Levellers

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

American Democratic Socialist Heroes

Yes, I’ve learned from Karl Marx.  Though never considering myself any kind of doctrinaire Marxist, I find Marx’s critique of Capital unanswerable, especially the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  I’ve learned from heterodox, creative Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (escpecially Habermas), British Fabians and others.  But when I call myself a democratic socialist and think of myself as standing in the democratic socialist tradition of struggle for economic democracy to complement political democracy and for a free, non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist, ecologically sound, non-heterosexist society, it is primarily the home-grown American socialist heroes and heroines of whom I think.  Below are a few that have been especially influential and inspiring to me.  There is no order in the listing except who I think of first, etc.

  • Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926).  A prominent labor leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his youth, Debs founded the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) (1905).  He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket, winning millions of votes, though never a single electoral vote. (The Electoral College and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, are the two most anti-democratic features of our republic’s structure and both need abolishing.) A pacifist, Debs openly opposed U.S. entry into World War I which, because Congress had passed an Espionage Act which made any opposition to the war effort the equivalent of treason (a law which was clearly unconstitutional), landed Debs in prison for 10 years. He ran for president from prison and won over 2 million votes!  He was not pardoned and released until 1923, when Pres. Harding pardoned him as an old man.  His particular Socialist Party had since died, torn itself apart while he was imprisoned over support or opposition to the new Bolshevik regime in the USSR.  But Debs’ ideals of economic empowerment, organized working people demanding justice for their labor, and international movement of workers, opposition to war as a tool of capitalist oppression, and the dignity of common people live on.  Favorite Debs quotes include “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a “criminal element,” I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 
  • W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). First African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was a historian, sociologist (including sociologist of religion), criminologist, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, who flirted with Communism, but returned to democratic socialism.  He once ran for NY Senator on the American Labor Party ticket. 
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1830-1930). Labor leader and organizer famous for her slogan, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  Considered the “Miner’s Angel” because of her strong advocacy for miners against exploitive bosses, dangerous working conditions, child labor, bad wages, poor benefits, etc.  Yes, she is the inspiration for the magazine, Mother Jones.
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935), Nobel Prize Laureate, who founded Hull House in Chicago and with it, social work in the United States.  An early feminist, she worked to end poverty in the United States and to advance the cause of women worldwide.  Also a pacifist, she was the founding head of the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Norman Thomas (1884-1968).  Son of an Ohio Presbyterian minister, Thomas graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, before following in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Union Theological Seminary of NY and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  A pacifist, Thomas preached against the U.S. entering into WWI and became an early member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He soon became a major leader of the Socialist Party of America and ran for president 6 times. 
  • Dorothy Day (1897-1980).  She flirted with Communism in her youth as a radical, anarchist, journalist, but after a conversion near the time of the birth of her only child, Tamar, she became a baptized Catholic.  Then, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin, combining democratic socialism, pacifism,  with teachings of the Gospels and the Catholic social encyclicals.
  • Michael Harrington (1928-1989) , trained at Yale as a lawyer, this founder and chair of the Democratic Socialists of America (not a political party, but a movement), he was an early participant in the Catholic Worker movement, but lost his faith in God.  A writer, political activist, professor of political science, radio commentator, Harrington’s The Other America:  Poverty in the United States, inspired the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was the head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a major labor and civil rights leader.
  • Pauli Murray (1910-1985) first African-American woman to earn a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School.  A civil rights activist, writer, poet, feminist, and one of the earliest women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Murray was always a democratic socialist.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), although never the Communist that J. Edgar Hoover and others charged him with being, was attracted to socialism and, after his visit to India in 1960, and  Sweden and Norway in 1964, became a democratic socialist in thought, though never part of any Socialist party or organization.
  • Cornel West (1954-), Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the great public intellectuals of our day.  Has been a co-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • Gary J.  Dorrien (1952-) is an Episcopal priest, theologian, and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.  He is a strong advocate of economic democracy and historian of the Social Gospel and of socialism in the United States.
  • UPDATE:   I forgot to include:
  • Ella Baker (1903-1986), civil and human rights activist. Never part of any socialist party, she worked for labor and economic justice causes and shared socialist ideals and convictions.
  • A. J. Muste (1885-1967) began as a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) who went to Union Theological Seminary of New York. As a student he became involved in labor and social gospel causes and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Later pastored a Congregationalist church while working on labor issues–led to loss of his church. Temporarily, he lost his faith and adopted the Trotskyite form of Marxism.  On a visit to the USSR and then a meeting with Trotsky in the latter’s exile, Muste was dramatically reconverted to pacifist Christianity.  He became a Quaker and the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He joined the Socialist Party of America and campaigned for Norman Thomas. In retirement from the F.O.R., Muste went to work for the War Resisters’ League.
  • Bayard Rustin (1910-1987), gay African-American Quaker who was imprisoned for resisting the draft during WWII.  Former communist who broke with the Communist Party over Stalin and joined the Socialist Party of America.  Rustin was prominent in peace and human rights issues–and was the behind the scenes planner of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

