Friday, October 18, 2013

The People Yes

I’ve been reading a biography of the celebrated American poet Carl Sandburg—winner of two Pulitzers for his verse and another for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.  I hadn’t realized that Sandburg was a committed Socialist, who stumped and campaigned tirelessly for the party in the presidential elections of 1908.

According to his biographer Penelope Niven, there were over 3,000 socialist organizations in the United States at that time.  The Communist Party wouldn’t be founded for another decade.  Instead, socialists comprised an enormous range of working Americans whose labor was undervalued by the system, from tenant farmers in Oklahoma to miners in the coal fields of Pennsylvania to sweatshop seamstresses in New York.
Sandburg was one of them, his father a Swedish immigrant who toiled ceaselessly and saved unsparingly but steadily lost ground—particularly after a home he purchased turned out to have a hidden lien, hitting him heavily with unexpected debt.

Before turning to poetry, his son Carl turned out political tracts hoping to convince readers that wealth and poverty were both social creations—neither the achievement of independent entrepreneurs nor shiftless shirkers but rather results of impersonal economic forces.  A series titled “Letters to Bill” that he wrote were epistles addressed to an imaginary manual laborer:

Do you see, Bill, how your interests and mine and everybody else’s are all tangled up and woven in with each other?  Do you see how society, all of us together, produced Rockefeller, Thaw, and the one-legged man on the corner selling pencils?  A modern locomotive of the latest model is said to represent ideas contributed by more than eleven thousand men …

Yet just a handful profited from owning the railroads, which ought to serve the interests of all.

Sandburg’s own convictions were expressed in the words of another fictional character he created, a white-haired old man in a country village:

I have been reading history and science for forty years and from all that I have studied as to how nations are born and grow and then die, it seems to me that just as soon as a nation gets to the point where a small part of the people are rich and a large part of the people are poor—then that nation is starting to die, the death of it is beginning.

What would Sandburg’s sentiments be today, when the gulf between rich and poor has reached an extreme not seen since the 1920s?  Sandburg never lost his faith in the capacity of the masses of people to eventually arise and organize on their own behalf, as expressed in his famous poem "The People, Yes!"

The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
    They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
    The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback …

Men like Sandburg make me think that socialism is just another word for democracy, which should include not only popular government, but an economy of the people, by the people, and for the people ... not for a monied few.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

I LIke To Think of Harriet Tubman

Two headlines in separate newspapers this morning juxtapose the political contradictions of our times.  In the New York Times, the headline announces “House Republican Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps.”  And in the Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper at the University of North Carolina, the front page leads with “Food Stamp Need Triples in County.”

The college paper reports on Sonya Dixon (a.ka. “Cookie”), who prepares and serves meals at a childcare center but whose own daughter has cerebral palsy, which means she can only work part time.  With limited earnings, she depends on food stamps to put meals on the table.  Sonya is African American and is one of 6, 357 others in Orange County who receive food stamps.  The unemployment among blacks in North Carolina is over 17%.  

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says the Republican backed measure in Washington would cut about four million recipients like Cookie from the rolls of those who receive help feeding their families.  Congressman Marlin Stutzman (R-Indiana) promises, “This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.”  Has the Congressman asked Sonya Dixon how she’s going to feed her disabled daughter? 

Here’s a poem by Susan Griffin titled “I like to think of Harriet Tubman,” which I dedicate to Mr. Stutzman and his colleagues in the House.

I like to think of Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman who carried a revolver,
who had a scar on her head from a rock thrown
by a slave-master (because she
talked back) , and who
had a ransom on her head
of thousands of dollars and who
was never caught, and who
had no use for the law
who defied the law. I like
to think of her.

I like to think of her especially
when I think of the problem
of feeding children.
The legal answer
to the problem of feeding children
is ten free lunches every month,
being equal, in the child's real life,
to eating lunch every other day.
Monday but not Tuesday.

I like to think of the President
eating lunch on Monday, but not
and when I think of the President
and the law, and the problem of
feeding children, I like to
think of Harriet Tubman
and her revolver.

And then sometimes
I think of the President
and other men,
men who practice the law,
who revere the law,
who make the law,
who enforce the law
who live behind
and operate through
and feed themselves
at the expense of
starving children
because of the law.
men who sit in paneled offices
and think about vacations
and tell women
whose care it is
to feed children
not to be hysterical
not to be hysterical as in the word
hysterikos, the greek for
womb suffering,
not to suffer in their
not to care,
not to bother the men
because they want to think
of other things
and do not want
to take women seriously.

