Recalling the fire that destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral this past spring, I want to re-visit the question of where the Catholic church might go from here (see my earlier post on 5/6), focusing in particular on its institutional corruption and prospects for internal renewal through the laity's awakening and active intervention.
In my view, the best general-press critique of the current mess is Jim Carroll's recent Atlantic Monthly article. I sympathize with Jim's call for lay Catholics to adopt a stance of "internal resistance" to a clerical caste incapable of self-reform. Yet when he calls on the laity to "take back the church" and radically renew it by inventing new egalitarian structures and servant-leadership roles (e.g., eucharistic celebrants who are married, female, and of different sexual orientations), I don't think he goes far enough in thinking through what that change process requires. Let me outline an activist alternative.
Concerned, committed laity sympathetic to Carroll's outlook should network, build relationships, and then organize an independent lay Catholic association that adopts the method of nonviolent direct action with the aim of forcing the issue of radical renewal through a sustained, strategic withdrawal of consent. In keeping with the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the group might be called All People of God (APG); crucially, APG would prefigure in its constitution and activities the inclusive, egalitarian church to come. (Think of it as a "charter church," if you will, one that offers a proof of concept that there is another, more faith-filled way of being the people of God--while still being recognizably Catholic!). As the church mobilized for radical renewal, APG would orchestrate acts of "ecclesial disobedience" beginning perhaps with non-participation in the sacraments and moving quickly to nonpayment of tithes and public postings of a 21st-century version of 95 Theses on Catholic church doors in every diocese. As the "Campaign for Vatican III" unfolded, more edgy and creative forms of ecclesial disobedience would be deployed.
Yes, this proposal runs the danger of polarization, ridicule from outsiders, and further demographic decline in church membership and lay involvement. But that is already the church's present and future, at least in the advanced-industrial world. Theologically, such a movement may be charged--and found guilty by many--of suffering from millenarian hubris. Such are the risks, and hence every APG action must be grounded in humility and love as well as hope. Both the gospel and the best traditions of nonviolence offer inspiration and models.
On this topic, I also find illuminating the work of Catholic scholar (and friend) Joe Holland, author of Roman Catholic Clericalism (Pacem in Terris Press, 2018), who provides a penetrating historical-structural analysis of the present crisis and outlines a similarly inspiring alternative that would liberate the church from its outdated organizational structure.
In briefest sum, Joe shows how the current mess dates back 1,700 years to the formation of the "western clerical institutional system." Joe emphasizes that what many church critics call "clericalism" is in fact an entrenched system imposed from above and not simply a "psychological or institutional tendency" within the church. Historically, that system "developed in three stages: (1) the Constantinian construction of the counter-evangelical hierarchical-clerical class; (2) the high medieval papacy's cruel and forced monastic-inspired imposition of clerical celibacy on Western presbyters (priests) and bishops; and (3) the Council of Trent's mandating of monastic-like clerical seminaries." None of these organizational forms are required by Catholic doctrine, Holland insists. And until we get another global ecumenical council (aka Vatican III) guided by prophetic leadership from the global South and Eastern Catholics, then we can expect to see the church's decline in the West continue.
Joe doesn't say much about how a radical renewal through a convening of Vatican III might come to pass, other than identifying who the key players might be and offering prayerful expressions of hope for the Spirit to blow mightily. Amen to the latter, by all means, but this Pelagianic Catholic wants an activist Catholic core to light a hundred little holy fires in the near future in faithful preparation for the Spirit blowing wildly across the land.
And then, come that kairotic moment, may we be renewed in the blessed bonfire that ensues. May a more authentic people of God arise from out of the ashes, whether or not a third global ecumenical council occurs or not.
Such is my prayer-cum-proposal.
"Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement." - Pope Francis, Laudato si'
Perhaps an opening exercise in embodied reflection on the sorry state of the U.S. farm belt might lend more weight to the discussion below of deep adaptation versus deep transformation in response to the climate crisis. I invite you, then, to feel with me the Heartland hurting as we imagine the big hurt put on it, beginning with the nasty bruises from soybean tariffs (prompting a $15B salve from Emerald City). Now, let's absorb the body blow and struggle with the loss of breath from record flooding, with Nebraska and large swathes of other grain-belt states under water and thousands of farmers throwing in the towel on planting. OK, let's catch our breath and brace ourselves before taking several gut-punches: debt-induced suicides, spiking opioid ODs, closing hospitals (the new term is "healthcare desert").
We're doubled over but not down. We stand our ground, as resilient and uncomplaining mid-westerners do, determined not to fall into denial and despair.
Now we turn inward and attend to the stress-induced fatigue and anxiety that's built up through decades of disinvestment and brain drain and growing unease over the
approaching demographic cliff (a huge number of Boomer farmers will retire soon, and so far the replacement numbers are dismal). Who will farm the fields, husband the animals, tend to the beehives, plant the trees? Agri-Bots?
Gazing now in time-lapse fashion at landscape changes from 1950 to the present, we feel how parched we're becoming as we watch the soils washing away and the vast watershed's infrastructure aging and failing more frequently (no help from Emerald City on that, at least not yet). We notice as well the growing signs of Ogallala Aquifer tap-out (when, not if, the million-plus water pumps run dry in large numbers after decades of massive over-drafting, then it's truly game over for industrial agri-biz; this is arguably the biggest elephant in the regional room, followed by the decaying dikes, levees, dams, bridges, etc.). OK, enough is enough, let's take a drink of water from the well...on second thought, let's not after noticing the county has condemned it.
We're wickedly sore all over, weary, worried, and thirsty--but still breathing.
As we recover, we might reflect on the fact that U.S. grain-reserve programs for food security quietly went away two decades ago. We recall how priorities shifted. Since 9/11 the U.S. government has spent almost $6 trillion fighting an endless "war on terror" across the globe, with counter-terror operations in 80 countries. And we recall further how, during this time, the U.S. military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons in greenhouse gases even as it continued to study the national-security implications of climate change while ignoring a major, breakthrough effort in strategic planning by its own people that addresses the challenges in a humane, holistic way.
Going forward, recovery (or restoration) may be the most accurate descriptor of our shared state, and not just descriptive of post-industrial-ag states. And here our exercise ends. My hope is that it may help you, as it has helped me, to take the full measure of what's at stake in the recent debate over deep adaptation versus deep transformation, to which I now turn.
Last July, UK-based sustainability leadership expert Jem Bendell raised eyebrows with the online release of a paper that reads the latest climate science as confirmation of "inevitable near-term social collapse" due to (already) runaway climate change. Coming soon are widespread food shortages resulting from what a recent UN report on disaster risk refers to as "multiple breadbasket failure," which researchers say will be caused primarily by more record-setting extreme weather events in multiple locales. In addition, Jem soberly notes the cascading effects of other climate-related, stress-to-the-breaking-point phenomena impacting social systems in both the global North and global South (though poor nations in the latter will feel the pain first, experience it more intensely, and endure it longer). Echoing many climate experts, he worries most about massive release of greenhouse gases--methane especially--from sooner-than-expected Arctic meltdown; in this scenario, the feedback loop grows in intensity and renders climate change unmanageable for any future generation. On this Cassandriac view, then, it's night-night for predatory capitalism within a few decades; the predator now is prey for an angry beast it cannot tame.
Acceptance of this very inconvenient truth claim, and a courageous grappling with the despair it evokes, need not result in resignation and political passivity, or so Jem argues. Rather, through the dark night of acceptance-despair (and it is at heart a spiritual journey, he holds), one can emerge with transformed personal vision and new-found strength to face the daunting survival challenges ahead and join with others to think through and enact a "deep adaptation agenda" of resilience, relinquishment, and restoration for living compassionately and creatively in renewed local communities--come what may. In short, Jem embraces a "radical hope" for love in the ruins (I wonder, has he read Percy's prophetic novel?).
Note as well that Jem's ethical-political agenda includes a radical proposal for collective action aimed at achieving (partial, painfully inadequate) climate mitigation. Why bother, if society is toast? Because we love our children and thus must strive with all our being to achieve the minimal yet truly vital goal of avoiding an even worse fate--human extinction--which is now a real possibility in his view.
