Racial / Class Conflict

Good afternoon. I want to thank, first of all, the Philosophical Society of Texas for inviting me here. If it hadn't been for you, I would have never, ever been to a city that I'd only heard about in song. I'm told it's the prettiest town anybody's ever seen, or, at least, that's what the song said. I hope that that becomes evident to me as I drive through it.

I was struck, as I was listening to Ms. Edelman, that maybe the best thing for me to do is to say "Amen, ditto, I agree." What more can I say? What more can anybody say about the challenges and the opportunities we have to really renew our most important and hallowed traditions of fairness, and equality and participation? But I guess I can't get away with that. So, I'll try to figure out if there's another angle that I can come at, notwithstanding that Ms. Edelman has just about stolen all of my thunder, taken most of my stories and made them better, and given me very little to work with. I'll have to throw away my script and try something new.

When I grew up in San Antonio-Ms. Edelman's talk reminded me about my early childhood-things were kind of like they were for her. The way I used to put it was that when I grew up, there were 250 adults organized against me. My father had six brothers and six sisters, my mother had eight brothers and five sisters, and we came from a Mexican Catholic family. My grandfather was kind of the patriarch, on my mother's side, of all of us. And, of course, all of my aunts and uncles had commadres and compadres. We want to St. Cecilia's Catholic Church and at that time, a Mexican Republican was somebody you just looked at, but didn't stare at. At least, that's what my father said. "Look, but don't stare." Okay. "Don't be impolite." Because we were all part of the Democratic Party. In fact, one of the highlights of my young life was when my Uncle Raul Cortes brought Adlai Stevenson as the first Democratic national candidate to the West Side of San Antonio in 1952. My father worked for Pepsi Cola for a while at the time, because they were hiring Mexicans. This was kind of an early version of affirmative action. And he got into trouble with all of his brothers and sisters, because he sort of suggested that maybe in '52 that voting Republican wouldn't be an evil act. Anyhow, I just want to give you a sense of kind of the culture that I grew up in, which was one where there were all these networks of relationships of family and congregation and church. When I went to school in the morning, the bus driver knew who I was. When I walked to school as a young person, it was kind of like walking through Checkpoint Charlie at different places, because everybody kind of would make sure that I was going where I was supposed to go.

So at the tender age of seventeen, I got out of town as fast as I could to go to not any place nearly as wonderful as Spelman, but A&M.

But I guess what Marian's remarks remind me of is how important those intermediate institutions were, those networks of relationships were to my own development and my own upbringing. And I was particularly struck by my own upbringing when I began to organize, in East Los Angeles in 1976, to create what became the United Neighborhood Organization of East LA. When my wife and I went to a parish festival and met with the leaders of what became the UNO organization, they were lamenting how that particular festival had been a fiasco, a failure, nobody came, because there had been a drive-by shooting. And what struck me more and more, as we began to try to find people who were interested in getting involved in building what became the UNO organization, that instead of 250 adults organized against one kid, as it was for me in San Antonio, it was the reverse, fifty kids organized against every adult, and the adults living under virtual house arrest, afraid to go out, afraid to go to church, afraid to go to work, afraid to go out anywhere, and the city's virtually living under a state of martial law. Informal, to be sure, but martial law nonetheless. Curfews, self-imposed curfews by adults, leaving the streets run by their children.

