My major doctoral adviser, John Cartwright, would sometimes ask me ostensibly outrageous questions. While some would be deliberately puerile, many, if not most, would be challenging and quite provocative. One that stands out for me to this day occurred when we were debating in his office the merits of socialism. I made the mistake of strongly suggesting that my Christian faith—and that of Martin Luther King, Jr., himself—entailed an embracement of democratic socialism. After briefly expounding upon the history of social democracy in Europe and the United States, I rested my case with unbridled confidence. He asked me where specifically the biblical literature pointed to a preferential economic system, and why myriad socialists in history had disavowed religious expression.
Momentarily, he had stumped me. However, my obfuscation did not last long because of a serendipitous find while browsing the shelves of my friendly neighborhood bookstore. I was both shocked and elated when my eyes settled on the title, Christian Socialism. It just so happened that my dissertation focused on the social ethics of Walter George Muelder, former dean of the Boston University School of Theology, a United Methodist minister, and an avowed (Christian) democratic socialist.
The goal of democratic socialism is not the overthrow of the government, but, rather, the reformation of the society wherein the greatest concern is for the eradication of poverty and injustice as well as the pursuit and proliferation of opportunity, equity, and fairness. Hence, this perspective is not a one-size-fits-all ideology, but a multifaceted approach to the realization of a just, participatory, and sustainable civilization and culture, including the arenas of economy, politics, technology, ecology, healthcare, education, and other factors that make for satisfactory quality of life. The process can be revolutionary, reformist, reactionary, progressive, or downright serendipitous. However, a society will never be able to stand indefinitely if it does not have a trajectory of inclusiveness and empowerment of the masses of its people.
Ultimately—and ideologues will not like this—it does not matter where you are on the political or socioeconomic spectrum. There is enough intentional goodness to go around; therefore, the road to a better society in which everyone can truly be a proactive citizen must be paved through persuasion and compromise, rather than through violence and bloodshed. This progression lifts up and exemplifies the principle of the coherence of means and ends. That is to say, if the goal is peace, then the means to that goal must develop in a way that embraces the telos, or end. In addition, in order for this development to succeed, its architects must recognize and embrace the dialectic interplay of theory and practice. Nothing is etched in stone. Whereas we do not wake up each day having to determine who we are, what we believe, and to whom we are beholden, we must acknowledge that we rarely achieve success without setbacks, adjustments, mistakes, and reconfigurations.
I heard a few times a slight alteration to the tale of Jack and Jill. Instead of Jack falling and Jill tumbling down the hill in defeat, this alternate version claims that Jack looks up at Jill with some consternation, commiserating there are only rocks and bumps and not a smooth path up the hill. In response, Jill admonishes that it is the rocks and bumps that help them to climb. Many folks are often overwhelmed by the amount of changes needed to make the United States, or simply their local area or neighborhood, approximate the beloved community. Consequently, they frequently relinquish the fight, stand by while others continue, criticize the lack of progress in effectuating social change, and/or return to selfish and private concerns. They could learn a lesson from the Off-Broadway Jack and Jill, so to speak!
One’s rootage or anchorage in democratic socialism does not have to rely on political philosophers, economists, or activists such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Charles Fourier, Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Michael Harrington, Bernie Sanders, or others. One does not have to know what socialism is to recognize that the widening of the chasm between the rich and the poor is morally bankrupt and unconscionable. A mixed economy such as in the United States allows for small measures of governmental interference, while the laissez-faire, unfettered competitiveness that is still allowed to continue makes mockery of freedom, democracy, and the unalienable guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It does not take rocket science or complex rationality to comprehend that capitalism is theoretically and empirically flawed as a system intended to buttress a democratic republic and bolster its members. Individualism, materialism, avarice, and vulgarity are rampant in an economic matrix that glorifies profit, usury, jumboism, and monopolization.
So, we must ask ourselves why people who are on or below the middle rungs of the economic ladder do not support social uplift processes that would help them become more financially solvent. Why do they often seem to believe that tax breaks for the wealthy will trickle down to their benefit—especially when the historical record does not bear such a consequence? Income inequality is persistent and pernicious, and many of the rich quietly enjoy their advantages while others lobby to become even more affluent. Yet the masses of people appear to be mesmerized by the lives of the wealthy and do not connect their own monetized impoverishment with the self-aggrandizement of the monied.
Such oxymoronic behavior or perspectives compel many who are barely making ends meet to look starry-eyed at those who are flush and convince themselves that they, too, can reach this distorted version of the so-called American Dream. There are not enough jobs and entrepreneurial possibilities adequately to support the masses of people and eradicate the preposterous and growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots. And this disregard for the material well-being of the majority of the population is antithetical to the foundational ethics of a democratic republic. For the people under such a society as we have now inevitably become voiceless, homeless (or nearly so), and ultimately powerless. How long can a nation afford to diminish the dignity and worth of human beings?
The United States cannot be an exemplar in the world when the human rights of her own citizens are daily violated. We must reevaluate our socioeconomic and political realities and make policies that ensure no one will be pauperized and disadvantaged. Needless to say, this reevaluation requires a radical transformation. Else, we will not only rapidly decline, but also devolve further into senseless civil strife as ignorance, selfishness, greed, and immorality continue to rise. Call it what you will, but such a “revolution of values,” as King articulated it, must come, though the heavens fall!