Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frances Moore Lappé and Matthew Fox Speak in S.D.

Hunger Activist, Dissident Priest Highlight “Justice” Conference


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Despite the unlikely physical setting — St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral at 2728 Fifth Avenue, full of such high-church trappings as vaulted ceilings, fixed pews, massive stained-glass windows and a huge pulpit that emphasized the hierarchical attitude towards spirituality one of the featured speakers once ridiculed as “worshup” — authors Frances Moore Lappé and Matthew Fox communicated intense and timely messages at the opening session of the fourth bi-annual Transformational World Opportunities conference Monday, January 18.

The theme of the conference was “Justice for Women and Children,” and the opening session on Monday was followed by a bus journey and a conclusion of the event in Mexico with additional speakers. Lappé and Fox both came down from Oakland, California to speak — one of the conference organizers recalled that they’d been trying to get Lappé every year the event was held, and this was the first year when it fit into her schedule — and they both first achieved prominence in the 1970’s. But they came from very different backgrounds to do it.

Lappé’s breakthrough came in 1971 when she published a book called Diet for a Small Planet, which argued that people could cut down or eliminate meat-eating without health risks through picking plant-derived foods with so-called “complementary proteins” similar to those in meat. She was also one of the first to make the now familiar vegetarian argument that feeding vegetable crops like grain and corn to livestock for meat is an inefficient use of land and energy, and both we and the earth would be better off if we ate the grains ourselves. But her agenda soon grew beyond that.

In 1975, Lappé and Joseph Collins founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. The premise of this organization is that the earth holds enough good land and other resources to feed all its people, and the reason so many humans live in perpetual hunger is because those resources are not distributed fairly or effectively. Lappé and Collins also said that, except in response to natural disasters and other emergencies, First World nations shouldn’t ship surplus food to Third World countries. Rather, they should help the people in those countries work out ways to feed their own people, taking into account their knowledge of their own environments and cultures.

Fox was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1967. (Born Timothy James, he took the name “Matthew” after the Gospel author.) He began writing a series of books in the 1970’s that challenged many of the practices of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, especially the hierarchical model of salvation. In 1988 he lost his right to teach in Catholic universities on order of the Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith — formerly known as the Holy Inquisition — then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is how Pope Benedict XVI. In the early 1990’s Fox was expelled from the Dominican order, and while the Wikipedia entry on him said it was “due to controversy surrounding his denial of original sin,” Fox himself said it was mainly because he referred to himself as a “feminist theologian” and gave sermons calling God “Mother.”

Leaving the Roman Catholic Church, Fox became an Episcopal priest in 1994 and has continued to seek out new ways of preaching and teaching his version of the Gospel. Drawing on the work of medieval scholars and theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen, he has developed a vision called “creation spirituality” that proclaims feminism and gender, social and environmental justice. He has also celebrated “techno cosmic masses” that attempt to bring together the traditional church ritual with trance-inducing modern dance music, and in his current program at charter schools in Oakland encourages students to document their interests by making videos using another form of modern pop music, hip-hop.

Lappé: Challenging an Abhorrent World

Lappe, a tall, striking woman who sat unassumingly in the front row of the church next to one of the conference organizers until it was her turn to mount the hierarchical pulpit and speak, began with a clarion call to optimism. “Pessimism,” she said, “is a luxury that we now cannot afford.” She held up a book called Diet for a Hot Planet, a post-global warming version of her original best-seller — written not by her but by her daughter, Anna Lappé. Then she openly questioned why humans in general and Americans in particular are working so industriously to build a world that any morally decent person would hate.

“Why are we creating a society, a world, that we as individuals abhor?” Lappé said. “Why are we creating a world that we as individuals would not choose? I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and says, ‘Yes, I want to make sure that another child dies in poverty.’ And yet you have 24,000 children a day dying of hunger and poverty. Here in the U.S., one out of every two children will be dependent on food stamps at some point in their upbringing. Who chooses that? I don’t remember choosing that.

“No one gets up in the morning thinking it’s a great idea to heat up our planet and cause great, untold levels of natural disasters,” Lappé continued. “Yet this is what has happened. We have to have an answer to that question, some working hypothesis to explain how we got here, interrupt those forces and reverse them towards the life we would choose. I’ve come to the conclusion that one part of the problem is we start out feeling powerless because we’d never choose that world. It seems we feel powerless to make changes.”

Whatever the reason we’re stuck in Lappé’s nightmare world, she said, “it’s not for lack of solutions. The answers are right in front of our noses. Between the 1940’s and the 1970’s we made huge strides against poverty. Real family incomes [in the U.S.] more than doubled. We know how to feed the world. We know how not to heat the planet. A study by [energy activist] Amory Lovins indicated that we could be off oil for less than the cost of the economic stimulus package.”

So how did we create a world in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the entire planet gets warmer to a degree that threatens the very survival of the human race itself? “First,” said Lappé, “because we create the world with these big, complex brains very much according to the assumptions we hold.” Citing a book by the late liberal philosopher Erich Fromm called The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Lappé said, “Our ideas about the world literally determine what we see and what we can’t see. We see the world through mental maps that determine what we believe is possible.”

Instead of creating mental maps that offer a positive view of human nature and the potential abundance of the earth’s resources to feed everybody, Lappé argued, we’ve made maps that teach us the opposite: “lack, insufficiency, scarcity.” Our mental maps say “there’s not enough goodness in us and not enough goodness in the world. From this premise, if we believe it, there’s not enough goodness in us for us to come together on a common path that works for us and includes all.

“Instead, we look for automatic forces. Ronald Reagan called it ‘the magic of the market,’ and that was the notion of the 1980’s. It was a market based on the idea that the highest return to existing wealth would benefit us all.” That’s not how it’s worked out in practice in the last three decades, Lappé said. She cited a memo from Citibank actually called “Plutonomy,” which advised investors to put their money in “toys for the rich” and get on the “gravy train” of producing for the super-rich while letting everyone else starve. She also mentioned that just one American family — the Waltons, relatives of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton — control as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the entire U.S.

Lappé also talked about the way the giant concentrations of wealth and income created by “the magic of the market” shape our political system and the decisions made by government. Besides whatever corporations and wealthy individuals contribute to political campaigns, Lappé said, they spend $3.3 billion per year to influence elected officials after they take office. According to Lappé, Washington. D.C. contains 24 lobbyists for every elected member of the House of Representatives and the Senate. She quoted a speech by then-President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 that said, “The liberty of democracy is not safe if people tolerate the growth of private power,” and used an unoriginal but appropriate phrase in describing America’s political system as “the best democracy money can buy.”

It’s not that we don’t know how to produce a society that wouldn’t have such vastly unequal distributions of wealth and income that we’re literally starving people to maintain the black magic of the market, Lappé said. “It’s very clear there are enough goods in the world if we align ourselves with nature and live well,” she said. “There’s plenty of food in the world. The sun provides us with 15,000 times as much energy as we’re using. Science is showing us that human beings are soft-wired to enjoy cooperation and fairness, and have a desperate need for social justice” — that last comment a slap in the face to those who regard humans as basically materialistic, acquisitive and greedy and therefore believe total free-market capitalism is the only economic system that accords with our basic nature.

Lappé, not surprisingly, couldn’t disagree more. “When human beings cooperate, it stimulates the same part of our brain as eating chocolate,” she said. “When we give, it engages the same parts of our brain as when we have sex. Other animals often have a great sense of fairness. In studies, people will get nothing rather than take less than their share.” She’s enough of a realist to know that the halcyon picture of people as always cooperative and fair is as wrong as the vision of capitalism’s defenders that we’re always out to screw each other over for our individual gain.

What brings out the worst of us, Lappé said, are three conditions: “(1), an extreme concentration of power, (2) shielding those at the top from financial responsibility, and (3) the ‘blame game.’ Once we begin to identify the complexity that there are plenty of goods, but we can also be cruel, we can reverse those conditions. People are diversing power and dissolving anonymity through face-to-face connections. They are refusing to blame others, and accepting responsibility as problem-solvers. They can reverse the cycle of powerlessness by dissolving those negative communities and developing face-to-face positive communities.”

Lappé sees these signs of hope in some surprising places. Some are in 15,000 U.S. schools where “young people are not seen as empty vessels, but as problem-solvers … where young people are being taught to work out their own problems, a sense of living democracy.” Some are in the programs of a group called Youth Build, in 273 sites across the country, in which so-called “at-risk” youth who dropped out of schools are brought together to rehabilitate old buildings. In these programs, Lappé said, the young participants not only learn building-trade skills that can make them employable later, they also get their GED’s (high-school equivalency diplomas) and “also learn skills to work together … [and] retain their power.”