Now, unfortunately, when I got back to San Antonio and went back to Houston to begin organizing, we saw the same patterns begin to emerge. I was struck that Texas was beginning to go the way of Los Angeles. And now, as I go back to Los Angeles and look at what's going on there today, I'm reminded of Lincoln Steffens' remark, that I've seen the future, but it doesn't work. Because what you're beginning to see in places like Los Angeles, or places which are undergoing incredible polarization of class, and race, and ethnicity. This past Friday there was a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times, a very disturbing, disquieting article, about the fact that the African-American middle class has virtually left the city of Los Angeles and moved to Ventura and outlying counties, and even back to the south, afraid of the violence, afraid of the turbulence that exists in inner city Los Angeles. Places like the historic African-American communities, like Compton, and Watts, are left to only those who are very, very old and those who are very, very young and very vulnerable. The only immigration into these communities that is taking place is among people who are immigrants from other countries, who also, unfortunately, have to be counted among the most vulnerable. What's going on in Los Angeles reminds me of some analyses that I've read by people, like Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, who have written a book called, Teaching the New Basic Skills, which talks about the growing inequality of power and wealth in our society, and the decline in real wages that is taking place. Even white males who have high school diplomas have seen a precipitous decline in their real wages during this period of time, notwithstanding what's happening to African-American, or Hispanic, or Latino males, or females. I'm also reminded of Rebecca Blank's book, It Takes a Nation. She talks about how the economic growth is no longer an effective anti-poverty program, that, in fact, unlike the 1960s, where you saw economic growth reducing poverty, in the late '80s and '90s you've seen just the opposite, that as we become more and more affluent, as we see our real gross domestic product increasing, we're also seeing poverty rates increasing at the same time. There has been this fundamental disconnect between increases in GDP, and even increases in productivity. I was always taught, when I took economics as a young freshman, that the whole neoclassical theory hinged upon John Bates Clark's notion that as productivity increased, real wages were supposed to go up. There was this historic social compact, which existed in the United States from 1865 to 1973, that as productivity increased, real wages increased. I know that there were some things you had to do, in order to get those wages to go up. There was a fellow cited by Harry Johnson that said-it was a University of Chicago economist, no liberal, by the way-that there're two ways to get those wage rates up to the productivity increases. One is by investment in human capital. The other is class conflict. I used to tell people that I preferred the first, but I'm not unwilling to do the second, regrettably.

Unfortunately, at the same time that we've seen productivity go up, we've seen real wages go down. And, of course, there are some people who argue that that's partially because you've seen the power of organized people decline at the same time you've seen the power of organized money increase. Alinsky used to teach us at the Industrial Areas Foundation that there're two ways to get power; one is to organize money. People like Bill Gates have got lots of power. People like Rupert Murdoch have a lot of power. People like Warren Buffet have lots of power. Then the other way you get power is to organize people. And, unfortunately, as my friend, Frank Levy, says, organized capital has got organized labor on the run right now, because we have seen a significant decline in our capacity to organize working people to be able to negotiate and bargain. We've seen a significant decline in our capacity to participate effectively. We've seen both political parties kind of disconnected from their constituencies, or the constituencies that they traditionally represented. I used to say that the Republican Party represents those people who make over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, and the Democratic Party represents those people who make over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. The rest of us folks have got to make do.

And I was kind of reminded of this even further when my friends in the BUILD Organization went to see Barbara Mikulski and began to talk to her about strategies for the Democratic Party, and she said to them, in a candid moment, "What do you mean? There is no Democratic Party. What we've got are franchise agreements." Lloyd Bentsen and Ann Richards, they got the Texas franchise, but there are no political parties. What we have are these permanent campaign, marketing campaign organizations. In fact, I'm reminded that a woman by the name of Kathleen Jameson, who used to teach at the University of Texas until she went to the University of Pennsylvania, used to tell her students, "If you want to understand electioneering in the United States, you should not take political science courses, because in political science courses we will teach you a lot of irrelevant stuff. Particularly, we'll teach you about all those dead white, European males, like Aristotle and Montesquieu, and we'll also talk about issues, and we'll talk about the great movements. And if you really want to understand electioneering, you really need to understand marketing campaigns. Because elections today are not about issues, and debates, or negotiations or agreements. Elections are now about how we persuade people to buy our product versus another, and that means you've got to master marketing technique. You've got to master the thirty-second spots and attack videos, and all that sort of thing." So, like I said, I don't think we do politics anymore. Every four years we have what I think is this quadrennial electronic plebiscite, which has nothing to do with real politics. And, to me, that's tragic, because I think if there is one thing, one idea that the United States has to contribute to the rest of the world, it is its understanding of democratic politics.

Alexis de Tocqueville, I'm told, when he came to the United States to study ostensibly prisons and other eleemosynary institutions, was really here to study American politics. And he thought it just might work. You know about Tocqueville, of course. He was a French aristocrat whose father had been guillotined, and for that reason, was not too keen on revolutionaries or revolutions. He was concerned because when he saw the counter-revolution take place, he thought that they were making the same mistakes again. So he came to the United States and hoped to find something different. And he found a couple of interesting things. One was that even though we kind of went crazy every four years with national political elections, the politics that really mattered to people was not the politics of national elections, but the politics of the local communities, the politics of the school board and the township.

The second thing that impressed him was the way in which people conducted politics-he said that Americans had this disposition to form all kinds of associations. But what he was interested in about this kind of associational democracy, which he wrote about, was, number one, this democracy was based upon understanding of people's self interest. Number two, is that it involved all kinds of bargaining and reciprocal arrangements, so that people would get together and work on, for example, raising a barn, and then those people would get together and work on organizing a school district. So what impressed him about was this bargaining, and negotiating, and reciprocal relationships that emerged, which began to build some kind of trust between those folks.

The third thing which impressed him was the fact that the leadership that emerged, that developed, was institutionally connected. It was connected to congregations, connected to townships and to other institutions. So, Tocqueville thought that maybe it might work, although he was concerned about the fact that there were some dark undersides to this whole American experiment, and that was that whole groups of people were left out, to wit, African-American males, women, and white men without property, and, of course, slaves. Because of this, Tocqueville developed a political philosophy, which I kind of share, which is to be conservative about family, and community and tradition, tradition meaning the living ideas of the dead versus traditionalism, the dead ideas of the living, and liberal about civil rights, and radical about power and participation.

Tocqueville also gave us another interesting insight. He thought that we had, what Americans had, what he called an Augustinian soul. And part of that Augustinian soul was our capacity to withdraw into ourselves, to become self-absorbed, to become only concerned with that which was our private interests. But he felt that that was not so bad, because there was an antidote to that Augustinian soul. And that antidote was participation in face-to-face local political activity, which enabled people to kind of transcend their private interests, to transcend their egotism, their narcissism, and their contentment. The other dimension of the Augustinian soul, which he was concerned about, was our inclination, which came out of our enterprise culture, which he thought was good and positive, our inclination and our capacity to generate wealth and prosperity, but also to overreach and to make larger claims on life than were appropriate.In a word, greed. But he felt that there was an antidote toward that inclination, and the antidote was the existence of families, and networks of families, and other intermediate institutions, and religion, congregations and faith-based institutions. And he felt those institutions, those networks of relationships would constrain this inclination to overreach and to make larger claims on life than were appropriate.

Now, obviously, you know where I'm going with this, and that is given the fact that we have now created this new technological revolution, this globalization of our economy, this thrust towards transcending national sovereignty, we have also, at the same time, given its potential for creating large amounts of economic wealth and creating all kinds of opportunities, undermined our capacity to form local communities. Peter Drucker wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review, where he talked about the fact that given the imperatives of technology and the logic of the marketplace, community values have to suffer. And that's the way it'll have to be. But then he lamented, if that's so, then how do we begin to seek some sort of understanding of what is the common good?

Now, I'll argue that if we are going to create, in fact, those values of trust and reciprocity, and solidarity, which I think are foundational not only for the creation of a democratic culture, but also for our enterprise culture as well-Kenneth Arrow wrote a very fine book called The Limits of Organization, where he talked about those values of reciprocity and trust that are essential for the creation of our enterprise culture. And Walter Oken has written Why the Market Has Its Place, because the market is this wonderful, powerful institution for generating wealth and making choices, and has its place, but the market has to be kept in its place. And not just by government, but also be society. But if we do not have those thick networks of relationships, which enable us to constrain that enterprise culture, if we do not have those thick networks of relationships that enable us to develop what Bellah describes as habits of the heart, those patterns of behavior which Tocqueville thought were so important to associational democracy, then we have to think about ways in which we can recreate them.

Now, the other insight that I thought Ms. Edelman gave us was that we cannot go back to the 1950s. We cannot recreate that kind of wonderful time, which wasn't always so wonderful, when I had to undergo all the constraints of those 250 adults. But we can begin to think seriously about trying to initiate a strategy to recreate or to revitalize the institutions of family, congregation, neighborhood, labor union, and professional association, which can establish a different kind of politics. A politics which is centered on the values and visions of a free and open society, democrat with a small 'd', and the responsibilities of a republican culture, republican with a small 'r'. I would argue that in order for such a politics to work, it has to be also connected and centered in the values of our three great faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We are all people of the book. But if we are going to understand the imperatives of those traditions, we are also going to have to recognize that we cannot be people of the book, we cannot be true to those values, unless we understand that we have to create the mixed multitude, the mixed multitude where our traditions of Sinai and Pentecost enable us to create the sense of peoplehood, people who are able to engage in a covenantal relationship with our creator.

Several years ago a fellow by the name of Sheldon Wolin wrote an essay in a book called The Presence of the Past. He had some reflections on a great biblical story, which I'd like to share with you, about two brothers in the Book of Genesis. Well, they were twins, and these twins, of course, were Esau and Jacob. And Esau and Jacob were born to one of the great patriarchs, Isaac, and his wife, Rebecca. Now, you know about Esau. Esau was his father's favorite. He was Isaac's favorite. Esau was a wild kind of a guy. He kind of got his mother all upset because he used to like to roam around. But Esau was also hairy, he was a hunter. He was a man of few words. He was kind of what I call a '50s kind of a guy, all right. Now, his brother, Jacob, was a bit different. Jacob was his mother's favorite. He was a great cook. He was smooth of skin. Jacob knew his way around a tent. A cunning, shrewd guy, he was kind of a '90s kind of fellow. Now, one day Esau was out hunting and had been unsuccessful, and he was starving and he was famished. And he saw his brother, Jacob, making this stew. I guess it was lentil stew or pottage stew, I forget which. He saw his brother, Jacob, making this stew, and he came to Jacob and he said, "Jacob, I'm starving to death. I've been unsuccessful. Feed me." Jacob says, "Brother, you know you can count on me, but what do I get for it?" And Esau says, "Brother, what do you want?" Jacob says to Esau, "Sell me your birthright." Esau says, "Well, my birthright is not going to feed me right now. What good is it? I'll starve to death with my birthright. It's not going to keep me warm at night. I can't make love to my birthright. After all, my birthright is my identity, my father's obligations, it's a burden to me. Of course, I'll sell you my birthright." And we're told in the Book of Genesis that from that day forward, Esau despised his birthright. Wolin suggests, and I tend to agree, that you and I, we are Esau, because we have been willing to sell our birthright for material things.

What is our birthright? Wolin argues that our birthright is our politicalness, our capacity to come together and to negotiate, and to deliberate about the issues that concern us; the raising of our children, the education of our children, the disposition of our families, and what happens to our communities. Or as Aristotle defined politics: that which has to do with those deliberations, which take place around the Agora, the public square, those deliberations about family, property and education.

Now, of course, Aristotle was a fairly limited fellow. He was one of these dead, white, European males that my daughter always tells me about and thinks are irrelevant. And to be sure, Aristotle had a very, very limited perspective, because Aristotle thought that only certain groups of people should be able to do this political thing, because he thought that what made us human was our capacity to do politics, because there was something about us which only emerged when we were able to engage in these kind of deliberations. But, unfortunately, Aristotle didn't think that all of us were human. He thought some of us, because we were so absorbed with our needs and our necessities, that we were so absorbed with our private interests, and I'm told, and political theorists here can correct me if I'm incorrect, that the way Aristotle described the word 'private,' or the Greek word for 'private,' meant idiot. Somebody who was totally concerned with his needs and necessities, or her needs and necessities. Aristotle thought, therefore, that those who were idiots were women, slaves, immigrants and people who work with their hands. Wolin argues that one way of looking at our political tradition, one way of thinking about our birthright is that it is about the struggle of those people that Aristotle thought were idiots, gaining their rightful place at the Agora, at the public square. It was the struggle of working people in the Labor Movement, of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement, of immigrants, of women in the Women's Movement. It was a struggle for Jacksonian Democracy. It was the very basic struggle, which was a source of our own political traditions and our foundational documents. That is our birthright. No question.

There are some other dimensions to our birthright. Our burden, racism, oppression of women, oppression of white working people, certain imperialistic kind of tendencies, and indications of our limits to overreach ourselves. There are some things that we ought to apologize for. The Japanese aren't the only people that ought to apologize, to people that they've kind of picked on. And I know that's probably an unpopular thing. I wish that someday the rest of you would apologize to us Mexicans, I mean, I like being part of the United States, but you still owe us an apology, okay. And particularly, you owe me an apology for having to have to go through what I went through in San Antonio, because every year I had to celebrate, for one solid week, the defeat of the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto. Now, I'm a kid who grew up in a town which is 53 percent Mexicano, and I always wondered how come we celebrate the defeat of the Mexican Army every year. Anyways, I don't want to go on and on. Yes, I do, but I won't. Anyhow, that's also a part of our birthright. That's also part of our heritage. And we have to embrace that burden unless you believe that what's a little slavery between friends, and I didn't do it, so I'm not responsible.

Anyhow, my point is that Wolin has said that we are like Esau, willing to sell our birthright for material things. Or, as Ms. Edelman suggests, willing, because we are ahistorical, to give up our responsibilities and rights as citizens, to become consumers and clients.

Somebody asked the question about the role of Madison Avenue. I'm told that a child who is born in America, who lives to be seventy-five years of age, will spend three years of their life watching television commercials. Three years of their life watching television commercials. I happen to think that that's a formative dimension in their development. I happen to think that helps shape who they are and how they behave. There was a fellow by the name of Danby, who's a book critic of the New Yorker magazine, who wrote an essay about three summers ago. In that essay he argued that in order to raise a child today, you have to be a bully. And I've gone through those kind of tough, hard negotiations with my own sixteen-year-old son. I've won some of them. I won the battle against Nintendos, I won the battle against hundred and twenty-five dollar shoes, but I've lost some other battles. But it's hard to fight a sixteen-year-old articulate, tough kid, when you don't have any allies. And he's got enormous allies, okay. He's got enormous leverage about what other kids do, and how other kids behave. Danby argues in that article that it used to be that kids, before the credit cards and the charge accounts that so many kids have today, would grow a soul and develop a personhood. They would develop a soul before they became consumers and customers. But now, he says, it's the other way around. Most of our kids are becoming consumers and customers long before they develop a soul, long before they develop a personhood. That, unfortunately, is the product or function of our willingness to sell our birthright.

The great Czech poet, Havel, talked about how in 1968 when the Russian tanks came into Prague, the Czech people, the intellectuals and the middle class, made a deal with the nomenklatura, and the deal was as follows: that we, the nomenklatura, will provide you, the Czech intellectuals and middle class, with all the goods and services of a mass consumption society, the good restaurants, the good homes, the fine cars, the summer places to retreat to, in exchange for which we will make all the political decisions. And so, you can quit your civic associations and quit your political movements. Havel argues that the Czech people, as a result of that deal, underwent an internal migration. They withdrew into themselves and they became self-absorbed with their private lives and their private concerns. Of course, they had a pretty good excuse; they had Russian tanks at their head.