These are but a few of the many key thinkers and activists in the American tradition of Democratic Socialism.  I place myself with the experimental, non-dogmatic, pragmatist and pacifist strand of this heritage.

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November 13, 2009 Posted by | biography, economic justice, heroes, labor, poverty, Religious Social Criticism, social history, U.S. politics | | 7 Comments

Book Review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

WeWhoDaredWe Who Dared to Say No to War:  American Antiwar Writing From 1812 to NowEd. Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.  Basic Books, 2008.

I have just read a public library copy of this gem and it is on my Christmas list for my own copy.  High school and college courses in U.S. history should use this as a supplement.   Beginning with the War of 1812, the editors collect writings against war during every war fought by the USA:  The Mexican-American War, the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Iraq and the “War on Terror.” 

A major strength of this collection is the ideological range of the selections.  One editor, Murray Polner, comes from the liberal end of U.S. politics (he leans toward democratic socialism). The other editor, Thomas Woods, Jr., is a strong conservative (libertarian).  But, popular myth to the contrary, war is not a “conservative vs. liberal” issue, but a moral issue that has been opposed on many different grounds. (Likewise, there have been both liberal and conservative militarists.)  Some of the writers collected here were against all war, but others wrote only to oppose particular wars. 

Here we find writings from the famous (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay,  Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Abraham Lincoln (while a U.S. Congressman–against the Mexican-American war), Alexander Campbell (founder of the Disciples of Christ), William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Daniel and Philip Berrigan and others.  But we also find writings from those who are nowhere near as well known, such as Jeanette Rankin (Republican Representative from Montana, first woman elected to Congress and only member of U.S. Congress to vote against entry into both WWI and WWII), John Randolph, Church of Christ minister David Lipscomb, Russell Kirk, Elihus Burritt and others.

I am not certain why the editors began with the War of 1812 rather than the U.S. Revolutionary War (or some of the wars during the Colonial period), nor why the Korean War was omitted, but this is an amazing collection that shows that anti-war speeches and writing is a thoroughly American tradition.  A nice bonus is a comilation of “Great Antiwar Films” described and rated one to 3 stars by historian Butler Shaffer.  Scenes of anti-war protest from every period of U.S. history are illustrated by a great selection of photos scattered throughout the volume.  A great bibliography finishes out the fine volume.

The reading can be depressing since it shows how seldom peace folk have been able to stop the war machine.  It is depressing to realize how many times the press abandoned its duty to uncover propaganda and lies–this cheerleading in place of investigation did not start with the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (In fact, it is bizarre to find that many of the same bogus arguments were given for invading Canada in 1812 as were given for invading Iraq in 2003.)

But this collection need not be read in such depressing light.  Those who are against war, especially in time of war, often feel isolated and the drumbeats of militarism and shrill cries of their neighbors claim that they do not love their country.  The warmongers try to claim the heritage of the nation for themselves.  A collection like this shows that anti-war feeling and action have a strong claim to the central American tradition.  Protest, agitation, resistance are all part of the warp and woof of this nation (and doubtless of many other nations, too).  Learning this history empowers ordinary people to join in the antiwar tradition–and can work to change the nation from its embrace of a culture of imperialist warfare to a culture of peacemaking.  A war-state undermines democracy and liberty, but working against war strengthens a democratic republic.

It’s now on my Christmas list–put it on yours, too.

October 23, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, books, citizenship, democracy, Iraq, just peacemaking, peace, politics, social history, terrorism prevention, U.S. politics, violence, war | Comments Off on Book Review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

“Socialism” is as American as Apple Pie

I’m getting tired of the rightwing fear meme that “Barack Obama is turning us into a socialist state.”  First of all, it is patently false. No socialist would begin an economic recovery plan by bailing out Wall Street instead of nationalizing the banks (at least temporarily), opening their books to see what crimes were committed and using the anti-trust laws to break up all institutions “too big to fail.” This administration has not even worked for CEO pay caps. Everything has been done to stabilize the markets, not stabilize main street or move to a full employment economy.  The Obama economic team is full of recycled neo-liberal Clintonites who laid the groundwork for the Bush  economic disaster.