Hope and “Bold Humility”

Though Lappé has toured the world many times, both to speak and to observe, one of her most inspiring examples came from a program she hasn’t seen personally. She found out about it through a 40-year-old Canadian-based non-governmental organization called the International Development Research Center (, which has sponsored a program in India to work with subsistence farmers — mostly dalit (“untouchable”) women, the lowest people in the country’s caste system — in the semi-desert Deccan Plateau of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Lappé brought an elaborate publication — a book with four DVD’s included — produced by IRDC to showcase the program and build awareness of it.

“A lot of people think of India as a country that’s enjoying a high-tech driven economic boom,” Lappé said. “India is still home to more hungry people than all sub-Saharan Africa. Through a cooperative network of dairy producers, Indian women produce one-fifth of all dairy products in India and have helped make India one of the world’s largest dairy producers. These women have created six times the number of jobs as India’s high-tech industries.” But that wasn’t the program IRDC was publicizing, and which Lappé got to see in action on the group’s DVD’s.

The effort in Andhra Pradesh came about, Lappé explained, as a result of heavy marketing by Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified (GM) seeds. “Monsanto came into the Deccan Plateau with cartoon TV ads claiming that if farmers bought GM seeds, their yields would go up and pesticide use would go down — and most of the farmers fell for it,” Lappé explained. “These women documented the effects of those seeds. You cold see the farmers’ hopes evaporate. Suicides went up, including one woman who leased out two acres of land to plant GM cotton and got left with nothing.”

According to Lappé, the women activists, organized in voluntary associations called sangams, not only drove Monsanto out but they worked out a positive alternative to GM crops. Their next target was the Indian government, which was attempting to end hunger in the Deccan Plateau by making mass distributions of white rice — which was not only much less nutritious than the natural varieties indigenous to the region, it crowded out the traditional crops and “displaced the biodiversity of the region.”

The Deccan women — members of an oppressed class as well as an oppressed gender — “came together and devised an alternative plan to take back all the biodiversity. They’re saying yes to food security and developing their own safety net, including [determining] which families need extra help. The villagers have created a storehouse where everyone contributes, and it goes to the families they decide need it. They also created a Mobile Biodiversity Festival to re-educate their neighbors about their biodiversity heritage and the need to save seeds from each year’s crop for next year’s planting. The first year the Festival was ignored, but each year more people attended and more and more people are engaging in seed-saving and seed-sharing.” What’s more, they called a conference where they democratically debated whether they should adopt GM seeds — and they decided not to.

Lappé said there’s a long list of similar efforts around the world that illustrate the power of what she calls “living democracy” — the decisions of small groups of people coming together to make decisions on the basic issues of their lives instead of trusting elected “representatives” to a large central government to take their issues to heart. She cited Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi’s tree-planting program in Kenya and the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil.

“If there is plenty of goodness in us, what do we need more of?” Lappé said. “We need more bold humanity. The ‘bold’ part is because human beings are so deeply connected with each other, we want approval. We want to stay in our tribe, and it’s hard to say no to our home tribe even when it’s heading over Victoria Falls. It’s a willingness right now to find the language to say what needs to be said. The ‘humility’ part is it’s so great to be 65 years old and to see so many people in my generation seeing things that inspire us to believe that we have a chance of success.”

Fox: Justice Everywhere

Matthew Fox may have started his philosophical and spiritual journey at a different place from Frances Moore Lappé, but he has ended up in many of the same places. He began his talk by noting that it was the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, and quoted King’s famous statement that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He noted ruefully that the poor, usually invisible in the U.S. media, were finally getting some coverage — only it was the poor in Haiti, whose situation was desperate enough even before the recent earthquakes and has now just got unimaginably worse.

“We can feel the essence of our needs to be human, and also feel the gap — as we should — not only between the Third World and the overdeveloped world, but the gaps in our own country as well between Main Street and Wall Street,” Fox said. He noted that the Haitian earthquake happened “the same week those plutocrats came to Congress to defend their salaries. The average salary [of top executives] at Goldman Sachs is $600,000 per week before the bonuses. There’s such an imbalance between economics and finance, and between the First and Third Worlds. Our entire species has to wake up.”

Unlike Lappé, who delivered a tightly focused, organized presentation, Fox flitted around among many of his favorite themes, including female spirituality, youthful creativity (and how most modern-day education destroys it) and the need to challenge the hierarchical structure of the church itself. He gave a multimedia presentation, ranging from slide shows of images of the Black Madonna to videos made by his classes in schools for at-risk kids, mostly students of color, in Oakland. Like Lappé, he had to deal with the contradiction inherent in his message, wanting people to know how bad our current reality is but also needing to leave them a strong sense of hope.

