Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Questions RE: "Populist Rage"

Peter L. Kjeseth is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Wartburg Seminary, now living and teaching in South Africa. For three decades, he and his wife Solveig have fought for independence and justice alongside the Namibian people. Peter contributes this post on the upcoming South African elections, scheduled for April 22:

All elections are decisive, but some elections are more decisive than others. Few from either side of the political spectrum would question that the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States was a landmark event and may perhaps usher in a radically new chapter in US – and world – history. We will see.

Many of the most thoughtful observers here in South Africa argue that the national election called for April 22 will be decisive for the ‘new South Africa’ and will play powerfully one way or another into Africa’s destiny and its place in the world’s scene.

This will be the fourth election in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela, icon of the liberation struggle, won the presidency in the first free election. The next two elections gave the presidency to Thabo Mbeki, a lesser figure, but with impeccable family and struggle credentials in the African National Congress, a hard working, urbane man who looked – and spoke – like a national president and who guided the ship of state with an authoritarian hand. His AIDS denialism and his stubborn support of his Secretary of Health who shared his bizarre views cost him in the eyes of the world community as did his ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Zimbabwe which looked like spineless appeasement of the discredited struggle leader, Robert Mugabe. But it was generally agreed that South Africa’s economy under Mbeki had achieved remarkable health and stability and that the nation, far from becoming the radical socialist state envisioned in the Freedom Charter, had joined the convoy of the G8, if not in the forefront, at least as a respected tag-along into the sea of global capitalism where all boats were to be lifted but where a tsunami of collapse has now put even the big flagships in peril. It was his ‘success’ in playing the world economic game that proved Mbeki’s undoing here at home.

At the 52nd National Conference of the ANC held in Polokwane, 16 -20 December, 2007 Mbeki was effectively sidelined. A coalition of the left and populist anger at his attitude and fiscal policy undid him. Ultimately he was ‘recalled’ from the presidency by the ANC and replaced, again by the ANC without a new election, by Kgalema Motlanthe, a generally effective executive who serves as a kind of interim president. As a US citizen, used to endless presidential campaigns, I found it passing strange that a party could change the top position in government without consulting the general public. Even more puzzling, yes astounding, for me was the line up of forces and personalities that combined in Polokwane to bring about Mbeki’s political demise.

The victor in Polokwane was Jacob Zuma, a man of massive contradictions. Mbeki had sacked him as deputy president in 2005 when Zuma was found to have had an ‘essentially corrupt’ relationship with Shabir Shaik, his long-time business partner who has served a prison sentence. At the time of Shaik’s sentencing Zuma was not charged but since then the National Prosecuting Authority has been trying to bring him to trial. The media since then has reveled in the drama of Zuma claiming that he wants a chance to clear his name at the same time that he and his forces have moved legal mountains to prevent any trial from taking place.

Then we have the highly publicized trial that did take place. An HIV positive young woman half his age charged Zuma with rape. He admitted having unprotected sex with the woman but claimed it was consensual. Besides, he took a precautionary shower after the encounter. He was acquitted. Outside the court during the trial, large and noisy crowds gathered to ‘show support’ for Zuma and to vilify the accuser. She received so many threats that she is said now to be in hiding overseas.

How could this man become the public face of Mandela’s ANC and the all but certain presidential candidate in the April 22 election?

Throughout the Mbeki years the forces of the left, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and SACP (South African Communist Party) had felt increasingly sidelined though they were officially part of the governing coalition. Repeated public put downs by Mbeki were insulting, but the steadily increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the threat of increased unemployment, plus general disenchantment with government’s delivery in health care, safety, and education brought anger and bold action. Populist rage fueled the Polokwane rebellion.

How wisely did this rage choose? It seems that Zuma has been able to sell himself as champion of the people, the one who could work to realize the socialist vision of the Freedom Charter. Yet in his campaigning he appears to want to be all things to all people, reassuring the nervous business community that there would be no radical economic change under his leadership. Or is the post-Polokwane ANC merely the fragile assembly of those who rejected Mbeki? It is likely that only the election will tell.

I am fascinated – and puzzled – by the phenomenon of ‘populist rage’ and the attempts of our analysts to deal with it. Twice in the last several weeks Frank Rich, the mercilessly analytic leader of the NYTimes Sunday columnists, has touched on populist rage. On Sunday Feb. 8, he named a “tsunami of populist rage coursing through America” as the cause of Tom Daschle’s flameout as candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama cabinet. The Obama team was caught off guard and had no recourse but to let the highly qualified Daschle go. He was seen, said Rich, as belonging to the “greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism”. Then on March 1 Rich warned that Obama might be blindsided again if he does not find an explainable way of saving banks and other “corporate recipients of tax payers’ money”. Populist rage against corporate criminals is so great that it might undercut Obama’s total recovery package.