But the other thing about this that enfuriates me is the idea that “socialism” is some alien ideology that threatens “the American way of life.”  Sure, the Framers of our Constitution were propertied white males, many of them slaveowners, who sponsored what Howard Zinn calls “a kind of revolution” in his A People’s History of the United States.  But the story of the capitalist power and privilege is only one part of the story.  Woven throughout our history is also the story of utopian experiments (many of them religiously inspired, such as the Oneida Community, the Shakers, and others) of sharing and struggles for economic justice:  the abolitionist movement, the Grange and farmers’ coops, labor movements, etc. 

Nor was this confined to a particular region of the country. Some of today’s most conservative bastions were once hotbeds of social unrest. Take Kansas, a state so conservative that it last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1936.  But Kansas was once such a crossroads of radicalism that it was known as “Burning Kansas.” When it came into the Union, farmers armed themselves as border guards to enforce the “Missouri Compromise” rather than let slave-owners bring slavery into the state.  Later the Grange wars were centered in Kansas. 

We teach history as the names of generals and presidents and of rich, powerful, capitalists. There is no doubt that these people make their mark, often destructive, on the nation and the world.  But our history includes labor leaders and activists, too.  Socialist Norman Thomas became the “third party” candidate who won a larger % of the popular vote than any other third party candidate, 20%–and he did that while “campaigning” from behind bars.  Emma Lazarus, the poet whose poem is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, was a socialist.  Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), the writer of the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance, was a Baptist minister–and a Christian Socialist who wrote two utopian socialist novels, Looking Backwards (1888), and Equality (1897) and originally wanted the word “equality” in the Pledge (“with liberty, equality, and justice for all”), but decided to omit it because he was afraid pro-segregationist schoolboards wouldn’t approve it and he was trying to use the Pledge to promote national unity and a progressive vision in a post-Civil War world.

Theologians from Walter Rauschenbush to Reinhold Niebuhr to Paul Tillich were members of various Socialist parties.  Michael Harrington, an early President of Democratic Socialists of America, wrote The Other America which exposed the poverty hidden from the American Middle Class of the ’50s and early ’60s–a book that helped launch the Great Society’s “War on Poverty.” 

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.  Capital is only the fruit of labor and could not have existed if labor had not first existed.  Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”  Who said that? Karl Marx? Vladimir Lenin? The “socialist” Obama of GOP mythology? No.  That pronouncement was by Abraham Lincoln.  Another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, took on the monopolies, championing the anti-trust laws.  After TR quit the Republicans and formed the Bull Moose Party, they became the first U.S. political party to propose universal healthcare–in 1912!    President Eisenhower, another Republican, not only claimed that any political party which tried to abolish Social Security would disappear (and it’s interesting that the GOP’s current woes began after they tried to privatize Social Security in 2005), but taxed the upper 1% at a 90%–far beyond the modest tax increases on the upper rich proposed by Obama–of other modest increases needed to finance universal healthcare or revitalize public education.  Even Richard Nixon, nobody’s liberal, saying, “We’re all basically Keyenesians now,” used wage and price controls to try to move the United States out of “stagflation” in the 1970s.

None of this makes socialism–or any other movement for economic justice and democracy–correct.  It doesn’t make capitalism wrong.  To conclude either one would take philosophical arguments and testing in the laboratory of history.  But this history DOES expose the lie that “socialism” or any movement to “redistribute wealth” or eliminate poverty or work for economic justice is somehow “Un-American.” Socialism, and work for economic justice in general, is as American as apple pie.

July 23, 2009 Posted by | economic justice, social history | 17 Comments

My Beef with TX Gov. Rick Perry

My father and paternal grandfather are Texans.  My dad retired to North Dallas.  My brother and one of my sisters (and their families) call Texas home.  Texas has given many gifts to the rest of America, including the late Barbara Jordan (D-TX), first African-American woman elected to Congress; columnist and humorist Jim Hightower; the late journalist, columnist and humorist Molly Ivins (may she rest in peace); journalists Bill Moyers and Dan Rather; musicians like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Buddy Holly, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson,  Mac Davis, Kenny Rogers, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roy Orbison, Freddy Fender and much more.  Texas has a raw beauty that varies widely because of the diverse geography in its large borders.  And I love Tex-Mex food.

