Sunday, February 27, 2011

HOW FULL IS FULL?

I was sitting with a group of men discussing a passage from the Christian scriptures. It was from the gospel of John and concerned the good shepherd. One verse said "...I came to bring you life and life more abundantly." This line has been one of my favorites for many years. I was raised a fundamentalist Catholic and our goal was to get to heaven. Everything was geared towards this goal. We could even get special deals, indulgences, to make it easier and we had a bus stop, purgatory, to hang out and get things right in order to continue to the pearly gates. However, as an adult it became clear to me the message of scripture, actually the message of all moral systems, is the same. The reason to adhere to any one of them is because you can have life and life to its fullest. The reason to love your neighbor and enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive an infinite number of times and be the most human you can be is because your life will be amazingly fulfilling and joyous and wonderful. Heaven may be cool, but the promise of Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed as well as the promise of great humanists is the promise of an abundant life.

As the discussion continued, and this is such a powerful gathering every Sunday night which includes Fr. Louie Vitale OFM for a few more months, I asked if anyone could define what it means to have an abundant life...what does it mean to live life to its fullest...what is the definition of a truly filled existence? Everyone had their own take on it. I thought it would be an easy question to answer. Yet, the more we talked the more I realized how elusive the concept is. I had what looked to most like a full life. A wonderful, accomplished wife, 4 children each with so many individual gifts and strengths who I love with every ounce of my being, a great job which gave me a forum to voice my opinion, stroke my ego and even help some who couldn't help themselves. I lived in the best city in the world surrounded by other family and friends and had all the material goods we say define success. It is obvious to me now, something was missing. I was chasing something which I couldn't define. The joy, which should have been ever-present, was intermittent and anger showed its ugly head frequently. (Any of you who listened to me know, if you are honest, I could be terrible to callers and would get so angry and so worked up it became unlistenable at times) Whatever it was which was missing, led me to take risks and ignore warnings and make stupid decisions and ultimately I threw everything away and left my family in utter ruin and disappointed and embarrassed my friends and family.

So now I ask you this same question. What does it mean to have an abundant life? What does it mean to live life to its fullest? Please give this some thought. There is a temptation to answer it quickly with clich├ęs and possibly even flippantly, but it is the key to everything I believe. We know what our culture says defines a full or abundant life. We know what a lot of famous preachers say and I think in our hearts we know that any life which is not full or abundant will lead us to chase it even if we don't know what it is we seek. I ask you to ask your family and friends this question. Don't let anyone, or yourself, off easy on this. It's too important. It's so important; Jesus says it is why He was sent to us to teach us and tell us and show us. I suspect Buddha and Mohammed and Moses and Confucius and many others would say the same thing.

At the end of John's gospel, he says he could have included a lot more stories but picked the ones he did so that you might believe and have life and life to its fullest. Are you living an abundant life now? If not why not? How do you know if you can’t define it? Have you spent much time examining what it might mean for you and yours? I spend every day trying to answer this question convinced I have to have an answer before I return to the real world. Our everyday lives leave so little time for contemplation and reflection. I'm giving you permission to stop and take some time because this is just too important to put off.

I wish I had taken this time before and avoided the stupidity and mistakes, which I brought on myself. I am so grateful to be able to write and to share with you and maybe help to remind you this is a quest well worth engaging. I look forward to your thoughts and please encourage anyone you know to add theirs. I wish you could join us on Sunday nights. It's truly an extraordinary time.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A CRISIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE...

The Republican governor of Wisconsin wants to use the state's budget crisis to break the teacher's and public employee's unions. 40 other states are watching to see if he gets away with it. If he is successful, it will be a victory in a war against working- class Americans that started in the early 20th Century. This last battle started with Ronald Reagan, and will be finished by regressives in state houses and in Congress. Under the guise of a fiscal emergency, Wisconsin's governor has proposed eliminating the ability of teachers and state workers to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Without the ability to collectively bargain, unions cease to have a function. Without collective bargaining, employers can play groups off against each other, pick off weaker employees and prevent workers from banding together to demand a fair wage, decent working conditions, health care and some kind of provision to provide for them when they can no longer work.

In the late 50's and early 60's, when America was at its economic zenith, union membership was close to 40% of the American work force. American workers earned enough to create the largest middle class in the world. Unions proved Marx was wrong when he said there had to be a war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He said capitalism would create great wealth but the capitalists would never share that wealth with the workers. Unions forced the capitalists to share some of their profits through the use of collective bargaining. The entire work force has more bargaining power than any individual. As unions fought for 40-hour workweeks and higher wages and better working conditions as well as pensions and health care, even non-union workers saw their boats rise with the tide. Putting money in worker's pockets created consumers and those consumers became 2/3 of the economic activity of this nation. The capitalists hated it. They hated having to bargain. They hated not being able to impose their will. They hated bending to demands and they fought and were willing to kill to prevent it from happening. When Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation allowing for collective bargaining, corporate America increased their political contributions at the fastest rate in history in order to defeat him in 1936. That record will be broken in 2012 when corporate America attempts to retake the Senate and the White House. They really don’t like to share.

The campaign against workers and unions has been so successful, working Americans are willing to turn on each other in a death spiral of eroding earnings, hazardous working conditions (can anyone say Deep Water Horizon or the Upper Branch Mine?) and gutted pension systems. While the richest Americans enjoy tax rates not seen since 1950, while the richest 1% see their taxes cut, working Americans tax burden continues to rise and the money pays for less and less in terms of government services and aid. In Madison, Wisconsin average Americans turned out to attack teachers and state workers who were protesting the loss of their bargaining rights. In the 1920's, corporations paid private cops and local thugs to break up labor rallies and stop the move towards workers rights. Today, so many Americans have swallowed the corporatist's kool aid; they are willing to attack other workers fighting to preserve the few bargaining chips they have left.

Their is a belief in this country our fiscal woes are the result of greedy, ungrateful workers. As we watched trillions of dollars transferred from Main Street to Wall Street, as we watched the bonuses and salaries being paid at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and even AIG, as American's had more homes foreclosed in 2010 than any time in history, there is this myth, which has taken root, we are in economic trouble because of the unreasonable demands of workers. Wall Street is back to pre-depression highs, corporate profits are soaring, corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in "cash" and yet unemployment sits at 9%. Why should they hire someone when they are making so much money as things are now? Even as the protests continue in Wisconsin, the US Chamber of Commerce is pushing Obama and Congress to approve new free trade pacts with Columbia, Panama and South Korea. Even as more jobs are taken overseas and America's manufacturing base withers and dies, corporate America fights to preserve tax breaks they get by keeping profits offshore and push for new agreements to take more jobs from Americans. They are even pushing the president to cut the corporate tax rate. Even as the rich and powerful pour hundreds of millions into regressive campaign coffers, they seek to dilute and eliminate the one counterweight to their greed and rapaciousness.

The governor of Wisconsin talks of the need for "shared sacrifice" even as he and his fellow Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1%. They rule out any additional taxes on corporations. They refuse to invest in the country's infrastructure and ignore the jobs that would be created. "Shared sacrifice" is a code word for continued attacks on unions and continued erosion of the working middle class. Regressives excoriated Obama for propping up General Motors and Chrysler. They didn't care about the hundreds of thousands of jobs they represented; a decision that has paid huge dividends for both companies, returned taxpayers money with interest and added 56,000 jobs in the industry. They wanted to share in government largesse but the workers would do the sacrificing.

Will public employees have to accept pay cuts and layoffs? Yes. Will they have to contribute more to their pension plans? Probably. Will they have to pay more for health care? Not if we had a single payer health care system not dependant on individual states as employers. Since we don’t, the answer is yes they will pay more. Should they be able to collectively bargain to make the best deal, to protect the most vulnerable, to make sure the sacrifice is shared not dumped on their backs? Absolutely. Taking away collective bargaining is only necessary if you want to bust the unions. It is not necessary to get workers to make the sacrifices we all know need to be made to get our fiscal house in order.

