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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Fair Trade

Fair trade organizations continue to expand their influence, and a report this week said that 70% of people surveyed in the UK were familiar with the fair trade mark which appears on products like coffee, chocolate, tea, etc. Although in 2006, fair trade constituted 0.01% of overall world trade, in some commodities it has grown to over 5%. In addition, from 2006 to 2007, the total volume of fairly traded goods doubled. Based on 2006 figures, approximately 1.5 million people gain a livelihood through fair trade enterprises, and another 5 million people benefit from community development projects related to fair trade.

Some of the major organizations which promote fair trade are the Fair Trade Federation, Transfair, Fairtrade Foundation (UK), CRS Fair Trade (Catholic Relief Services), Oxfam, Lutheran World Relief, Global Exchange, and Fair Trade Resources Network. The forerunner of these large organizations was the work of Mennonites, Church of the Brethren's SERRV International, and other committed people who sought ways to make a better life for the poor in all parts of the world.

The reason I am writing about this subject today is that I read a very interesting and encouraging article from the Washington Post about a growing fair trade coffee enterprise led by women in Rwanda. This is the kind of work that can make an enormous difference, far beyond the charitable relief work that seems to be all our middle class imaginations can conceive about our relationship with the poor. In Raleigh and Durham, a number of fair trade organizations operate in wholesale and retail businesses. These include coffee suppliers like Larry's Beans and Counter Culture Coffee. One World Market in Durham and Ten Thousand Villages in Raleigh offer a wide range of fairly traded goods.

Learn about the fair trade revolution (not to be confused with "free trade" which usually means freedom for large corporations to exploit people all over the world) by checking these links above. You can contribute to community development by buying fairly traded goods, and many of these goods are things that you already are buying. To learn how to find a variety of fairly traded items and how well the stores and companies you buy from treat their workers, check out Responsible Shopper.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Can Anyone Listen to Jeremiah Wright?

I was listening to a reading of Acts 6:8-7:8, the story of the arrest of Stephen. It struck me that certain elements of this story are echoed in the recent public ridicule of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I am not saying it is an allegory with one-to-one correspondence of events. Certainly Wright has not been arrested, and he has not been executed. I'm not one to apply the term "crucifixion" to any kind of attack on a preacher--that is poor biblical interpretation, the wrong way to apply the identification of the disciple with Jesus.

Yet it still strikes me that there are similarities in the stories.

First, it was a concerted effort to discredit him. They took the opportunity to attack him by instigating people to distort what he had said. By doing this, they stirred up the people and various leaders to challenge him for claims that he did not make. I have for some time considered that the "high priests" of the religion of American consumer culture are the news anchors. They are the public face of the production of culture, of the propaganda machine of the military-industrial-entertainment complex. In the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, they saw an opportunity to stir people up. They knew they had a commodity that would sell, so they strategically used their resources to make the attack.

Second, they distorted his message. They said he spoke blasphemy against Moses and God. The attack on Jeremiah Wright, with modern technological sophistication, used video clips to make Wright's preaching into something it was not. No more nefarious example is the clip from a sermon in which he contrasted the blessing and the curse which God spoke through the prophets. It is a biblical message. It is applicable to all earthly principalities, thrones, dominions, and authorities that depart from the divinely ordered path. But they claim Wright is too harsh on America, that he is spouting hate toward America.

Third, they accused him of attacking the national icons, God, the law, and the house of worship. Wright's words of judgment on the U. S. imperial habits of violence and exploitation were taken as offense toward the god of national exceptionalism. The U. S., as the chosen people of god, is supposed by many chauvinists to be the true bearer of god's purposes in the world. Even many of those who would balk at such a claim, would still hold the U. S., its flag, its president, and its mythology of goodness in high esteem and despise those who would criticize their nation. These people do not understand biblical faith, so they refuse to accept that Wright was proclaiming a biblical message. Instead, they distort it to be an attack on all that is good about America.

