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A Recovering Catholic on Proletarian Grace

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I spent more years than I try to remember in Catholic education in some form or another. Even if I do not believe anymore, I think 9 times out of 10 that my efforts are informed by an old-fashioned sense of Catholic guilt drive to do the right thing. In my mind, there is a tangible and very real thread running from Christianity to Islam to Protestantism to Liberalism and ending with Communism (not Bolshevism, mind you, but the tradition of Du Bois, CLR James, and the Black Panthers). At the core of each of these religious/philosophical projects is a simple kernel, the notion of universalism. Each time the effort took on a different element to expand on and add detail to. Along the way, it also took up key elements of Eastern philosophy. By the time this notion got to Marx and Engels, they were adding a new dimension to European Liberalism based on the notion of class as opposed to just basic identity. In this sense, the notion of being in the proletariat is quite like being baptized, a member of the umma, one of the elect, and a citizen.

So in this sense we need to look backwards a bit and consider the Catholic notion of grace.

There are two forms of grace in Catholicism, actual grace and sanctifying grace. My father’s Lutheranism did not have these sorts of details and I understand why but I think that Catholic version is important to grasp here. The Catholic Encyclopedia says the following:

Actual grace derives its name, actual, from the Latin actualis (ad actum), for it is granted by God for the performance of salutary acts and is present and disappears with the action itself. Its opposite, therefore, is not possible grace, which is without usefulness or importance, but habitual grace, which causes a state of holiness, so that the mutual relations between these two kinds of grace are the relation between action and state, not those between actuality and potentiality… Since the end and aim of all efficacious grace is directed to the production of sanctifying grace where it does not already exist, or to retain and increase it where it is already present, its excellence, dignity, and importance become immediately apparent; for holiness and the sonship of God depend solely upon the possession of sanctifying grace, wherefore it is frequently called simply grace without any qualifying word to accompany it as, for instance, in the phrases “to live in grace” or “to fall from grace”.

In simpler terms, actual grace is an external force upon a person that inspires certain actions and behaviors. Sanctifying grace is an attitude, an aura of goodness. In Catholic iconography, the halo around the head of a saint or the Sacred Heart of Jesus that was so predominantly on display in my church is emblematic of sanctifying grace within the person.

One of the major prayers in Catholicism says that Mary was “full of grace”. The Bible is notably short on details regarding the upbringing of Christ sans one episode, when he did something that my mother would have skinned me alive over. Luke 2 says:

42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

And right about here my mother would have beaten me in front of everyone. For those of you who have never experienced the joy of a pubescent adolescent giving you that kind of lip, I promise you, it is enough to make you rethink your position on gun control. Twelve year old boys are, in a manner of speaking, total monsters. Perpetually bouncing off the walls due to hormonal overdrive, they jet like pinballs between thoughts of lust, fitting together in a jigsaw puzzle fashion scatological terms into a foul attempt at humor, and trying to guess if they light something on fire whether it will burn different colors. They manifest their awkward feelings about the opposite sex in a sort of Three Stooges brand of misogyny that seems like an inbred cousin of Ralph Kramden and Hugh Hefner. With a bit of ironic whimsy that marks my age, I look at my mother today and quietly thank her for not smothering me when I was twelve.

In other words, this notion of grace is defined by patience, the ability to put up with a self-righteous dirt-lipped squeaky voiced bastard who just decided that, oh well, mom and dad are going home from vacation but not me!

If there is one person who has exhibited this perpetual twelve year old dickhead attitude this year, it was Donald Trump. Hell, half the time he acted twelve while campaigning around the country, inspiring copycats much in the way that a delinquent can rile his peers up. His off-the-cuff racism, sexism, and xenophobia seemed like the obscene stream of consciousness one takes from a boy in grade 7 as opposed to the deep race theories of a Goebbels or Hitler. The trolling Twitter behavior, name calling, and general “I don’t give a damn” attitude that fueled his populist appeal is the stuff of a middle school turd. The fact so many white working class Americans bought into it came from a mixture of ingrained, unconscious white supremacy combined with a feeling one feels when watching a middle school talent show when one such monstrosity takes to the stage and begins to deliver narcissistic, bigoted jokes on the level of poop jokes. While half the audience in wider America was appalled by his behavior, the other half was laughing their asses off and saying “I don’t believe that little shit said that!”

Are there elements within the Trump base who are genuinely fascist, such as David Duke? Certainly.

But the vast majority are nothing more than the white working class who were burned by neoliberalism in the past 25 years. Some of them have a semi-acceptable grasp of political economy based in the Libertarian Party’s discourse, sourced mostly to Murray Rothbard and kooky Austrian economics. But their mindset is not child-like in the diminutive sense as much as teenaged, an arrested development that results in the manifestation of vicious white supremacist behavior.

And so the job of Euro Americans in the coming next few days, weeks, and months is going to be this: we have to use our white privilege, that vicious, evil American Mark of Cain we all carry, and we must go among the Trumpenproletariat. We have to be like missionaries and use this grace to politically re-educate these people in the way Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who vacationed every summer in Rhode Island, tried to re-educate a Catholic Church that had aligned with the American government to create the Cold War after the collapse of Nazi Germany. We are now at a juncture that is pregnant with possibility. The Trump campaign demonstrated the collapse of the Republican mainstream and rejection of the superstructure by the base. But unless we use a proletarian grace to have patient, calm conversations about the creation of a party for the 99%, 2020 will see the emergence of a genuine fascist strongman who caters to the Trumpenproletariat while actually knowing how to govern.

The greatest democratic socialist in the past 50 years, Ralph Nader, is hard at work at this effort. We need to have the grace to take up the challenge and bring a form of liberation theology to people who have been trained to accept for the past quarter century the prosperity gospel while they were being robbed blind by the neoliberal political order, embodied in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. This would dictate a united front from below of Greens and Libertarians.

There will from the outset be elements, aligned with the Democratic Party, that are going to try to co-opt the anti-Trump movement, just as they did with the anti-war movement in the last decade, so to foist upon us yet another neoliberal charlatan like Obama. But I personally feel that, should this united front of Greens and Libertarians stick to their guns and gracefully root out opportunism while creating neighborhood-based councils, we could begin from the 2018 election the construction of what Du Bois called abolition democracy.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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