a way too long analysis of why I mistrust so much of the sanders campaign...

So here's a follow up re: civility, context and humility in the way we speak about and
do politics (and other things too for that matter): When did raising questions and concerns about an other's tone and/or use of loaded and volatile words (to say nothing of outright lies) become uncivil?  Why have ad hominem attacks become the preferred response to serious policy questions? How is it possible that our political news reporters regularly accept "bait and switch" answers to their queries rather than hold a candidate's feet to the fire (to say nothing of the appendages of their staff or press secretaries?)  How has verbal belligerence become the public norm instead of dialogue and debate? And why is snark not called out as un-useful if not dangerous and disrespectful when trying to comprehend what works best for the common good? Inquiring minds want to know.

I understand the barely disguised aspects of "electoral politics as a moral equivalent of war." It is tough business and needs to be tough.I was untested and idealistic the first time I ran for public office in Cleveland - but I had former Mayor Michael R. White as a mentor and strategic guru (along with friend and colleague Chris Carmody!) So in time I learned to "get over myself" when it came to playing this game to win. As I noted upon my retirement from public office, "Would that we had been more ruthless!" What frustrates me now, however, is the way all too many partisans argue for their candidate's superiority. among peers and friends Sometimes they assume pure snark, other times a morally superior and condescending choice of words, now and again there is a bullying barrage of innuendo shared about the opposing side that rarely addresses the presenting issue, and then there is the insult, pure and simple. Here's my point: is is possible to leave that crap to the candidates on the stage? As Frank Zappa said: "Politics is the entertainment branch of industry." So when friends and/or associates try to talk seriously and honestly about the candidates and issues, is it possible for things NOT to devolve?   

When I was in seminary a hundred years ago (I already know this is going to make me sound like a dinosaur) one of the lessons learned had to do with making clear and passionate cases for our positions that: a) did not bully another with words or attitude, b) left the door open for conversation, growth and change of heart, c) accepted the fact that no one held a monopoly upon the truth and wisdom, and d)  invited critical reflection upon behavior (praxis) on the road toward deeper dialogue and possible collaboration. It was understood that internalizing these commitments involved a steep learning curve. So none of this took place in an emotionally sanitized laboratory where compassionate coaches and psycho-therapists stood by to salve our wounded egos. Rather, we met every day: in class, in learning clusters, in informal study groups, around beer or caffeinated beverages, in large lecture halls or small offices after Sunday worship to unpack and learn from our study and our shadow. 

It was in the rough and tumble environment of intellectual debate, with profoundly partisan perspectives vying for a victory, that my classmates and I learned to listen, challenge, question our own blind spots and move towards winning without being mean-spirited. Feminists regularly clashed with some Black theology advocates. The emerging Queer theology cadre took on the collective hetero-sexism of most of the seminary. Straight, white guys from privileged backgrounds (like me) learned to listen carefully, keep our mouths shut longer than we were used to and advance our own unique truths with verve but also nuance and patience. 

It was ugly at first - and hard for us all. There is a reason why the root of the word humility is grounded in hummus and humiliation: as Richard Rohr states clearly, "we all have to fall down before we can fall up." But over time, very different people learned to listen and often respect one another (if, of course, they did their own work) as we found ways to disagree without being disagreeable. The hope and expectation of people of faith, you see, is that we might find common ground and alliances rather than remain isolated in the so-called purity of our unique ideology or annihilate our opponent. What we learned in those golden days was how to compete compassionately for the cause of truth and justice; not as untested and naive "children of the light" (to borrow Niebuhr's critique), but as women and men who accepted the irony of politics. Our own better angels are always incomplete and they often create unimaginable consequences that sometimes violate our deepest dreams.

This lengthy personal preface is, I believe, necessary to catalogue because I want to continue trying to find loving yet powerful expressions of my concerns without being dismissive of others, or, resigning myself to being dismissed by them. What tends to happen, because I am publically defined by my role as clergy, is that I am expected to keep silent when there is a disagreement. My role is to be "nice" read: silent in the face of political disagreements. Others have permission to make stupid, cruel and thoughtless comments - even about me. But should I offer rebuttal to their stupidity, cruelty or thoughtlessness, then somehow I have violated the socially accepted public behavior for 21st century clergy who are paid to be chaplains but little more. So let me articulate three foundational truths upon which I have constructed my political theology:  Christian realism, community organizing and a critical reflection on the unique blessings of small communities of faith. 

Christian realism attempts to hold two paradoxical truths together: original sin and the pursuit of the common good. The great gift that Reinhold Niebuhr shared with the Western world might be summarized like this:  

a) Individuals will often choose the good and noble path personally but tend to violate their ethics when part of a group. Put another way, Niebuhr rejected the idealism of human goodness and perfectibility, stating that self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness all too often carry the day when morality becomes public. Human beings act out of fear, greed and desire in homogeneous groups even when such behavior contradicts their deepest personal values and the goals of their faith traditions. Corporate ethical behavior, therefore, is qualitatively different from individual morality and the refusal to acknowledge this and act accordingly is naive and problematic..

b) Consequently, the pursuit of the common good is tricky business that requires both a measure of coercion and compromise. People know, for example, that discrimination is evil, but practise it when it works to their social advantage. Same holds true with racism, sexism, religious bigotry, non-payment of taxes, etc. The challenge is to create a larger governing authority empowered to search for and enforce an acceptable balance between coercion and compromise: too much force becomes political totalitarianism, while too much compromise creates a gap in social justice. This is the essence of  Niebuhr's notion of "original sin." Individuals know what is good, but cannot consistently accomplish it. We must create institutions of coercion, therefore, to advance what is socially good knowing that they will miss the mark as often as get it right. Sin is pride - the illusion that we can accomplish what is good - because we know in our shadow self that human perfectibility is deception. Sin moves us towards arrogance and self-deception, blinding us to our failures so that we eventually believe our own press releases.