Among serious theological voices grappling with the existential-risk issues Jem addresses, Jack Miles comes foremost to mind. Indeed, now is a good time to return to his seminal essay titled "Global Requiem: The Apocalyptic Moment in Religion, Science, and Art" (2000).
Meanwhile, the deep-adaptation stance articulated by Jem has resonated widely and generated much discussion online among environmentalists, sustainability professionals, academic researchers, and public intellectuals engaged with the climate crisis. His thinking is influential with Extinction Rebellion activists, and hundreds of people are active on the recently established Deep Adaptation Forum.
The many in deep denial aside, among Jem's most thoughtful critics is UK cultural historian Jeremy Lent, who argues instead for radical commitment to "deep transformation" and the emergence of an Ecological Civilization. In both his historical-structural critique of late capitalism and his articulation of a constructive-postmodern alternative, Jeremy echoes Pope Francis, Thomas Berry, Sallie McFague, Catherine Keller, David Korten, Douglas Rushkoff and fellow travelers at Team Human, and Joe Holland, among others. His ethical-practical template for confronting Empire's penchant for self-inflicted crises and indifference to human suffering is the powerful hybrid of classical Hebrew prophecy (including the prophet Yeshua ben Nazareth) and modern social movements.
Jeremy's complaint against Jem's inevitable-near-term-social-collapse thesis is twofold. For one, Jeremy objects in principle to any definitive prognosis regarding our collective future, given what chaos and system theorists say about non-linear dynamics and historical contingency (and, I would add, what Nassim Taleb says about the impact of "black swan events" in history). He also points to continuing scientific uncertainty over various climate tipping points, assumptions regarding parameters in climate modeling, and so on. For example, according to leading climatologist Michael Mann (Penn State), a reading of the "methane bomb" hypothesis as confirmation of runaway climate change already unfolding is in fact not supported by the latest research; rather, the models forecast big positive-feedback effects from methane release (which will accelerate global warming in a self-reinforcing process) likely will not occur until later in the century (on the assumption of BAU emissions, which likely will be reduced to some extent in coming decades). For another, Jeremy fears many will miss the positive, liberating, and deeply ethical-spiritual implications of Jem's acceptance-despair stance and conclude instead that with midnight nearing on the Titanic and far too few lifeboats in sight, one may as well drink, dance, and sex(t) while one can. The privileged will maintain their denial and assent to eco-apartheid.
Jeremy replies with a defense of the need for the climate-conscious to process fully and honestly the magnitude of what's in store even as they "fight like hell for the living" (Mother Jones) in and through a growing Extinction Rebellion and other climate-justice movements. Meanwhile, it's not too early to begin thinking seriously about how to live responsibly and creatively during the "long emergency" (Kunstler) ahead.
I introduce this debate to readers for several reasons. First, in an increasingly risky, runaway world the issues raised by Jem and Jeremy, and the insights they bring to bear on them, could not be more relevant and important to our shared future. Second, the logic, civility, philosophical acumen, and humanity on display in their exchange is a model of respectful, serious dialogue we all need to emulate going forward as the heat, atmospheric and emotional, continues to climb. And third, it's always good to step outside the states and listen to what others are saying--even if it's just two privileged white guys across the pond.
So, take the time soon--maybe during the Fourth of July break--to engage these thinkers, beginning with Jem's dark gem of a reflection on deep adaptation from last July, then Jeremy's initial reply, and then Jem's response. It sure beats watching Trump's self-coronation spectacle.
With a nod to Confucius, who responded to disinformation and corruption of culture in his day with a call for the "rectification of names"--i.e., the practice of honestly and accurately naming reality--I suggest we support the "Call it a Crisis" campaign sponsored by Al Gore's Climate Reality Project: https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/why-do-we-call-it-climate-crisis.
Yes, signing an online petition seems trivial at present, especially one aimed at calling out the corporate media's complicity in climate denial. Yet sign we should. And let us also pledge to join those who are naming the crisis, making step changes in lifestyle, and organizing for collective action.