I want them to think about Harriet Tubman,
and remember,
remember she was beaten by a white man
and she lived
and she lived to redress her grievances,
and she lived in swamps
and wore the clothes of a man
bringing hundreds of fugitives from
slavery, and was never caught,
and led an army,
and won a battle,
and defied the laws
because the laws were wrong, I want men
to take us seriously.
I am tired wanting them to think
about right and wrong.
I want them to fear.

I want them to feel fear now I want them
to know
that there is always a time
there is always a time to make right
what is wrong,
there is always a time
for retribution
and that time
is beginning.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Justice in Black and White

The facts of what happened in Florida the night a pistol-packing wannabe-cop named George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager with no criminal record walking back to his Dad’s home after purchasing a candy bar, will never be known.  Trayvon is dead, and his version of events is lost forever.  But the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman of all criminal charges almost certainly reflects the fact that none of the jurors were black, and raises the question of whether an African American male can receive justice in a U.S. courtroom.

Trial by a jury of one’s peers is a deeply ingrained value in our country. But blacks and whites have such different experiences regarding the law, the police, the veracity of sworn testimony and the reliability of the criminal justice system that “peerage” (or an equivalence of attitude) is almost impossible between them.  The five white women and one Latina female who sat in judgment on George Zimmerman were probably not consciously biased.  But few non-blacks can fully understand the anger and dismay their verdict must arouse, recalling an era when the official legal doctrine (enunciated in the infamous Dred Scott decision) was that “no black man has any legal rights that a white man must respect,” and a centuries long southern tradition of all white juries acquitting lynch mobs.

Racism remains a virulent reality in our legal system, reflected at every level, from the profiling that occurs in routine traffic stops to differential rates in application of the death penalty.  Young African American men like Trayvon are particularly prone to these disparities, more likely as an age group to be incarcerated than to go to college, more likely to perish (like Trayvon) from a gunshot wound than from any other cause of death.

The majority of white folks in this country will be inclined to accept the outcome of the Zimmerman trial at face value, assuming the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Criticism of the prosecutor’s evidence and arguments can rightfully be made.  But for blacks, Trayvon will understandably be viewed as one more young man of color, gunned down without cause and without recourse to the law: not the aggressor in this case (as the defense alleged) but a victim, pure and simple.

With Trayvon gone, tragically, no one can say they are wrong. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blind Justice and the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court of the United States undermined years of progress toward the goal of racial justice when it struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Passed into law after a peaceful march from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, ended with protesters being gassed, clubbed and bullwhipped by rioting police troopers, the Voting Rights Act ended the shameful legacy of Jim Crow at the polls that had barred generations of African Americans from exercising their franchise across the South.
The majority of Justices appeared to have no sense of this history.  Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, has simplistically asserted that the “way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” as if the pretense of being colorblind—closing our eyes to the realities of racism—will make it go away.  Writing for the majority, Roberts reasoned that the Voting Rights statute, which required federal approval for changes in electoral procedures for nine states in old Dixie and for scores of jurisdictions in the North that had track records of voter suppression, no longer reflects current conditions.  Massachusetts today, Roberts said, has more problems with voter discrimination than Mississippi.

Really?  Mississippi like many Southern states been trying hard to pass restrictive new voting requirements that will disproportionately keep the poor and people of color from the polls.  A Mississippi initiative written last year by State Representative Joey Fillingane (R), for instance, would require citizens to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot, with the Catch-22 that in order to get a photo ID, a birth certificate is needed (and the only way to request a birth certificate in Mississippi is to present a photo ID.)   How different is this initiative from those pre-civil-rights-era “literacy tests” that required black voters to recite the U.S. Constitution from memory or guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap?  Up until last week,  Representative Fillingane’s initiative, which was approved by a majority of the state’s voters, could not be enacted without an okay from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Now, thanks to John Roberts and his cohorts, Mississippi is poised to act, just like Texas, which within hours of the Court’s ruling announced it would institute electoral re-districting that, up until that moment, had been blocked for discriminating against black and Latino voters.

This ruling is not just shameful.  It is naked power politics, intended to reduce turnout among constituencies that have traditionally voted Democratic, exercised by the one branch of government that is supposed to rise above partisan agendas.
The Goddess of Justice is traditionally portrayed wearing a blindfold, meaning that distinctions of race, ethnicity, and income mean nothing before the bar of truth.  But the purported “color-blindness” of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kenney is a cynical pose that suggests another meaning, as in Langston Hughes’ poem:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gay Marriage A Blessing For Us All

Whatever the Supreme Court rules this week, gay marriage appears to be headed toward legal affirmation.  A dozen states now embrace the principle of marital equality, with polls showing over half of all Americans in favor of equal rites.

