Putting an End to 'Sin', Part 7
and Letting Go of Religion
By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #991, January 24, 1999
"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this -- at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity -- is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."
In light of the power struggle around the impeachment of Clinton, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the 'crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important essays include: "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)."* In the following excerpt from "Putting An End to 'Sin'" he discusses the writings of Jim Wallis. Wallis is a religious activist and editor of Sojourner magazine. Wallis has joined with other Christian leaders in issuing "The Cry for Renewal: Let Other Voices Be Heard" -- calling for a verbal `ceasefire' in the ideological wars of the Christian right and looking for "a politics whose values are more spiritual than ideological." In this selection from "Putting An End to Sin" Avakian discusses a book by Jim Wallis called the "Soul of Politics."
THERE IS MUCH TO AGREE WITH IN THE SOUL OF POLITICS--much truth that needs to be told and is forthrightly and powerfully told. Particularly in Part Two, "The Broken Community," Wallis lays bare, with considerable insight and passion, much of the glaring inequality and inequity (and, in Wallis's view, iniquity) in today's world and various forms of oppression, repression, and violence that are bound up with this.
In Chapter 4, "A Tale of Two Cities, The Division of the World," Wallis paints a vivid picture of exactly that division: he does not simply lament or condemn but brings alive the toll in human agony that results from the extreme and grotesque polarization between those who are awash in extravagant (Wallis might prefer the term "profligate") overconsumption and those who are without even the basic necessities of a healthy and decent life, not only within the communities of the poor in the U.S. itself but among vast masses of people throughout the world.
Speaking of Washington, D.C., where Wallis' work has been centered, among the teeming yet all-but-invisible (to the powerful and wealthy) poor in the inner-city ghetto, he points out: "Those who work in government buildings from which the New World Order is run must literally step over the homeless as they go into their offices. The symbolism is obvious, and the everyday scene is a striking metaphor of the world economic order." (p. 52)
Wallis also brings this to life with anecdotes, recounting for example the conversation he overheard on an airport shuttle bus between "Two handsome young white couples" who were loudly discussing their favorite restaurants around the world. "Finally, one of them exclaimed in praise of his favorite place, `It's just a wonderful restaurant--two can spend 300 dollars for dinner in your shorts!' " Wallis continues: "At my destinations the conversation is much different, often about survival: Where will our next meal come from? How can we keep the rain out and the children dry? Where can we find water clean enough to drink? Will we ever have any land to call our own?" (p. 126)
This calls to mind a routine (or vignette) by Lily Tomlin, in the persona of one of her famous characters, the Bag Lady. This Bag Lady recounts that she was not always homeless and haunted by dementia--that she once had a place among the comfortable in society, working for an advertising agency--but when she was assigned to do an ad campaign promoting between-meal snacks for people in the Third World, she went over the edge. The fact that, among this Bag Lady's former colleagues and those similarly situated, the irony here may not immediately strike home--that there are those who are ignorant of or, even worse, inured to the reality that, outside of a few enclaves of the elite, the everyday situation for people in the Third World is one of struggling simply to have something approximating meals, and the concept of "between-meal snacks" has no meaning, except perhaps as cruel mockery--this is a striking expression of the inhuman condition, of the obscene polarization, that Wallis decries. And Wallis draws the contrasts even more sharply and starkly:
"the poverty is simply overwhelming in many places we call the Third World, where the poor are suffering and dying almost beyond our capacity to count. The United States spent the 1980s further redistributing wealth from the poor and working class to the rich. Those at the top reaped a bonanza of excess and self-indulgence, while in the world's poorest places 35,000 children die every day for lack of the simplest things like clean drinking water and basic nutrition.
"That figure takes on a more dramatic meaning when we realize it would be a number approximately equal to filling 100 jumbo jets with 350 infants and children each and then watching one crash every 14 minutes. In the meantime, a small elite travels the world in first class." (Soul of Politics p. 61)
Wallis goes some way in rejecting and refuting the comforting--for the comfortable--notion that the poverty, degradation, brutality and violence that is daily life for the poor is of their own making, their "own fault." Speaking of how the drug trade has become a source--one of the very few sources--of wealth for a few and of livelihood for many of the poor, he points out that the drug economy "is, in fact, the only real market in the `market economy' in places like Colombia and Columbia Heights....From Colombia in South America to Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., poverty sets the stage for tragedy, and the drama of drugs simply carries out the executions." (emphasis added) Wallis does not simply state the incontrovertible "historical fact" cited above--that the USA was founded in white supremacy, with the near- genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of African- Americans-- but he shows how racism and the oppression of people of color is a continuing and major part of the American way of life in every sphere. And he shows how the legal system, from the police to the courts and prisons, operates to perpetuate and enforce this oppression.