It is no coincidence as union membership declined, the gap between the rich and working Americans widened. It is no accident as workers turned on each other, the richest 1% increased control over at least 60% of the wealth in this nation. It is not happenstance Wall Street was bailed out, while workers had to fight for help for companies like General Motors and it is not bad luck a government program aimed at helping Americans stay in their homes is called a failure and faces cancelation while corporate America is reporting earnings not reached since 2006-2007. If we want a healthy, vibrant and strong America, we have to have a healthy, vibrant and strong middle class and collective bargaining aids in that goal. That's why regressives hate it and unions so much. What do you think?

Friday, February 11, 2011

NOW THAT'S PROGRESSIVE...

Most Americans don't deserve America. A nation founded on basic principles of freedom and civil liberties is a nation where its people should have a healthy skepticism about the reach and power of government. Instead, Americans have diluted and diminished and given away their liberty and privacy out of fear and indifference.

The latest assault on privacy comes from auto insurer Progressive Corporation. The company is offering up to a 30% discount on auto insurance if a customer will allow them to attach a small device to the car's on board diagnostic computer. The device would measure when customers use their vehicle, how far they drive and how hard they brake. Progressive would use the information to determine which drivers are less likely to get in an accident. So far at least 25% of customers who are eligible have signed up to participate. Allstate, State Farm and other insurers are rushing to follow with similar offers.

I know some claim we have no privacy left anymore so why worry. The Wall Street Journal has run a series of articles chronicling all the ways advertisers are spying on you every time you go online. They are now able to "fingerprint" your computer and track where you go, what you see and search, and what you buy whether you want them to or not. The "cookie" is now so yesterday. Cars are sold with On Star and other services connecting you to some central control. Your cell phone can be tracked even when it's off and even the Fast Pass you use on Bay Area bridges tracks your movements and the information is available to be subpoenaed.

There are companies like Foursquare which reward you for "checking in" to a store or restaurant and letting others know you are there. Add Facebook and Twitter, and maybe it would appear those under the age of thirty find privacy to be an outmoded concept. Now, to save a few bucks, you can allow insurance companies to monitor how you drive. Really? Insurance companies?

It doesn't take any kind of psychic abilities to see the potential abuse of this latest "advance". At first it will be voluntary. Eventually, it will be mandated to get auto insurance. The devices will get more sophisticated and measure speed, driving habits etc and all of this information will be stored and available to the government and to any lawyer with a subpoena. If this had existed after September 11th, can you imagine what Bush and company would have done? They would have demanded every piece of information about every driver under scrutiny or maybe just every driver in the country. We know corporate America will cooperate and they don't even require a warrant.

I have to admit I'm baffled by the cavalier attitude Americans seem to have when it comes to their privacy and the right to move freely, talk freely, shop freely, email freely, and search freely without anyone knowing what they are doing. The old saw,"...if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to fear," is such an anachronism when the people who write the laws, and prosecute and determine guilt, are the same ones watching what you do. Even if it's not the government, the idea corporate America is building profiles on each online user in order to sell products, without any permission, smacks of a big brother Orwell couldn't have fathomed.

The same people who populate Tea Party rallies and scream about intrusive Obama care, are the same ones who championed the Patriot Act and defended warrantless searches, secret national security letters and illegal data mining of private communications and now they are handing over their personal habits and data to an insurance company to make a couple of bucks. Who says irony is dead.

Perhaps this is a fight we have already lost. Will there be a car sold in this country which won't connect to the Internet? In a Super Bowl ad, Chevy bragged about the "cruise" which connects real time to Facebook. Smartphones have apps where the phone can spy on you and apps which allow you to use it to spy on others. However, to save a few bucks I will not be handing any driving information to any insurance company so they can have me in their central file and I will continue to raise alarms about the continued assault on our privacy. The right to freedom of movement and association and personal shopping and other habits...now that's progressive. What do you think?

WALL STREET VS. MAIN STREET

Eighty percent of the banks and major financial institutions in this country were in danger of failing during the early days of the depression of 2008. This is the conclusion of a federal panel investigating the causes of the economic meltdown. Those same banks are now making strong profits due to some $12 trillion in help from the federal government and Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, a government watchdog reports a program aimed at modifying home mortgages and saving homeowners from foreclosure, is a failure and regressives want to shut it down.