True or not, Rich’s warning about ‘populist rage’ rampant in the US also fits South Africa. It is as dangerous and unpredictable as it is powerful. Part of Zuma’s disturbing popularity roots in populist rage against the rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer record of the Mbeki years, though there is an aces-wild cultural contributing factor that I do not understand. Populist rage, of different types and lineages, figures in the left swing in Latin America characterized by the careers of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia. It also could be named as the ground from which terrorisms of various stripes arise around the world. Yet it seems that it could be –and often is – the engine of healthy change.

Some people argue that populist rage, or at least strong discontent, stands behind the healthy growth of opposition in South Africa. Others feel that it will lead us into dangerous times.

How much will the results of the April 22 election teach us? How much will it help us answer our uneasy questions about ‘populist rage’?

Peter L. Kjeseth
March 2009
Fishhoek, South Africa

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Global Consultation in Augsburg

Two thousand years ago Augsburg was founded by the Romans. Ten years ago Augsburg was the site of the "Joint Declaration on Justification" between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The events of the 16th century, however, make it most well-known among Lutherans and all Protestants worldwide.

Mr. Hermann Weber, mayor of Augsburg, greeted over 100 theologians from over 30 countries at the Rathaus (Town Hall) on the first evening of the March 25-31 Lutheran World Federation Global Consultation on "Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches: Transformative Perspectives and Practices Today."

At the Rathau, which has been restored since the World War II bombings, we heard the mayor highlight the important dates:

1518 The momentous meeting between Luther and the papal legate at which Luther was told to renounce his teachings.

1530 The Imperial Diet meeting at which the Lutheran estates issued their fundamental statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession.

1537 The adoption of the first Protestant church order where separation of church and state was instituted.

1555 The Diet proclamation of the Peace of Augsburg, giving Lutherans and Roman Catholics a side-by-side relationship. For many years each public office in Augsburg was held by two people, one a Roman Catholic and one a Lutheran.

We could see evidence of this side-by-side relationship in the physical proximity of churches. We are staying at Haus St. Ulrich's. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches on this site are physically connected.

On Sunday we walked through the old town and saw the courtyard from which the people could hear the Augsburg Confession read for the first time, in the language of the people, so that all could understand.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Public Demonstration in Spain

On our way to the LWF conference in Germany, we had a stop-over in Madrid. We had been here only an hour or so, when, going out, we saw a church with doors open, and stopped in for the end of the service. There was standing room only. We stood with them.

Minutes later, approaching the Peurta de Sol, the center of Madrid, and said to be the center of Spain, we encountered a "Gran Manifestacion Contra el Fraude Hipotecario," hundreds of people very slowly walking and chanting, carrying signs against usury and the banks. The economic crisis is global and workers are speaking out. As they reached the center, they simply sat down on the pavement for a few minutes, and then proceeded on.

We felt a strong solidarity with the people, joining as we could on what we consider to be part of the church's vocation in the public world. Standing--and sitting--we can be part part of the conversation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Global Consultation

I will be attending a Global Consultation of Lutheran World Federation: "Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches," March 25-31 in Augsburg, Germany. I invite you to follow along by going the Lutheran World Federation web page on this event - click here to explore the Speakers, Presenters, and the Seminars, particularly Seminar IV "The Public Vocation of Church in Society" where you will find my paper among many others.

I also will be leading a plenary session utilizing a process to help the l00 participants from 30 countries engage in "Integrative Theological Formation." I will bring back things I have learned from what promises to be an exciting event and share them on this blog in weeks to come.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Where are the prophets?

So who are the prophets to American civil religion? American corporate religion? Unbridled captitalism? "In Cramer We trust," ad hype for CNBC's Mad Money, is a correlary to the belief, "In debt we trust." Jon Stewart on the Daily Show Thursday night (Mar.12)was not joking when he took Jim Cramer to task for failing to warn the American people of the coming global economic crisis.

So who are the public media prophets? Jon Stewart? Bill Moyers? Who? And what about the church's prophetic vocation in the public world? Whose are the prophetic voice? The persistent voices?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another View on American Civil Religion

Boardman (Barney) Kathan, Prospect, CT, is former General Secretary of the Religious Education Association, current REA archivist, and recent author of "A Church Set Upon a Hill: The Story of Prospect Congregational Church, United Church of Christ." Barney is a longtime friend with whom I have had many conversations over the years; he responds to recent postings on American civil religion.

