WRITER AND ACTIVIST Chuck Collins, the great-grandson of meatpacker Oscar Mayer, gave up his inheritance when he was 26 and has spent the subsequent decades working to address economic inequality and environmental issues. Via email with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter, he discussed his newest book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green)—and why organizing and building community across economic lines is good for everyone.
Sojourners: What is your main message in this book?
Chuck Collins: I want to invite wealthy and affluent people to “come home”—to return from wandering in the desert of wealth and privilege, the disconnection from community and place. It means putting a personal stake in reversing the deepening ruts of extreme wealth inequality and the ecological crisis. If we read the signs of the times, we understand this is both in our selfish interest as well as strengthening the common good. These inequalities and ecological challenges are undermining the quality of life for everyone, including wealthy people. There is no wealth on a degraded planet.
By reconnecting with people and places, we come out of exile. Racial and economic advantage is a “disconnection drug”—distancing us from both the suffering and the joy of being a human.
Many of the ultra-wealthy are “placeless” and “stateless”—literally holding multiple passports with money globalized in offshore financial centers around the world. So “coming home” means bringing the wealth home too—taking it out of the offshore tax havens, out of the global financial casino (“going off the Wall Street grid,” as one of the people I interview in Born on Third Base says), and out of the fossil fuel industry.
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting data about economic inequality in the United States. In 1982, the top one percent of families took in 10.8 percent of all the pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 64.7 percent. By 2012, it was 22.5 percent for the top one percent and 49.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. In a more disturbing trend the top one percent owned 35 of all the personal wealth in 2010. The bottom fifty percent owned just five percent.
A coalition of Christian leaders issued a statement Aug. 4 calling on presidential candidates to address climate change and economic inequality, in preparation for the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6.
More than 70 evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic leaders signed the statement, organized by the group Faith in Public Life, which advocates for the representation of faith communities in politics. Signers include Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant; Jim Winkler, president of the National Council of Churches; and the Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
Recently I experienced a wave of frustration related to my student loan debt. This happens from time to time, and really anything can set it off. Debt is stressful, as most of us are aware. Before I dive in, though, I’ve got to say that I’m more fortunate than many; I’ve been able to steadily pay on my debt for a while now. It’s still sizable enough to haunt me, but at least it isn’t a Poltergeist-style terror. That’s not insignificant.
Nothing so far is unique. Thousands of former students are dealing with the exact same thing, though in varying levels of distress or ease. What makes it slightly different is what degree I went into debt for.
I received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. So we’re talking about 1) a graduate degree, as opposed to a bachelor’s, which is widely regarded as necessary in this country to participate in the job market; and 2) a professional degree, meant to lead to practical ministerial work for the social good.
I was raised in Atlanta during the heyday of the civil rights era. I went to high school with some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children. And I didn’t know there was a racial problem in my city. Because for me and my people there wasn’t. It was somebody else’s problem. Across town. Somewhere else.
The black maids and gardeners rode a tidal wave into my white neighborhood each morning, tended babies, fried chicken, and manicured lawns. And then the tide washed them back out again. We didn’t often ask where they landed for the night and whether it was as sumptuous as our digs, or whether their neighborhoods were even safe. We just dropped our bath towels on the floor and figured that somebody would pick them up again in the morning. Life was good.
From the remove of 40 years and 600 miles, I see it differently. But it took more than time and distance to reckon with my own cluelessness about race. It took what it always takes for barriers to fall between “us” and “them” — getting to know some of “them.” I’ve gotten as far as being able to name that I am on one side of many different divides, including the dinner counter at the Mission, and I’m usually on the less-shitty side. And it’s through no merit of my own. In fact it’s where people like me, white and privileged, have long been and have little questioned.
In the past few years, a new era of civil rights organizing has emerged out of the depths of tragedy and despair. The list of names of young African Americans who have died at the hand of police, out-of-control vigilantes, and hate-filled white terrorists has fostered profound lament and intense anger. The simple phrase, “Black Lives Matter” has galvanized activism, mobilizing, and organizing.
This new civil rights battle includes legislative battles at state houses like South Carolina, leading to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. There is work to do in D.C. as well. Yet the real front of this new era will be on the corporate scene, on Wall Street and with economic power brokers and corporations. It is time to go “over the heads” of politicians and enter into dialogue and debate with corporations over the value and dignity of dark bodies, and how to reconstruct a moral economy that is not profiting off of people of color.
Inequality is a relentless blight. The hopelessness too often engendered when a lack of resources aligns with insufficient educational access, the easy prejudice of one's neighbors, and the ubiquity of oppression is dehumanizing and crushing.
In recent days, much of our political discourse has focused — at least in words — on economic inequality. From the left and right alike, laments arise about the shrinking of the middle class and the widening and yawning gap growing between those who are thriving in a rebounding economy and those left behind by a rising Dow.