Learning from the Black Experience
In a number of senses, one of the most revelatory parts of Wallis' book is his recounting of his personal experience in making what he describes as "A Pilgrimage" from the white middle class community of his upbringing, in Detroit, to the Black inner city. Significantly, one of the impelling forces for this "pilgrimage" was the powerful urban rebellion, centered in the Black ghettos, that swept over Detroit in the summer of 1967. Wallis was provoked to ask, and restless in seeking the answer to, profound questions about the gaping divisions and inequalities between Blacks and whites in America. "I was persistent in taking my questions to my parents, teachers, and friends," he writes, "but I soon discovered that no one could or would answer them....Some people told me that asking these questions would only get me into trouble. That proved to be the only honest answer I ever got in the white community. It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't going to get the answers I was looking for from white people. So I decided to make my way into the inner city." (p. 75)
Wallis tells how "I started by seeking out black churches." And "As I asked my questions, a whole new picture of the world began to emerge....The simple, self-justifying worldview of my childhood and my church, in conflict with my growing awareness of racism and poverty, caused mounting havoc in my teenage years. I was shocked at what I saw, heard, and read; I felt betrayed and angry by the brutal facts of racism. Worse, I felt painfully implicated." (p. 76)
Significantly--although, as I will return to later, Wallis has stopped short of confronting the fullest significance of this--when he went further and deeper into the Black community, taking jobs among "Detroit's manual laborers and unskilled workers, who worked hard for little money," he discovered that, "The young blacks I met were much more angry and militant than the black Christians I had come to know, and they provided me with a new education." Here Wallis came face to face with the reality of bright, insightful people--like "Butch,...typical of the militant young men I came to know"--whom the system never deemed worthy of being taught to write, and of how people like Butch and their families understood the nature of the police. (p. 76 and following)
Wallis recalls the lasting impression Butch's mother made on him: "She was a lovely woman, gracious and warm....Like my mother in so many ways, she was primarily concerned about the health, happiness, and safety of her family"--and that concern caused her to teach her children, from bitter experience, the following about the police: If they ever got lost, they were to look out for the police. When they spotted a cop, they were to duck into an alley, crouch under some stairs, or hide behind a corner. When the policeman passed by, it was safe to come out and try to find their way home themselves. `So I tell my children,' she said, `to watch out for the policeman.' " (pp. 78-79)
How much of the most fundamental reality--piercing through the lies of "Officer Friendly" and encapsulating the truth of Rodney King, of the dozens of Black people murdered in those days by Detroit police and of the hundreds of Black people murdered each year in cold blood by police across the USA, only to have it repeatedly declared "justifiable homicide"--is concentrated in the meaning of this woman's words of advice to her children: "Watch out for the policeman?!" And when we put all this together--when we take the story of Butch and his family, in its fullest dimension, as representative of millions of Black people--then we can understand the profound meaning and implication of these statistics cited by Wallis: a recent study "showed that 42 percent of black men in Washington, D.C., were either in jail, awaiting trial, or on parole. It further revealed that 90 percent of African-American men in the city would be arrested at some time in their lives.
The United States already has more people incarcerated, in numbers and per capita, than any country in the world--costing more, per prisoner per year, than a Harvard education." (p. 81)
If you take just the last part of the last sentence quoted here and pursue to its fullest conclusion the contradiction it poses so dramatically--spending money incarcerating rather than providing an education for millions of young Black men--you will go a long way to getting to the fundamental problem, and solution, in American society, and the world, today.
An Unfinished Pilgrimage
Wallis has journeyed a considerable ways in that direction, but then he has stopped and pulled back. Both sides of this find expression in the following summation by Wallis of the seminal experience represented by his "pilgrimage" to inner-city Detroit:
"If education is to learn to see the truth and to know the world as it really is, then my education began when I got to know black people in Detroit. They showed me the other America, the America that is unfair and wrong and mean and hateful, the America that we white people accept. But they taught me about more than racism. They taught me about love and family and courage, about what is most important and what it means to be a human being. In listening to the black experience, I discovered more truth about myself, my country, and my faith than by listening anywhere else." (p. 79)
As someone who came from a white middle class background but was part of the generation that came of age politically in "the '60s," there is much of what Wallis writes here that resonates deeply with me. In my case, the kind of learning experience he describes was facilitated by the fact that the high school I went to, Berkeley High, was (and I believe still is) the only public high school in that city and was nearly evenly divided between white and Black students, along with a smaller number of Mexican and Chicano and Asian students.
