipe for political losses. 

Torture, Civil Liberties, Habeas corpus, and the rule of law.  We aren’t as far along as on Iraq, but we are making progress–the courts keep striking down Bush’s attempts to substitute “star chambers” for legal justice and even he is talking about closing the gulag at Guantanemo Bay, now.  It is disturbing to realize how many Christians want to torture suspected terrorists, but it has been good to see faith leaders take the lead in opposing torture and human rights violations in all forms.  Here the creation of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Evangelicals for Human Rights have been especially important.  It was disappointing that the move to defund the notorious “School of the Americas” failed again, but it came closer than it ever has. We are getting close to being able to close this tax-supported U.S. terrorist training school. 

Environment.  For the first time in 30 years, the House of Representatives has increased CAFE standards on all automotive vehicles. The bald eagle is off the endangered species list.  Congress is working (not as quickly as we’d like) to introduce stronger policies for reducing global warming.  Again, we don’t yet have the force of the new winds that we need, but the conversation looks much different than it did last year. 

Health care.  So far, only presidential longshot Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) is proposing a truly universal, single-payer health care system like Canada’s very successful model.  John Edwards'(D-NC) plan would achieve universal care in two stages and Barack Obama’s (D-IL) plan would combine government and employer plans to, at least insure everyone. Both promise full implementation by the end of their first term in office. (By contrast, Clinton has put forth no plan and only pointed to her failed previous attempt and asked us to trust her.) But, for the first time in U.S. history, we have not only Labor, but also major corporate leaders pushing for universal healthcare since health benefits are the single biggest labor cost for business–and a big disadvantage for U.S. companies over businesses in other nations.  With the premeir of guerilla-documentary film maker, Michael Moore’s Sicko, we could well have changed this debate considerably by the end of summer. I expect the top-three Democratic candidates to move closer and closer to a Kucinich-style universal healthcare plan as the campaign season progresses. 

Civil Liberties for GLBT folks.  Nearly every Democratic candidate and even some of the Republican ones are now vowing to end the disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies for military service.  Domestic partner benefits and civil unions, considered to be “too liberal to be electable” in ’04, are now mainstream public opinions and endorsed by many candidates. Full support for civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples is still rare (the only presidential candidate supporting this is Kucinich), but polling trends, especially generational differences, show that marriage equality is the wave of the future.

The victories may seem small. We have much more to do–and these are victories simply for a relatively more just future, not for utopia (never mind ushering in the Rule of God).  But such penultimate goals are worthwhile and the small victories deserve celebration.

A new wind is blowing–and I expect it to blow harder in the near future.

July 3, 2007 Posted by | antisemitism, citizenship, elections, human rights., politics, progressive faith | 3 Comments

The Evil of Holocaust Denial

I am a champion of a two-state peace in Israel, Palestine. I have argued that the U.S. should be talking with our adversaries in Iran and I have been very discouraged at the return of Iranian hardliners after reformers had made so much progress in pushing Iran toward true democracy.
But all that aside, I must say that the Holocaust denial conference organized by Iranian president Ahmadinejad has sickened and outraged me. My next door neighbors growing up, the Goldbergs, were Holocaust survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. My maternal grandfather saw the liberation of some of the death camps at the end of WWII. The Nazis themselves kept meticulous records of this most systematic of genocides. Holocaust denial, along with Holocaust relativizing, is now widespread in the Middle East and part of a growing anti-Jewish plague (fed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) around the world. It must be denounced wherever it raises its ugly head.

The U.S. is not blameless: we turned whole ships of fleeing Jewish refugees from our shores and we refused to divert any planes from the war effort to destroy either the death camps or the train tracks leading to them. And anti-Semitism was common enough among my own fellow Baptists that many here initially cheered Hitler prior to the war. And anti-Jewish beliefs are still common throughout the world. None of this justifies the policies of the state of Israel toward the Palestinians (as many Jews themselves point out)–but neither does the actions of Israel justify the evil of Holocaust denial or the resurgence of anti-Judaism and anti-semitism. I am sickened beyond belief.

December 14, 2006 Posted by | antisemitism, holocaust, human rights. | 3 Comments