Dear Norma,
You and I have had good conversations about American civil religion, going back many years, and I remember especially a fairly recent Religious Education Association annual meeting, when we talked after a group where you had presented a paper on the subject. At the time I had a problem with calling the Super Bowl a high holy day of American civil religion. You make a good point, however, in referring to it as part of "American corporate religion."

American civil religion, as I understand it, relates to the religious and biblical images and references in American history, as these people in a new world, beginning with the Puritans, saw themselves as a "light on a hill," an "errand in the wilderness," a new "promised land" and "chosen people;" in effect, as part of salvation history. This was not a "false god," unlike American corporate religion, consumerism, etc., but rather an attempt to interpret their experience in sacred terms. Properly understood, American civil religion was not a "presumption of entitlement to global dominance," but a creation of a model or ideal of liberty, equality and democracy. However flawed or imperfect, this model or ideal has been the guiding principle in American history, and we were fortunate to have Lincoln in the 19th century and Dr. King in the 20th century to recall us to that principle.

In our conversation a couple of years ago, I told the story of three persons I knew well and worked with: the mayor of our town whose only religion seems to be the American civil kind, who never attends church except for a patriotic occasion; a pastor who was so opposed to any display of American patriotism that he refused to allow the country's flag in the sanctuary and gave hardly a nod to the Fourth of July and Memorial Day; and my mother, who was a deeply religious evangelical Christian and at the same time was fervently dedicated to American civil religion. The point I am making is that ACR is not necessarily opposed to the "cross and resurrection." It is only when it becomes nationalism that it is a false god.

Sometime I need to share with you a lecture given on the Lincoln birthday bicentennial at the New Haven Historical Society by David Gelernter, a Yale professor of computer science and the author of a new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. He calls Americanism a "biblical religion" that is global in scope and fuels what he calls the "chivalry" of fighting against dictators in other parts of the world in order to spread democracy. I asked him how he would compare his concept with American civil religion, and he gave a long answer, essentially rejecting and dismissing the concept of ACR. I disagree with him in many ways.

As far as a "new revised standard version" of ACR, I agree with you that it is an evolving and complex concept. The inauguration of Obama as the 44th U.S. President as the culmination of a remarkable, successful two-year campaign holds out the promise that he might do for the American democratic faith in the 21st century what Lincoln and King did for the preceding centuries. Again, you were right to focus on the remarkable closing prayer by Joseph Lowery.

Best wishes, Barney
A story of my visiting Barney at First Congregational Church of Cheshire, CT, where he and I climbed into the church steeple, is included in my book, "Open the Doors and See All the People: Stories of Church Identity and Vocation" (Augsburg Fortress, 2005)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

If You Have More, Will I Have Less?

“We sometimes fear ‘If you have more power, I will have less.’ That may be true in the world’s economy of power, but God’s unconditional love, new liberating life in Christ, and the power-filled Spirit transform our very concepts of power and partnership.” (From Norma Cook Everist and Craig Nessan, Transforming Leadership, Fortress Press, 2008)

I believe that when you learn more, I will not become ignorant, but together we can increase our knowledge, and our curiosity for more learning. I believe that when you grow in ability, I will not be less skilled, but, rather the potential for ministry is multiplied. I believe that when you are empowered, I will not have less power, but, together, we will have the power to work together to care for the earth and its people.

That concept is being tested today in the midst of economic recession. But perhaps it is true in new ways. We are learning, painfully, that when my neighbor has less power economically, I also have less, even if I have paid my mortgage on time and have some money in the bank.

In all of the recent conversations, people who are poor have been mentioned very little. Yes, we understand: talking about the middle class is necessary for Congressional votes. However, we need to never forget that in a global economic recession it is the poorest of the poor who suffer the most and the longest.

In not forgetting those in most need, we increase our capacity to see the whole picture. We need each other all the time. Will we learn that now? Will we remember that?

United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking March 4 to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C. said “Let us not forget the poorest. As we strive to spread the values of peace, political liberty, and the hope for better lives across the world, perhaps the greatest gift our generation could give to the future…would be for every child in every country of the world [to have] the chance millions do not have today; the chance to go to school...

“At their best, our values tell us that we cannot be wholly content while others go without, cannot be fully comfortable while millions go without comfort, cannot be truly happy, while others grieve alone.

“And this too is true. All of us know that in a recession the wealthiest, the most powerful and the most privileged can find a way through for themselves.

“We do not value the wealthy less when we say that our first duty is to help the not so wealthy. We do not value the powerful less when we say that our first responsibility is to help the powerless. And we do not value those who are secure less when we say that our first priority must be to the insecure.

“….I keep returning to something I first learned in my father’s church as a child. In the most modern of crises I am drawn to the most ancient of truths; wherever there is hardship, wherever there is suffering, we cannot, we will not, pass by on the other side.”