So, believe me when I say that I am not anti-Texas.  I love much about Texas and many Texans.

Nonetheless, I currently have  a HUGE bone to pick with TX Gov. Rick Perry(R-TX).  Yeah, I get it. Texans love their independance and revere their revolutionary origins and pre-union status as a separate nation. And Texans love to talk big.  And MANY states have governors that say stupid things. I get all that and don’t hold the whole state responsible for Perry’s idiocy.  Except . . . Perry’s remarks were cheered and TX has elected him to two terms and may re-elect him to a third.  Here in KY, we threw out our corrupt moron of a governor and while I would never tell residents of another state whom to choose to represent them, Perry is not putting TX in the best light.

Last week Perry signed a resolution passed by the TX state legislature protesting the “intrusive and oppressive” federal government and asserting the state’s “sovereignty.”  (Claiming that the 10th Amendment gives states the right to secede.  The resolution called for the repeal of all federal legislation that attached criminal penalties if states failed to follow through!!) Excuse me? State sovereignty?  That was settled–at great cost in blood, tears, and treasure–with the U.S. Civil  War!!  (See also the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1869 that secession was not only illegal, but treasonous in a court case coincidentally called Texas v. White!) Also, my childhood memories are filled with Southern  politicians proclaiming “state sovereignty.”  It was code for: “We like racial segregation and plan to keep it and the feds better just leave us alone or we’ll kill Yankee FBI agents and civil rights activists!” And they meant it.

Then, yesterday, Perry spoke to cheering crowds at a tax-protesting “tea party” and suggested that Texas might just secede from the U.S.A.  Excuse me?  That’s sedition, Gov. Perry.  If a governor had said that when Bush was president, he’d already be in Gitmo under the Patriot Act.  But, hey, I don’t want a 21st C. Civil War. America and the world have enough problems.  So, lets suppose that Texas votes to secede and the govt. let’s it happen?  There would be losses for both sides, but I think Texas would lose more.  Sure, we’d miss the oil revenue and the great sports teams and the music, but look at all that Texas would miss if it separated.

  • Last month, Gov. Perry accepted $17 billion in economic recovery money.  (Did the federal government seem oppressive and intrusive when it sent in that money, Gov. Perry?) We’d want that back with interest. We could divide it among other states needing more help and wanting to be part of America.
  • And TX receives $.88 back from every dollar of federal taxes it sends to the government (as opposed to Minnesota which only gets $.4o back or Deleware which only receives $.35).  To make up for that loss, Gov. Perry would have to find other sources of state revenue:  Either raising taxes on oil companies or property or sales or income.
  • Since TX would no longer be part of the U.S., we’d need to remove all our military bases (and the income they generate for TX communities) and redistribute them in other states (construction jobs, etc. created for other states at TX expense). 
  • We’d also have to remove our U.S. Border Patrol agents, so the Mexican Drug Cartels would have to be handled without them–and without the FBI.
  • A nd Houston, you have a problem. You know your NASA control center which is such a large employer? Well, as the name “NATIONAL Aeronautics and Space Administration” suggests, that’s a U.S. federal agency. It would have to be removed and relocated, if TX secedes.  I’m sure that Michigan would appreciate all the new high tech jobs.
  • An independent TX would have to recreate all the federal agencies you take for granted, from the Food and Drug Association to the Environmental Protection Agency–more taxes for Gov. Perry to raise without U.S. help.
  • And although TX has some very fine universities, its public schools are pretty bad. So, cutting them loose would raise U.S. national testing scores overnight!
  • Current TX unemployment is 6.5%–and TX would have to find its own job creating economic recovery without federal help.
  • And the next time a hurricane strikes or a wildfire breaks  out, TX would not be able to count on aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  But maybe the U.S. would give foreign aid to our neighbor Lone Star Country.

Still think the federal government is so “oppressive and intrusive” that TX might be “forced to secede?” If it did, I predict that within 6 months, TX would be BEGGING to return to the U.S., would  no longer feel the federal government to be “intrusive and oppressive,”–and would return to the U.S. WITHOUT Rick Perry as governor.

Yeah, Perry was just spouting off to a rightwing crowd.  But words like “sovereignty” and “secession” have meanings. No elected government official should spout them lightly just to score political points.  And the good people of TX should think long and hard about the consequences of secession (and the PRIVILEGE of being American) and then let their governor know how they feel about him speaking nonsense.

