Popes Francis’ upcoming encyclical (an authoritative form of papal discourse) is an opportunity for the Catholic Church to further develop a relationship between humanity and the environment in a way that gives both parties agency. William Bole uses the moments before the encyclical’s posting on June 18th to look at how this relationship has already begun to develop within the tradition and questions how Pope Francis can add something of substance to this development.
Picture a world where politics is not so polarized. Imagine that the American people are flat out in favor of a plan that could lift more than a million of their neighbors out of poverty. And they’re arriving at this position not out of narrow self-interests—most Americans aren’t poor—but for essentially moral reasons. Actually, not much imagination is required. At least not when it comes to public opinion on a perennial issue: the minimum wage.
Back in the early 1960s, black South African lawyer and activist Oliver Tambo was asked to describe a colleague who had just gone to prison for resisting white minority rule in that country. He replied that this man is “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” Tambo was talking about his law-firm partner, Nelson Mandela – remembered today for his grace, humor, and empathy, as well as his remarkable courage and leadership. What happened to Mandela in prison, what changed him so radically, is still a bit of mystery in my mind. He was often asked about a slice of this question – how he let go of the anger he felt specifically toward whites – and his responses were usually of a fairly standard therapeutic variety.
During the 16-day government shutdown, Tea Party Republicans rose above, or somewhere beyond, earthly politics. Their aim was to stay true to their principles, to be faithful, not necessarily effective. At their meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday, House Republicans began not by calling themselves to order, but by singing all three verses of “Amazing Grace.” In other words, the shutdown Republicans were prophetic in their own way. By this, I don’t mean they accurately predicted a future state of being.
There have been many threads of coverage and commentary surrounding the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, and one of them is naturally about nonviolence: the nation’s leadership had assumed that the march would turn violent, but August 28, 1963, turned out to be one of the most notably peaceful days in the history of the District of Columbia. Still, the nonviolent character of the movement that the march defined is being questioned. There has been some interesting historical revisionism surrounding Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures who, unlike Martin Luther King, were less-than devoted to nonviolence as an abiding moral principle. (For my take on that, go here.) And now comes a book that, among other provocations, makes the case that King’s struggle was arguably a violent one. The author is Benjamin Ginsberg, and his forthcoming title is The Value of Violence (Prometheus Books).
Part of what fascinates me about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is that, through these upheavals, America changed. Compare that to today’s inertness: we can barely budge on gun control and the minimum wage (for examples), despite overwhelming support among Americans for change on those fronts. Yes, there are real questions about how much progress towards racial justice we’ve made. What’s clear is that a little over a year after the May 1963 “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And five months after the Selma to Montgomery march came the Voting Rights Act of ’65.
Sure enough, a debate erupted this past week over the impromptu memorial at Boylston Street – how to preserve it, where to move it. Such a discussion would have been pointless, if this were ordinary space. If it were incapable of being defiled.
That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time? These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.
On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961 – protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored. One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson.