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The Dyett Hunger Strike for Education Justice in Chicago


by: Rethinking Schools on September 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The hunger strike in Chicago by parents and their allies at Dyett High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood has passed Day 31.

Despite the recent announcement from Chicago Public Schools officials that Dyett will reopen as a school with a focus on the arts, parent and community hunger strikers there have vowed to continue the strike until the school district agrees to their demands. “I will continue to be on this hunger strike until we get the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology school,” said Irene Robinson. “This is not right.”

The hunger strike at Dyett is not an isolated incident of disgruntled parents and community members; it is part of a grassroots movement to challenge corporate school reform, which evaluates and punishes students, teachers, and schools based on standardized test scores. The efforts of Dyett parents and grandparents in Bronzeville are joined with other acts of defiance throughout the country: parents withholding their students from standardized tests, teachers burning their evaluations and refusing to administer tests that they deem harmful, students walking out of school to protest the test and punish regime, communities fighting against the privatization of their public schools.

The hunger strikers in Chicago join with other courageous hunger strikers throughout the world who have sought to dramatize injustice through self-sacrifice.

The Dyett hunger strikers led a silent march to President Obama's Chicago home followed by a vigil. Credit: Bob Simpson

What makes this struggle especially inspiring is that not only is the community opposing unjust treatment, it is working to effect an alternative that is the product of grassroots deliberations about the kind of school and the kind of education their community’s children deserve. We also note that at a time when the world urgently needs to abandon the use of fossil fuels, the revitalization of Dyett school that parents and the community is fighting for includes a commitment to green technology.

This struggle is about much more than the 12 parents and community leaders in Bronzeville. It is about the kind of schools we want our children to attend. And it is a fight for democracy: that the future of public education should be in the hands of the public – not controlled by wealthy corporations and their foundations.

The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett offers the following open letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:


Repentance & Reparations by Kate Poole


by: Arif Qazi on September 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

With the High Holidays here. Kate Poole has published a new comic commenting on some of our concerns today regarding wealth, race and consumerism. Explore more of Kate’s work here.

We’re Mad as Hell – But That’s Not Enough


by: James Vrettos on September 15th, 2015 | Comments Off

An intriguing, thoroughly readable, and timely new book has just been published by the Kairos Center/Poverty Initiative, containing a collection of the recent writings of Willie Baptist, their Scholar-in-Residence and Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development.

Those unfamiliar with neither the center nor the initiative should know that the mission of Kairos: Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice housed at Union Theological Seminary in New York is to contribute to transformative movements for social change that can draw on the power of both religious and human rights. The cornerstone program of the center is the Poverty Initiative whose mission is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.

And Willy Baptist certainly fits the bill for the center and this book – a formerly homeless father of three who came out of the Watts uprisings and the Black Student Movement, he has 50 years of experience educating and organizing among the poor and dispossessed, including working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers, the National Union of the Homeless, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights campaign, as well as many other networks.


Gulf Countries – Do Not Disturb!


by: Lubna Qureshi on September 15th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Painting of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on shore

Credit: Flickr / robertsharp

The horrific image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body is considered a wakeup call for humanity. Alan, his 5-year-old brother, and their mother were among at least a dozen who drowned crossing the Aegean Sea to reach Greece from Bodrum, Turkey. Though the crossing from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos is only two miles long, the suffering associated with death on these waters is immeasurable. The Kurdi children and their mother are among thousands who have drowned in an attempt to flee Syria, according to a UN report, yet only a few make headlines.

Countless Syrians, among other refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, have fled their war torn homes in hopes of rebuilding their lives abroad, mainly in Europe and other western countries. Alan’s unfortunate death shook the world and pressured some European countries, namely Germany, Austria, and Sweden, to open their doors to the refugees. Germany went so far as to suspend the Dublin Regulation, which requires EU countries to examine an asylum seeker’s claim in the country in which he or she first arrived. With widespread support from its citizens, Germany alone is expected to admit 800,000 refugees this year. Moreover, The European Union and its member states have mobilized a sizable amount of financial aid while Kuwait and Qatar are among the top donors from the Gulf countries providing aid to refugees.


Why Are the Republicans Ignoring Bernie Sanders?


by: Raanan Geberer on September 10th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Why are the Republicans seemingly ignoring Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president?

