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.
His resume as well as the title essay alone, “It’s Not Enough to be Angry,” should be more than enough to make this book essential reading for the Tikkun community, the Network of Spiritual Progressives and its many followers in the larger spiritual and political progressive communities of the country.
The versatility of the book and its writer is truly amazing. It could stand alone as a practical training manual for community organizers, a work of social history, a philosophical treatise on social change and social movements, a challenge to old theoretical and tactical assumptions particularly of the 1930s and 1960s, and a cutting edge imaginative vision of what is possible today and in the immediate future. The fact that the book brings all these disparate concerns and themes together and more, speaks to a work that hopefully could have a major impact on developing a new and more inclusive narrative on the necessity of social change and social justice and the social movements that could bring it about.
What can, might and is to be done – from a political, intellectual, economic, and spiritually progressive perspective.
If there is one unifying theme in the book, Baptist identifies it through a February 1968 quote from Martin Luther King – “the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” In a sense, the rest of the book is a discussion of how an “engaged intellectualism, an engaged scholarship and an engaged theology” can emancipate the world from the scourge of unnecessary poverty and inhumanity.
Baptist makes it crystal clear that all three components are necessary in the struggle – a lesson still being learned, unfortunately, by vast segments of the so-calledprogressive left – spiritual and political.
He takes on this historical challenge of the oft-times narrowness and sectarianism of the left, pushing the narrative forward insisting that “social movements are not simply the results of well-sounding conversations.” There is a definite limit to well-meaning yet abstract arm-chair musings.
There is a definite need for those more comfortable with musing to put themselves, their careers, their sense of morality on the front lines of these global struggles, which can and should be identified, studied, and supported, since they are our best and perhaps last chance to fundamentally heal and transform the world. The spiritual progressive life is one that is involved in concrete activism and putting one’s morality at the service of those most oppressed and devastated by the system. For Baptist and King, and others from this prophetic, spiritual tradition, there simply is no other way.
He then proceeds to succinctly offer us a short history of the fundamental technological shifts in today’s economic and political realities that have culminated in a predominant movement of global accumulation of capital and centralization of wealth. These material conditions have become the greatest enemy of humankind and dictates all concerns at all levels – economic, political, social, theological and ideological.
At the same time, this unprecedented greed and capacity for destruction has unleashed a potentially powerful army – a newly globalized and growing massive army of the poor and dispossessed that can act as the only effective counter to global capital and its political strategists.
This emerging new social force of the dispossessed must unite in a collective commitment to the development of a profound knowledge and action, which a worldwide leadership (largely drawn from the ranks of the dispossessed) can be educated to understand.
But this is not your great-grandfather’s/mother’s, grandfather’s/mother’s or even father’s/mother’s deterministic Marxian analysis of class warfare and class consciousness. There are other dimensions to be understood and brought in – leadership, knowledge, education, spiritual visions, among others.
“This strategic knowledge must guide and direct the considerations of all immediate issues of struggle and the conduct of all related tactics, agitation, education and organizing efforts. This is especially so given the content of the new era of social conflict into which we are now entering.”
“In a new day you got to do new things in a new way,” he argues logically and convincingly.
“New conditions brought about by technological revolutions have always given rise to the development of new classes or social groupings as leading forces for social transformation. These fights are taking place despite ethnic differences, varying locations, and racial and gender income disproportions.”
“In the United States, these old ideas and old ways of thinking and doing things are largely limited to the struggles for trade union rights, civil rights, and community improvements. For Baptist these concessions only deal with the effects of struggles breaking out and not their cause, and therefore are only temporary tactical victories.A new leadership is needed with a new level of consciousness, able and willing to apply new tactics and strategies.”
He is most concerned with building a leadership with this knowledge – the essentials of the art of leadership are the science and art of the possible. All of human history confirms this reality for Baptist.
That leadership has to come out of an education to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. As King put it: “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” As Baptist puts it: “Leaders who are arising out of the struggles of the global poor and dispossessed must be educated and trained to take into account new developments and patterns of struggle and what they represent in the broader trajectory of global economic trends and momentum.”
This book ends with Baptist convincingly calling for uniting the poor and dispossessed “to take action together” across color, and all other lines of division – the indispensable task of political strategy and tactics in this initial stages of this new period of world history is for the poor and dispossessed to move to the forefront of the struggle to build a broad and powerful social movement.
He has it right – anger is not enough. Marx would have perhaps called it immisseration. But that proved to be not enough either in explaining revolution using the traditional Marxian paradigm.
Baptist’s work is a beginning imaginative and concrete narrative concerning the “form” the struggle might take: the societal reactions that different groups might have to it, the resources and opportunities that different groups have to express their anger/immisseration, the social ideas (how people come to see what is happening to them) and the role this might play in a transformative revolution, what social norms different groups abide by and adhere to or challenge, the possible division of elites and the possible consequences this all might have for the world wide movement Baptist calls for, the possible rising expectations for “success” that all kinds of groups might have as they compete for resources, status, and prestige in this world-wide drama for survival.
All of these variables are intertwined and linked in complex and fundamental ways that need to be researched, thought about and then acted upon. Obviously, these are huge and monumental questions that could not be dealt with in any introductory presentation.
“It’s Not Enough to Be Angry” is a major contribution to a beginning and absolutely needed discussion of what form” the energy unleashed by the rapidly increased concentration of global capital and wealth might take, where and how, for whom and for what purposes and consequences. And, of course, what can we, as the ever-increasing army of the dispossessed do to resist, turn around and transform the world. What that world might look like should be a part of the narrative. We look forward to that discussion being carried on in Baptist’s next work.
While we eagerly await his next publication, make sure you read this book, which can be downloaded by going to Kairos: The Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
Politically progressive comrades, Marxians of whatever variety – Karl and/or Groucho – should all be able to unite with their spiritually progressive soul-mates in wishing Willy god-speed in his follow-up to this excellent book.
James Vrettos is Professor of Sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.