Fourth, as Stephen begins to answer the charges, he goes back in history to talk about key events of the past in which God's work has been evident. But they don't like his account of history. Wright's critics say that he is still angry about events hundreds of years in the past. They say he should leave the past in the past and look at the present. They cry that the evils of the past are not our fault and irrelevant to today. But Wright insists that in looking at the past we understand the present better. Slavery has been outlawed, but its legacy remains. Saying it's over does not make that legacy disappear automatically.

Fifth, the story Stephen tells begins by talking about Abraham sojourning away from his home to a land where he has no possession. Then he goes on to talk about a people who become enslaved and mistreated for centuries. And he reminds them that God promised judgment on the nation who enslaved them. Now it is not the same story as that of Africans kidnapped, transported, and enslaved on a continent expropriated by Europeans. But there are similarities, and the recognition of God's judgment on a nation is very clear.

If there were to be an honest, listening conversation about the value of Jeremiah Wright's message to the contemporary U. S. society, then reflection on the Stephen story might offer a few insights into how an outspoken prophet from a minority group can be manipulated and ostracized.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Today our fair state of North Carolina is participating in a ritual of democratic governance through primary elections. I have been especially caught up in this election season for several reasons.

First, my church is part of a community organizing group called Durham CAN, and we are engaged with mostly local issues relating to poverty, youth, health, and other matters of quality of life in Durham. We held one of our most successful Delegate's Assemblies this past Sunday at the site of one of our newest member congregations, First Presbyterian Church. Our organizations showed up in strength, more candidates than we had expected showed up to interact with us, and the agenda went off as planned. We found candidates very eager to support our proposals concerning assistance to the elderly and disabled, job training for ex-offenders, and health department disease tracking.

We got a good report from Duke University that they have extended their policy of paying a livable wage to their own employees, extended to certain restaurant vendor workers a year ago a year ago, to include workers at 100% of vendors who do business with the university, and that by November all vendors will also offer health benefits comparable to the University's health benefits for workers. Duke is to be commended for its commitment to its workers. Durham CAN can claim some credit for making the livable wage a key issue of discussion in Durham. Before Duke made this policy official, already Durham CAN had helped to bring about its adoption by Durham County Government, Durham City Government, and Durham Public Schools.

At the assembly, I had my moment in the sun as I spoke about Durham CAN's relationships with similar groups: Charlotte HELP, Winston-Salem CHANGE, Orange County Organizing Committee, and North Carolina Latino Coalition. We operate together under the name North Carolina United Power. Our work together on issues affecting all our communities gives us reason to need relationships with the Governor, Lt. Governor, other statewide officials, and representatives in the NC Legislature. In the past we have also worked with member of the US Congress.

At this assembly, two candidates for Governor and two for Lt. Governor came at our invitation to publicly agree to meet with us and to make their case for why we should vote for them. My job was to ask them a question about agreeing to a future meeting and to tell them how long they would be allowed to speak. For a few minutes, I was able to tell these statewide officials where to stand and when to talk. It was a heady feeling, like being "King for a Day." The TV coverage, for some reason, was more interested in what the candidates had to say than in my speech or instructions, but you can see me for less than a second, standing in the elevated pulpit to the left of the screen, in a black suit.

Second, I have been very interested in this primary election because of the candidacy of Barack Obama. He has been a community organizer in the past, doing work similar to the work we do in Durham CAN. The way of organizing his campaign has demonstrated this experience, working to bring together everyday people to have their say. Moreover, his connection with Trinity United Church of Christ, a church with a strong record of community service and transformation, has piqued my interest. I've been writing here about Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright in recent weeks. Not all of the campaigning and campaign coverage has treated the racial politics of the U. S. with honesty and integrity, and I would hope that more people would be willing to put a mature conversation about race on the table, as Sen. Obama has said well in his Philadelphia address. So today I was pleased to have the opportunity to cast a vote for Sen. Obama in my precinct.