The Climate Reality Project has trained over 19,000 to exercise moral leadership on the climate crisis. The training is free and open to all ages. For folks in the U.S. and Canada the next three-day event is in early August in Minnesota: https://www.climaterealityproject.org/training?segment=web_homepage_tile#.
[NOTE: I will return to my reflections on the Notre-Dame fire and prospects for the renewal of U.S. Catholicism in the near future.]
About 1 am last night, post-milonga, I was driving in the rain northward on a windy, wooded stretch of Lincoln Drive that cuts through Philly's Fairmount Park when the traffic in both lanes came to a quick halt. Three cars in front of me, a mid-sized tree had fallen across the road, its upper branches reaching over a three-foot-high concrete median into the oncoming lane. Soon it became clear there was no turning around, no side-street detour, for the hundreds of cars pooling up behind the downed tree. We all were stuck.
While most drivers chose to stay dry and settle into the glass-cockpit comfort zone I write about in chapter 10 of Sustainable Abundance for All, some of us decided not to wait for the authorities. I joined a dozen or so millennials in the wet street, and we formed a tree-removal brigade leaning-in hard this way and that, breaking off every branch we could, and getting bounced back by the main trunk when our lean-in reached nature's limit. At one point someone quipped "welcome to the frontier," which garnered a good laugh. A bit risky, yes, but everyone was motivated and mindful as we went about our tree-removal task.
About fifteen minutes into the project an ABC reporter was shooting video. A burly lumber sexual among us took issue, barking at him to help out. At one point a tow trucker stopped to help, but the road was too slick to effect a chain hauling away. Then, after more attempts at leaning in and a few moments of discouragement, one more big heave-ho yielded the cracking sound we knew meant victory.
A few high-fives later (and with a few parting middle fingers for the ABC dude), the brigade disbanded as quickly as it had come together. The traffic flow commenced. Some of us grimed up our driver's seat with ground-up bark and sweat, but we felt good about how we took hold together and cleared a way for all.
No cops or other city personnel had been sighted. None were needed.
NOTE: This post is the first of several that take the Notre-Dame fire last month as a point-of-departure for reflection on the church today—and tomorrow.
In the NYTimes conservative Catholic pundit Ross Douthat recently commented on the tragedy of Notre-Dame on fire during Holy Week. Douthat reads the fire metaphorically as prophetic judgment upon a divided church: burning with righteous anger toward each other, both left and right seem incapable of renewing Catholicism’s genius for fashioning a synthesis that renews faith-in-action without denying the counsel of reason. A now-charred cathedral, emblematic of Catholicism’s steep decline in the EU and corrupt, moribund state in the U.S., once was a manifestation of the church’s vital capacity for synthetic vision, he claims (let students of church history judge the truth of the matter). Past the rebuilding to come (will Koch funds finally do some good? don’t hold your breath), a far more important challenge awaits Catholic folk of all stripes in the affluenza-afflicted countries of the global North: “The real challenge for Catholics, in this age of general post-Christian cultural exhaustion, is to look at what our ancestors did and imagine what it would mean to do that again, to build anew, to leave something behind that could stand a thousand years and still have men and women singing ‘Salve Regina’ outside its cruciform walls, as Parisians did tonight while Notre-Dame burned.” Alas, Douthat closes with hands thrown up, noting wistfully that only God and Catholics of 3019 A.D. know what a new synthesis might look like.
The synthesis-cum-renewal Douthat rightfully calls for may be re-described as the daunting task of forging among the faithful a “creative middle” (Bernard Lonergan’s phrase)—i.e., an authentic missionary church at once humble and bold in pursuing its redemptive mission--that owns the integral dialectic of tradition and innovation it lives out and seeks in its various ministries to heal and create in history as it mends individual lives, nurtures caring communities, and contributes to the “great work” (Thomas Berry’s phrase) of building of a more humane, just, and ecologically sustainable civilization (or what Lonergan referred to as “cosmopolis” in his political-theological essays, or what Pope Francis calls “integral ecology” in Laudato si’).