UPDATE: It turns out that EIGHT states have passed or pending resolutions about their “sovereignty” and nearly every state has a fringe element urging secession. The element sometimes is associated with Republicans, but often to rightwing groups  like the armed Alaska  Independence Party to which Gov. Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd, is a member. (Yes, the GOP nominee for VICE PRESIDENT is married to someone who wants Alaska to secede from the U.S.) But a Canadian friend emailed me with perspective:  To the extent that Republicans like Palin and Perry and others flirt with secessionists, they will further alienate themselves from the mainstream. Quebec has had a major party that continuously urges secession from Canada:  It’s not a strategy that ever wins them national elections.  Good point. If Republicans become associated with secessionists, they will further place themselves in a fringe minority–further becoming a regional,  rather than national party.  This is NOT a way out of the political wilderness, but further in it.  Still ticks me off. After all, so much for “country first.”

April 16, 2009 Posted by | social history, U.S. politics | 39 Comments

Baptist College President Promoting On-Campus Racial Diversity

Because of the long, tortured, history of my tradition, the Baptists, with racism (Baptists have often been pioneers in racial justice and reconciliation globally, but in the Southern U.S., white Baptists have been mostly known for defending slavery and segregation), I am always delighted to publicize those efforts by Baptists to “get it right” on racial justice and reconciliation.  One current effort right here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky was noticed just this morning in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the state.  William Crouch, President of Georgetown College outside of Lexington, KY, is working to increase racial diversity on campus among students and faculty, with a specific goal of increasing African-American enrollment from 6% to 17%.

Let’s put this in context:  Although living in Louisville, I tend to forget how “white” Kentucky is, the Commonwealth is 90% “white non-Hispanic” on the latest census report.  Most African-Americans in this former slave state live in just 3 counties, with the largest concentration here in Louisville (Jefferson County).  Unless one is on the campus of Berea College, which was founded by abolitionist Christians, one can literally travel miles throughout Eastern Kentucky (either North or South of Lexington) without meeting an African-American. (I almost wrote “a non-white” but recent immigrant labor patterns have been increasing Hispanic populations throughout the Commonwealth.)

Georgetown College, the first Baptist school of higher education west of the Allegheny Mountains was founded in 1798 by Rev. Elijah Craig, a white Baptist minister who is also generally credited with the invention of bourbon whiskey! (Since most Baptists in the U.S.A. have been, at least “officially,” teetotalers since the rise of the 19th C. Temperance Movement, there is no mention of Rev. Craig’s ties to bourbon on Georgetown College website. No alcohol is allowed on the college campus, even though the initial school endowment is built on Craig’s bourbon patents. For non-U.S. and non-Baptist readers, the ironies will increase. Bourbon County, Kentucky, named for the Bourbon French that first emigrated to that area of Kentucky in the 18th C., and the county where Craig invented bourbon, has been a “dry” county since before Prohibition.  That is, bourbon is manufactured and exported from Bourbon County, but it is illegal to consume any inside the county limits. Only transplanted outsiders like myself much remark on the ironies. Indigenous Kentuckians take this as “normal.” 🙂 ) Slave labor in tobacco production was another early source of revenue and endowment for this college, as with many another Southern college or university–regardless of state or religious ties.

GC has historic ties to the (white) Kentucky Baptist Convention and the (white) Southern Baptist Convention.  Because Georgetown College (which should never be confused with the Catholic-founded Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.) is a “moderate” school theologically, it has weakened ties with the SBC since the takeover in the 1980s and early ’90s of the SBC by far-right, highly politicized, fundamentalism.  Georgetown has formed ties with the moderate breakaway groups known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and it’s statewide affiliation, the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.  Many of the older leaders of the CBF are among those few white Baptists in the South (then Southern Baptists) who were at least moderately active in supporting the goals of the Civil Rights Movement during the ’50s and ’60s.  Georgetown President William Crouch comes out of that mileau–his father was one of the handful of white Baptist ministers fighting segregation during the ’60s.  But the KBF/CBF crowd is still largely white and most have great difficulty learning to travel in the circles of black Baptists.  Like most “white liberals,” they talk a better game than they place when it comes to racial justice.

