Friday, March 25, 2011

Epistemology of the Prophets

Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
-          John 18:37-38

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a very good friend of mine from college. It was prompted by a text message from my friend: “I want to talk with you about epistemology.” For those of you whose philosophical terminology is rusty, epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with truth and the nature of knowledge, i.e. how we know what we know. Plato talked about it in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” from his The Republic, Descartes meditated on the subject until he concluded cogito ergo sum, and Wittgenstein capitulated that reality is confined within human language. But my friend and I did not discuss any of these distinguished fellows. We discussed Focus on the Family.

We did not discuss specific issues like abortion or gay marriage. We had already talked about those two hot potatoes. What had piqued my friend’s interest was Dr. Dobson’s ultra-conservative group attack on constructivism, which, among other things, explains how subjects previously thought to be objective and unbiased, like experimental science, are largely socially constructed and thus do not necessarily representative objective truth but only the experience of an individual or a group of individuals. Conservative Christians often see this way of thinking as threatening to orthodox Christianity and especially a biblically-based Christianity. After all, if we view the biblical canon as human construction and not divine ontology, then Christianity can no longer hold singular possession of objective truth.

I personally disagree with Focus on the Family on many issues, and this time is certainly no different. Just yesterday I sat in on an Old Testament class at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in which the class discussed how history is how we imagine things must have been. No matter how hard we try we cannot separate ourselves from our own reality nor can we separate a text from the reality in which the authors wrote it. Thus I view the book of Genesis not as a literal account of what happened at the dawn of the world but as a glimpse into the understanding the Hebrew people of its own existence.

With this said, I am still very, very in love with Jesus. If I were presented with a check-list based from the Nicene Creed, I might want to qualify some answers, but I would mark my belief in every part of it. I can point to any one of a half-dozen instances where I felt close enough to God to get a big, bear hug from my papi. I would love it if everyone knew God the way that I knew God, or even better, knew God better than I knew God. And though I find a lot inspiration from non-Christians like Mohandas Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh, I still know God best through the Church.

But I know that the traditions of my local congregations are as culturally constructed as they are divinely inspired, and I am not convinced that outwardly rejecting Christianity is a direct one-way ticket to the condemned city of Dis. As I have worked with people of various faiths, or of no particular faith, or even of an antagonistic bent toward organized religion, I have found the Light of the Holy Spirit. I tend not to tell some folks this because I would seriously weird them out. Jesus-language can be a real sticking point for some folks.

What keeps me coming back to the Gospel, the Word of God, is not that it happened, but that it happens. Every day. Every hour. Right now—the Gospel is happening. And a lot of the time, it doesn’t involve a special prayer or mass. As missionaries, my US-2 peers discussed prevenient grace—that the saving and redeeming Spirit of God is already present in a place, and we agreed that it was a damned good thing, too. Oh, sure, folks can reject that Spirit, and all of us do, but that doesn’t keep the Spirit from working with us. And when we finally embrace that Spirit, we see something as awe-inspiring as the rainbow crowned cliffs of IguazĂș Falls.

So—epistemology. What is truth? Is it, as logicians say, a property of a certain proposition? I tend not to think so. That doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was talking about with Pontius Pilate. Jesus seemed to be talking about something that even the most powerful government in the world at the time could not understand. It went deeper than that. I think Jesus was not so much referring to epistemology as to ontology, the study of existence. I do believe that there is objective truth, and it is both simpler and more complex than we would often like it to be. This Truth says, “Come to me all who are weary.” It bids us to set aside our ideologies and our ambitions and then look at the world through the eyes of a child.

Can imagine that truth, dear friends? We would no longer take away health care for the needy and pad bonuses already in the tens of millions. We would no longer create “smart” bombs and look for ways to use them. We would no longer tear apart families and build walls to keep them separated. Swords would become plowshares, the ancient streets would become a place safe for kids to play in, and justice would flow like a no longer chemically tainted stream.

I believe in that Truth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Workers' centers and labor unions

I was sitting in the top floor “Governor’s Lounge” of a hotel just a block away from the Capitol, sipping coffee in between furiously writing notes from the meeting with other SEIU organizers. The view was spectacular, and breakfast and hors d’oeuvres were complementary. That is, if you can find time to get up there in the heat of battle.

I was sitting in a classroom at the School of Public Health in the Near West Side with 30 Spanish-speaking construction workers, mostly day laborers (or jornaleros) who had gathered to learn about how to avoid injury at work and what rights they have with OSHA. We worked in small groups answering questions about specific cases and then gave demonstrations of proper safety equipment. Lunch was typical Mexican fare: rice, beans, salsa.

