In each and every aphorism lies its demise…..Too much egalitarianism renders chaos. Too much authoritarianism brings on another form of chaos….and when individualism is at the root of any and all political attitudes, we know that such a root, taken to an exaggerated degree, inevitably generates a different form of tyranny.
In North America, where the domination of capitalism is so deeply established, we can trace some of the underlying causes to a kind of religion offered by some christian preachers that is based on “purely personal understanding of the biblical message. In other words, the Bible does nothing more than save individuals, one by one, from the common destruction. According to them, the Gospel generates private virtue, not social justice. The government deserves support when it promotes private virtue, but should be opposed when it tries to establish ethical norms for public affairs, such as limitation of arms production, the reduction of nuclear weapons, assistance to Third World countries, the protection for the environment, and the containment of the free market.” (Gregory Baum, Compassion and Solidarity, The Church for others, CBC Massey Lectures Series, 1987, p. 103)
If millions of individuals have consumed, digested and integrated such a theology into their lives, as we know they have, then the prospects for a different kind of Gospel interpretation and application is going to prove difficult, if not nearly impossible. An epistemological crisis, (see last entry in this space) is compounded by a faith crisis, which pits an “individualist” salvation proposition against a social justice theology. And we all know too that “for centuries and centuries, the major churches, Catholic and Protestant, have tended to side with the powerful, with the dominant sector society. In the Third World the churches have supported colonialism.” (Baum, op.cit. p 106)
And in that light, of the mainline churches siding with, in fact advocating for ‘the establishment’, the churches have both consciously and unconsciously served as mouthpieces for that establishment, increasingly dependent as they are on the cheques written both by individuals and by trust funds owned and operated by wealthy, establishment individuals and corporations. Baum articulates many of the establishment-based messages that have been delivered, supported and underscored by the mainline churches in these words:
Today we are told that we have lived beyond our means, that society has been overlyo8 generous, that we have given away money, and that, accordingly, the government deficit is the central problem of the economy. We must recognize, we are told, that we live in the tough world of competition. We must advance our economy by letting private enterprise be the locomotive that pulls us out of the present slump. We hear that the successful entrepreneurs are the creators of wealth. That is why they deserve the assistance of government, tax breaks, and subsidies, along with the riches they make for themselves. The reason that our industries are th Carolinanot competitive on the world market is that labourers ask for excessive wages. The unions have become too powerful. There are too many strikes. It is their fault that we suffer economic decline. We all will have to tighten our belts—all, one assumes, except the creators of wealth….This is not the time for free lunches. Government should no longer assume responsibility for people who cannot make it in a society that gives them every opportunity…A certain toughness has become necessary to make labour work harder, to encourage business confidence and to attract foreign investment….The neo-conservative cultural trend that I have been describing makes selfishness respectable. Am I my brother’s keeper? According to the prevailing mood, the answer is No. It is all right to let the social gap become wider. There is not need anymore even to pretend that social solidarity counts. (Baum op. cit. p 101-102)
Although Baum wrote and spoke those words 33 years ago, on the CBC national network, they are echoed today by the right-wing conservatives in Canada, and certainly by the Republican Senators who even today are refusing to engage in a negotiation that would see a COVID-19 aid package for the up to 54 million Americans who are reported to be facing food insecurity.
One American thought and faith leader is Dr. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In a report written by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, May 07, 2018, Barber is quoted as saying: I worry about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed. The Cobb report continues with these words from Barber, in a sermon, “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” The duty of the living, he said, is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement (e.g. Dr. Martin Luther King) but to continue their work. We’ve got to hold up the banner until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty has guaranteed subsistence.
Private virtue and social justice serve as code words for political prize-fighting, with much of the rhetoric being personalized in words like “family values” and “socialism”….as if, in order to hoodwink the electorate who might glide past the nuances, each side behaves as if it has the ‘key’ to the golden kingdom or nirvana. Let’s peel the make-up off each of these “hot-button” propaganda words (family values and socialism) and see what we are left with.
Family values has the connotation of picket fences, warm hearths, rich and captivating scents from a family kitchen in which the turkey for Thanksgiving is cooking and the pies are already warm on the counter. It also connotes marriage only between a man and a woman, profound and even lethal opposition to abortion, the right to bear arms (and the fear that any legislation to limit assault rifles is the first step in removing guns from every house), deep although preferable secretive distaste for the PRIDE movement, and in some cases even contempt for #BlackLivesMatter. Smothered in the scents, and the smiles of a happy family celebrating Thanksgiving, these ‘family values’ are effectively political and theological and often spiritual goals to be embraced by those who deem to consider themselves “Christian”.
And for many in this category, “socialism” connotes a quick and easy slide into communism, defacto tyranny, support for Putin and the Russians, fear of the Russian cyber-invasion of whatever misleading information ‘bots’ ‘they’ might have developed, government take-over of the health care system including dictating which doctor you can visit, contempt of any government leader’s advice to wear a mask in the pandemic, thumbing your nose at all government shut-downs and crowd control measures in the pandemic. Such a gestalt definition of socialism is not only a complete abnegation of the meaning of the word, but also demonstrates a profound seduction, likely through fear, by those seeking to uphold the “establishment” capitalist system.