Hannah Arendt argues in her book Men in Dark Times that the German middle class, during Nazi Germany, underwent the same kind of internal migration. They also withdrew into themselves. They also became self-absorbed. They also became concerned with their private concerns of raising families, and getting jobs, and having the goods and services of a mass consumption society. Of course, they had an excuse, too; they had gone through the turbulence of World War I, the Great War, in defeat, and all that it implied. We see the same phenomenon, unfortunately, occurring here in the United States. Christopher Lasch talks about the culture of narcissism. John Kenneth Galbraith calls it the content of the contented class. Robert Reich calls it the secession of the successful, the withdrawal of those who are affluent, those who are cosmopolitan, those who are well off, well read and well connected, into their private concerns. And so, they all argue that more and more of upper middle class suburbanites are becoming disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people. I just read an article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which talks about how the Reagan Revolution has produced this group of upper middle class Republican yuppies, who have very little concern with their communities and very little concern with any other children other than their own, and who are now also withdrawing into this kind of self-absorbed, narcissistic kind of world. I will argue with you that unless we begin to restore the vibrance and vitality of our political institutions, unless we begin to restore the connectiveness of our intermediate institutions of family, congregations and schools, that we will eventually undergo the same kind of polarization, the same kind of discontent as Nazi Germany, and other countries as well. We will see increasing polarization between young and old and between races.

Now, there is an antidote. There is a story. There is hope. And that hope is that we can begin to recreate that social fabric, to reweave that social fabric, to reclaim our traditions. Now, that's what organizing is all about for me. It's not just about service. It's not just about being nice and being good. It's about learning that wonderful thing that we all have to learn from our political tradition, and that is politics. Not the politics of electoral activity, but the politics of negotiation, deliberation, and engagement. Now, in order for that kind of politics to occur, it requires that literally hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women begin to tap their energies and to tap their capacities. And that requires an understanding of a universal that we try to teach in the Industrial Areas Foundation, called The Iron Rule. The Iron Rule is: never, ever do for anybody what he or she can do for themselves. It's as important to an organizer as The Golden Rule, because what The Iron Rule says is that people have the capacity to act on their own behalf, if they're mentored and if they are taught. Now, The Iron Rule-don't let me be confusing-The Iron Rule does not rationalize social Darwinism. It does not rationalize root, hog or die. What The Iron Rule says is that we have to invest in the development and the capacity of ordinary people. But what is inimical to the development of an Iron Rule is another unfortunate tradition in our polity and in our institutional structure, and that tradition is embodied in another story. And that story comes from a book written by a great, I like to say Mexican author, but my wife always gets mad at me, because the guy's name is Dostoevsky. And she says he's not a Mexican, he's a Russian.And I say yeah, but he understood the Mexican soul. Therefore, I'd like to claim him as a Mexican, but anyway he was a Russian.

Dostoevsky wrote this book called The Brothers Karamazov, which is a great book. And in the book is a chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor." And I know all of you, because you're members of the Philosophical Society, have read and memorized that book, so you'll permit me if I kind of summarize it very, very quickly. And summarize that particular chapter, which has to do with the nightmare that one brother tells to the other. Ivan tells his younger brother that this nightmare, which takes place during the middle of the Spanish Inquisition, Christ comes back to Earth. And he's recognized by all the people. And they make a big to-do of him, miracles are performed, a young girl was brought back to life. But he's also recognized by The Grand Inquisitor, who has him arrested, and them throws him into a dungeon. The Grand Inquisitor comes to see Christ in the dead of night. He says, "Why did you come back? You had your shot. We tried it your way. It doesn't work. For 1,400 years we tried it your way. We offered men freedom. We offered them hope. We offered them opportunity. They don't want to be free. They want to be taken care of. They want magic and mystery and authority in their lives. And after frustrations and pain, and sorrow, and agony and despair we finally got smart. And we went over and we did a deal with the other guy. And today in your name using your words we serve him. And we give people what they want.

They want to be told what to do. They can't even feed themselves. They have to give us the bread, so that we can give it back to them. They can't accept the responsibility and the anxiety. They don't want to be free. So be gone, lest we have to crucify you one more time. So the story ends. Christ kisses him and then goes into the dead of night.

Now, unfortunately, the Grand Inquisitor, from my perspective, is alive and well in most of our institutions. The Grand Inquisitor is alive and well in our universities. The Grand Inquisitor is alive and well in our workplace, in our churches, and in our schools, where the definition of a lecture course is where the notes of the instructor go from his notebook to that of the student, without ever going through the head of either one of them. Neal Poston, in his book The End of Education, says that our children enter schools as question marks, with energy and vitality, and leave as periods. Seymour Sarason says, "Public education is the only legalized form of child abuse we have in the United States."

