New Frames for Progressive Discourse
By Juli Davidson
February 18, 2011
Last night I saw “Race to Nowhere,” the thought-provoking if one-sided documentary about our plummeting education results compared with the rest of the world. It showed that over the last two decades, we have dictated to teachers what they can teach and how they can teach it. Our Millennial kids might better be named “Generation Stressed.” The film has sparked a bottom-up movement to refocus American education on the whole child. This movement of parents, students, teachers, administrators and citizens believes we each deserve to learn not simply the ability to memorize and regurgitate information, but to think critically, to innovate, to collaborate.
Sitting in school all day and sitting at home for hours afterwords is not only making us fat. It’s dumbing us down. Why do we stop having fun learning and playing by the age of seven, eight or nine? Why does the excitement about going to school fade as the homework, often busywork, piles on?
HEALING THE BIGGER BREAKS
Education is a public good. It benefits corporations to have educated employees; it benefits democracy to have educated citizens. Running a school is not primarily a means to financial gain. Without public funding for education, some of us will be denied an education; others will be forced into debt. Good schools, public schools and not-for-profit colleges were the cornerstone of democracy for many of our founding fathers – not the private concern of educational companies built for profit.
Five days after the treaty of Paris was signed in 1783—which officially ended the American Revolution—Benjamin Rush signed the charter founding Dickinson College. Out on the frontier of the new nation, west of the Susquehanna River in Carlisle, PA, Dickinson began affording young Americans “a useful and progressive education in the arts and sciences …grounded in a strong sense of civic duty to create citizen-leaders.”
Rush, a signer of the Declaration, found partners in Pennsylvania governor and future signer of the Constitution John Dickinson and his wife Mary, U.S. Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. With them, Dickinson College was constructed in swift fashion. Charles Nisbet, one of the great minds of his day, was named the first Principal (President) of the college. The purchase of Joseph Priestley’s scientific instruments in 1812 cemented the school’s dedication to research and critical thinking.
My paternal grandfather’s great great uncle, Robert Davidson, was the second President of Dickinson College. An outspoken pro-Revolution educator and clergyman, he and his brother John, both children of the Scottish enlightenment, were born in Maryland. And my Mother’s great great grandfather was the 17th President of the school (Robert L. Daschiell.) No wonder I got in. Yes, this is my alma mater. And my Dad’s, my Uncle Larry’s and my nephew Jake’s as well.
How we teach our children where they’ve come from so they can show us where we’re headed is everyone’s concern. Giving them tools to unlock both “doing” and being” is a necessity. A common good. A basic national objective.
In Singapore, the top 20% of high school students are offered full tuition and a stipend to four years of teaching college. Their subsequent jobs are respected and they are highly paid. In America, we can re-frame the discussion on education. The sooner, the betterer.
And unless progressives re frame the corporate “profit maximization” and call it what it is, “sanctioned corporate cruelty,” we’ll never take the needed steps to change the way our taxes and coast lines, our mountain tops and mineral treasure are added to the blessings of a very few.
CARBON-BASED LIFE THREATENED BY CARBON-BASED DEATH
For example some CEOs talk about a supposed “clean coal,” which we may instead want to call “still-deadly coal” in all our debates with our corporate brethren. Their whole game is played on a classically uneven playing field. Carbon-based fuels are deadly. Maybe we didn’t realize that 50 years ago, but like cigarettes, we know it now. At the same time, oil, coal and even natural gas are subsidized: we do not pay their true cost directly in any way, shape or form.
Tens of billions goes to naval protection of tankers; hundreds of billions subsidize oil leases; hundreds of billions pay for the repair of ecosystems (coastlines of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.) Maintenance of the infrastructure, pipelines, bridges and Interstate highways for the giant fuel trucks, higher health costs near refineries, even subsidies and artificially high prices – all benefit the merchants of burning carbon.
Here’s the best part: with all that money to prop them up, the energy companies corrupt the political process, influencing the global warming debate, and blocking the development of alternate fuels. They use their breaks against progress – we give them subsidies so they can afford to subvert our political process.
Its 2011 folks. We can re-frame it. We can demand it. We can get it done.
(By the way, how can a corporation, with its essential framework of profits for the few, be considered a “person” with inalienable rights? Hello? I’d call ours a dangerously activist Supreme Court if the conservatives hadn’t already co-opted the adjective “activist.” Citizen’s United, indeed. Sounds like Orwell’s 1984 on steroids. Looks like he was only off by 26 years.)
OUR SPIRITUAL LIVES
Stand very still, close your eyes and imagine… what if the emissaries, explorers, puritans and pioneers who came from Europe to Africa, the Americas and the Pacific Rim hundreds of years ago had this as their mission, “Look to find the light in all peoples you encounter. Bring us the wisdom of the planet.” Well now, that would have been the beginning of a different story.
But colonialism happened. And the Church endorsed killings of native cultures, witches (natural healers, mostly a women’s tradition,) infidels—Jews, Muslims, Hindis, any Others—and even the Knights Templar. As John Philip Newell points out, “We cannot undue these previous missteps. But we can each live fully in the present moment.” This awareness could start a new cultural frame: Being present to each other.
During the Bush 43 double term madness, it seemed that the idea of God being on the side of the fundamentalist Christian organizations was a given. Now, a scant two years later, I’m a newly courageous out-of-the-closet progressive, and I’m asking: “Does Jesus really love only the right-leaning Church of Foundation on the Family or other rigid, Bible-centric, dogma-heavy evangelicals? Does he love them more than progressive Christians of the Emerging Church? Or Sufis? Or Quakers? Or mainstream Muslims? Or Joseph Smith? Or my kid’s Buddhist guitar teacher?
