Monday, March 8, 2010

Progressive?


A politics that is not sensitive to the concerns and circumstances of people's lives, a politics that does not speak to and include people, is an intellectually arrogant politics that deserves to fail.
Paul Wellstone, the late US Senator from Minnesota

I would rather be in a crack house than a White House that promotes neo-imperial policies abroad and neoliberal policies at home…because in a crack house, at least I’m in solidarity with folk who are sensitive to a pain.
Cornel West

It has become a gross over-generalization in the US to lament the "culture wars" and then pick a team to root for (Republican versus Democratic...Red versus Blue...conservative versus liberal...O'Reilly versus Stewart). The extreme harm that we see in this is not only the ugly partisan bickering and frustration, but simply "the fact" that there are only two options. Over the past half-year, EasyYolk has been blogging for a 3rd Way, a genuine spiritual-political-socio-economic option that transcends the supposed packages that our present culture has framed for us politico-theological consumers.

From the very beginning of our Republic, the day our Founding Fathers emerged from that "upper room" in Philadelphia in 1787, we have been handed two options: federalists (the defenders of the new Constitution) and anti-federalists (those wanting more de-centralized government). Today, the anti-federalist Republicans cling to the clear-cut narrative of personal responsibility as the Democratic Party appeals for the government to solve the nation's worst crises. While the GOP fearmongers our current President with labels like "socialist" and "soft on terror," the Dems unveil the callousness and singlemindedness of the followers of Reagan.

And over the past century, American Christians have hunkered down into fundamentalist (believers in the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die, the inerrant Bible and an anti-intellectual moralism) and liberal (believers in the social gospel, scientific certainty and the Jesus of social respectability) brands. Liberals roll their eyes at the simplicity and naivete of "fundies," while the conservative Evangelicals stimatize the loose liberals for not taking the Bible and sin seriously enough.

We see tremendous opportunity in this American moment for a new kind of movement for those who long for a precious blend of compassion, responsibility, equality, duty, peace, hard work and justice. We call this movement "progressive" because it reflects the great turn-of-the-20th-century fight for people-power and the awe-inspiring struggle for Civil Rights a half century ago. While we long to bring relief to individual pain, suffering and brokeness, we ultimately seek to address the socio-economic and political policies (and lack thereof) that foster inequality, injustice, violence, materialism and triviality that plague our world today. Our task is to treat symptoms, but, more importantly, to penetrate systems. Let's not just teach a man to fish, let's figure out what the hell is killing all the fish upstream and then do whatever it takes to stop the salmon holocaust.

This kind of movement roots itself in the very best of the devout Presbyterian anti-imperialist, big-bank busting William Jennings Bryan and the Baptist racial reconciling, poverty-fighting, pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. According to John Howard Yoder, the late professor of ethics and theology at Notre Dame, (in The Priestly Kingdom), Bryan and King represent the kinds of Christian leaders who

were the heralds of the agents of creative cultural change on a national scale precisely because they did not conceive of national power as their goal, but kept their eyes on the higher loyalty of Kingdom citizenship.

EasyYolk yearns for a dialogue that produces Christian "agents of creative cultural change," yet we seek a diversity of conversation partners." The Jewish rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, the secularist US historian Howard Zinn, the gay political journalist Glenn Greenwald and the Buddhist Hyun Gak-Sunim are brimming with ideas that invigorate us. Within the Christian tradition, we connect with the African-American Baptist Cornel West, the Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, the postmodern Congregationalist Walter Brueggemann, the ex-megachurch Evangelical Brian McLaren and the prophetic Anabaptist bible scholar-activist Ched Myers (among many others). This kind of multi-disciplinary, inter-traditional "overlap" is vital because these uniquely brilliant thinkers and doers, rooted in diverse traditions, view the world from perspectives that we simply cannot see otherwise.

But aren't we just advocating for a sexier version of "liberal?" Political journalist David Sirota says "no:"

It seems to me that traditional "liberals" in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A "progressive" are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.

We believe that only this kind of activism and accountability can recover democracy and equal opportunity for all Americans pursue a liberated, fulfilling and just life. The recent bank bailouts and lack of any significant regulation since, as well as last month's Supreme Court decision that gave corporations the green light to spend millions more influencing elections, are examples of the failure of political leaders to show some real political avocados. Instead, our national ethos seems to be caving into the myth of absolutely unfettered markets to liberate the destitute, vulnerable and marginalized.