These are two recent experiences, taken vastly out of context, to explain two branches of the 21st century labor movement. The first took place almost daily in Madison, Wisconsin as my coworkers from IWJ and I worked to organize faith communities around the worker rights struggle there. Because of some connections my one coworker has, we worked primarily with SEIU, or the Service Employee International Union, which is one of the most powerful and strategic labor unions in North America. The international organizers that I worked with were incredibly smart, diligent, and constantly plugged in. For the first time I came to see why a smart phone is useful in the real world. I cannot imagine the amount of money SEIU has spent to support workers in Wisconsin.

The second was a 10-hour OSHA training held at UIC that was sponsored by two Chicago workers’ centers, the Latino Union and Arise Chicago. Latinos disproportionately get injured and die on the job in the United States, usually because they are not properly trained for the job they do, are not given adequate tools and safety equipment, and won’t complain if injured or robbed of wages. The facilitators, who were members of Arise Chicago and were jornaleros themselves, stressed that they were not going to teach the men and women but that they would all teach each other. We wrote answers on pieces of butcher paper and then taped them up on the walls. It was modeled off of the popular education model of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and the funding came from a NIOSH grant.

Now this is not to say that SEIU does not ever use pop ed to educate workers; I know from experience that in trainings for trainers the pop ed model provides the methodology. However, there are marked differences between a workers’ center and a traditional union. First, workers’ centers exist because certain sectors of low-wage earning workers, like day laborers, restaurant workers, domestic workers, and many others, do not have unions. Workers’ centers help to fill that void. Second, workers’ centers usually are not financially self-sufficient like unions, which are allowed to deduct dues directly from workers’ wages (well, at least in some states). Third, workers’ centers neither have the protection nor the regulation of the NLRA, or the National Labor Relations Act.

However the most interesting difference in my experience is that of culture. Workers’ centers often try to espouse leadership by the rank-and-file. I know of a few workers’ centers that have “flat structures” in which members make the important strategic decisions by consensus. While some processes require technical expertise, such as navigating the legal system to claim back wages, workers’ centers often emphasize direct action because it so often is more effective and creates leadership along the way. It is rare that a traditional rank-and-file worker would think of herself as a “foot soldier”—she is a leader working with other leaders to confront unjust systems of power.

As the Workers’ Center Network Assistant at IWJ I primarily interact with workers’ centers and much less labor unions, but it is vitally important that we maintain both models. When members of a workers’ center understand what a union does, they desperately want to be part of one. They would sacrifice like our ancestors did in the last century to gain that sort of power. But we also desperately need workers’ centers to reach into immigrant communities that are so often ruled by fear of the patron and la migra.

I was filled with pride was I looked out over the crowds in Madison, knowing that I had a role in that show of power. And I was filled with pride again when I saw how I had a role in creating that space where oft-despised day laborers could learn and teach each other. Both ways I felt like I was part of a much larger whole, working for justice in a highly oppressive culture.

Maybe it’s what the cornerstone of the Sears’ Tower feels like.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Wisconsin: What I Saw in Madison

It will surely be a, if not the, defining moment of my time as a US-2 missionary with the United Methodist Church.

“Hey Joe—would you like to go to Madison?”

Within 3 hours of that initial invitation from the deputy director of Interfaith Worker Justice, my 2-year placement site organization, I was on the Kennedy Expressway leading out of Chicago, past O’Hare, through frozen countryside of Illinois and Wisconsin, toward the capital of Badger State and the revitalized labor movement. I didn’t have a map of Wisconsin with me, and I was driving with the promise that I would have a homestay ready for me when I arrived. I called my parents and a few different close friends that I didn’t know what I would be doing, but I was really, really excited to do it.

The next week was a true whirlwind of religion-labor organizing to support public sector unions in their fight to preserve their right to collectively bargain on behalf of their members. In case you’re not familiar with collective bargaining, it “consists of negotiations between an employer and a group of employees so as to determine the conditions of employment” (Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law school), which means that workers negotiate with their boss on things like pay, working conditions, health benefits, worker-management relations, etc. For those United Methodists reading this, the United Methodist Book of Discipline explicitly supports the right of workers to collectively bargain (¶. 163.B of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church-2008). Most Christian denominations have similar statements of support—mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Roman Catholic.