Attentive readers of my book Sustainable Abundance for All (Wipf and Stock, 2018) will notice that I did not foreground this challenge—essentially that of the church’s identity/role/mission in the contemporary world—choosing instead to focus on varied winds of change blowing through both church and society. In SAA I extended Lonergan’s notion of the creative middle, re-defining it as a stance and moral compass that persons of (whatever) faith might adopt in the public square as they navigate questions of technology in the context of social acceleration and the proactionary-precautionary debate (the latter playing out now on many fronts, e.g., the ongoing controversy around GMOs). In light of Douthat’s piece, and tutored by Lonergan, Pope Francis, Joe Holland, and Thomas Berry, among other wise souls, I want to share a thought or two as to how we might imagine and work constructively toward the coming-into-being of a “creative-middle church” dedicated to serving—and yes, (re)forming—a local-global civilization that is irreducibly pluralistic, dangerously conflict-ridden, and fast swirling towards the mother of all whirlwinds.
I suggest we start by recalling how the pope deploys a geometric metaphor, the polyhedron, to convey the beauty and dynamism of a local-global civilization that ideally seeks to achieve, if only provisionally, a unity-in-diversity truly respectful of both our common humanity and difference in all its manifold dimensions. In Evangelii Gaudium (2013) the Holy Father writes: “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts…. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren…. Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the center, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”
I find the polyhedron figure, and so many of its artistic iterations, both captivating and liberating. To gaze intently upon a multi-colored, multi-shaped One-Many is akin to locking in on a new North Star; granted, it’s way beyond us at present yet still visible, however faintly, and thus able to inspire. A polyhedron offers us a sense of direction in the movement of life at a time when much conspires to leave us rudderless and adrift. And in light of astrobiology, we might imagine in hope not only this planet becoming wonderfully polyhedronic during this new millennium but also the existence of myriad such planets, past and perhaps present, that have passed successfully through several eye-of-the-needle transitions, not the least of which being the epic-epochal shift from unsustainable energy regimes to long-term energy sustainability (more on that in a near-future post). As a parent of three, I find polyhedrons help me to imagine my distant progeny inhabiting a home planet still warm and teeming.
How might the church-as-sacrament point, as it were, toward the polyhedronic planet our hearts desire? How might ecclesial institutions, practices, and members come to reflect in word and deed a new, life-giving synthesis for our (running out of…) time? Can we become at least the germ-seed of next-millennial Polyhedronic Catholics who shall bear witness to God’s love for all creation, even as they seek to fashion yet another synthesis for their (unimaginable) age? Coming posts explore these questions.
These days I greet the two scenes depicted in Psalm 149, and their foreshadowing (and fore-shaping?) of what may come in 2020, with joy and trepidation. The psalmist first evokes an immense joy through banquet imagery and a call to worship Yahweh by “singing a new song” and “praising his name in dance, making music with tambourine and lyre” (v. 3). An ecstatic moment, it all delights the Lord, who has “honored the poor with victory” (v. 4). One imagines the shades of Miriam and David returning and whirling in wild abandon with a host of celebrants. Rebels turned revelers. What other way to express radical amazement in the face of what God has wrought? Having been moved, this tango dancer starts to take steps, begins to move, each and every time he reads or hears the psalm’s opening verses. An earthy, earthling ecstasy on display here. No up-sweep into the eschatological just yet!
Now imagine with me a strong Democratic sweep in 2020 and a huge victory party in Central Park with raise-the-roof music and let-it-loose dancing. Taste and see it. Savor the moment in mind’s eye. After the Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis co-bless the many-colored multitude, I can hear Leon Bridges covering Lennon and see all the people swaying, hand in hand in hand. A great assembly of the Rainbow Coalition. Bloomberg and Schultz are in the crowd, not on stage, and no one notices!
Alas, the psalm then pivots badly to an ugly scene. What comes next is a sword for the godless others, wielded with righteous fury by God’s people, now authorized to “bring retribution on the nations, punishment on the peoples, binding their kings in shackles, their nobles in chains of iron, executing the judgments decreed for them” (vv. 7-9). Psalm 149 ends with Israel celebrated as Yahweh’s righteous, avenging horde: “such is the glory of all God’s faithful” (v. 9). You shall dance on their graves!
