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Twenty Lessons I learned from 40 Years of Teaching Social Justice

By       Message Mike Rivage-Seul     Permalink
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During the fall semester of 2014, I taught a Religion course at Berea College called "Poverty and Social Justice." The course was personally significant because it rounded off 40 years of teaching at Berea, where my first class convened in 1974 -- exactly 40 years ago. I remember how I came to Berea, fresh from leaving the priesthood, on fire from Vatican II, sensing the increasing importance of liberation theology (see below) and (naively) ready to change the world.

In this 2014 semester, nineteen students (mostly juniors and seniors) participated in REL 126. The students were engaged, committed, funny, energetic and smart. They, along with our readings, films and required community activism, taught me a great deal. And that, by the way, has been my consistent experience since 1974 -- I'm the principal beneficiary of the courses I've taught. (I'm thankful every day for the path Life has so gently led me follow.)

In any case, I'd like to share twenty of my own specific learnings here. Of course, none of my students would be able to draw these conclusions. After all, they were exposed to the underlying historical events and to the resulting ideas for the first time during the course. However for me, as I've indicated, REL 126 represented a kind of capstone to forty years of teaching and nearly half a century of trying to understand the world from the viewpoint of its disenfranchised majority. Grasping that understanding, I've come to realize, is the only hope of salvation our world has.

But before sharing those conclusions, let me tell you a bit more about the course itself. Like all of my courses over the years, its basic purpose was to stimulate critical thought about poverty, hunger and what the Christian tradition teaches about social justice. Our readings included Ron Sider's Just Generosity, Cynthia Duncan's Worlds Apart, and the Bread for the World 2014 Hunger Report. We also analyzed the (still relevant) 1973 Pastoral Letter by the U.S. Catholic bishops of Appalachia, "This Land Is Home to Me."

In addition, all of us attended monthly meetings of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) and volunteered for their "Get out the Vote" actions. A KFTC activist spent two of our class periods leading us in a game of "Survive or Thrive," a wonderfully instructive game she had invented to replicate the problems of international "free trade" agreements. The activist wasn't our only class guest. A grass roots entrepreneur from a clothing factory in Nicaragua and a Glenmary priest-activist campaigning against Appalachian mountaintop removal also graced our classroom.

Inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and taking Plato's Allegory of the Cave as our guiding image, the course had us attempting to re-vision U.S. history from the viewpoint of the poor and disenfranchised rather than "the official story" of presidents, generals, the rich and the famous.

So we made sure that our current events source reflected those usually neglected viewpoints. To that end, students watched and reported regularly on "Democracy Now." We even spent some class time watching and discussing a number of interviews with street-level newsmakers by the show's anchor, Amy Goodman. Additionally class participants researched and reported on issues highlighted on the program including climate change, police militarization, prison privatization, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, reparations to descendants of African slaves, the campaign for a living wage, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and Israel's bombing of Palestinians in Gaza.

In line with our commitment to understanding the experience of the actually poor and disenfranchised, our approach to the Christian tradition in this religion course was that of liberation theology -- understood as "reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of those working for the liberation of the poor and oppressed." Our readings here were drawn from a series on the topic which I had authored and published on my blog site.

A screening of the film "Romero" along with some other shorter documentaries, put flesh on those intentionally brief to-the-point readings. The documentaries emphasized U.S. sponsorship of third world dictatorships under genocidal U.S. allies like Pinochet (Chile), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), the Duvaliers (Haiti) and Somozas (Nicaragua), Mobutu (Congo), and Diem (Vietnam).

