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A new kind of power

July 7, 2006
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I’m just going to throw this link up for now, and hope to comment on it (with a few other links) tomorrow or Sunday. I’m supposed to be re-checking my footnotes and preparing to print the final/library version of my thesis this weekend. But I hadn’t checked in on The Revealer for awhile and just read Jeff Sharlet’s essay on the religious left’s struggle to define/characterize itself (instead of letting the media and the right do it for us). Here’s a good sample:

Power matters. The religious right knows that but doesn’t like to say it, since doing so would involve confessing how much it already possesses. The would-be religious left, as seen on TV, knows it, too, but doesn’t like to believe it, since doing so would involve admitting it doesn’t have any.

The real religious left — the one yet to be organized — will recognize the reality of power and appreciate its nuances; its applications. Another contributor to Getting on Message, Rev. Vivian Denise Nixon, an ex-con who’s now an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, quotes James Cone, author of a modern classic, A Black Theology for Liberation: “‘authentic love is not ‘help’ — not giving Christmas baskets — but working for political, social, and economic justice, which always means a redistribution of power. It is a kind of power which enables [the oppressed] to fight their own battles and thus keep their dignity.’”

Too much of what passes for the contemporary religious left speaks in terms of “help,” in no small part because that’s the only story most media will listen to. And yet, here’s another irony — “help” of the sort Cone disdains is what the Christian Right is best at. The media does Christian conservatives a disservice when it fails to notice that their movement is organized around the idea of helping people.

As a forthcoming book by statistician Arthur Brooks, Who Cares, demonstrates, religious conservatives give more to charity than liberals do by any measure. Not just in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of individual income. And not just to their churches, but to charities that really do provide food, medicine, and education for the poor. The one victory the tepid religious left of the moment can claim is the media misconception that religious liberals are more charitable, that they care more about the poor. They’re not, and they don’t. Rather, some of them — those not busy playing to the press — care differently.

That’s made most plain in the closing essay of Getting on Message, “Putting Our Money Where God’s Mouth Is.” It’s by Garret Keizer, a former Episcopal priest who’s also the author of an essay in Mother Jones last year that drew the starkest line yet between the “help” offered by religious conservatives and liberals and the solidarity that he says must be the standard of any left worthy of the label, religious or otherwise.

“I have begun to lose patience with ‘compassion,’” writes Keizer, “be it the conservative version that sees poverty as a moral disease to be cured with a benevolent dose of 19th-century rectitude, or the liberal version that views poverty as an exotic culture to be scrutinized through the kindly lens of tolerance. Poverty is not a culture to be understood; it is a condition to be eradicated.”

In his more recent examination of “help” vs. “solidarity” in Getting on Message, Keizer proposes a list of policy initiatives to make that happen. They’e not particularly original — national health care, equal education funding, etc. — but that’s significant in itself. Another common mistake made by a media in search of the new religious left is its insistence on finding the color purple — that is, some ostensibly innovative blend of “red” and “blue” values, “fresh” ideas. Again, much of what passes for the religious left complies, declaring, like Michael Lerner of Tikkun, that by mixing more religion into the public sphere we’ll alchemize a whole new liberalism.

And yet, we never managed to achieve the old liberalism. “Putting Our Money Where God’s Mouth Is” means, simply, redistribution of wealth. It means recognizing the reality of class. The “spiritual warfare” of the religious left is what the religious right considers class warfare. And the right is right — solidarity among the religious left will provoke a fight. Solidarity doesn’t mean asking for help from the powers that be, it means organizing to become a new kind of power.

More later!

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