Osagyefo Sekou: Martin King, Science Fiction, and the Future of America

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is a fire-brand Pentecostal prophet. His recent essay A Mighty Stream traces Martin King’s life and developing perspective on radical economics within the Christian tradition.

I first met Sekou through the Word and World program. Additionally, he was the founding national coordinator for Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq. In response to Hurricane Katrina, Sekou moved to New Orleans for six months and founded the Interfaith Worker Justice Center for New Orleans. He’s the author of Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and Democracy (Campbell and Cannon Press, 2011) and the forthcoming Riot Music: British Hip Hop, Race, and the Politics of Meaning (Hamilton Books, 2012), which explores the London riots.

Sekou’s a third-generation Pentecostal minister and the special assistant to the Bishop of New York Southeastern District of the Church of God in Christ. As we continue to unpack and learn from the tremendous legacy Dr. King left us, here is another perspective in the opening section of Sekou’s essay A Mighty Stream:

“Darling I miss you so much. In fact, much too much for my own good. I never realized that you were such an intimate part of my life,” writes a young graduate student, Martin Luther King Jr. to his love interest, Coretta Scott. They are separated for a few months because King had gone home to Atlanta for the summer after his first year as a PhD student at Boston University School of Theology. King opens the letter by sharing how much he missed her. Honing the oratory that would go on to seize the consciousness of a nation, King laid it on thick. “My life without you is like a year without a spring time, which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere, which has been saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter.”

Turning to “something more intellectual,” King indicated that he finished reading Bellamy’s “fascinating” book. In April 1952, Scott sent King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s socialist novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887. She inscribes the gift with a note expressing her interest in his reaction to “Bellamy’s prediction about our society.” The utopian science fiction novel took place in Boston, where both King and Scott were graduate students. Written in 1888 and set in the year 2000, the novel’s protagonist Julian West awoke from a 130-year slumber to realize that the United States has been transformed into a socialist society. West offered a stunning criticism of the faith practices of the 19th century:

“Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the 19th century was in name Christian, and the fact that the entire industrial and commercial frame of society was the embodiment of the anti-Christian spirit must’ve had some weight, though I admit it was strangely little, with the nominal followers of Jesus Christ.”

Read Sekou’s whole essay here.

Brazil’s Bishop: ‘Reckless Development is Coming to a Dead End’

In 2010, Dom Erwin Kräutler, Catholic bishop of Xingu, Brazil, received the Right Livelihood Award for his work for the human and environmental rights of indigenous peoples and his efforts to save the Amazon forest. He has been a leading opponent of the controversial Belo Monte dam in his diocese — and warns of the connection between unchecked “development” and global warming. This excerpt is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in US Catholic magazine.

When Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio surprised the world with his slogan “Development is the new name for peace,” he wasn’t thinking of the kind of economic growth at all cost that allows a few oligarchies and business people to get filthy rich while intentionally excluding most people and plunging many into poverty. Pope Paul called on all the people of the world to promote development that is based on justice and solidarity.

The definition of development is key. When the free market is seen as the engine of progress and the measure of all things, earth, water, air, and fire will be commodified and subordinated to the rules and powers of the market, multinational companies, and international trade.

But when life in human dignity is the goal and meaning of all development, then development will be geared toward the survival and well-being of all people, including the generations that are coming after us.

The unrelenting pursuit of increasing exports, trade surpluses, and economic growth that exploits the human family and its environment has become a dangerous dead end.

A change in the direction of our thinking and actions is urgent. What is needed is development that is oriented toward the protection and promotion of life and human capacities; toward education, health, security, housing in dignity; and toward environmentally responsible agriculture, stewardship of our water resources, and careful protection of biodiversity.

Averting climate change and saving our planet will require both a change in consciousness and concrete measures that hold all people and countries of the world accountable.–Dom Erwin Kräutler, Catholic bishop of Xingu, Brazil

Read Dom Erwin Kräutler’s whole article here.