John Paulson, a hedge fund manager, made $5 billion in 2010, as the economy recovered and cheap money made it possible to borrow low, lend high and take advantage of the improved corporate balance sheets world wide. Mr. Paulson is the same man who made $4 billion in 2008-2009 betting against collateralized mortgage securities being sold to pension funds and large institutional investors. In fact, Mr. Paulson helped Goldman Sachs set up one such vehicle called "Abacus". Mr. Paulson was allowed to pick which packages of bundled mortgages would be included in the offering and it appears he picked the worst mortgages to be sold to investors, and then bet they would fail, and made a fortune. No one knew of Mr. Paulson's involvement in "Abacus" which was a clear conflict of interest and caused the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Goldman Sachs.

General Motors, Chrysler and other corporations were allowed to declare bankruptcy and get rid of a huge amount of debt and got the debt modified and restructured. Airlines like United used bankruptcy to throw their retirees under the bus getting permission to no longer pay for pensions and health care promised to their workers. Citadel Corporation, which owns KGO Radio, was allowed to go into bankruptcy and shed hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and re-emerge to continue operating and to give top executives huge bonuses. Yet, the one program aimed at helping average gum-chewing Americans stay in their homes, is a failure and should be shut down.

Neil Borofsky, the special inspector general for the government's bank bailouts, says the $341 billion bail out worked and returned the banks to profitability. He says the mortgage program "...which was the program that was supposed to help Main Street," is a failure. Originally intended to help 3 to 4 million homeowners stay in their homes, so far it has only helped a little over half a million. One of the worst offenders is JP Morgan Chase, which has modified just 67,722 out of over 200,000 mortgages while the company received tens of millions in tax payers funds to keep it solvent.

There are those who argue many of the homeowners don't deserve help because they borrowed more than they could afford to repay. The federal panel investigating the causes of the depression chronicled multiple abuses of the system, poor decision making by financial institutions, fraud, deception, poor regulation as reasons for the economic disaster. Despite all of these poor decisions...despite taking on huge debt and hiding it in many cases...despite almost destroying the economy in this nation, these institutions were bailed out. No one went to jail and now they are paying out billions in bonuses. Do you smell something rotten in Washington?

This home mortgage modification program is running on fumes at the moment. Main Street is once again being screwed while Wall Street returns to its profligate ways. If you are as outraged as I am, contact your representatives and demand the program be saved. Call, email or text Rep. Darrel Issa, a regressive Republican who chairs the House Oversight committee and demand he investigate JP Morgan Chase and others as to why they refuse to modify home mortgages.

It's called the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Will we really watch as the John Paulsens of the world make billions in bonuses and salary and corporate debt is "modified" in bankruptcy, while Americans, who can pay something, are kicked out of their homes? Wouldn't it be nice if instead of his new initiative to cozy up to corporate America, for once President Obama would draw one of his famous lines in the sand and stand up for Main Street? What do you think?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

As events in Egypt continue to unfold, the United States finds itself in the middle of a Catch 22 of its own making. On the one hand, we supported and encouraged dictators and despots throughout the Middle East in the name of "stability". At the same time, we justified starting wars and invading countries because we wanted to spread freedom and democracy throughout the region. At one time stability meant denying client states to the Soviet Union and later it meant preventing the rise of fundamentalist Islam and reduces threats to Israel. These authoritarian governments ruled with an iron hand and became increasingly corrupt. Political prisoners were common. Economically, most were not progressing and new generations were growing up in poverty and full of resentment with no political freedom to redress their grievances.

Within these closed societies resistance took many forms. One of the most common was led by religious leaders. In Poland, the Catholic Church was the source of political resistance to communism with Pope John Paul II recognizing the Solidarity movement and leading the breakup of Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, Islam has incubated nascent resistance movements. When the Shah of Iran was at the height of his power, the Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled to France, but continued to agitate for political change. In Egypt, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere, Islamic groups provided social services, addressing the needs of the poor in lieu of the government and continued to agitate for political reform. Leaders were imprisoned and tortured and exiled while the issues they addressed were ignored by corrupt leaders. In Tunisia, Egypt and Iran, for example, leaders, propped up by the US, got rich as their people struggled in abject poverty. In each case, the situation became unsustainable. In the era of the Internet and Facebook and Twitter, the dissatisfaction can spread quickly just waiting for a spark. Pressure mounts to drive the corrupt regime from power. The United States is forced to decide between continuing to support the dictator or support the people's desire for freedom.