Only there’s no ending, no bastards dead and done, since the psalm moves many an assembly today, becoming again and again what feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls a “text of terror” with continuing deadly effects in history. With each recital, Psalm 149 evokes a powerful joy and then morphs into…what? How shall we name this shadow (or is it an evil substance, like a cancer?) within the gathered faithful--us among them? Dare we acknowledge these shades (poisons?), much less face up to them? Ah, the stubborn, stubborn mystery of human sinfulness that Augustine and Calvin, Niebuhr and Barth, counsel us never to discount. This WM eco-theologian from Concord, MA wants to flee into the wilderness! Enough, drown me now in Walden Pond!
Reflecting on Psalm 149, I tremble at what 2020 may bring. Ear to ground, recent rumblings do not reassure. As the impeachment drums beat more loudly in coming months and the primary contest heats up, I wonder how long the Donkey herd will forbear the faux king astride the corporate Elephant. That he has no clothes is apparent to most adult asses, not just the foal. And if the donkeys do grow ornery en masse, whether before or after the (stolen?) election, I suspect the well-armed wardens of the corporate security-surveillance state we now inhabit will do more than bark warnings to ward off any fatal exposure of the neoliberal regime’s Barnumesque, Oz-like leader. Remember who owns the guns out there. Lots of them.
All this may appear alarmist or, at best, premature, but permit me to share my unscientific findings on the country’s air quality, i.e., the foul air in the public square. Lately I’ve made an admittedly bad habit of wading nose-deep into large, odorous pools of WaPo posts that appear online in response to articles and op-eds about the presidential horse race, which incredibly is nearing the first turn already. (Ever the political entrepreneurs, WaPo’s exec editors also are running a weekly ranking/handicapping feature pompously titled the "Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking." Is your fav Dem pol in the Top 15? Has s/he slid down or shot up the Leaderboard? How else to keep democracy from dying in darkness!) Mucking about in these cyber-stalls, one mostly smells manure, of course, though on occasion a fragrant insight, actually true fact, or alluring analysis wafts by (it’s spring after all). Still, the former whiff—often pungent--predominates by far.
From moderate Bidenistas to mad-dog Bernie Bros, I find with alarming frequency that comments on the Left exude something other than a healthy moral disgust with #DerangedDonald. Shifting the metaphor slightly, it seems the unholy smoke from a national house on fire has gone through the nostrils and far into many lungs on the Left, and I fear it’s already mutating into something quite unhealthy. You can detect it in their coarse, coughing rhetoric--an off-putting echo of their Old Left standard bearer. They “feel the Bern” still because they are burning with a righteous anger that smells, well, a lot like hate. Not good.
Put another way, these pools of posts I’ve been wading through contain a subtle yet dangerous poison, and these poisoned pools gather and flow daily into a deepening reservoir of resentment and rage among folk toward whom, generally speaking, I gravitate politically.
We progressive Christians—and to be clear, I voted for BS in the 2016 Dem primary and confess to bouts of biblically-fueled righteous anger--tend to assume too easily that all the illiberality lies to the Right of us. We strive to walk the Micah walk, truly yearn for Jubilee justice, respect the rule of law, defend Mumia’s right to due process, etc. But they don’t, damn it all!
Consider the powerful, lucid rhetoric of Chris Hedges, a progressive Christian and fearless writer-activist I greatly respect. After immersing himself in the pain and despair of red-state America a few years back, Hughes now deploys the phrase “American fascists” routinely to describe the Christian nationalists underwriting MAGA Trump’s con er, crusade. At once accurate and incendiary, I worry such language may nurture illiberal tendencies lurking not only within engaged lefties on the coasts but also within a largely un-‘woke but increasingly insecure, pissed-off populace (the opposite result of what Hedges intends, of course).