Well, the antidote for the Grand Inquisitor, for his attitude that adults are children, for his attitude that they have to be taken care of, is what we call The Iron Rule, which is lifted up in another story. And, unfortunately, Ms. Edelman took the thunder out of that story, because that story is of another great leader by the name of Moses.

Now, as Marian Wright explained to all of you, Moses was raised in the House of Pharaoh by the daughter of Pharaoh, to be a leader. But he was also raised by a Hebrew woman. Now, the word 'Hebrew' is an interesting term. It does not refer to ethnicity. It does not mean Jewish. It means someone who lives on the margins, someone who is outcast, someone who is considered desperate, an outlaw. David becomes Hebrew to Saul, and Moses becomes Hebrew to Pharaoh. Well, Moses was taught to identify with those who are Hebrew. So one day he came across an Egyptian overseer striking and beating up on a Hebrew. And the Book of Exodus tells us Moses, seeing no one-now, I used to think that that meant that there was nobody else around. But then I learned later that what that meant was that there was nobody who was willing to act like a human being, or like a mensch. And Moses, seeing no one, struck and killed the Egyptian, buried him deep in the sand.

The next day he comes across two Hebrews fighting with each other, and says, "You should be brothers. You should be organizing. You should be in solidarity with each other. You shouldn't be fighting." And they say, "Oh, yeah, Moses, okay, you want us to follow you and get us in trouble, like you're in trouble. Who gave you the right to tell us what to do, Moses? Who made you our lord? And what are you gonna do to me, Moses, if I don't do what you tell me? Are you gonna kill me, like you did the Egyptian?" Well, Moses realizes he's in trouble now. So he splits. And realizes that he's not just in trouble but that his own people have turned against him, because the Egyptian didn't squeal on him. So who squeals on him? Well, his own people. So Moses says "I don't need this. I'm a smart guy." So he goes to the suburbs. He becomes part of the culture of narcissism. Gets a big home, marries Jethro's daughter, the boss's daughter.

But Moses has got a problem. His problem is his identity, his memory, his story. His story, which was taught to him by that Hebrew woman. And that story's so powerful, and so meaningful, and so significant to him that it confronts him. And it's like a burning bush, a fire that doesn't consume. It's what we call, in the eye of tradition, the kind of anger which is cold and calculating, anger with is different from rage, anger which comes from loss and grief.Anger, which is understood in the Norse word 'ang', which means loss and grief.

Anyhow, Moses realizes what he's got to do, and when Yahweh confronts him and says, "I want you to go out and free my people," he says to Yahweh, "Wait a minute. The people have rejected my leadership. Who will I say sent me?" And Yahweh says, "Don't worry about it, Moses. I'm gonna organize a sponsoring committee for you. You tell them that the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel, tell them that God sent you." Moses says, "Wait a minute, Yahweh. Wait a minute, God. You know, I've been away a long time. I don't know the language of the streets anymore. I stutter. My Spanish is rusty." God says, "Look, Moses, you're not supposed to be the charismatic leader. They've got lots of charismatic leaders. They've got your brother, Aaron, your sister Miriam. They've got Joshua. They've got Caleb. Your job is to be the organizer. The job of the organizer is to identify, test out, and train leadership. The job of the organizer is to put together organizing teams in parishes and schools. The job of the organizer is to teach people how to act on their own behalf, never violating The Iron Rule. The job of the organizer is to get people to start off small with small issues, and then get in bigger and bigger fights, and to begin to build larger and larger coalitions. That's the job of the organizer, Moses. That's the kind of work you've got to do." So Moses finally realizes he's got to do that, so he does it.