In Iran, Tunisia and now Egypt, the United States outwardly welcomed democratic movements. Internally, however, the debate is furious. Regressives call for support for the dictator sighting the rise of extremist Islamic movements as an inevitable result of a power vacuum. Progressives want to support the people. However, whether it's Alexander Kerensky vs. Lenin or the democratic forces in Iran vs. the Ayatollah, we know who usually wins. The side that is most organized, most ruthless and has some popular support will win any election. Just look at what happened in Gaza and the victory of Hamas. (President Bush had called for free elections and then refused to recognize the results)

Catch 22 is alive and well. Because we have sacrificed the principles of freedom and democracy, because we are willing to look the other way as corruption and repression grow, because we didn't press the need for human rights reform, by the time the revolution comes, we have no leverage and no credibility and no way to influence events on the ground. If there are elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will do very well. Why? Because they are the face of resistance, because they have provided social services, because they are organized and because they are vilified by the United States which means they must be doing something right in the eyes of the average Egyptian.

There are calls now on regressive talk radio, Hanbaugh and company, and regressive think tanks and even in Congress, for the US to directly negotiate with the Egyptian military. Promise to continue to provide them with money and spare parts in return for their agreement to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from any future elections. This would be a public relations disaster and would fail to marginalize the Brotherhood. The elections would be tainted and seen as rigged. The great bastion of democracy, the US, would be thwarting the will of the people. Hypocrite would be one of the milder terms used and the Muslim Brotherhood would increase its influence.

Ah Catch 22...if we support the ouster of Mubarak and free and fair elections, the possibility of a new government opposed to Israel and our own strategic needs is quite possible. If we support the military and set up rigged elections, our credibility in the Muslim world is damaged even worse than the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and eventually the people will rise up and install a government opposed to us even if it's not in their own best interests. The law of unintentional consequences is alive and well.

We can hope for a transition government perhaps led by Mohammed El Baradei, which will allow enough time for various political factions to organize and oppose the Brotherhood. One thing is clear. We have little to no influence over events unless we want to install another repressive government and there is no guarantee it would succeed. We lost that influence the day we sacrificed principle for short-term political gain. Do you think we will ever get tired of being bitten in the collective national ass because of morally bankrupt foreign policies that trade our principles for "stability"? What do you think?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY...

Since the end of World War II, the foreign policy of the United States differed little from that of the Soviet Union. Despite radically different national principles, we talked about freedom and democracy while they had little interest in civil liberties; both nations sought out and supported any dictator and oppressive regime willing to align with them. We wanted freedom and liberty within this country, but showed passing interest in establishing it in a good portion of the rest of the world. We have an unerring record on picking sides. We have always been wrong.

The United States consistently supported oligarchies, military rulers, family dynasties and showed little to no interest in what the people of a given country were concerned about, nor did we concern ourselves with their freedom to determine their own destiny. We supported immoral, corrupt, evil national leaders and justified it with the old line, "...the enemy of my enemy is my friend." We also liked, "...he may be a son of a bitch but at least he is our son of a bitch." The end result has been disaster after disaster and years of unnecessary hatred and enmity directed at this country by people victimized by our neglect.

The current crisis in Egypt is a classic example of this failed policy. For 30 years, we have sent hundreds of billions of tax dollars to Hosni Mubarek because he has kept Egypt "stable". Stable meant he would pretend to be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Stable meant he would fight extreme forms of Islam while at the same time using the Arab press to demonize and vilify both Israel and the United States and allowing some of the most virulent anti-Semitism to be spread throughout the region. The price of this stability was the steady, crushing, repression of his own people, the reality is America was seen invading Moslem nations to "spread democracy" while spending billions propping up dictator after dictator. We armed these same despots with American weapons, not for defense, but to control their own populations and make a nice buck for the military industrial complex. So, now the United States sits and watches the people of Egypt and Tunisia rise up against their corrupt oppressors faced with a Hobson's choice. Do we support democracy and the overthrow of our "friends" knowing it will wreck our shaky credibility with other Arab regimes? If we side with the people, it is possible any new leadership could be much more anti American, not interested in our need for stability or our security needs.