“The good news is the return of the Divine Feminine in our lifestyle,” Fox said. “It’s a radical part of the imbalance in our society that the feminine has been denied and exiled for centuries. That’s been dangerous for our species, the earth and life itself. I celebrate strongly the return of the Divine Feminine in small ‘consciousness-raising’ groups of women telling stories of their lives [the groups in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that birthed the so-called ‘second-wave’ feminist movement]. It shows up in the scholarship women have done in joining the professions and bringing their wisdom. It’s shown up in the recognition of the divinity of women. The number one objection to me when the Pope silenced me was that I was a ‘feminist theologian’ and I referred to God as ‘Mother.’”

Not that women’s spirituality is all nicey-nicey, holding hands and looking at the sky, Fox explained. He cited Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ 1992 best-seller Women Who Run with the Wolves as an inspiration, even though he felt it didn’t go far enough. “She drew on stories from many traditions and spun them from her own Jungian perspective,” Fox said. “This is the Goddess at work. The return of the Goddess is not a nice thing. The Black Madonna, like [the Hindu goddess] Kali, is fierce. She watches over creation, and there is no creation without destruction. There is terror in creation, and we’re also seeing something of the Divine Feminine in both women and men.”

Fox argued that the Divine Feminine is associated with art, with nonviolent resistance (he cited King and Mahatma Gandhi as men who tapped into the Divine Feminine when they organized their mass campaigns to dramatize injustice), and with the inherently female function of carrying the fetus to term and giving birth. “A wild woman’s main occupation is invention,” Fox said. “She resides in the guts, not the head. She is the woman who thunders after injustice. Getting in touch with our guts, with our lower chakras, is part of getting in touch with our fuller spirit.”

At one point Fox actually had everyone in the room chant two Biblically-based incantations — to make a point about the unity of all religious tradition and say that the words of the Bible could be used as meditation mantras. “We should chant our Scriptures, not just read, study and argue about them,” he said. “Silence is a part of healthy prayer. We can turn out sources into mantras. I had one of my religion classes chanting, and 70 percent of my students said they were up all night. Protestantism grew up with the modern era in the invention of texts, but texts are only one-half the picture. Why do so many Westerners think they have to go East to find mysticism? Because they’re so locked into text, which feeds the left brain, that they don’t know how to do chants and silence, which feed the right brain.”

From Knowledge to Wisdom

Fox talked about the educational system and the need he feels it has to move “from knowledge to wisdom.” He recalled that when he was thrown out of his teaching positions at Catholic universities, he wondered what to do next — and ended up doing outreach to high-school students of color. He cited the high dropout rates among these students — “72 percent of Blacks in California don’t graduate from high school; in Baltimore it’s 76 percent; 65 percent of Hawai’ians and native Americans don’t graduate” — and said the reason those numbers are so high is that America’s text-centered (and test-centered) mode of education, based on reading things out of textbooks and repeating them to teachers and on tests, don’t work for members of what he called “the first post-modern generation of youth.”

So how do you teach young people who may or may not be able to read, and even if they can, they don’t like to? In his pilot program in an Oakland charter school, aimed mostly at African-American and Latino students as a sort of last-ditch attempt to educate them before they drop out, he organized a program that would do so with as little use of the written word as possible. He asked his students to identify a topic they felt passionate about, and gave them basic training on the iMovie video program so they could make short documentary films about it.

“One kid was passionate about muscle cars, so he made a movie about muscle cars,” Fox said. “Another was passionate about graffiti, so he made a movie in which he hung a canvas and painted the word ‘chaos’ in graffiti style, meditating about what ‘chaos’ means.” Fox showed his St. Paul’s audience the “chaos” graffiti movie and another one about “turfing” or “turf dancing” — often mistakenly called “break dancing,” a term its practitioners never use — and its importance in the culture surrounding hip-hop (“rap”) music. At least one audience member pointed out the contradiction between the positive, community-oriented, “sharing” message of Fox’s program and the sexist, violent language of the hip-hop songs used in the students’ movies, but Fox said he didn’t want to censor the students and instead would open discussions about the songs later in his course.

“I realized 30 years ago you cannot teach spirituality with the Western method of education,” Fox explained. “We must move from knowledge to wisdom. Wisdom is about the feminine, and is involved in the creation of the world, not something tiny.” After he did the film program, Fox said, “one hundred percent of our students wanted to stay in school … [because] it rekindled the joy of learning. Our educational system is killing the joy of learning. The most creative teachers are leaving the profession en masse because ‘teaching to the test’ is killing everything they wanted to do.”