I saw a lot of things that I will never forget, things that will shape my ideology, philosophy, and theology well past time at IWJ. Here are three things that stand out the most:

1.       Young people were the heart-beat

When I first walked up the hill that is crowned by the St. Peter’s Basilica-mimicking-Capitol, I only knew that I needed to see the place to understand the movement. I was told as much by CJ Hawking, director of Arise Chicago and de facto coordinator of IWJ efforts in Madison. I immediately saw a crowd of hundreds of people, some standing and other marching, in the sleeting darkness just after dusk.  They were mostly people more or less my age—20-somethings, the Millennials, the Echo-Boomers, that generation characterized by our unprecedented acceptance of the Other and our dumbfounding apathy. When I entered the building, the center of the poster-plastered rotunda, what some faith leaders would later call the “people’s cathedral”, there were young people in the center leading the chants, cheers, and songs.
                It would be easy to brush the college students off as simply letting off steam for the cause of the hour, but that’s not what I saw throughout the week. In closed meetings and in the rotunda I continually saw an amazingly strategic organization. Students and TA’s were keeping the grounds incredibly clean, constantly reminding each other that this was a PEACEFUL protest, and the cause was a lot bigger than them. The young people’s energy, dedication, and imagination provided the heartbeat that pumped life-blood into the rest of the movement.

2.       Union organizers were the brain

My head didn’t stop spinning from the time that I met up with CJ to the time that I left Madison the next Monday. My colleague shared the strategy that organizers from the biggest labor unions in the country—AFSCME, SEIU, UFCW, AFT, Teamsters, various trade unions, and others—had formulized in less than a week, and then it was time for work. They had transformed the second floor of a hotel a block away from the Capitol into a sort of mission control of meeting locations, war-rooms, and work spaces. From there the unions organized the mass rallies that numbered in the tens of thousands (up to 100,000 at the climax), the outreach efforts throughout the rest of the state, and media campaigns for public consumptions. I got tired just by taking a tour.
                Say what you may about unions, but I saw that unions work—HARD. Their energy had a singular purpose: to defeat this disastrous bill that would all but eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and destroy their unions. It was something to see.
                On a personal note, I also saw what I will not be. My call to ministry will surely include organizing, but I will not exclusively put my focus there. I was so exhausted by my time in Madison that it’s taken a good week to recover, which tells me that a career in organizing would not be sustainable for me. May God bless those folks who are lifers; we are in your debt.

3.       Solidarity stitched us all together

On Tuesday, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, the local IWJ affiliate in Madison, held a rally that drew at least 50 clergy and faith leaders from the area. We held prayers and declared that our faith traditions compelled us to act in support of these workers. Honestly, we probably talked too much, but hey—what do you expect from a bunch of preachers? What happened next I won’t forget.
                We organized ourselves behind the ICWJ banner and then marched with the chant “Show me what religion should look like! THIS is what religion should look like!” We went straight into the rotunda with various unionists cheering us on, many expressing their thanks for our presence. We slowly filed in and around the “drum circle” that the college students were keeping manned continuously. Then some young woman took up the chant with us, and the rotunda was filled voices united. The crowd quieted as a few religious leaders spoke for a few minutes. And then the firefighters arrived.
                I don’t know if there’s a group that galvanizes folks like firefighters. I remember how in the parades of my childhood we always looked forward to the big fire engines at the end, how we would cheer them on as sirens blared. There were no fire engines in capitol, but there were bagpipes and flags and men and women wearing helmets, suits, and boots. We had similar experiences when the police marched through the building. Yes, the police were part of the protests as well.
                On Sunday night, as a few hundred people waited for the authorities to forcibly clear the Capitol, I saw the clearest picture of solidarity yet. Hundreds of students, union members, professors, and faith leaders were crammed together on the 2nd floor of the rotunda, waiting to be arrested for deliberate civil disobedience. I was among them, and as the hours ticked by, we began to sing. We sang old standards like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome”, but that wasn’t the best. One student struck up the chorus “Power to the people”, and then changed whose power we celebrated each time we sang the chorus. We celebrated students, teachers, steelworkers, priests, rabbis, firefighters, and police.

The fight is far from over in Wisconsin. There are also anti-worker bills in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and a number of other states. I already know that unions have flaws. I’ve worked with them, and I am a member of one currently. However, not since the Great Depression have we as a society needed labor unions more than now. In so many heartbreaking ways, we are a fractured society, grappling at each others’ throats in the midst of our shared pain and fear. This is not the Kingdom that Jesus declared.
                But this is my hope, dream, and promise given to me by my God: that if God can work through as fractured and as scarred an institution as the Church, then surely God can work through unions, community organizations, and even government. After all, they are all just made of people.
                And it is through people that the Holy Spirit works.