Tim Nafzinger: Financial Institutions and Babylon

At OLSX, St. Paul's. Photo credit: Duncan C., http://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/6281021255/

As part of the Word and World mentoring circle that I belong to we have been reading Protestant theologian William Stringfellow and talking about the Occupy Movement.

Here’s a concise insight from Tim Nafzinger:

>>It’s very interesting, in light of our recent discussion on William Stringfellow’s An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land to read George Monbiot’s column in The Guardian naming the Corporation of the City of London (the official name of the square mile in London that houses many of the world’s most powerful banks and financial institutions) as “Babylon” in yesterday’s Guardian. Note this is a completely different legal entity from the London where 3 million people live. Monbiot writes:

It’s the dark heart of Britain, the place where democracy goes to die, immensely powerful, equally unaccountable. But I doubt that one in 10 British people has any idea of what the Corporation of the City of London is and how it works. This could be about to change. Alongside the Church of England, the Corporation is seeking to evict the protesters camped outside St Paul’s cathedral. The protesters, in turn, have demanded that it submit to national oversight and control. …

[The City] has also made the effective regulation of global finance almost impossible. Shaxson shows how the absence of proper regulation in London allowed American banks to evade the rules set by their own government. AIG’s wild trading might have taken place in the US, but the unit responsible was regulated in the City. Lehman Brothers couldn’t get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead. No wonder priests are resigning over the plans to evict the campers. The Church of England is not just working with Mammon; it’s colluding with Babylon.

Fittingly enough, from a Stringfellow perspective, this private banking world is often just referred to as “The City.”

Monbiot’s naming and shaming (along with the resignation of three Church of England clergy members) seems to have had its effect. This morning the Church of England stopped its attempts to evict Occupy London. Now it’s just Babylon against them…<<

Thanks Tim.

What’s a Personalist and How Do I Become One?

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin

New Hope Catholic Worker Farm and Agronomic University in LaMotte, Iowa, is hosting its second week-long intensive on “Growing Roots: Peter Maurin & Economics” July 17-23, 2011.

They included the excellent article Distributism: Ownership of the Means of Production and Alternative to the Brutal Global Market by Louise and Mark Zwick as part of the reading list. Below I’ve highlighted a few sections, but I commend the full article to your reading.

On the Catholic Worker View of Economics

It is very much in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to write about economics. Under the editorship of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker criticized an unbridled capitalism which put the majority of money and resources in the hands of a few big corporations and individuals. The Catholic Workers not only disagreed with industrial capitalism on a massive scale, but presented an alternative economics called distributism-a person-centered economics.

As personalists, Catholic Workers believed there had to be a better way than to have the world run by Standard Oil, General Motors and Henry Ford (today we have the global market, giant corporations, sweatshops, maquiladoras).

Peter and Dorothy recommended the works of G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., on distributism and R. H. Tawney on capitalism, and their ideas were published in the paper. These writers insisted that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, and should not be treated like cogs in a machine or made to work twelve hours a day in back-breaking work as wage slaves (in coal mines, for example), while large corporations and their directors became fabulously wealthy.

Chesterton, theorist of person-centered economics and critic of the excesses of capitalism, shared the views of the Catholic Workers. He knew that the opinions of Henry Ford (who said that most people preferred the mechanical action of the assembly line and were only fitted for it), were against Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person. Ford made it clear that most people were not smart enough to do anything except repetitious work. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity, “It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines.”

Chesterton argued that the Catholic Church taught that every human being was worth saving. He insisted on “respect for the humanity and dignity of ordinary, shabby, ignorant people.” (Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 9).

On “The Invisible Hand” of the Market

Since Adam Smith, the proponents of wealth creation have promised heaven on earth if their ideas were followed: Just believe religiously in the market and allow it absolute freedom, then salvation will come. It is hard to imagine a heaven where one’s creativity and destiny are squandered working on an assembly line or at McDonald’s.