There is almost an element of inevitability here, because gay partnerships that are long-term, responsible and mutually committed are a fact of life.  Trying to prohibit or annul these relationships by constitutional amendment is like trying to overturn Newton’s laws through legislative edict.  Same-sex marriage exists--like the law of gravity.  The only question is whether these relationships will receive the full range of protections and benefits that heterosexual marriages receive.  More and more Americans are inclined to answer yes. 

As a minister, I’ve been performing these unions for years.   Way back in 1997, the church I served in Burlington, Vermont, went on record by filing an amicus brief on behalf of two same-sex couples who had petitioned the state Supreme Court for the right to wed.  That opened the door to a court ruling creating Civil Unions—equivalent to marriage in all but name--in the Green Mountain State back in 2000.   What seemed radical then has now become tame.

I recall when our legislature was debating the issue.  Vermont had become a national battleground, and roadsides were littered with placards pro and con.  The statehouse was packed for the hearings.  Most of those testifying against gay marriage cited scripture or church teaching.  In contrast, those testifying in favor talked about their families—sons and daughters denied the right to visit their dying lovers in the hospital, or unable to receive an inheritance, or enjoy the tax advantages that come with married status.  One side used the vocabulary of rulebooks and dogmatic authority.  The other spoke in the language of equity and compassion.  There was little communication between the two, which seemed a pity.

For I have always supported marriage equality on traditionalist grounds, because I so vigorously support the institution of matrimony, which is decline.  A recent report by the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, for example, found that “by age 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married.”  Anyone concerned about the next generation should be alarmed, for while single parent households can be as nurturing and healthy as any (and I was raised by a single mom, after my father died), we know that kids born outside of marriage are at higher risk for falling into poverty, dropping out of school, and falling behind their peers by almost every measure.  In these circumstances, shouldn’t we be acting to strengthen stable families and support healthy marriages?

Against the atomizing forces of modern life--the “every man for himself” ethic of the marketplace, the politics of division, the cult of privatizing everything from Social Security to public utilities and natural resources--everything possible must be done to sustain our social fabric: to care for our families, our children, our neighborhoods, our communities, our environment.  That’s why, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, I’ll continue to bless and consecrate the bonds of human interdependence, be they gay or straight. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Feeding the World with Test Tube Cows

Heifer International boasts of having “the most important gift catalog in the world.”  They provide calves and goats for poor farmers to feed their families, right?  Not exactly. Here are some other places your Heifer money goes:

In 2009, Heifer funded the development of Kenya’s first test-tube calf using a technique called in vitro embryo production (IVEP).  The International Livestock Research Institute, which is creating these franken-foods, explains that with traditional breeding, cows can produce only 10-15 offspring in the course of a normal lifespan, whereas “IVEP can produce up to 300 offspring per life span.”

Why would you want to boost a cow's reproduction rate by 2000 percent?  Because, according to the ILRI, “livestock is the fastest growing sub-sector in the world, as increasing trends of 114% in demand for meat and 133% for milk attest. To improve on food security, it is essential to double livestock production in the developing world by 2020. IVEP is clearly one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this.”

Never mind that countries like Mexico and Taiwan which have shifted to a meat centered diet have lowered food security.  And never mind that the Kenya Meat Commission is already exporting 500 tons of food per week out of the country.  Test tube cows must be the answer, according to the Heifer funded project.

“Doubling livestock production through traditional breeding techniques increases pressure on natural resources: water, land and biodiversity,” according to the report. “Again, IVEP, which requires only laboratory equipment in the production process, comes to the rescue.”

Huh?  In terms of environmental impacts, I’m not sure how breeding calves in the lab improves on mother nature.  What I am sure about is that we’re a long way from the Heifer catalog covers with photos of smiling children holds lambs.

Maybe it’s time chuck “the most important gift catalog in the world.” 


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Everyone Loves To Hate The Tax Man

Face it, nobody likes the Tax Man, so it’s easy to lambast the Internal Revenue Service, which is just about as popular (but just as necessary) as a regular colonoscopy.

Lately, the IRS has taken a hit for targeting “Tea Party” organizations with heightened scrutiny when those groups applied for tax-exempt status.   The head of the IRS resigned, the President apologized profusely and Congress is holding hearings to investigate how such an outrage could occur.

But what’s the problem?  There’s a well-established rule that only non-partisan groups are eligible for tax exemption.  As a clergyman, I know this rule well. It means no endorsing candidates from the pulpit.  No telling my parishioners how to vote.  No fund raising for Democrats, Republicans, or others seeking electoral office.  As a minister, I’m advised, I’d better not even wear a campaign button for Markey or Gomez (the current senatorial candidates in Massachusetts, the state where I'm currently living).  To do so might mean jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of my church, which would then be crossing the line between a religious, charitable organization and a political action caucus.