I have been accused for several rounds of recent elections of "wasting" my vote for president. Overall, I see little difference between the Republicats and the Demicans. Neither is committed to the ends and means of a politics that would pay attention to the convictions I hold dear. I have voted for Ross Perot (for a change), Jimmy Carter (a write-in on the basis of his life of service), and such. But I might be able to vote for one of the parties this Fall, if some of the commitments to health care, better international relations, a restructured economy, and grassroots participation continue to be on the agenda. Not only Obama has offered some of these good ideas. We'll see what today brings, and what the campaigns and ballots offer in November.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Commenting on Jeremiah Wright has for the past few days become the national pastime. I was checking in on a web site I have followed lately, Real Clear Politics, and looking at some of the comments. Almost no one is able to listen to Jeremiah Wright sympathetically. The majority of writers are most concerned about the horse race for the presidency, and Wright's effect on that race is all they want to examine.

There are those who can't understand that a preacher might not be measuring his or her remarks by the winds of politics, might not be holding back or pushing forward positions that would help or hurt a candidate. They simply talk about how Wright intended to further or hinder the campaign of this or that candidate, but especially Obama. Wright has tried hard to disabuse them of this notion that he plans his speeches, especially for a minister's conference or a church meeting, around their effect on this or that candidate.

Other writers care little about what Wright might or might not have intended. To them, Wright represents a version of blackness that "America" (meaning an assumed normative white America) cannot stomach. Robert Novak makes such a remark.

Obama's danger is being perceived by white voters as representing a hostile separate culture.

He then refers to conversations he had with two African American commentators. Armstrong Williams, labeled a conservative by Novak, said,

"It is not unusual to hear in many black churches the same language that Rev. Wright is being criticized for."

I think that anyone who has attended a meeting such as the Proctor Conference, sponsors of the event Wright was attending in Washington, DC, or a Ministers' Conference at Hampton, Shaw, or any number of other events, would find that this kind of preaching and conversation is not an aberration.

On the other hand, Juan Williams of NPR and Fox told Novak,

"Not at all," he replied. "It's ridiculous. I never have heard that in church."

I know that there are black preachers who do not take up issues of poverty, war, violence, oppression, and white supremacy in a prophetic way. But to say that he has never heard Wright's kind of preaching in church stretches credibility.

Juan Williams's remarks on Fox after the National Press Club question and answer session showed this same incredulity at Wright's comments. Juan Williams accused him of handling the whole occasion wrong by talking about liberation and transformation as if they were so much fluff. Williams acts as if they were irrelevant to explaining Wright's context. Theology is irrelevant. He was frustrated that the press had to "wait" for the questions and answers to hear about the sound bites they have been fixated on, even though they are guilty of not doing their own due diligence to get to the bottom of the story by listening to the full sermons. Juan Williams seems to think that Wright owed both Obama and the Press a very different speech which would have tied everything up neatly and calmed everyone's nerves. The Juan Williams comments can be heard as the last few minutes of part six of the video here.

From a Fox News editor, John Moody, a short paragraph in the midst of his personal tirade displays far more than he intended. He is puzzled about the claimed invisibility of the black church. Offended by Wright, he insists he is not a racist. He says that the mostly white church he attends does not talk about the problems of "whites." He thinks that by not identifying whiteness, he has risen above it to universals. He ups the ante by referring to "souls" as the concern of God, and asking whether souls have color. (I'll set aside the pop theology of disembodied souls, part of a mind-body dualism that helped to institutionalized African slavery long ago.) Yet his so-called universals give him no framework in which to understand what Wright has said and the people his word represent. Maybe they are not so universal, but instead a projection of white identity.

What reality is that, reverend? How is reality visible or invisible? Is it a different reality from my church? Who says so? God? Or just you? What the heck, to be polite, are you talking about?
The main point here seems to be that Moody does not understand what Wright, and probably many blacks, are talking about. He does not know their lives. He does not know the history.

Why is it so bad to talk in public about the wrongs of history and their effects today? James Evans talks about the way that so many people believe that "the past could be scuttled." Wright and others have a responsibility to criticize the wrongs they see around them and to analyze their historical roots. If we are so uncomfortable with our common history that we have to deny it, we will never be able to make progress in overcoming its continuing deleterious effects. As it stands, the untreated infection is killing our children's future.
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