You know, the big story, and I don't have any time to go through it too much, but, you know, he frees the people from Pharaoh's army. They ask for a day off and then he gives them manna from Heaven. But the Hebrews are like a lot of us. They say to Moses, "Moses, what have you done for us lately? This manna is boring, it tastes terrible. Back in Egypt we used to have it good. Back in Egypt we used to have garlic, and leeks, and cucumbers, and we had fish every day for free, and now we've got nothing to eat but this crummy manna. It tastes terrible, it's boring. We want some meat." Now, can you imagine, 500,000 people all screaming, "We want meat." And it gets louder and louder. 500,000 people screaming for meat! And so, finally, Moses goes to God and says, "God, why do you stick me with this problem. First of all, you're the one who made them the chosen people. You're the one who made the commitment to them, not I, but I'm stuck with them. I've got to carry them around on my breast like a wet nurse. Where am I gonna get meat for 500,000 people? If this the way you want to treat me, why don't you kill me right now and get it over with?" This is all in the Book of Numbers if you want to read it. God says to Moses, "Look, Moses, you're being a jerk. Your father-in-law, Jethro, explained it to you. You gather your seventy best leaders, people that you know you can rely on, people that you can trust. Bring those seventy to the tent of presence for a meeting. Don't just get anybody, Moses. You've got to understand organizing is being selective. It means going after people who are relational, people who you've tested out in small group meetings and small actions. People you know you can count on to be reciprocal, to understand the need for deliberation. You bring those people, and you tell them that they've got to accept the burden that's on you, because you're not going to violate The Iron Rule." So Moses finally does what he's told. He gathers his seventy best elders, brings them to the tent of the presence, and puts the responsibility that he's feeling on them. He tells them, "You want meat to eat? There's some quail out there. Go out and organize some foraging parties. I'll work with you, I'll guide you, but I am not going to do it for you."

Now, I told that story to the Valley Interfaith Leaders in the Rio Grande Valley when we were going through, a big freeze in 1983. The Reagan Administration sent down a fellow by the name of Tom Pauken, who was supposed to bring us bread, but ended giving us scorpions. And you can read his side of the story in the book that he wrote, where he doesn't say very many kind things about me. At any rate we went through a kind of beleaguered situation, and we began to regroup and reorganize, and I told that story to our people. But I brought with me a scripture scholar, because I knew I would be saying some things which maybe they weren't used to. And he was okay with what I said, except he said to me, "You know, you only told half the story." I said, "What do you mean, I told only half the story?" He said, "Well, the other half of the story is in Luke's gospel, but it's not quail in Luke's gospel. It's loaves and fishes. It's not Moses in Luke's gospel, it's the disciples. It's not Yahweh in Luke's gospel, it's Jesus of Nazareth. But it's the same story. The disciples come to Jesus and say, 'We've got all these people. We cannot feed them. Send them away. Send them back to Mexico. Send them back to Haiti. Send them back where they came from. We can't take care of them. We can't educate them. We can't feed them.' And Jesus says to them, "Feed them yourselves." They said, 'We can't. All we've got are these five loaves and two fishes.'" This is my interpretation, the Cortes interpretation of the story. "Jesus says, 'You guys must think I just got off the boat. Don't show me what you've got for them, show me what you have for yourself,' because travelers at that time used to carry food and drink inside their clothes, but it was for themselves. He says, 'Because if you are willing to risk and model risk taking behavior, they'll emulate you. So, bring the people together in small groups and if you show them what you've got, what little you've got, they'll be willing to show you what they've got.'" Now, there's two ways of looking at the miracle; one is Jesus said, "Shazam," and everybody had a Big Mac and a Coke. Or the other way to look at it is that there were people there who hated each other. Nabateans, Samaritans, Galileeans, Greeks, Romans, all kinds of different groups of people who hated each other and mistrusted each other. The miracle was that by modeling risk-taking behavior, by modeling calculated vulnerability, by showing what they had, everybody there had a little bit of time, talent and energy, and they began to put it together. There was a more than enough for all of them. I will argue with you that the people in our communities have time, talent, energy. They need to be shown, they need to be modeled risk taking behavior, reciprocal behavior, and that's the role of local political organizations, which understand The Iron Rule. Thank you very much, and I'm sorry I went so long.