But Crouch and Georgetown are trying to go beyond the usual cosmetic efforts.  As the Courier-Journal reports, Crouch has taken several courses in African-American culture in order to break down barriers and end miscommunications.  He has established formal relationships between Georgetown College and several historically black Baptist denominations. (We Baptists multiply by dividing–over theology, race, language, politics, gender matters, heck–sometimes we divide over what side of the church to put the organ on!) The education branches of those Black Baptist groups now have representation on Georgetown’s trustee board.  He is recruiting African-American faculty (although only has one “catch,” so far).  He is trying to lure historic African-American fraternities and sororities to establish chapters in the “Greek” culture at Georgetown College. (I’ve never understood the attraction of fraternities and sororities, myself, but I do recognize it.) And, most controversially, Crouch is trying to get Georgetown College to “adopt” the legacy of Bishop College near Dallas, TX.

Bishop College was a historic Black Baptist College that, like many historic black colleges and universities, has fallen on hard times since the end of segregation–unintentional victims of greater choices by African-Americans coupled with ever-rising educational costs. Bishop College went bankrupt in the 1980s, so Crouch is trying to get Georgetown to be host to reunions for Bishop faculty and alumni/ae, to hold the archives of the school and preserve its history, etc. In return, he hopes that Bishop alumni/ae will promote Georgetown to new generations of African-Americans with excellent academic records and potential.  He is increasing the financial aid offered to non-white students, though he has to combat rumors among white students and alumni/ae that he is lowering admissions standards for non-white students and that all incoming black students are on full scholarship–neither of which is true.

There have been missteps along the way, as any such ambitious effort must expect to encounter.  But Crouch is surely right that the 21st C. will be increasingly diverse and that education in a racially/ethnically and culturally diverse environment will better prepare people to live and work in this increasingly global community.  And, although I would want to caution Crouch not to undermine the efforts of historic black colleges and universities to survive and thrive amidst all their challenges, it sure is great to see at least one historically white Baptist insitution of higher education evolve past a history based on slavery, segregation, and racism.

Three cheers for President William Crouch and Georgetown College.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, race, social history, theological education | 5 Comments

BPFNA Conference Update

Well, this remote blogging is trickier than I thought. My first update went only to my church’s blog (Life at Jeff Street) and the second one didn’t go anywhere–lost in cyberspace. So, let me try to convey a sense of these exciting days. Thanks to portable DVD players, we got all the way from Lousville to Chattanooga before the first “Are We There Yet?” came from the back seat! Molly (11) and Miriam (7) were much better behaved on this trip to Atlanta than I remember being as a kid in car trips.

The opening plenary Monday night was rich–but very long! We awarded Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who is living proof that the U.S. electorate sometimes gets it right, a peacemaker award for her solitary “no” vote following 9/11 to giving W a blank check to wage war with whomever he wants under the guise of a war on terror. Rep. Lee, a Baptist and member of Allen Temple BC in Oakland, CA (a BPFNA partner congregation), has also led the congressional concern about Darfur, formed the “out of Iraq” caucus, has been part of the effort to impeach based on the Downing Street memos, and is a co-sponsor of the legislation to create a cabinet level Department of Peace. Her mother was facing surgery, so Ms. Lee had to leave that first night, but it was great to have her.

Rabbi Michael Lerner was with us Mon & Tues. Check out the “Life at Jeff Street” blog for what he said to us Monday night. The link is on the right of this blog. On Tues. Rabbi Lerner gave a worskshop on his attempt to create a Network of Spiritual Progressives with a 3-fld task: 1) Countering the misuse of God and religion in public life by the Right; 2) Countering the phobia of the Left to all talk of faith or morality or values. Insisting that, without violating church/state separation, there can be a valid spiritual voice in politics–but it must be pluralistic (not just evangelical Christians) and not treat people without faith as second class citizens. 3) This
network must move for a new bottom line that does not judge everything solely in terms of
profit.

Then R. Lerner closed out our worship Tues. night at Ebenezer BC with a traditional Hebrew prayer for peace, that he translated freely into English in song form set to an old Gospel tune. It was beautiful. R. Lerner said that one(of the many) sad results of the history of Christian persecution of Jews is that until recently Jews had lost Jesus as one of Judaism’s greatest prophets. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus is more than a prophet, but he
was definitely a prophet–something on which Jews, Muslims, and Christians can agree and use
as a beginning point in dialogue. I know that Jewish scholars have really helped this Christian’s picture of Jesus!

On Monday night, I go to introduce the legendary C. T. Vivian who spoke on fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream today. Because I find typing on this laptop difficult,I won’t attempt to summarize his message. I’ll wait until I get back. Tomorrow night, I get the honor of presenting the Bill Moore Lifetime in Peacemaking Award to Dr. Vivian.

