Recommended Reading: Prophetic Encounters

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)

In most of the radical social change movements I’ve been a part of or otherwise come into contact with, there has been the distinct idea that “religion” is part of the problem. More often than not, you’ll usually get an ill-informed tirade on how oppressive “religion” is. When pressed, one hears the usual, though clumsily given, examples of crusades and witch trials, the purportedly universal homophobia and misogyny among the religious. All important, of course, and much of it true. But what about the religious impulse to make the world more just? And what about the longstanding place that religion and spirituality have had in radical movements—movements that fought for human dignity and racial reconciliation and peace among nations?

Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a good antidote to contemporary progressive activists’ antipathy toward organized religion and spiritual movements. Anyone whose view is that religion’s role in public life is necessarily conservative needs to read this book. In it, McKanan sweeps across US history with an eye toward exploring the relationship that religion and religious traditions have played in movements for radical social change. Indeed, that there is an unbroken radical tradition in the US with a religious element.

Beginning with the anti-slavery movement and moving through the women’s, labor and civil rights movements, Prophetic Encounters documents and discusses the active role that religion has played in each. Key players in each era are considered, from William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King to Starhawk.  McKanan introduces or re-familiarizes readers with historic figures, painting a biographical portrait as well as a chronicle of their contribution to the American radical tradition. Their relationship to each other and following generations is also outlined. The picture that emerges is of an ongoing radical movement, rather than sporadic organizing around disparate issues.

For readers already familiar with the territory covered here, this history will read like a brief overview without much analysis. The author’s organizing principle is that of encounter—the encounter of white activists and Blacks, activists from the urban North encountering poor Southerners,  among others—and the transformative energy that is created in that mutual encounter. “When human beings encounter one another deeply,” McKanan writes, “in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”

Prophetic Encounters can read like a history of the American Left from a religious perspective and it can also be read as a history of organized religion’s radical stream. McKanan is dismissive toward the critiques of the secular left by Rabbi Michael Lerner and evangelical pastor Jim Wallis. In the journals that each founded (Tikkun and Sojourners, respectively) each has been critical of secular leftists and opportunistic Democrats who either deride or try to manipulate religious constituencies. McKanan describes these as “straw men” for Lerner and Wallis to knock down; he finds the antireligious attitude of leftists to be far more benign.

It is true that the division of Religious Right and Secular Left is too simplistic, and the fertile ground tilled by religious leftists and leftist people of faith is demonstrated in this important work. But the hostility toward faith among leftists is real and often spiteful.  Participants in organized religion in the US will benefit from reading McKanan’s history whatever their politics; the recovery of this tradition within American religion is important, if for no other reason than to recognize themselves, their forbears and their coreligionists in movements long stereotyped as militantly secularist.

For those people of faith who are interested in social justice and the progressive tradition in American religion, along with those interested in the story of US radicalism but who lack knowledge of the country’s religious history, this is the ideal book.


Recommended Reading: “Healing the Heart of Democracy”

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker J. Palmer. (Jossey-Bass, 2011)


You may remember the huge electrical blackout a few years ago that shut down nearly half of the continent. I was living in Toronto at the time, serving a congregation there as its summer minister and living a block away from the church.  When the hydroelectric power in the city shut down, something interesting happened at the intersection where the church and I were located. It is a major intersection of two avenues, which are main arteries of city traffic. The blackout struck just as rush hour was starting up. The traffic lights at major intersections throughout the city suddenly went dark. There at this intersection, two pedestrians leaped into the middle of the intersection and began directing traffic. I watched them, gesturing first one way and then another, choreographing getting cars to stop, pedestrians to cross, motorists to turn left and so on. I watched them do this for at least half an hour before an emergency vehicle arrived on the scene and an official took over. I saw in the actions of these two citizens, actions that were repeated, apparently, across the city that afternoon, a parable. A parable about what it means to be a citizen.

Do we believe we have the power, the responsibility, and do we act accordingly? When the public culture has a need for us, do we jump in to help? Or do we remain a cynical or passive bystander? What gives us permission to jump in and help? What prevents us from doing so?

Freedom – the spirit of democracy – is a way of life, an attitude, an orientation toward the world. It is the spirit of active participation and participatory action. Democracy is the self-rule of equals, free from coercion, tyranny, violence and the threat of violence. Leaders and decision makers do not draw their power from the gods, wealth, or tradition, but rather the will of the people. Institutions and habits keep this system running in a healthy way: a free press, an educated, informed, literate electorate that is ready to exercise its power. And we are responsible for exercising our power.

In his new book, Parker Palmer moves in the space of these queries about individual participation in democracy. He writes eloquently about the heart of democracy, and picking up on Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century essay Democracy in America, on the “habits of the heart” that sustain a democratic polity.

Chutzpah and humility are two such habits Parker enumerates. It takes chutzpah—a spicy blend of courage and moxy—to know absolutely, I am needed here, I better jump in and make something happen. It means “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” This personal sense of agency in citizens is essential for a polity that puts the power in its citizenry. Politics cannot be a spectator sport.

Humility involves “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect…” This is particularly true in the encounter with those who are different from us—who hold political views that diverge from our own, who are from class, cultural or sexual backgrounds that are different from ours, or whose life experience and social location differ from that of our own.

Parker advocates persuasively for the virtue of hospitality which “rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive…” In democratic societies, in which diversities abound, being actively engaged with one another across differences is absolutely necessary.  Diversity (ethnic, political, etc) flourishes in the democratic ecosystem; only totalitarian régimes enforce uniformity. Openness to the other is a practice that makes civic dialogue and collective decision-making by the people possible.

This means, of course, be committed to the greater whole and being able to hold tension in life giving ways. It means be dedicated to the practice of community.

Too many citizens have become dispirited about our common life, turning away from politics in cynicism and despair. Palmer describes his own heartbreak about the situation in the United States. He uses that experience of a breaking heart for his discourse about the human spirit in politics. Hearts can simply break, or they can break open, and when they break open the longings therein are set free. Approaching the landscape of US politics, littered with the debris of a once-vibrant democracy, with a heart for human wholeness, empathy, accountability and other virtues absent from political discourse, is the path to social transformation.

Of particular interest to me is the chapter on the classroom and congregation as sites that could cultivate the habits of the heart needed in a democracy. I have long felt that the practice of democratic, covenanted congregational communities of faith can be schools of the spirit for an engaged involvement in the social and political order.  Any religious community worth its salt is cultivating in its adherents hospitality, empathy and accountability.

The danger of focusing on the habits of the heart, on the behavior of the individual citizen, is that the value of collective action gets lost. Changing our personal lifestyles can be satisfying, as it is largely within our control when so much of what’s wrong in this world is not. Individual lifestyle changes may have an impact. But it is not enough. Cultivating these habits is only a prelude to bringing them to bear in the practice of democratic politics and pro-democracy movements. The means must justify the ends, and activists seeking to renew American democracy must surely embody democratic values in our organizing and in our lives.

Larger forces at work in the body politic call for motivated citizens to act en masse. Democracy—people power—is citizens taking collective action, using social, political and economic leverage for social change. Though Parker never takes us there, I trust that this work can be thought of as a primer for pro-democracy activists, the personal and small group work that would sustain a larger social movement on behalf of democracy and not an end point in itself. It is certainly a useful resource for people of faith concerned with the renewal of democracy.

I’d be gratified if Healing the Heart of Democracy produces more individuals willing to take over, to jump in, when the traffic lights go out. Those kind of empowered citizens, acting on behalf of the common good, are needed in abundance.