As an admitted socialist who believes in universal health care, requiring companies to provide maternity leave, sick leave and vacation time; taxing financial transactions, breaking up big banks and expanding Social Security benefits, Sanders seems like the perfect target for the almost-completely-right wing Republican Party.

Bernie Sanders speaks at campaign rally

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It seems logical that given the upsurge in Sanders’ support, the Republicans would view him as a serious threat and act accordingly. In August, Sanders drew a record-breaking 27,000 people in Los Angeles and 28,000 people in Portland, Oregon — the largest turnout for any 2016 presidential candidate up to that time. A Politco poll in July of New Hampshire Democratic voters showed 47 percent favoring Hillary Clinton, but Sanders gaining on her with 34 percent.

Despite all that, Republicans don’t seem particularly interested in taking the bait.

During the Fox News-sponsored GOP candidates’ debates in early August, which featured 17 candidates, I didn’t notice any mention of Sanders at all. It was all Hillary, Hillary, Hillary as the anti-Republican- as the candidate to beat.


Tikkun Wins Best Magazine of the Year Award


by: Tikkun on September 9th, 2015 | Comments Off

Tikkun Wins Best Magazine of the Year Award from the mainstream media’s Religion Newswriters Association

This year’s meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association was held in Philadelphia and its major focus was on how best to cover the Pope’s forthcoming visit. Panels filled with members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, many of them people who strongly disagree with the Pope’s progressive politics, were chosen to give the mainstream media people who attended this gathering a way to think about the pope’s visit. Their problem was obvious: as leaders of the Catholic Church they are not supposed to oppose the Pope, but they also don’t want his message too widely spread to the world, and particularly not to the Catholic world. Their solution was the same that many (not all) of the mainstream media often use when dealing with US elections—rarely report on what the candidates are advocating, focus instead on the personalities of the candidates and their standing in the latest polls.

Translating that strategy into the Pope’s visit, many of the Church leaders urged the media to focus on what a nice guy the Pope is, how caring he is for the poor and down-trodden through personal visits to them, and to avoid politics altogether, including his recent encyclical which linked both global poverty and the accelerating destruction of the environment to the destructive materialism and selfishness and competitiveness that are rooted in the daily dynamics of global capitalism. “Not the point,” they insisted. “The Pope has no politics—he is a religious thinker and leader, he is not Left or Right, his only commitment is to Jesus.” Apparently none of these archbishops and bishops and priests seemed to know that Jesus had a revolutionary politics that was very much about ending the suffering of people on this planet, and it was precisely that message that had made it so easy to spread the religion that St. Paul created in Jesus’ name.


Thank God I’m an Agnostic


by: Ron Hirschbein on September 8th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

“A woman comes up and she says to me: ‘I’m Jewish. I’m not going to accept Jesus as my savior. Am I going to hell?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me . . . I am the way.’ I’m betting my life that He was telling the truth. Now see what I did? I took it off of me, and making me the authority.”

- Pastor Rick Warren

There’s hell to pay if you’re not just like the fundamentalists – be they theists or anti-theists. It’s either hell in the life to come, or apocalypse now – no doubt about it in the fundamentalists’ doubt-free world. They’re dangerous and influential. Warren delivered the invocation at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The president provided a forum and legitimacy to a zealot who damned Jews – and most everyone else – to hell. Would Obama have invited a jihadist condoning eternal torment of Jews and other nonbelievers? Warren’s gospel resonates: He sold 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life.

The gospel, according to militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, resonates with a different clientele: His God is Not Great (an obvious slap at Islam) is also a bestseller. (Full disclosure: I’m envious; these book sales surpass mine.) Hitchens’ intemperate hatred of religion – especially Islam – won friends and influenced people in intellectual and policymaking circles. Post-9/11, he broke with former Leftist allies, and joined his newfound friend Paul Wolfowitz in championing the Iraq War – hell in the here and now.