Pope Pius XII went so far as to call the idea that the invisible hand of the market will on its own rather like fate control the world, a “superstition. (Dorothy Day, “Distributism vs. Capitalism,” Catholic Worker, October 1954).

What Are We Talking About When We Say “Capitalism”?

Chesterton knew that when most people spoke of capitalism, they had in mind something quite different than a few very wealthy people controlling everything. To clarify for his readers what he was criticizing, he first described the situation where a few people hold the wealth and all others struggle: “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” He emphasized that others had something quite different in mind when they spoke of capitalism: “The word… is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital.

“If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

“The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

Read the whole article.

Video: Time for the Tobin Tax? Bill Nighy Says Aye

Thanks for Marc Batko over at Demandside for pointing out this hilarious video with Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and Bill Nighy (“The Constant Gardener” and “Love Actually”) promoting the Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax (“robbing the rich to give to the poor”) campaign in the U.K.

Tobin Taxes are excise taxes on cross-border currency transactions. Any national legislature or financial regulatory commission can enact them — and multilateral agreements can be made to enforce them. The revenue is explicitly dedicated to basic environmental and human needs.

According to Jim Tobin, the a Ph.D. Nobel-laureate economist at Yale University who first introduced the idea, such taxes will “help tame currency market volatility and restore national economic sovereignty.”

Read the whole article from The Guardian here). What do the financial experts say about how this kind of tax would work?

Experts’ view of the Tobin Tax:

Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University: “A tax structure that does not reward short-term, very speculative gains would be good. If you were investing for a year or five years or 10 years it would be a small tax but if you were holding it for just one minute it becomes a very high tax. The important question is implementability. It’s designed to tackle high frequency activity for which it is hard to find any societal benefit. The only question is, can it be effectively implemented? Will it be circumvented? There’s a growing consensus it can be implemented, if not perfectly, effectively enough to make a difference.”

Ann Pettifor, fellow, New Economics Foundation: “The proposed currency transaction tax (CTT) represents the tiniest grain of sand in the wheels of global, mobile capital, and places very little restraint on the movement of international capital. For that reason CTT will be welcomed, ultimately, by international financial institutions. The proposal lacks a framework of democratic, accountable governance for the disbursement of funds collected under a CTT scheme. NGOs and treasuries are debating whether funds should go, for example, to national treasuries; to the Global Fund to fight Aids, TB and Malaria, or to the UN for mitigation and adaption to climate change. Until disbursement and distribution of CTT revenues are accounted for in a democratic, fair, and transparent way, the CTT will be vulnerable to attack.”

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce: “It may have potential. I’m not sure it’s the most appropriate thing. I think the main argument against it is that it’s most unlikely to be implemented globally. If a tax could be applied it would have beneficial effects … My reservation is that for the UK to engage in this unilaterally would be a very dangerous thing to do because it would destroy the country’s financial sector. People and businesses would migrate to other places. If the US and big European countries implemented it as well then it would not harm our financial sector as much.”

Moving Toward a “Whole-Earth Jubilee”

earthjubileeOn October 24 people around the world will be observing the First International Day of Climate Action, hosted by Bill McKibben’s 350.org.

Right now, as the world prepares for the international climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December, the world lacks one thing to save itself: political will. We have the technology to make appropriate changes. But political will is forged through moral vision and religious persuasion brought to bear by a diverse set of grassroots actions. And grassroot action requires you.

For Christians, part of our mission in the world is to bring religious imagination to bear on the crises of our day. Climate change is one of the most critical crises of our day.

Thanks to Tim Kumfer over at Always New Depths for posting his short essay written for his Ecofeminist Theology and Philosophy class at Duke responding to this question: What resources exist in your religious and/or spiritual tradition for thinking about ecological crises like climate change, pollution, scarce resources like water and food, and species loss?