Dr. Peter Paris has been leading us in a series of reflections on types of violence and responses: We have covered war and poverty, and will also discuss sexism, and racism as types of violence.

Today, I went to a went to a workshop on “understanding whiteness,” something this whiteboy has been trying to do for 44 years! Whiteness is a pseudo-scientific cultural construction that brings privilege—but at a price.

More later, with more detail once I am on my home computer. Please feel free to post comments, but they won’t showup until my return.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, Jews, Judaism, peacemaking, poverty, prejudice, race, sexism, social history, violence | Comments Off on BPFNA Conference Update

Who were the Levellers?

Since I am re-launching this blog, I might as well explain its title. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, a number of movements arose that were more radical than the debate over the supremacy of Parliament or the Monarch. One of those was a religiously-inspired movement for democracy and human rights called “the Levellers.” The majority of the Levellers were Baptists and Quakers and Congregationalists, with a few Presbyterians. They produced several good leaders like John Lilburne (Congregationalist).

Their best writer, however, was a General Baptist named Richard Overton, who maintained a long correspondence with Roger Williams that may have influenced some of Williams’ writings and the shape of the Rhode Island Charter. There are gaps in what we know of Overton’s life. We do not know when he was born, but he lived in Germany during part of the Forty Year’s War. This experience gave (or reinforced) Overton a strong antipathy toward violence and war, especially religiously inspired violence and war. In 1615, Overton came to Amsterdam and joined John Smyth’s congregation of proto-Baptists just after they merged with Amsterdam’s Waterlander Mennonites. Since he was just learning Dutch (Overton was a polyglot), he wrote out his personal confession of faith in Latin–arguing for liberty of conscience, believer’s baptism, and nonviolence. Then we lose track of Overton until 1638 when we find that he is back in England and a member of a General Baptist congregation. (Even though Helwys and 10 others split from Smyth to return to England and form the first General Baptist congregation, the General Baptists kept in touch with the Dutch Mennonites for 50 years, exchanging members without further baptism–meaning that they considered each other to be “of like faith and order.”) Overton remained a General Baptist the rest of his life.

He became a pamphleteer for the Leveller cause. He wrote The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution in 1640 to put religious persecution on trial. It was in this pamphlet that Overton coined the term “human rights” half a century before John Locke or the Enlightenment. Overton was arrested for publishing without checking with the censor and went limp in classic nonviolent resistance, clutching his copy of the Magna Carta all the way to jail. Next the police arrested his wife (name unknown now) for continuing to publish his writings. She had a newborn child and the police refused to arrest her. So, the guard captain came back with new guards and they too would not touch an unarmed woman. Finally, a third set dragged her and her babe through the streets. Overton later wrote about this in terms that derided the manhood of the guard captain.

In jail, food had to be smuggled in for the Overtons and they shared with other prisoners. They discovered many thrown in prison for debt, so Overton began to argue for economic rights along with civil liberties, and the right to political participation. He argued for universal adult suffrage, for “free trade” (not as a slogan for international companies repressing unions and local peasants, but as an alternative to the inherited monopolies of the aristocracy), for a free press, for complete freedom of religion. Overton hated religious wars and one of the reasons he believed in religious liberty and liberty of conscience was as a peacemaking initiative. He argued against the death penalty, for laws to be written in the language of the people (vs. the practice of writing laws in French or Latin so that only the nobility would understand the laws), against torture.

The Leveller movement as a whole was not pacifist. They envisioned a small militia, but were against heavy arms buildups and the military adventurism of kings. Overton may have been a pacifist (he had been a member of a merged Baptist/Mennonite congregation in Holland) as all of the writings in which he is SOLE author indicate. He never argues that Christians should join the militia. Pacifism as a government policy was beyond what he could envision. But he wanted the rights of conscientious objectors protected–no more press gangs, or drafts, etc.

At any rate, I try to stand for the kind of radical democracy, defense of the poor, nonviolence and human rights in a contemporary context as Richard Overton did in the 1640s. Hence the title of this blog. This is an ongoing Leveller manifesto in the midst of an American empire. A call to return to a democratic republic and to live out justice for the poor and powerless. It is a call for radical baptistic faith in an era when most Baptists in the U.S. South have become willing pawns and mouthpieces for the voices of empire–and theocrats who must make their radical ancestors’ blood boil. Radical Leveller faith lives on–here on this blog if nowhere else.

June 24, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes, human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, social history | Comments Off on Who were the Levellers?