christopher hitchens speaks for crowd

Credit: Wikimedia

Attacking Warren knocks down a straw man – at least for readers of this blog. I suspect readers find intellectual anti-theists such as Hitchens (and his cohorts such as Dawkins and Harris) more engaging. But let’s briefly give the devil’s enemy his due. Warren denies personal responsibility (“It took it off me”) for condemning those unlike him to hell – the most sadistic invention of the human imagination. Shouldn’t Christians (like the rest of us) take responsibility for their words? The pastor’s moral holiday echoes a familiar refrain: “I’m not responsible for killing those civilians; God made me do it.” What would he say about an earthly father who throws his child into a blast furnace for whatever reason? Warren wouldn’t be to blame, of course; “It took it off me.” No condemnation? Why worship – rather than condemn – a heavenly Father who tortures most of His creation for all eternity? And the pastor should take care about that bet: Perhaps God has a special circle in hell for those who treat Him like a Vegas wager. Like all fundamentalists, Warren has too many answers and too few questions. If only Warren and his unforgiving, sadistic God had a more Christian attitude!


Remembering Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) and His Gift


by: Howard Cooper on September 3rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

picture of Oliver Sacks

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The strain was beginning to show. In a smart London hotel suite, surrounded by a chaos of scattered papers, books, empty whisky glasses, Oliver Sacks was decidedly grumpy. No, more than grumpy: he was angry. January 1990: at the end of a week immersed in round-the-clock interviews about his latest book (Seeing Visions, on deafness), Sacks was faced with yet another publicity chore. I felt I was sitting with a man ready to explode.

He’d already spoken to the Jewish press in the west of England, he told me – I’d been commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle to interview him – and he didn’t know why he needed to speak to me. Neither did I. Maybe my helplessness touched him. Or maybe when I said I wasn’t a journalist, but a therapist and rabbi, something in him shifted, mellowed.

He spoke about (I asked about) his formative years – until the age of six he existed within the security of a north London medical family, his father a Yiddish-speaking doctor in Whitechapel (east London), his mother the first Jewish woman elected to be a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. In this Orthodox household “the Sabbath bride was welcomed in”, he said, “I always felt there was a sense of mystery when I saw my mother’s hands hovering about the candles.”


God and Man in Toronto


by: Ed Simon on September 1st, 2015 | 1 Comment »

In Scottish poet James Robertson’s brilliant 2008 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, the reader is confronted by the titular character: a Presbyterian minister and seemingly devoted “son of the manse” who discovers that he can “be a Christian without involving Christ very much.” Gideon Mack’s ministerial career seems to hum along under his dutiful and thorough skill, and his flock seemingly doesn’t pick up that the good reverend is secretly an atheist. Echoing Robertson’s fellow countryman, James Hogg in the 1824 gothic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the good Rev. Mack finds his faith (or perhaps lack thereof) challenged not when he meets God, but rather when he is confronted by a distinguished and cosmopolitan Satan. The problem is that Satan is just as much at a loss as to where God is as Rev. Mack.

book cover of "The Testament of Gideon Mack"

Credit: Wikimedia

Hogg’s earlier novel, which seems so influential to Robertson’s post-modern pastiche, in part functioned as a parody of the rigid Calvinism of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in the nineteenth-century. This is demonstrated particularly by the stern belief in double-predestination, and also by the potential ethical lapses that could be encouraged by a misinterpretation of the potential dangerous doctrine of being a “justified sinner” (with the adjective’s ambiguity triggering all of the novel’s gothic horrors). If Hogg’s novel is a dark satire on the ways in which extreme faith can be twisted to justify atrocity, Robertson’s novel looks at the strange cynicism of a society in which faith is seemingly absent. Or is it? After all, Gideon Mack may seem to be a hypocrite – an atheist who knows that the Devil is real. But, is this any contradiction? Why can an atheist not wear the collar of the ministry?

I reflect on these paired readings because the United Church of Canada is about to start proceedings against the Rev. Gretta Vosper – a minister at the suburban Toronto West Hill United Church, where she has made her non-belief in God known since 2001 and where she has popularly become known as the “atheist minister.” Unlike Gideon Mack, Rev Vosper makes no secret of her apparent apostasy, telling the Canadian Press wire service that “I don’t believe in the god called God,” and further elaborating to the March Toronto Star that she didn’t think Jesus was the son of God. Now the general assembly of the UC Church, which is both the largest Protestant denomination in Canada and one known for its relatively liberal views (though apparently with a limit to that), is convening an assembly to judge if she is true to her ordination vows which affirm a belief in the Trinity. It’s the first time that this body has ever asked one of their ministers to do this.