Cornel West warns that we are trying to recover from the age of Reagan, a "political ice-age where it was fashionable to be indifferent to the suffering of the most vulnerable." West adds, Christians pledge themselves to the cross which means that we place "primacy on those who are suffering catastrophic circumstances, the least of these who have been rendered invisible." This kind of suffering needs a movement of Christians, tag-teaming with other progressive strands, that will go beyond charitable giving and creatively transform the systems that create the catastrophies in the first place.

Delwin Brown, in a classic essay posted on Religion Dispatches site, summarizes well:

Progressive Christians, like every other kind, claim to base their convictions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For them, that focus is particularly on the biblical call for justice. They don’t try to “prove” its Christian validity by quoting individual Bible verses (that’s an “unbiblical” practice that even the founding fundamentalist theologians of the 19th century rejected). They proclaim its Christian mandate by noting that the call for justice is a pervasive and fundamental element of the biblical witness, and they illustrate it by citing the messages of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the words of Jesus as reported in passages like Matthew 25 and Luke 4, and the real meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the “kingdom of God.” (Regardless of what preachers often tell you, the kingdom of God in the New Testament is not a purely “spiritual” thing “within you”; it is a social/political/individual reality that is always already appearing “in the midst of you.”) This message grounds almost all forms of progressive Christianity; it unites them.

What, specifically, might this look like? What issues are important to spiritual progressives, like us? Do we throw our lot with one political party or one candidate/leader like Obama? Rabbi Michael Lerner says "no." In a blog post yesterday, he listed a variety of specific policies that he disagrees with Obama on and that we, as a movement need to protest against:

-his war in Afghanistan,
-his continuation of the human rights violations of the Bush administration,
-his handing trillions to banks and investment companies rather than creating a national bank to fund social projects and allowing the privately owned banks to be dealt with by the “free marketplace” that conservatives have been praising all these decades,
-his failure to support Medicare for Everyone (single-payer) health care reform and instead embracing policies that will further enrich the insurance companies and pharmaceuticals,
-his support of “cap and trade” rather than a carbon tax to stem global warming,
-his capitulation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rather than using American power to end the Occupation of the West Bank,
-his rejection of the Goldstone recommendations on Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza,
-his support for firing teachers in Rhode Island for working at a school that did not meet the teach-to-the-test absurdities of No Child Left Behind rather than question the validity of the goals that are measured by that legislation,
-and the list goes on and on and on.


Glenn Greenwald is another great example of refusing to worship Obama, even when the mainstream media was going koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs over him. Greenwald took issue with many of the aspects of Obama's emerging foreign policy that he outlined in his Nobel Prize speech:

Obama insisted upon
-what he called the "right" to wage wars "unilaterally";
-articulated a wide array of circumstances in which war is supposedly "just" far beyond being attacked or facing imminent attack by another country;
-explicitly rejected the non-violence espoused by King and Gandhi as too narrow and insufficiently pragmatic for a Commander-in-Chief like Obama to embrace;
-endowed us with the mission to use war as a means of combating "evil";
-and hailed the U.S. for underwriting global security for the last six decades (without mentioning how our heroic efforts affected, say, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Central America, or Gaza, and so many other places where "security" is not exactly what our wars "underwrote")


And Greenwald made it clear that this is a major flaw of bipartisanship:

It's not just Republicans but Democrats that are now vested in -- and eager to justify –
the virtues of war,
claims of Grave Danger posed by Islamic radicals and the need to use massive military force to combat them,
indefinite detention,
military commissions,
extreme secrecy,
full-scale immunity for government lawbreaking.


Lerner and Greenwald provide tremendous examples of voices transcending the mainstream political conversation. They represent the prophetic leanings of that progressive Jew named Jesus of Nazareth who energized the downtrodden and criticized the powerful and wealthy who oppressed others to get to where they were. Jesus was ignited with compassion and grief, not fear and manipulation. He lived dangerously and wisely, and refused to be boxed in by only two options. So should we.

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Update: March 11

Over at Salon.com, Mike Madden wrote about Glenn Beck's recent attacks on "progressives." Madden included a helpful history lesson for what the Progressives have stood for over the past century:

-direct election of senators
-the right for women to vote
-antitrust regulations and the first limits on corporate power
-child labor laws
-the eight-hour workday
-national parks

Beck has said that we should start drilling in our national parks to pay off the national debt. Interesting. Madden calls upon "progressives" to fight back on the real issues of this fear-mongering:

After all, it's one thing to spin conspiracy theories and imply that your opponents are goose-stepping Nazi Communists hell-bent on seizing all private property. It's another thing altogether to have a debate over whether to abolish the weekend, or go back to the pre-"Jungle" days of no meat inspection.

--Theological Autopilot

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