The list of wrong choices made by Democratic and Republican presidents is long and the results consistent. We knew Chiang Kai-shek was corrupt, represented the rich elite and was hated by the people, we propped him up anyway paving the way for Mao's sweep to power. We backed Bautista in Cuba opening the door to Castro. When the Iranian people democratically elected a leader, the CIA overthrew him paving the way for the Shah and eventually the rise of the Ayatollah. We back Franco in Spain and the military junta in Greece. The Vietnamese fought for independence from the French and won in 1954 only to see the United States step in and support a corrupt and repressive government. Ho Chi Minh was ours for the taking in the early fifties and the disaster that became the Viet Nam war was totally unnecessary. Few national leaders were more corrupt than Ferdinand Marcos, yet he was our guy and at the same time Reagan, Cheney and the rest attacked Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and supported the corrupt and morally bankrupt system of apartheid in South Africa. In the Congo, the CIA assassinated Patrice Lumumba condemning that nation to 50 years of terror, repression and death. In Chile, we arranged for the fall of Salvador Allende replacing him with Augusto Pinochet who murdered tens of thousands of his people to maintain control. Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier ransacked Haiti and enjoyed support in Washington. We backed Somoza in Nicaragua making it easy for the Sandinistas to rise to power. In El Salvador, over 70,000 people died in a civil war we financed, killed by the government we supported, in order to keep in power a political party, the Arena party, who killed and tortured nuns, priests and assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was saying Mass. The reality the rest of the world knows is fighting for freedom and democracy will rarely get you the support of the United States. Fight to protect the elite business and moneyed interests against the average citizen and we will rush to your aid. The people of Egypt know the key roll we played in keeping Mubarak in power and how we have looked the other way for 30 years as he crushed his own people. Now, we are worried what will happen if he goes. Talk about the barn door being closed after the horse has gotten out.

The very existence of Al Qaeda can be directly linked to American support for the repressive and corrupt regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The appeal of extreme fundamentalist Islam is linked to the poverty in these countries, the lack of jobs and economic progress and the knowledge the United States is responsible for keeping people like Mubarak in power. Our policies have led to direct threats against Americans in this country even as we justified supporting dictators because the stability was good for American security. Even when someone does what we want we turn it into something that further erodes our credibility. We called on the Palestinians to have free and fair elections, but when Hamas won, we immediately refused to recognize the results and poured money into Fatah's coffers igniting a civil war in the territories.

I have been listening to regressive talk radio and reading op-eds in the corporate media bemoaning our lack of support for Mubarak. If we had just stuck by the Shah in Iran, there would have been no Islamic revolution and no rise of fundamentalist Islam. They raise the specter of a similar occurrence in Egypt. We should continue this history of disastrous foreign policy and side with Mubarak no matter what he has to do to wipe out his opposition and ride out the storm. The hypocrisy is extraordinary and the result would be to destroy what little credibility America might have left in the region. Hanbaugh and the Weiner and the rest also seem to be more concerned about Israel's security than they are our principles. This cold war policy has resulted in anti-American movements all over the world and yet they still cling to it like Linus to his blanket.

Is it possible things could be worse under a new government than they are now under Mubarak? Yes. The Muslim Brotherhood could seize power and try to impose an Iranian-style Islamic nation on Egypt. Even if they don't, the new government could be more sympathetic to Iran and less willing to do US bidding and Israel could find itself with a much less secure border situation. Goods could flow more easily into Gaza, and Egypt could shift into being an advocate for the Palestinians. Any of these scenarios is possible and the United States will find its influence diminished because we have so little cache left in the region. We supported and support oppression in the name of our national interest despite its effect on the people and their dreams and aspirations and every time we do we come out with the short end of the stick. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

WITNESS (Fr Louie)

He walked into the housing unit of a federal prison. Over 200 men in the barracks-like setting; all convicted felons, ethnically divided, cynical and some dangerous. He was greeted like a rock star. In mates rushed to greet and touch him. Black, white, Hispanic, they all flocked to him. Awkwardly they said, "welcome back", knowing how strange it sounded in this context. Offers of assistance were fast and furious. " Got soap? Need shower shoes? Want a soup? What ever you need you tell us." The object of all this attention wasn’t a returning drug lord or gang leader or master criminal; it is an 80-year-old Franciscan priest. Yes a priest. This priest is living proof of the power of witness and one person's ability to change others.