My fret this time is founded upon social-scientific findings. First, only 24% of U.S. voters register Republican, just 31% register Democrat, leaving 42% independent (3% join third parties). Second, reviewing a raft of new survey data, researcher David Adler finds that “respondents at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, least committed to its institutions, and most supportive of authoritarianism” (“The Centrist Paradox”). So, it may not be the two Koch Bros, or the tiny tea-party remnant, or even the troublesome mini-tribe of alt-rightists we must worry most about. Instead, the not-so-latent danger is an illiberal streak borne of fear running through millions of economically vulnerable Americans. Droves of donkeys so disgusted with democracy’s dysfunction they no longer believe in it. Walls and weapons sound good to these folks when liberal elites prove ineffectual repairers of the guardrails.
This disturbing data point helps to explain in part why Trump’s rogue candidacy gained traction, but for secular and religious progressives alike the more important question it raises for 2020 and beyond is whether and how faith in the idea of democracy can be renewed. Rhetorically, Biden’s announced “calling” to run appears pitched to this challenge. IMHO, right message but wrong messenger (sorry, Joe, you have less street cred than you know).
Note as well what has happened on campuses to the noble art of democratic deliberation, exemplified last year at Villanova University (where I teach) by the public dialogue between conservative legal scholar Robert George and Cornel West, both of whom saw fit to retrieve the virtue tradition and practice of parrhesia. Alas, the woke ones on campuses across the country, now weaponized with intersectional phraseology and trigger-happy, claim the mantle of “social justice warrior” and manage to chill the air enough so that conservative undergrads keep their mouths shut. Not cool, kids.
Turning to the theological dimension of all this, let us remind ourselves that Christians are not called to save democracy--or any other human construct, ideological or otherwise--from itself. We are called to witness to God's love by going and doing likewise. We care for all creation as we taste and see and celebrate in joy and gratitude its goodness even now. We glimpse faintly the eschatological horizon and dare to announce the coming of a beloved community and "new heaven and earth" that remains always out ahead of us, as it were. Tikkun olam is our calling, too. We follow Yeshua ben Nazareth, an uncommonly good Jew.
I suggest we retrieve in this moment Niebuhr’s sense of the tragic as well as his ability to sniff out liberal illusions and willingness to call out liberal self-righteousness, even as he raked the really nasty plutocrats of his day over the coals. Doing so may help us to ponder seriously the unlikely, Overton-window-breaking scenario of, say, a newly-elected Democratic administration and Congress over-reaching badly in its zeal to bring Wall Street's stallions firmly to bit while also vigorously prosecuting all neoliberal miscreants (beginning with #DethronedDonald), only to find the over-reach igniting rampant capital flight (and a slew of other corporate counter-moves to stymie structural reforms) as well as a violent backcountry backlash (with flames fanned by Joel Ornstein & Co). Regarding the latter, they are Legion who swear on the KJB to die by the sword in defense of Donald and the MAGA dream, and if you couple his demise with a neo-Reconstructionist initiative or Green New Deal project that effectively belittles them again, then it surely will unleash serious blowback down South. Again, remember who owns the guns. Lots of them. And recall who burned the Highlander Center down a few months ago, marched on U. VA's campus in 2017, blessed the rigging of elections in NC, and so on.
Or we might ponder a (stolen?) election result that triggers not a women’s mass demonstration against indecency, circa January 2017, but a hugely undisciplined and wickedly polarizing reaction (not the progressive-populist Movement of movements we actually need) “led” by enraged (il)liberals. In either scenario, the country could spiral downward into a Blood-Red Zone it’s never been in and from which it might never recover.
Yugoslavia, Venezuela…it can happen here. Too many prophets in the Tanakh have warned us thus. If and when the dam of civility breaks and the reservoir rages down through the valley, before or after the election, it’s not hard to imagine lots of people in the pews hearing Psalm 149 preached and demanding at fever pitch full punishment and/or perpetual internment of [fill-in-the-blank].