Niebuhr's greatest contemporary disciple, Gary Dorrien, summarizes the heart of the argument like this: individuals deceive themselves with the belief that they can fully accomplish the biblical imperative for justice and compassion.  

The more we become focused on our own goodness, the greater the delusion, one Niebuhr calls the "Promethean illusions" thinking that we can achieve goodness on our own. Thus we mistake our ow partial ability to transcend our self for the ability to prove our absolute authority over our own life and world. Constantly frustrated by natural limitations, we develop a lust for power which destroys us and our world. History is the record of these crises and judgments which we bring upon ourselves; it is also proof that God does not allow humanity to overstep our possibilities. In radical contrast to our Promethean illusion, God reveals Godself in history, especially personified in Jesus Christ, as sacrificial love which overcomes the human temptation to self-deification and makes possible constructive human history. (redacted from Wikipedia and Dorien's The Making of American Liberal Theology)

Christian realism was at the core of my undergraduate work at San Francisco State University. My degree in political science was an analysis of how both Dr. King and Mohandas Gandhi read and applied Niebuhr in light of their movements for nonviolent social change. I returned to study social movements after working in Cesar Chavez's United Farm Worker movement in the early 70s. 

Utilizing the community organizing strategy conceptualized and taught by Fred Ross
and Saul Alinsky - a discipline which later became the norm for other social change networks throughout the USA - I came to believe that meaningful social change does not take place through periodic public upheavals. Rather, lasting social change must be gradual, systematic, planned and sustained. There are always combustible moments - think the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the collapse of the Berlin Wall - but these and others were not spontaneous, but born of years of quiet, disciplined organizing, reflection, prayer and action. The organizers were able to maximize unexpected events because  they were ready for them.  As MLK used to say: some moments to act can pass us by if we are not prepared and ready.

My studies called into question the prevailing wisdom of Frances Fox Piven/Richard Cloward's analysis in Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail..Their insights celebrated spontaneous revolutionary movements. This was the polar opposite of those like Alinsky who had carefully reviewed the work of John L. Lewis and the birth of a sustained economic and social revolution in the form of the United Mine Workers union. Having applied the Lewis strategy in Chicago and other poor communities where incremental but clear victories were won and sustained for formerly powerless people,  Alinsky went on to train a generation of community organizers. It was my privilege and luck to work with some of Alinsky's protegees - including Fred Ross, Dolores Huerta, Marshall Ganz and Chris Hartmire - who came of age during the American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s in the South. These women and men later joined Chavez and the farm workers before bringing their wisdom to other organizing efforts and networks across the US. My training and work in faith based community organizing in Cleveland, Tucson and Western Massachusetts helped convince me that Niebuhrian analysis could be put into action most effectively through community organizing.

The same would become true for my approach to pastoral ministry: the promise of the gospel is that small acts of love that often go unnoticed can be honored and nourished to grow a community of tender faith. Over 35+ years I have served four congregations and experienced this in each church - not all at once - and not always all of the time. But I have seen junkies become clean and stay healthy. I have seen homophobes come to treat their GLBTQ sisters and brothers as kin. I have seen racial reconciliation in formerly polarized neighborhoods. I have seen drunks get clean and sober. And sexually abused women, men and children come to trust their bodies and be loved.  And people in forgotten areas of town reclaim their turf so that it became safe, beautiful and healthy again. All of this takes time. And patience. And a sense that God's grace is at work even when their is no obvious evidence.

As a consequence of these three foundational commitments, I have found myself ill at ease with rhetoric that promises "a revolution." One of my problems with the Sanders camp is the messianism that seems to have infected so many followers. My experience and analysis profoundly mistrust such top down energy. Rarely can the buzz be sustained. More often than not, it doesn't go deep because it is volatile, open to manipulation should it become disappointed, and often a projection of our own brokenness. This worrisome phenomenon of overly optimistic group-think projects upon a willing leader all the idealism that none of us can sustain in our private lives. To say that it will burn out quickly is perhaps too harsh. But think back to the second year of Barack Obama's presidency and you might recall how the so-called left-liberal wing of his constituents vilified him as a sell-out and failure. Another concern for me is the illusion that bold change happens quickly. There is simply no evidence - outside of nature and acts of God - that this is true. Without a disciplined and focused core of organizers and supporters on the ground that can be mobilized and be held accountable over the long haul, revolutionary rhetoric strikes me as disingenuous, dangerous or empty as there is no accountable mechanism for turning dreams into deeds..

My preference, therefore, is in a sustained, disciplined, incremental and humble movement that doesn't make promises it can't deliver. I look for accountability and continuity when it comes to social change. There are considerable concerns I have with Mrs. Clinton's campaign, too but that is for upcoming post.  Right now I want to be clear about why I am am focused on the carping and caustic negativity from the Sanders camp: it strengthens the Ring Wine paranoia already too vigorous in our land.

I am grateful for some of what Bernie's campaign has helped raise up - especially class and domestic economic problems. I want to listen carefully to my friends and associates who support him when they discuss how he will implement his ideas and sustain his "movement." And I want I want to learn what I don't currently get about "feeling the Bern." But because his organizing strategy clashes with what I understand works best, I am suspicious. Because his rhetoric strikes me as hyperbolic and volatile, I am worried. And because I organically mistrust all leaders - myself included - I want to listen carefully for those who honestly own their own sin because therein lies the real wisdom for me


Newell said…
Thank you. Deepens my understanding theologically and historically. --Newell

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