The next presidential campaign will likely be dominated by questions of economic justice and the American promise that hard work and perseverance can yield a better life. Is this dream a myth or reality? How we answer this question will say much about our hope in the future, our trust in one another, our faith in a God who promises life abundant, though an abundance that comes in a form we might not expect.
The movement to give every American an equal say in the government decisions that affect our lives gained a “great new ally with a worldwide voice” last week. I’m referring of course to Pope Francis, who when speaking to an Argentine magazine said, "We must achieve a free sort of election campaign, not financed. Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back."
The Pope is a welcome addition to the growing national movement in the United States that aims to refocus government on fulfilling the needs and concerns of everyday voters, not on granting special favors to big campaign donors. In his first two years since inauguration, Pope Francis has dedicated his papacy to addressing the staggering economic inequality tearing lives apart here in the U.S. and around the world.
His statement on how we finance elections is not a deviation from that mission. It is an acknowledgement that a functioning democracy and economic fairness are two sides of the same coin. For years political leaders have perpetuated a vicious cycle of economic inequality begetting political inequality, and vice versa. The policy levers we pull must reverse this system to create a virtuous cycle of greater economic prosperity and freedom begetting greater political equality.
Pope Francis understands this, and so too do a growing number of religious communities organizing to tackle the problem of money in elections. The Franciscan Action Network, the organization that I direct, leads a coalition of 18 national faith organizations urging the U.S. Congress and President to take steps to reduce the corrupting influence of money in elections. Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Muslims, Quakers, Mennonites, Disciples, and several Catholic organizations and religious orders have joined with others to call out their shared teachings about integrity and honesty, and their belief that a democratic country should actually adhere to democratic practices.
A variety of faith traditions have joined in our call for a constitutional amendment to curtail the role of money in politics. In the sacred texts and writing representing each of our spiritual traditions we find stories warning us about the evils of worshiping money.
In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud states, “A mitzvah is better done personally than done via agent.”
In the Christian tradition, the Gospel of Mathew tells us, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
These warnings are found throughout all faith traditions.
We applaud the Pope’s efforts in this struggle and encourage him to amplify his call for a more representative system for funding elections when he addresses Congress in September. After all, the American system is a prime example for the world of how not to fund elections. The rise of super PACs and outside political groups have given the billionaire class ever more power to bankroll the election campaigns of our elected leaders.
"I am neither angry nor surprised by these white extremists getting caught doing what white extremists do. This is American tradition. These are the words embedded in the psyches of these white fraternity brothers before they can even speak."
In honor of Women’s History Month, check out who made this list of top religious women upholding full gender equality.
“The global response must be multifaceted. Still, as the international anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States considers nonmilitary options to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, it should focus on empowering local civil society in Syria and Iraq with targeted resources, technologies, and knowledge to build resilience and deny ISIS the moral and material support it needs to wield effective control.”
“Research on both sides of the aisle has confirmed a quiet crisis in American life: over the last few decades, the social fabric of the poor and working class has come apart at the seams. ...A vocal cadre of conservatives have cohered around a theory of what happened: the post-1960s turn away from traditional moral values. But like any theory, it must fit the available data and it must be internally consistent. This one fails on both counts.”
“These things have been silenced: the tremendous spiritual power of sexuality, menstruation, breastfeeding, and birth; the shame-map of internalized emotional violence that holds these powers in check; the capacity — and obligation — of Gospel love to dissolve the boundaries of gender. ...To tell these things has been imund, forbidden. If you tell these things, you may be held responsible for all the feelings of all the people who are shaken in their boots by what you say.”
Politico magazine traces the roots of the British man’s transformation to ISIS executioner, examining the difference between ideology-based and poverty-driven extremism.
“Renewables now generate nearly half of Nicaragua's electricity, a figure that government officials predict could rise to 80 percent within a few years. That compares to just 13 percent in the United States.”
Twenty-one aid organizations released a report this week detailing the increasing violence, impoverishment, and despair of the Syrian people. It cites, “Huge increases in the number of people in need of humanitarian aid inside Syria; 1.33 million more children are in need and there has been a 31 percent increase among the population as a whole.”
The Onion’s satire nails the complicated tensions of food and poverty in the U.S.
President Obama joined in on a Jimmy Kimmel classic bit on Thursday, reading aloud a handful of “mean tweets” aimed at him.
The Francis Revolution is crossing the Atlantic and coming to the heart of the nation’s Capitol. News broke yesterday that Pope Francis has accepted Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a rare joint session of Congress during his upcoming trip to the United States on Sept. 24.
This is the first time that a pope has addressed Congress and provides a world-class opportunity for the Holy Father to lift up the Gospel’s social justice message to the most powerful legislative body in the world.
So what will the Jesuit from Argentina talk about? Studying his nearly two-year tenure as the Bishop of Rome suggests that Pope Francis will focus particularly on the scandal of inequality and exclusion.