Here’s part of Tim’s response, but I encourage you to read the whole thing and consider what resources you draw on for shaping religious vision. Also, what fun and effective thing can you do for International Day of Climate Action on Oct. 24. Tim writes:

These themes of resistance to dominant ecological and economic practices within the Bible must be brought into the mix as Christians begin to reflect on our contemporary many-headed ecological crisis.  Listening deeply to these stories and paying attention to the dynamics in which they were formed I think we will find more radical conversation partners than we might have first imagined.  Our present lives in the first world are supported by structures of empire similar to those which our foremothers and fathers in the faith strove to leave or subvert from within. The rapacious practices of consumer capitalism need to be stopped; Sabbath can point towards alternatives which honor the earth and workers through the recognition of natural limits. A whole-earth Jubilee is necessary now more than ever, one which not only brings greater equality between humans but recognizes the inherent worth, beauty, and necessity of non-human species and the ecosystem.  This is perhaps the most important thing which the Christian (and Jewish) tradition at its best can bring to the table: an uncompromising moral vision which can go beneath green washing and eco-capitalist hype to re-present to us the truth which we already know: our lives in the first world need to change drastically for life on this planet to be sustained.

Read Tim’s full post here.

Michael Moore: ‘If You Fail to Feed the Hungry, You’ll Have a Hard Time Finding the Pin Code to the Pearly Gates’

capitalism_a_love_storyLGEWho knew that shock-doc film producer Michael Moore was Catholic?

The maker of Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Sicko, sent a letter this morning promoting his new movie Capitalism: A Love Story that hit theaters last week. Moore’s e-mail is about as much of a “faith testimony” as you’ll get from most Catholics. (We tend to keep our faith on the inside and wear our “works” on the outside. Show, rather than tell.)

Capitalism: A Love Story is Moore’s version of the Pope’s latest encyclical Charity and Truth (read my cliff notes A Love Letter from the Pope), but alot more fun.  Both deal with the most critical question of our day: Is capitalism a sin?

In Bruce Headlam’s New York Times profile of Moore last month, Headlam teased out an interesting take on Moore’s faith-inspired prophetic vision, including Moore’s claim that he got his street-theater sensibilities from radical Catholic prophetic priests Dan and Phil Berrigan.

Headlam wrote:

As much as Mr. Moore sometimes plays a comic-book version of class warrior—Left-Thing vs. the Republic of Fear!—his politics are not grounded in class as much as in Roman Catholicism. Growing up in Michigan, he attended parochial school and intended to go into the seminary, inspired by the priests and nuns who, at least until Pope John Paul II, inherited a long tradition of social justice and activism in the American church. … Along with a moral imperative, Catholicism also gave a method. Mr. Moore idolized the Berrigan brothers, the radical priests who introduced street theater into their activism, for example, mixing their own napalm to burn government draft records. Their actions were a form of political spectacle that, conceptually, is Marxist—workers seizing means of production and all that—and it influenced some of Mr. Moore’s best-remembered stunts.

So, if you weren’t on the list that got a letter from Michael Moore this morning, read on:

Friends,

I’d like to have a word with those of you who call yourselves Christians (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Bill Maherists, etc. can read along, too, as much of what I have to say, I’m sure, can be applied to your own spiritual/ethical values).

In my new film I speak for the first time in one of my movies about my own spiritual beliefs. I have always believed that one’s religious leanings are deeply personal and should be kept private. After all, we’ve heard enough yammerin’ in the past three decades about how one should “behave,” and I have to say I’m pretty burned out on pieties and platitudes considering we are a violent nation who invades other countries and punishes our own for having the audacity to fall on hard times.

I’m also against any proselytizing; I certainly don’t want you to join anything I belong to. Also, as a Catholic, I have much to say about the Church as an institution, but I’ll leave that for another day (or movie).