Fr. Louis Vitale OFM is back for a return engagement at Lompoc federal prison. He spent 6 months here and was released in July of 2010. He was sent here by a federal judge for trespassing onto a federal institution, to protest the continual development of nuclear weapons. His current 6-month sentence is for trespassing at Ft. Benning, Georgia to protest and try to close the School of the Americas, a training place for Latin American and other dictators interested in learning how to crush political dissent in their country. In all, Fr. Vitale has been in jail or prison hundreds of times because of his commitment to civil disobedience and his conscience driven mandate to witness for peace and justice.

Since his release in July, a debate started among guards and inmates. Why was he doing this? At his age, why doesn't he stop? Is he trying to die in prison? The question causing the most vigorous reaction was, "...what difference does he make?” This last question made people angry. They point out the School of the Americas is still open. America is still building and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. We are not beating swords into ploughshares. IN fact, just the opposite is occurring. We are involved in two wars and the military budget continues to increase while homelessness, hunger, poverty and violence increase on a parallel track. Fr. Louie should stop and retire to a parish and end all of this idiocy.

None of this is new to him. He has been at the forefront of the social justice movement for more than 50 years. He was friends with Caesar Chavez and Dorothy Huerta as they marched and organized for better wages and working conditions for farm workers. He has been involved with the peace movement and the likes of the Berrigan brothers and other luminaries and has been a voice against homelessness and for non-violence along with leading figures like Mitch Snyder. He is known and knows every Bay Area politician from Nancy Pelosi to Diane Feinstein. His message to them has been constant. The richest nation on earth has a moral obligation to fight injustice, attack poverty and hunger rather than cause them.

In San Francisco, Fr. Louie called attention to the plight of the homeless and dispossessed. He lived in the Tenderloin and was pastor of St. Boniface Church. He helped to raise funds for St. Anthony's Dining Room and the St. Anthony Foundation, which has served over 35 million meals since its inception in 1951. He opened the doors of St. Boniface, at a time when most SF churches are locked during the day, to allow the homeless to sleep inside. He called it "sacred sleep" and faced withering criticism for letting "them" in and was warned about the damage "they" would do to his church. It still goes on to this day.

In a federal prison, however, the debate about his sanity and the waste of all this time and talent was most focused. Guards, many former military, resented his message and would get visibly upset when referring to his attempts to stop war and reduce nuclear weapons. "We need these weapons...what is he some kind of commie?...if we don’t fight, our enemies will destroy us...people like him weaken our nation...if he doesn't like it here why doesn't he live somewhere else?" Inmates echoed many of the same positions with many accusing him of being naive and silly and ineffective. Yet, they all wanted information on how he was doing and when his next court date would happen. Many hoped he would just stop. Others, grudgingly would admit you had to admire his principals if nothing else.

When the news broke he had been arrested again and was on his way back, the debate intensified. Shortly after Christmas, he was back and the reaction was extraordinary. Inmates want to talk to him. They walk with him in the yard. They sit with him at meals. He walks around under the protection of so many. No one would dare bother or harass him. He chooses to be in prison. He doesn't have to be here. As much as they dismiss his actions as foolish, useless, crazy, delusional or worse, they want to be near him and talk to him and worship with him. They are quiet when he speaks and his words carry power.

He is frail and his hearing is iffy and he is 80 years old and he knows it possible his life could end inside, yet he is happy and upbeat and joyful and his is ministering to many who are here for far different reasons. Despite the anger and frustration and criticism he engenders, this friar is a living witness to the gospel command to do for the least of your brothers and sisters and his witness has evangelized a federal prison and made it a sacred space. He hasn’t changed the world or stopped rocket launches or reduced the resources devoted to war, but his witness, the actions of one man, have affected this unlikely place in ways no one could have predicted. I leave it up to you to decide if it's worth it or not. I already know what Louie would say.