But "divided" is the right word, because the community as a whole was still overwhelmingly segregated and within the school itself there remained an overwhelming separation--which was very pronounced at social gatherings and even during things such as lunch: both inside the school cafeteria as well as outside (in the area where large numbers of students took their lunch) there were very clearly defined white and Black areas and an invisible but very real line separating them (although at one point some white fraternity boy types made this visible by actually painting a stripe and labeling it "the Mason- Dixon line"!). To cross that line, literally as well as in the larger symbolic sense, was not impossible but it was also not easy--it required a leap across a great divide--and for those white people who took this leap, it was a wrenching but also an uplifting and enlightening experience in the fullest sense of those words.
Like Wallis, I too began my real education by learning from the experiences, feelings, insights and wisdom of the Black people who accepted me as a friend and opened their hearts and their world to me. And like Wallis, I was at first astonished and more and more deeply angered by learning of the daily outrages and insults as well as the whole historical oppression that Black people have been subjected to since the time the first slaves were brought to America, and I determined to be part of putting an end to this and uprooting the whole soil in which it thrives.
But, unlike Wallis, at a certain point, in acting on this determination and in learning more and more about the connection between this and all the other forms of oppression and exploitation that are woven into the very fabric of American society and its relation with the rest of the world, I came to the realization that I must leap across yet another great divide, or ultimately I must settle for something less than overturning and abolishing all this exploitation and oppression and on some level I must make my peace with it.
This second leap meant, it required, recognizing and opposing the whole way in which the economy and the society are organized on the basis of private appropriation of capital and the distribution of wealth in relation to ownership (or non-ownership) of capital, rather than according to the needs of the people. It meant apostasy toward the holy trinity of country, family, and god--or, in reality, imperialism, the patriarchy, and the mystical, mythical embodiment of the dominant exploitative and oppressive relations as an all-powerful, supernatural force to which all must submit. In short, this leap represents, as Marx and Engels put it in the "Communist Manifesto," a radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas.
This I have found to be the most liberating leap--even though it is one that, in a profound sense, must be repeatedly made. But it is a leap that--at least objectively and to no small degree subjectively--has been recoiled from by people who hold to the beliefs that Wallis does. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," I have seen many of the best people of my generation in the U.S., particularly from the white middle class, become stuck precisely at the point where this leap and radical rupture must be made. In some instances it has been Elvis, in others baseball, and in still others religion that have symbolized and encapsulated what they have been unable to let go of. For Wallis, it is the latter above all.
Imagine: No Religion Too
I am reminded of John Lennon's song "Imagine," where among other things he calls on people to envision a world where there is "no religion, too." A few years ago, when Joan Baez performed in France, a concert of hers was shown on French TV and she sang "Imagine," but when she got to this point, after "and no religion too," she felt compelled to add "except your own." It is this unwillingness, or inability, to imagine a world in which the people have laid down the burden of religion--where the belief in non-existent supernatural beings has been removed together with the social conditions and relations that provide the basis for such belief--which is the "sticking point" for people like Wallis (and Baez); and this goes hand-in-hand with the unwillingness, or inability, to recognize the underlying mainsprings of the very inequities they genuinely and deeply abhor and seek to overcome. With such an outlook, one can only hit at symptoms, never at fundamental causes--and, worse yet, such an outlook will lead in the direction of covering over such causes and conciliating with those who profit from and seek to perpetuate them.
Wallis is aware of, and emphasizes, the fact that there is a connection between the poverty of so many and the luxury of a relative few in the world. He links not only the poverty and oppression within the U.S. itself but the polarization in the world--with masses of people in unspeakable agony at one pole--with the priorities and policies of U.S. society and the U.S. government, including its foreign policies and the wars it wages, or backs. In speaking to the fact that "we are in a time of transition" (p. 5), he indicates a sense that this transition is bound up with major changes in the U.S. and the world economy--heightened internationalization and automation of production, in which "whole communities and sectors are now being excluded" and "whole populations are now simply defined outside of the economic mainstream." (p. 59)
Yet he concludes that the fundamental cause of all this is spiritual, that "the crisis of the global economy is, at root, a moral one; and mere political arguments and solutions will prove inadequate." (p. 72) In fact, because Wallis' analysis of the problem and the solution represents a distortion, an inversion, of the relationship between economics and politics, and ideology--because he rejects Marxist materialism and insists upon religious idealism--his arguments and solutions are themselves woefully inadequate and ultimately lead in the wrong direction.
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