Together our intentionally subversive approaches to history and faith were intended to expose students to the untold history of the United States, and to the untold story of Jesus of Nazareth. From all of this, I drew the twenty conclusions I mentioned earlier. Remember, my students could never reach such conclusions. My hope is that someday (if they continue reading outside the dominant culture) they might:

  1. Historically speaking, the United States is the country Adolf Hitler and his backers imagined Germany would be had they triumphed in World War II -- the absolute ruler of the capitalist world at the service of corporate interests. In short, the U.S. has become the fascist police state Adolf Hitler aspired to lead.
  2. As such the principal enemies of the United States are those Hitler imagined being the proteges of "Jewish Madness" (socialism) -- viz. the world's poor and disenfranchised.
  3. These are (and have been since the end of World War II) the objects of what C.I.A. whistle-blower, John Stockwell, has termed the "Third World War against the Poor" located throughout the developing world. It has claimed more than seven million victims.
  4. This war by the United States has made it the principal cause of the world's problems in general and especially throughout the former colonial world, as well as in the Middle East, Ukraine, and in the revived threat of nuclear war, along with the disaster of climate change.
  5. Its war against the poor has made the United States a terrorist nation. Compared to its acts of state terrorism (embodied e.g. in its worldwide system of torture centers, it unprovoked war in Iraq, illegal drone executions, the unauthorized bombings in Syria, its preparations for nuclear war), the acts of ISIS and al-Qaeda are miniscule.
  6. Far from "the indispensable nation," the United States is more aptly characterized (in the words of Martin Luther King) as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Without the U.S., the world would be far less violent -- a far better place.
  7. At home, "our" country increasingly tracks the path blazed by Nazi Germany. It has become a state where corporate executives and their government servants are excused by one set of laws, whereas U.S. citizens are punished by another. Following this regime, law-breakers go unpunished; those who report them are prosecuted.
  8. This type of law is increasingly enforced by a militarized police state in which law enforcement officers represent an occupying force in communities where those they are theoretically committed to "protect and defend" are treated as enemies, especially in African-American and Latino communities.
  9. As a result, new wave of "lynchings" has swept the United States at the hands of "law enforcement" officers who execute young black men without fear of punishment even if their murders are recorded on video from beginning to end.
  10. In addition, disproportionate numbers of blacks and Latinos have been imprisoned in for-profit gulags that rival in their brutality Nazi concentration camps.
  11. The point of the militarized police state and prison culture is to instill fear in citizens -- to discourage them from constitutionally sanctioned free speech, protest and rebellion.
  12. As in Nazi Germany, the dysfunctions of "America's" police state (including poverty, sub-standard housing and schools, drug addiction, and broken families) are blamed on the usual suspects: the poor themselves, especially non-white minorities. They are faulted as undeserving welfare dependents and rip-off artists. Systemic causes of poverty are routinely ignored.
  13. In reality, welfare and other "government programs" represent hidden subsidies to corporate employers such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds. These latter pay non-living wages to their workers and expect taxpayers to make up the difference through the programs just mentioned.
  14. Government programs such as food stamps could be drastically shrunk and limited to the disabled, children, and the elderly, if all employers were compelled to pay their workers a living wage adjusted for inflation on an annual basis. Currently, that wage must be at least $15.00 an hour.
  15. Moreover, since education quality and achievement are the most reliable predictors of students' future poverty levels, the U.S. education system should be nationalized, teachers' salaries should be dramatically increased, and all facilities K through 12 regardless of location should enjoy highly similar quality.
  16. All of this should be financed by declaring an end to the so-called War on Terror, withdrawing from foreign conflicts and reducing by two-thirds the U.S. military budget.
  17. Instead, the current system of corporate domination, state terrorism, war against the world's poor, and lynching of minority men is kept in place by rigging the nation's electoral system in favor of right wing extremists. They control the system through practices such as unlimited purchase of government (the Citizens United decision), voter suppression tactics (e.g. voter I.D. laws), redistricting, and rigged voting machines. They do not want everyone to vote.
  18. U.S. citizens are kept unaware of all this by a mainstream media and (increasingly) by a privatized system of education owned and operated by their corporate controllers.
  19. As a result, revolution has been rendered inconceivable.
  20. The only hope and prayer is for a huge general economic crash that will awaken a slumbering people.

 

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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