Last April, Pope Francis tweeted that “inequality is the root of all social evil.” The seven-word tweet caused an uproar in American media, but the truth is that Francis had been saying the same thing for years. In his 2013 letter Joy of the Gospel, Francis wrote “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
With reports last fall suggesting that economic inequality in the United States is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, Pope Francis will likely call on our elected leaders to transform our economy into one where no one is left behind.
I just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held each year. Leaders from business, government, and civil society all gather here to engage each other, make connections, and, hopefully, make progress on the mission statement of the WEF: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.”
I reflected on that mission statement last year in my remarks to all the attendees at the event’s closing session. I said the deeper meaning of leadership is sacrifice and not just skills — and that the most included people on the planet who were sitting in that famous Congress Hall will be morally evaluated by their relationship to the most excluded, who, of course, are never in that grand auditorium. Many individual leaders in attendance wanted to discuss that challenge further, and those conversations continued this year.
One session this year that drew many people off site was called “Struggle for Survival” — an intense simulation of how 3 billion people in our world actually live each day. Half of the global population exists on less than $2 per day. Run by the Crossroads Foundation, Struggle for Survival was a much more emotional experience than the rest of the sessions at Davos.
My wife, Joy, and I participated in this simulation, and the people running it told us that several CEOs seemed quite affected by the very powerful dramatization of real-world injustice and poverty. It took people out of their heads into stunning revelations of how the excluded really live, prompting feelings of guilt, pain, anger, empathy, and compassion — and then a call to commitment.
This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.
The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."
Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.
Last week I spent a few days in Rome with, among others, Tony Jones. As someone who hasn’t ever been to Rome, it was particularly helpful for me to have a Christian historian along. It’s easy enough, having seen one amazing display of ruins after another, or cathedral after awesome cathedral, to lose some perspective. So along the way, Tony would stop and point out the historic significance of various landmarks. Then of course, we’d go grab a bourbon and talk.
Both of us, at one point or another in the week, thought of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian, in which the disgruntled rebels exclaim, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” So of course, some wise guy in the group starts rattling things off, like the aqueducts, roads, education, and so on.
So this led to a minor debate between Tony and me about the benefits of empire. Now, keep in mind that Tony is never one to pass up an opportunity to serve as the antagonist, but his argument as outlined in his blog post cheekily titled “In Praise of Empires,” is that it’s en vogue to trash empire, both present and past.
To put a finer point on it, we chatted about whether Constantine, the Roman emperor responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed, was an ass-hat.
Protests in Ferguson, rallies in Hong Kong, and the Occupy Movement: People challenging systems and structures clamber for my attention. But faithful followers of Jesus shouldn’t get involved in these political and economic wrangling, should they? Sure, we ought to pay our taxes and vote; you know, give to Caesar and all that. But Christians should only be concerned about the spiritual transformation of individuals, not gallivanting around to rail against political and economic systems. After all, Jesus never protested political or economic policies did he? If we transform enough people, won’t the rest of the systemic issues work themselves out?
I have heard this challenge to Christian involvement in social movements numerous times, and it holds a certain appeal for someone like me who is allergic to politics. I’m the no-bumper-sticker, no-yard-sign guy who would just as soon steer a discussion away from upcoming elections than face the discussion of large-scale political or economic issues. I’d much rather focus on individual spirituality. After all, Jesus never did march on Rome or speak out against Caesar’s cruel dictatorship. He doesn’t mean for us to get mixed up in social, political or economic activism.
Or does he? I am learning to re-examine the cultural lenses by which I encounter Christ in scriptures.
In the past few months, the world has witnessed the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was first identified in 1976 — it has already claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people. But while the first cases in the U.S. and Spain have stirred fears over the past week, we don’t need to fear an unstoppable epidemic in developed countries. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim aptly put it in a piece for the Huffington Post:
The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.
Dr. Kim makes the crucial point here — the current Ebola outbreak is much more than a public health crisis — it is an inequality crisis.
In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.
I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.
This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.
Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.
The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order. We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world! And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage or superiority over others.
“As for you, my flock, saith the Lord, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?”
In other words: Do you have to get what’s yours and at the same time mess it up for others?
I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific.
Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that corporations are entitled to the same free speech rights as individual humans as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
The political repercussions of Citizens United include the rise of “Super PACs” — political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, independent of direct campaign contributions, to influence politics. The power yielded to such corporations, as well as indiscriminate spending allowance, has deleterious effects upon our democracy.
Because money talks, big money will talk a lot louder, drowning out the voices of average Americans trying to exercise their own civic rights. Politicians are undoubtedly more apt to respond to the requests of companies that shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars on supportive campaign politics than to the needs of a college graduate or working family who donated 10 bucks. Doesn’t exactly smack of sound democratic governance.