Finally, the IPCC told us last fall--pretty much point-blank, finally--that we can expect hordes of hungry campesinos y campesinas, aka climate refugees, to continue marching toward El Norte, a prospect likely to prompt growing calls for the construction of a well-provisioned and well-guarded Amerikan Ark. If Adler is right about the centrist paradox, then these authoritarian voices backed by buckets of corporate dollars won't appeal simply to the Right (an opening for son-of-Trump here). Christian Parenti in particular gets it; his analysis of the "catastrophic convergence" of die-hard neoliberalism, a Cold War militarism now given new license to expand post-9/11, and quickening climate change is sobering. Along these lines, a re-reading of Conrad's "An Outpost of Progress" seems in order.
None of these dark observations are meant to de-motivate us. Enormously hopeful movements and voices--and here I hold up the new Poor People's Campaign, Sunrise's current "national tour" of town hall meetings, and Andrew Yang's ongoing "Humanity First" tour, among many others--need our financial support and active participation. As I argue in Sustainable Abundance for All (Wipf and Stock, 2018), working together to make the "adjacent possible" of positive social change a reality--through nonviolent direct action campaigns, formation of co-ops, and a hundred other projects along many fronts--is an integral aspect of what good lives are about.
Executives often speak of how challenging it is to navigate a volatile, uncertain, and complex business environment. At the ready, management gurus counsel a more collaborative, agile style of leadership. Market success calls for connecting and innovating, not command-and-control. The winning formula: attract talent, empower high-functioning teams, and swap smart machines for labor wherever possible. An unforgiving market demands flexibility and flawless execution.
A different yet strangely similar message comes from another quarter: environmentalists say a world of extreme weather, rising ocean waters, and less fresh water will require leaders and followers alike to become more adaptive and resilient, to pivot toward post-carbon technologies and adopt more sustainable livelihoods. As Bill McKibben observes, "The changes to our lives will be ongoing and large and will require uncommon nimbleness, physically and psychologically."
Unfortunately, technology-centered automation not only renders many jobs redundant but also dumbs down remaining workers. Consider the fate of pilots. Air travel has never been safer, and we have computerization to thank for that. Yet commercial pilots, who touch the controls for only a few minutes at take-off and landing, now function as computer operators within high-tech glass cockpits. They struggle to gain flying experience and maintain the skill, expertise, quick reflexes, and habits of attentiveness required when, as sometimes happens, the auto-pilot glitches and the plane and its passengers are back in their hands. Sophisticated simulation training only goes so far. At least one veteran pilot has stated flatly, “We’re forgetting how to fly.”
According to Nicholas Carr, the shadow side of auto-pilot is emblematic of a larger, worrisome trend as automation accelerates: “The mounting evidence of an erosion of skills, a dulling of perceptions, and a slowing of reactions should give us all pause. As we begin to live our lives inside glass cockpits, we seem fated to discover what pilots already know: a glass cockpit can also be a glass cage.” Carr’s allusion to Weber lends weight to the increasingly common sentiment that we are fated to living in a Jetsonian world. On this view, Google and Big Auto soon will create a world of self-driving cars, and only fools and the Amish would reject the safety and freedom to do other things when mobile. Yet just when the uncommon nimbleness and other capabilities required for a deft handling of the increasingly severe conditions we’re fast flying toward are needed most, we are counseled to kick back for a Cadillac ride and let the learning algorithms take over. How long will workers be taken for a ride?
Beyond its intrinsic delights, tango may be viewed as a training ground for life in a risky, runaway world. Dance partners risk an adventure, stepping together again and again into new territory, exploring the adjacent possible through a movement-making at once composed and untamed.
And what of the misstep or stumble? Simple miscommunication, an unclear signal from the lead, a rush into the next step by a nervous and inexperienced follower, poor technique—these common failures among the tango faithful turn a smooth synchrony into an unwelcome, jarring juxtaposition registered immediately as heaviness and tension in the dance. Tango etiquette is clear about these inevitable falls from grace: the lead takes responsibility—always—and repairs the situation immediately by adjusting as necessary and leading the pair back into the lightness and ease. What makes this practice of forgiveness challenging is the uncommon nimbleness of mind required: the lead has to re-frame the situation on the fly and act with precision and timeliness, lest the dance drag or come to a crashing halt. There is no auto-pilot in tango, only grace under pressure.