Studying the Bible and understanding Christian church history comes in handy when grappling with the grip of Christian fundamentalism on parts of the GOP and on many voters. My upbringing was mainstream Presbyterian. Sustaining the center-Republican leanings of my hometown—Wayne, PA—was our team of clergy. In those days, these men ranged from the Princeton theologian Rev. Dr. John Galloway 1st to the strict, evangelical, patriarchal, hellfire preaching Dr. Ross Haverfield.
When Dr. Haverfield preached, all I wanted was to crawl under the pew and wait it out. His colorful and emotional reading of either Testament was heavy on the fear, heavy on the punishment and big on undesired consequences. I was sure I was on the side of the sinners, and didn’t much want to accept his version of where I was headed.
WHO WROTE THE BOOK CALLED LOVE?
Now we all know the text of his Bible, our Bible, was vetted by a mighty organization, a corporate force in its day. The Church of Rome was collecting tithes across the known world by the 4th Century A.D. If you visit Vatican City, you will feel those tithes all around you in the opulent pomp of that place. Vatican City has been the corporate meeting place for the board of directors of the Church of Rome for centuries.
However, in the year 325 A.D., called together by the great Constantine I, the global church hierarchy met not in Rome but in the Bithynia town of Nicea, which is present day Iznik in Turkey. Christian bishops, presbyters, priests, scribes, even a famous former hermit (Jacob of Nibsbis) convened in Nicea, a place easily accessible to the majority of delegates from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace. The Latin-speaking provinces—Italia, Africa, Hispania, Gaul and the province of the Danube—were well represented. Other than Britain, Christians from the entire Roman Empire and then some—foreign places like Persia and Abkhazia (the South Caucasus)—showed up to sit down together.
The assembly in Nicea was as political as it was theological. This was the opposite of separation of church and state. This was church and state as one. And power lay near the root of the answers they came together to suss out. The issue of the day was to codify the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. They met to hammer out one answer to a 300-year-old question: are the Father and Son one solely in divine purpose, or also one in being? This idea of the divinity of Christ had long stood in contrast with the idea of Christ as a divinely-purposed messenger from the one God throughout different parts of the Roman Empire. (The divinity of Christ had been widely endorsed in the otherwise pagan city of Rome.)
The council affirmed and defined what it believed to be the teachings of the Apostles regarding who Christ is: that Christ is the one true God in deity with the Father. It has been important to me to understand that they backed into this decision by picking texts from certain eyewitnesses and apostles, and discarding others.
Nicea was the place where gospels were either green-lit or discarded as heresy. This is where Mathew, Mark, Luke and John made the cut, but the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of the Magdalene, the Sacred Book of John, the Testimony of Truth, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Exegesis on the Soul, the Gospel of Philip and many others were left behind. Many are now lost; some were found only recently, in the middle of the 20th century in a cave by the Dead Sea. These early works are collectively called the Nag Hammadi Library. “It is as if the very earth is casting up to us these ancient fragments,” notes Newell.
In human history, there are many writings attributed to God, to holy prophets revealing God’s intention, to visions and glimpses of the divine by mystics, ascetics, abbots and prioresses. So ask yourself this: In what other area do we tolerate and hold fast to declarations made by a fourth century council of men? At Nicea, testimonies to Jesus were parsed and condemned. The ones that told the story Rome wanted told were kept. Any messy parts were discarded.
Prior to the Council of Nicea, early Christians and their churches were sort of loosey-goosey, like today’s Democratic Party. After Nicea, the top down rule of Rome Inc. began.
NEW ANCIENT WISDOM
When we come in touch with wisdom we have lost, we are challenged. The Jewish mystics have called this encountering “new ancient wisdom.” And underlying the challenge to deal with this wisdom is a very present desire for connection.
Living together in a radically related universe, we can see evidence wherever we look for an abiding recognition and hunger for truth. One need just look at the faces of folks coming to hear Buddhist master Thich Naht Hanh speak in Edinburgh or Madison or Johannesburg or Denver to realize that there is a depth to the longing for truth and connection here. A longing that is not being fed by the household of the Church of Scotland, or of Rome, or the Dutch Reformed, or of many Christian traditions.
The Buddhist tradition teaches us to not get stuck with one notion of God. We must not feel desperate to cling to our own traditional belief systems. These systems are built on structures that phase in and out of usefulness. And “these traditions may take our eye off the experience of God. We tend to use the word ‘God’ as if we know what we are talking about,” explains Newell. “We can instead seek a direct glimpse of the Unknowable in our practices and in our actions.”
I trust you understand why I use my own history to illustrate these points. We all have stories, and they are worth a listen — each in its own time. My forbearers were educators and theologians, Scots and Huguenots. And for centuries, my people have been Americans. I hope this doesn’t make me just another flinty-assed Daughter of the American Revolution. But it does make me a red-blooded citizen. It challenges me to examine today’s national debate and filter it through my understanding. It emboldens me to speak out.
For decades I have wanted to articulate the difference between the Jesus who spoke to prostitutes and welcomed sinners, and the churches who shun people like their gay neighbors and kill women’s doctors. Lucky for us there is no accepted National Church in America. There’s church. And there’s state. They are separate. They are equal. The freedom to worship if and how we please is an American guarantee.
At the very least, the historical Jesus loved his family, his tribe, his nation and his people so much that he humbled himself before the particular least of these. Here is a guy who models our own response-ability to engage in our world and connect with our people, whoever they are. Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. Locust-eater John the crazy Baptist’s younger cousin from Nazareth is suggesting we get off our butts.
Up Next: the Final post in this series, Lingua Progressiva VII – stardust. Retirement, the new immigrants, humble pie and Robert Kennedy. (Here comes the promo…) Don’t miss it.