So if I were an IRS bureaucrat faced with thousands of applications from outfits seeking tax exemption, I might very well use a computerized key word search to sort through the pile.  Anything group with “party” in its name (“Tea Party,” “Patriot Party,” “Citizens’ Party”) would probably get flagged for special attention.  Parties, by definition, are partisan.  That’s the definition of a party, and it describes many groups—perhaps most—under the Tea Party umbrella
An internet search, for instance, shows at least 69 societies in Massachusetts calling themselves “Tea Party” affiliates.  Here in Worcester, there is the “Seven Hills Tea Party” which seeks to “encourage involvement in campaigns for like minded candidates (local, state and federal).”   The Berkshire Tea Party describes itself as working “in cooperation with the GOP.”   Several others in the Massachusetts Tea Party network declare their heartfelt intention to rid the country of President Obama.  You may agree or disagree with their agendas.  But do these parties sound non-partisan to you? 

Such groups have every right to organize, of course, and to take a role in civic life.  But should they be tax exempt?  Not under current law. 

So the IRS doesn’t need to apologize.  The ones apologizing should be the media and our current leaders—Republicans and Democrats--who are trying to raise their own poll numbers by attacking the one person everyone loves to hate …

The Tax Man: a real pain in the patootey. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bomber Deserves Burial

The body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev deserves a burial.  The corpse of the Boston Marathon bomber has been under refrigeration since Friday at a funeral home in Worcester on south Main Street, with protesters gathered outside and no local cemetery willing to accept the remains.  This situation is indefensible.

Since ancient times, proper interment of the deceased has been the mark of a civilized society and a universally recognized moral injunction.  

In Sophocle’s play Antigone, the king of Thebes, Creon, brings down the wrath of the gods upon his own family when he refuses to allow the heroine for whom the drama is named to bury her brother Polynices, who had rebelled against the state, ruling the body must be left to rot on the plain.   Transgressing the king’s decree, heaping earth upon her slain sibling, Antigone proclaims to Creon that no “mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.”

In Christian tradition, the same rule applies.  The Romans, known for the cruelty of their punishments, returned the crucified body of Jesus back to his disciples and family members to be put to rest according to Jewish custom.  Ascertaining that Christ had indeed succumbed, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Pontius Pilate allowed the corpse to be claimed by Joseph of Arimithea, who “bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.”

Even in wartime, an interval when the laws of humanity and common decency are otherwise suspended, fighting armies will momentarily suspend combat so that each side may retrieve and bury their casualties under a flag of truce.  The Geneva Conventions, based on centuries of internationally accepted law, stipulate that “the dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained.”

Given such precedent, is it too much to ask a cemetery in Worcester to accept the remains of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? 

Whether you consider him a heinous murderer, a misguided soul, a terrorist, or all of the above, he was also a human being: not an animal, an object or a piece of refuse.  I have zero tolerance for his cause and condemn his actions, even as I grieve his victims and sympathize with the families of those who were killed or injured by his crimes.

But this is one of those decision points that reveals our own character as a people.  Are we brutes, or are we members of a civilized nation? 
Only the residents of Worcester can decide.    

(Rev. Kowalski is currently serving as interim minister of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts) 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wealthy as Monarchs

People value whatever is extraordinary.  On a recent visit to Costa Rica, for example, my wife and I were thrilled to glimpse beautifully iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies flitting through the forested foothills, their wings a luxuriant aquamarine. Like thousands of other eco-tourists, we’d willingly traveled two thousand miles in search of the exotic. What’s unfamiliar excites interest.

Now a report suggests that other butterflies we regard as garden variety, like the familiar Monarch, may soon become as rare as Blue Morphos.  The latest census from Mexico indicates that the number of insects who successfully complete their annual migration has plummeted.  Milkweed, which is the only foodstuff for Monarchs, is being eradicated from North American fields as farmers switch to genetically-modified crops like “Round Up Ready” corn and soybeans that are designed to withstand toxic chemicals that kill every other plant in the area.   With no milkweed, the Monarchs are falling victim to progress.  The southern forests where the butterflies overwinter were depopulated in the last count, with the orange-and-black visitors occupying less than three acres in the Mariposa Sanctuary, down from more than fifty acres just a few years ago.  Soon, they may be gone.

Can you plant your own butterfly garden?  Yes.  Include more organic food in your diet.  Demand that genetically-modified foods be labeled as such, so that shoppers can make smart decisions about what kind of agriculture they want to patronize and support.  Many people would gladly pay a few pennies more for items that are less costly to the Monarchs, Morphos and other forms of life. 