It is the ‘right’ to operate a business, to make a profit, to run that business free from government regulations, and especially free from government taxation schemes that would support those struggling to feed their families, educate their children and access health care that single and collectively are attached to the opposition to ‘socialism’.
And when tyranny, of any ephemeral imaginative shape, size and political face (especially one hung in effigy on a billboard paid for by a right-wing funding source like the Koch Brothers) is evoked, the sceptre of the original American Revolution against the British King is re-enacted, embraced by a religion that somehow, almost by accident and by inference, sanctifies a fear that evokes a fear of God, the Devil, Satan, and especially Hell. Demonizing a political opponent, for the sake of winning an election, or even of converting a neighbour to one’s political ‘side’ is so cliché that it evades even consideration as hate speech.
If a nation, like the U.S. is to embrace ‘freedom’ as its North Star, in its cultural galaxy, then those who disagree with “ME” have to be considered agents of Satan.
So, it is not implausible to link an epistemological crisis to a crisis of religion, and faith and essentially to a profound erosion of basic literacy. Eroded too in this protracted process is the capacity both to allow oneself to be seduced by con-artists, and the concomitant atrophy of what English teachers used to call ‘critical thinking’.
Starving children, seriously ill children, parents without work and the horizon that even hints at the return of once-cherished employment….these are not compactible into the slogans of “family values” or ‘socialism’ or the indifferent embrace of a political class dedicated to its hold on power (in both parties). Access to clean water, adequate numbers of health care practitioners, clean air, a rigorous, free and equal education and work with dignity also refuse to be stuffed into a metaphoric “Santa sack” of goodies, like Hallowe-en candy, in order to be trotted out like various panaceas of placebos at election time.
There is no Republican, and no Christian and no Muslim diet that needs adequate, dependable, reliable and bacteria-free fruits and vegetables and protein. There is no black or white or brown child’s need for respect and dignity….and there is no protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical or Nazareen need for clean water, clean air, freedom from assault weapons and drug gangs and lords. There is no rich or poor segregation among those who need (not aspire to, or wish for, but need) streets that are free of racially charged law enforcement operatives, bigots, and those so insecure that their uniform and gun are their primary source of identity.
The vast majority of churches, while vigorously engaged in daily acts of ministry, like food banks, hospital visits, charity fund-raisers, even international foreign aid projects, remain silent in the face of the glaring, insidious, preventable and clearly objectionable political gridlock that finds politicians cowering from negative tweets, negative headlines, negative gossip and evaporating fund sources. Church leaders, like political puppets, cling to a politically correct silence, unless there is an opportunity to “act” in charity, while the glaring existential issues, (hunger, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness, depression and climbing suicide rates, environmental catastrophe) go virtually unaddressed, except by small pockets of social activists. In a report on depression and suicide thoughts among college students in The Star, November 24, 2020, the life and death of Kyle Gardiner is documented by Robert Cribb, Morgan Bocknek, Charlie Buckley and Giulia Fiaoni. The report includes a December 2019 tweet from Kyle Gardiner, discovered long after his death: “Isn’t it insane that we’re facing the inevitable collapse of society in a few decades and we’re still like, ’yay we banned plastic straws?!?!?!’”
Time to document the failure to provide adequate, timely mental health support for people like Kyle in another space, although the dramatic spike in both suicides and mental health crises in the lives of young and old alike is one of the many glaring, obvious and clearly preventable symptoms/causes of distress today. Moreover, those whose hands hold the levers of power to make changes seem paralyzed by a kind of rigid fear of the impact of saying it like it is, in case the truth is so dramatically upsetting that it might inflate the numbers and severity of human tragedies beyond our capacity to cope.
This piece does not hold that only by mounting an army of Dr. William Barbers in each and every church pulpit on the continent will our social devastation disappear. However, it does suggest or more emphatically state that silence in the face of the collision of so many factors that, individually would degrade hope and optimism, collectively serve as a radioactive repeating time bomb, on generations already here and clearly, if we continue to do the “same old” will continue to generate even more tragic results.
If Barber and Buber, McKibbon and Klein, Thunborg and Malala, and Baum and Moltmann, King and Lewis, and the hundreds of thousands of thought-and-action leaders and advocates are unable to arose a public that is becoming both somnolent and slumbering as well as exhausted and dispirited, then not only do leaders have to find new and creative ways to awaken us to our own peril. The populace, too, has to come to the senses that Canadian Press reporter, Stephanie Levitz (on CTV’s Question Period, November 22), who in a voice of deep concern, pointed to the responsibility of each individual to take measures like wearing a mask, keeping social distance, washing hands and staying free from large groups. Government cannot resolve this current pandemic crisis without the serious commitment, without vengeance, reprisal, anger or contempt, from each and every citizen on the planet. And that model, perhaps, could serve us all well in the recovery from this universal dark period of our own withdrawal.
The time for finger-pointing has to come to an end, as do all of the rationalizations that support that social addiction. Religion, ideology, social class, level of literacy, political affiliation and funding puppeteers can no longer be deployed against our common needs, our common aspirations, our common secure good health, and our promised healthy future to our grandchildren.