Interviews with the National Council of Elders: Fr. Paul Mayer, part 2
Part 2 of a series: Father Paul Mayer, continued
This is the continuation of my interview with Father Paul Mayer. The interview is the beginning of a blog series of interviews with members of the National Council of Elders, veterans of civil rights and social justice movements dedicated to passing down their spirit and experience to the next generations of activists.
In the first part of his interview, Fr. Paul shared something of the scope of his life and work, from surviving the Holocaust, to working with communidades de base in Panama, anti-Vietnam war work, environmental work, and Occupy Wall Street. In this second part, he focuses on what he has learned more broadly about healthy and successful social change movements. (Photo: Fr. Paul Mayer speaks at a protest of the 2nd Annual Carbon Trading Conference, in New York City, January 13, 2010)
N: What have you learned about the role of spirituality and religion, in particular in your playing roles of leadership in the movements you have been a part of?
Fr. Paul: I actually have an article that I need to edit and get out there because it was an attempt to respond to that. I consider it a template about how to build a sustainable movement for social change. The analysis I lay out is that there are three key elements required. I base this on my long years of experience, both my accomplishments and my mistakes.
First of all you need to have a radical political analysis. It’s not sufficient to have a usual centrist Democratic party or even … well, I don’t want to turn the word “liberal” into a pejorative. But I think it is important to go to the roots, which is the approach of Dr. King, Gandhi, and Jesus (even though he was not explicitly political, he does have all the elements of justice).
It has to have a nonviolent character. That is the first thing.
That’s what I appreciate about Occupy Wall Street, even though that can be a source of confusion for some people because they don’t come up with a clear timeline, issue plan, and so forth. The basic idea is that this radical political analysis will underlie everything else.
N: What do you find when you go to the roots of injustice?
Fr. Paul: I think OWS is onto something because, from the biblical perspective, blessed are the poor in spirit. This is the basis of liberation theology, which has had a great impact on my life. By the way, regardless of the Vatican’s response to it (they ended up destroying it, going through Latin America shutting down liberation theologians) liberation theology was really nothing new. It just went to a deep biblical theology of the sermon on the mount and of Matthew 25. What you did to the least of these, the least of my brothers and sister, you did to me. When did we see you lord? I was hungry; I was a stranger; I was in prison, and you didn’t come to me, and you didn’t feed me, you didn’t help. There is also that wonderful passage (there are so many great passages) in the midst of the exodus story, where God gave His name in the burning bush, though we Jews don’t pronounce “YHWH,” you know. God for the first time described Himself as the God who speaks up for the poor and for justice. That was a major theological development for the people of Israel. And of course there is that wonderful passage which is so dear to me from Luke, which we Catholics call the Magnificat. God has cast down the mighty from their seat, and He has exalted the lowly. The poor He has filled with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. This is the marvelous statement of Mary, mother of Jesus. That whole body of theology is part of the radical analysis that I’m talking about – it’s not just political, it’s also theological.
The second thing is that you need some spiritual consciousness in the movement. It doesn’t need to mean that it is explicitly religious or have to adhere to some religious group or denomination or orthodoxy. But I think, for example, we have so much to learn from indigenous people. It has been so much a part of my spiritual path, especially as an environmentalist. I used to teach courses at NYTS on Native American spirituality, and I’ve studied with a Diné medicine man, a Navajo. The issue of the environment and global warming: the earth is inherently spiritual, that is what tribal people teach us. The sacredness of the earth, mother earth spirituality, means that the earth is a living being, not a piece of real estate. There is the sacred web of life, the interconnectedness of all living beings. That kind of spiritual consciousness has to permeate all our activist work. For example, I always find movement rallies, when they are well done and have good music, to be liturgical expressions. Often they are more inspiring and move me more to tears than many a formal religious service. So I think that consciousness has to permeate our work.
Finally, I believe you have to have what I call the healing of the heart. There has to be a way of addressing the emotional and psychological ramifications of building a movement. In order to understand liberation you also have to understand oppression. Let me say in general that I have experienced in my many years through so many different movements that the absence of any of these components causes damage. This last one is particularly important. The traditional left has not been particularly strong in addressing the psychological and the emotional. Often that’s considered bourgeois, narcissistic, self-indulgent. “We’re here to start the revolution. We don’t have time to talk about our feelings.” But I think this failure and refusal has caused tremendous harm. That’s why we have such awful meetings. They’re so oppressive. They don’t allow any space.
You know where I learned so much about this? With Children of War. We realized from very early on working with these children coming from the hellholes of terrible war – dealing with murder, oppression, war, camps, apartheid – that you couldn’t just start organizing. Fortunately we had some people in our ranks skilled in co-counseling who taught the children to listen to each other. We never had a meeting in which we didn’t go around first and everyone had a chance to say how things were going. We had allowed people space to talk about their feelings and people knew they were going to be honored and respected and have confidentiality. As a result our movement had a completely different texture to it. It was not like a usual leftist movement or meeting. There was this deep bonding between people. We realized that very often when people would begin to act out that we could try to understand where it came from and gave them a chance to council on it, to speak about it, even to cry if necessary. I can tell you, in this article I cite many examples about how the failure to address this dimension has caused us many failures: burn-out, sectarian divisions, a lot ego stuff bouncing off the walls, no sense of the fact that these are human beings in front of us who have feelings and emotions who had been formed. You going to try to work on racism? Try to understand the roots of racism. Where do these forms of oppression come from? The oppression of women, of gay people, of Jews, of poor people … it is critical to try to understand those different phenomena. This made a great difference in our organization. So I learned a lot of this from young people.
That’s a synthesis, not the whole story. I’ve learned that those three components are essential for building a movement that is going to be sustainable, that is going to grow, that is going to be able to communicate with people, with different people, that can reach out beyond our own ranks.
(Photo: Fr. Paul with other members of Occupy Faith at Liberty Sq.)
So these are some of the things that’d be good to share with young people. Not in a paternalistic way, but in a way that respects their genius. I’m constantly impressed by the intelligence of the young people with Occupy, the creativity. And then of course I was delighted when the National Council of the Elders formed, especially because it is at its roots from the civil rights movement, which has had such an impact on my life.