In the meantime, one wonders, when will our species begin to value what is common?   How much of earth’s beauty will be lost forever before it’s considered rare enough to be saved?   With eyes to see the riches of the ordinary, we can all be wealthy as monarchs.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can The Boy Scouts Untie Their Own Knots?

As a clergyman, I have participated in more than Eagle Scout Court of Honor and admire the boys and men who possess the character and persistence the rank signifies.  So I was glad to read in the New York Times that the national scouting organization is talking about lifting the ban on gays.

I speak personally as the father of two young adults, one who is heterosexual and another who’s not.  Both my kids are superlative in every way: academic all stars, leaders in their church youth group when they were teens, Taekwondo black belts, volunteering with the food shelf and more.  Since most studies conclude that 5%-10% of the population is homosexual, that means most families in America, like ours, include at least one GLBT member, whether a son, daughter, niece or nephew; and whether or not they all excel in school, they all deserve our love and respect.  I’m not sure what the Boy Scouts current prohibition on gays accomplishes except to exclude families like ours. 

While they’re at it, I hope the Scouts will re-think the requirement that youth and troop leaders profess belief in a “Supreme Being.”  When my son was in third grade, I reluctantly refused to let him join the Cub Scouts because, at the registration meeting, I was told there were “no atheists allowed.”  For me as a Dad, it was a tough decision, because I knew my son just wanted to learn to tie knots, toast marshmallows and go camping.  But I also know too many fine, upstanding citizens who happen to have doubts about a deity (some members of my own church) to abide a rule that cast more aspersions upon the millions of people--including Buddhists and moral exemplars like the Dalai Lama--who don’t believe in God.

With a degree from Harvard Divinity School, I’m also educated enough to realize that very few twenty-first century theologians—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—would sign their names to the Scout’s credo.  As the religious thinker Paul Tillich pointed out, referring to God as the “Supreme Being” suggests that the Transcendent is just one more created object, alongside other objects: limited, conditioned and finite.  Tillich called God “the Ground of Being” for this reason, to suggest that the creative reality behind our universe is beyond human categories of space, time or knowing.  It’s in this sense that I personally embrace God, as a dimension of experience that lifts me beyond myself into an attitude of reverence, wonder and humility.  But do I believe in the Boy Scout’s “Supreme Being”?  No.

Why don’t the Boy Scouts just drop the theology—where we human beings will never fully agree—and stick to what they do best: building camaraderie, teaching useful life skills, and fostering public service?  It’s sad to see an organization with such an important mission hamper its own effectiveness with exclusionary, divisive, and antiquated policies.  

The Scouts need to get themselves untangled.  Let's hope this is one knot they can untie.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dream A Have I?

In his avant-garde theatrical “The Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” New York choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones includes a backwards broadcast of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech: Last At Free Are We.  Almighty God Thank!  The jumbled juxtaposition of the great orator’s words is jarring, but as a black, gay artist, Jones means no disrespect.  The entire work is intended to take the audience out of their normal comfort zone, to help them confront the realities of racism and homophobia that still haunt our land 60 years after Dr. King’s famous speech.

I had an unusual chance to appear on stage with Jones back in 1991, when the show first debuted. In each city where “The Last Supper” performed, a local minister was invited to be part of the act, to join in an impromptu, unscripted dialogue about the persistence of evil and the power of faith.  “Are you a person of faith?” Bill asked me.  It was a simple question, but unexpected.  The two of us were seated in straight-backed chairs on the proscenium, with spotlights shining down and three thousand people filling the theater, listening for my answer.  It was a tense moment.

I finally responded that all of us are people of faith.  Everyone believes in something.  Everyone trusts in a power greater than themselves.  The question is where you put your faith.  Dr. King, for example, put his faith in the power of non-violent action and redemptive love.  Others put their trust in the big stick, armaments and retaliation.  But the philosophy of an eye-for-an-eye, King said, left everyone blind. 

That particular night happened to be the civil rights leader’s birthday, and January 15 also marked the start of the first Gulf War.  American warplanes were bombing Baghdad even as we spoke.
Many wars later (Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan), Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday might be a good time for all of to ask where we put our faith.  In F-35 bombers and drone technology?  Or do we need a change of heart?  “Hatred cannot vanquish hatred,” King proclaimed, “only love can do that.”  But do any of us really believe that, even a little?  
Dream A Have You?  In Believe You Do What?  Are “realpolitick” and bigger budgets for defense actually the path to peace?  The best way to celebrate King’s legacy is to risk getting out of your comfort zone.  Let yourself be confronted by the tough questions that he asked. 

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