Rev. Vosper is obviously not Giordano Bruno, and the United Church of Canada isn’t the Roman Inquisition. Further, I would be remiss to lecture an organization which represents a denomination, of which I am not a member, in how they should define ordination requirements – especially when that something is as basic seeming as a belief in God. And yet, I would like not just the United Church of Canada but indeed all people concerned and interested in theological expression and exploration to consider the possibility that an “atheist minister” need not be a contradiction at all. Too often our discussions on faith and theology are simply too shallow and restrictive – atheism is regarded as the absence of faith, but that’s what indifference is. An atheist ontology is by definition passionately concerned with the metaphysical status of a deity. It simply arrives at a different conclusion than the mainstream of Abrahamic understanding. The issue has been muddied by the arrival of the so-called “New Atheists,” who on one hand allowed previously closeted atheists to proudly declare their non-belief in God (admittedly through the most bellicose of rhetoric and often justified with an appalling ignorance of western philosophy and culture), but who also ironically restricted severely the many meanings of the word “atheist.” It’s the great ironic fallacy of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and the late Christopher Hitchens, that their writing has done more to diminish the philosophical variety around the word “atheist” than writers before.

Rev Gosper is not a “New Atheist.” In writings like With or Without God she seems to embody the most radical and fascinating aspects of atheism as embodied by figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche. The so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” who represent the “New Atheism” to so many people, simply don’t like religion – theirs is a bourgeois, suburban, elitist prejudice against something integral to western civilization. It should not be confused with or reduced to atheism in general, or in all its great variety. Nietzsche may have declared the “death of God,” but he also knew what was significant about religion, and he took it seriously. Rev. Vosper is in this category, this particular tradition, which, contrary to the idea that this is a view against theology, is really just a theology in itself.

In fact, this sort of theology, which focuses on the silence of God to the point of his non-existence, has a venerable tradition. While apophatic and via negativa expressions about divinity, which were important to many medieval mystics both Catholic and Orthodox, aren’t atheistic per se, they certainly don’t reflect the positivism of fundamentalist religion today. Nietzsche’s pronouncement was central to a mid-twentieth century theological movement called “Death of God” theology, about which thinkers like Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Richard Rubenstein, and more recently John Caputo and Peter Rollins wrote. In their works there is a vital, impassioned, committed approach to understanding faith and religion, and their “atheism” more clearly matches the mystical visions of figures like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagete, Meister Eckhart- the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing- William Blake, and Nietzsche. Today this movement is mostly famous for the Time Magazine “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, which remains the bestselling edition of that periodical. It was also heavily featured in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby. This movement was of course never within the mainstream of American seminaries, even during its hey-day, but it never really disappeared either. I do not know whether Rev. Vosper would align herself with this movement, but, like a good minister, she seems to take the most complicated theological ideas of the movement and to simplify them so that her congregation can understand. She tells the Huffington Post “It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

The great twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich said “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This is strictly speaking an ontology which could be considered a type of atheism, yet to confuse it with the simply anti-religion pronouncements of the “New Atheists” is a mistake; to assume the same about Rev. Gosper would be the same. “Death of God” theology offers a vibrant, mystical, passionate, counter-intuitive, paradoxical approach to faith and religion right at the moment when it seems that the ghost-in-the-machine that is western spirituality is being exorcised. Thinkers such as the prominent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek have popularized “atheist Christianity” in the academic world, but Rev. Vosper takes these ideas to the pew. While I do not argue that the UCC has no right to defrock her, I would ask them to consider the full multiplicity and variety that an engaged religious practice might take – even if it seems extreme. It is possible to both be and not be an atheist, as Gideon Mack, the unbeliever who met the Devil, knew.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Press Release: 15 Young Leaders Receive Prestigious National Award


by: Editor on August 29th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Editor’s Note: The Helen Diller Family Foundation is dedicated to supporting the next generation of American philanthropists and visionaries. If you are a young leader who dreams of transforming society, don’t hesitate to apply for consideration at dillerteenawards.org- the Foundation is now accepting submissions for next year’s Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award.



The Helen Diller Family Foundation Hosts National Event Honoring Teens Committed to Social Good