Amidst all the Wall Street bad guys and corrupt members of Congress exposed in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” I pose a simple question in the movie: “Is capitalism a sin?” I go on to ask, “Would Jesus be a capitalist?” Would he belong to a hedge fund? Would he sell short? Would he approve of a system that has allowed the richest 1% to have more financial wealth than the 95% under them combined?

I have come to believe that there is no getting around the fact that capitalism is opposite everything that Jesus (and Moses and Mohammed and Buddha) taught. All the great religions are clear about one thing: It is evil to take the majority of the pie and leave what’s left for everyone to fight over. Jesus said that the rich man would have a very hard time getting into heaven. He told us that we had to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers and that the riches that did exist were to be divided fairly. He said that if you failed to house the homeless and feed the hungry, you’d have a hard time finding the pin code to the pearly gates.

I guess that’s bad news for us Americans. Here’s how we define “Blessed Are the Poor”: We now have the highest unemployment rate since 1983. There’s a foreclosure filing once every 7.5 seconds. 14,000 people every day lose their health insurance.

At the same time, Wall Street bankers (“Blessed Are the Wealthy”?) are amassing more and more loot — and they do their best to pay little or no income tax (last year Goldman Sachs’ tax rate was a mere 1%!). Would Jesus approve of this? If not, why do we let such an evil system continue? It doesn’t seem you can call yourself a Capitalist AND a Christian — because you cannot love your money AND love your neighbor when you are denying your neighbor the ability to see a doctor just so you can have a better bottom line.  That’s called “immoral” — and you are committing a sin when you benefit at the expense of others.

When you are in church this morning, please think about this. I am asking you to allow your “better angels” to come forward. And if you are among the millions of Americans who are struggling to make it from week to week, please know that I promise to do what I can to stop this evil — and I hope you’ll join me in not giving up until everyone has a seat at the table.

Thanks for listening. I’m off to Mass in a few hours. I’ll be sure to ask the priest if he thinks J.C. deals in derivatives or credit default swaps. I mean, after all, he must’ve been good at math. How else did he divide up two loaves of bread and five pieces of fish equally amongst 5,000 people? Either he was the first socialist or his disciples were really bad at packing lunch. Or both.

Yours,
Michael Moore

People-less Houses Movement

According to a recent Associated Press story, the Take Back the Land folks in Florida are making the sub-prime debacle work for those living on the streets. “We’re matching homeless people with peopleless homes,” said TBL activist Max Rameau. Yep! They are moving homeless folks into beautiful, spacious, foreclosed upon houses.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Max Rameau delivers his sales pitch like a pro. “All tile floor!” he says during a recent showing. “And the living room, wow! It has great blinds.”

But in nearly every other respect, he is unlike any real estate agent you’ve ever met. He is unshaven, drives a beat-up car and wears grungy cut-off sweat pants. He also breaks into the homes he shows. And his clients don’t have a dime for a down payment.

Rameau is an activist who has been executing a bailout plan of his own around Miami’s empty streets: He is helping homeless people illegally move into foreclosed homes.

Rameau and a group of like-minded advocates formed Take Back the Land, which also helps the new “tenants” with secondhand furniture, cleaning supplies and yard upkeep. So far, he has moved six families into foreclosed homes and has nine on a waiting list.

“I think everyone deserves a home,” said Rameau, who said he takes no money from his work with the homeless. “Homeless people across the country are squatting in empty homes. The question is: Is this going to be done out of desperation or with direction?”

“There’s a real need here, and there’s a disconnect between the need and the law,” he said. “Being arrested is just one of the potential factors in doing this.”

I think the TBL movement is a great riff on the Landless People’s Movement in South Africa and the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil and elsewhere. TBL is just doing it “American-style.”

With the suicide of capitalism comes the blurring of what has been narrowly understood as “private property.” At the top, the Bush administration has been forced to “nationalize” the banking industry and, apparently, at the bottom, in Miami, TBL is reclaiming as public property those abandoned houses now owned by the banks due to foreclosures. Interesting.