The Book is Out!

I don’t plan to use this blog much to push my own accomplishments, but I cannot deny excitement at receiving my copy today of my first book. It’s called A Guide to the U.S. Black Freedom Movement: 1945-1970 and is published by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (see link on this blog). It includes “The Struggle for Racial Justice in Canada and the United States: A Timeline. “It sells for $10 U.S. or $12. Canadian. I wrote it is a resource for school teachers, youth ministers, parents and others to counteract the 30-second soundbite treatments of the movement in popular media. You know the image: Rosa Park sat down on a bus, the next day Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech and POOF!–segregation was destroyed. This is not a technical history, but has lots of references to major histories on the movement. It does try to list many of the major organizations, leaders, and events–but the actual movement included thousands of people whose names we will never know, but whose courage serves us all.

I am hoping that this will be the first of several guides to popular social movements published by the BPFNA and that the churches use them as resources for the cultural amnesia that so affects us.

To order, go to http://www.bpfna.org/ All proceeds go to the work of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

June 23, 2006 Posted by | books, race, Religious Social Criticism, social history | 3 Comments

Tax Giveaways Help Who?

Sorry, I’ve been away for awhile. I will try once more to publish something at least once a week.

The Levellers, as most progressive movements, were concerned with economic justice. So, in honor of re-starting this blog named for the Levellers, I thought I’d begin by asking just who benefits from all the tax-giveaways that Bush has pushed for and Congress authorized. The constant claim is that these tax “breaks” (giveaways is more accurate) benefit the poor and middle class, but is this true? This is fairly easy to check, but the mainstream media is corporate controlled and doesn’t allow anything remotely like investigative journalism today.

The most recent round of tax giveaways (since we thankfully saved the estate tax) will cut $70 billion over the next five years (FY 2007-FY 20012). According to the Senate Finance Committee’s own figures (easily obtainable as public records), here’s who saves what as a result. Income below $10,000 per year is not taxed which makes sense since, at the current rate of inflation and dollar strength, a family of 4 must make a minimum of $19,157 per year to be above the U.S. poverty rate! If your family income is $10,000 to $20,000 per year, the recent tax cuts save you a huge $2.00. If you make between $20,000 and $30,000, the tax giveaways save you $9.00. From $30,000 to $40,00 per year, you save $16.00. If your family income is $40,000-$50,000, per year, you save $46. Now, we’re clearly in the middle class and moving toward the upper middle class, but still not seeing much benefit. From $50,000 to $75,000 per year, you save $110. From $75,000 to $100,000 per year, you save $403.

These are no longer “average Americans.” I have a Ph.D., but have never had any friends with incomes over $100,000 and most of my friends (educators, small business people, social workers, computer technicians, ministers, and low-to-mid-level city employees) make less than $50,000 in the city of Louisville, KY. Above $100,000 per year, one is moving into the lower ranks of the upper class. Not quite rich, but certainly well-off–doctor and lawyer level well-off.

$100,000 to $200,000 and you save $1,388. $200,000 to $500,000, and you save $4,499. From $500,000 to $1 million per year income, and these tax giveaways net you $5,562. But if you have family income of over $1 million per year, you will save $41, 977!

So, from the Senate’s own figures, the people who really benefit from this latest tax giveaway are millionaires! Now, that’s at a cost of $70 billion in lost revenue for a government already billions of dollars in debt with a trillion dollar trade deficit! How does the government compensate for the lost revenue? Not by cutting the bloated military budget, so it comes out in reduced money for education, infrastructure, and social services. That means that we all pay more in social problems resulting from increasing poverty. Further, higher government debt results in inflation and higher trade deficit results in a weaker dollar which further increases inflation and interest rates—all of which the poor and middle class pay in higher prices. This is Robin Hood in reverse–a massive transfer of wealth upward from those who can least afford to pay, to the already rich. And it spells recession around the corner.

The anti-tax folk are NOT saving your wallet from a burdensome tax system like they say. They are, instead, picking your pocket to line the pockets of themselves and their rich campaign contributors! When, however, they say that this is a class war, they are telling the truth: It is a class war of the rich and their political cronies against the poor and the middle class.

Remember and hold them accountable. Throw out those who believe the rich shouldn’t pay their fair share for the common good and put in place only those who will.

The Book of James tells us that those who dishonor the poor and favor the rich insult God. James 2:1-7.

June 18, 2006 Posted by | economic justice, social history, taxes | Comments Off on Tax Giveaways Help Who?