What would Jesus do about the Koch brothers? He might get naked.

“The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning.”

-Walter Wink

The people of the heartland seem to be waking up to the fact that the fight for economic justice, and the struggle to save ourselves from the devastating effects of climate change, are of a piece.

In Wisconsin we have a prankster from New York State named Ian Murphy to thank for helping to make that crystal clear. As I said in my previous post, the recent phone conversation between Murphy (a.k.a. David Koch) and Republican Governor Scott Walker exposed just how beholden the fossil-fuel billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are to our state’s new Republican leaders — and vice versa.  (Democrats, including Jim Doyle, took Koch support in the past, too.)

But are tactics like Murphy’s prank call valid in this coalescing movement? Are they even ethical? Could they backfire?

By happenstance I met Ian Murphy last Saturday and had a chance to talk to him about his call to the governor.

My companion and I had ducked into the lobby of the Concourse Hotel to warm up before catching the city bus back to the north side after attending the record-setting protest rally at the Capitol in Madison. Inside we were surprised to see a host of luminaries interspersed among rank-and-file union members and other hotel guests. The Rev. Jesse Jackson stood near one wall signing autographs.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Jim Hightower, Ed Garvey, and Peg Lautenschlager huddled in the hotel bar. When my friend pointed Murphy out, I went over and thanked him for what he’d done. Later, I had a chance to buy him a drink – rum and Coke was his choice, appropriately enough – and we got to talk.

I first asked Murphy, who was in Wisconsin as a guest of a Fond du Lac teacher, if he’d been at all inspired by what he’d witnessed at the Capital so far. His reply was blunt.

“No.”

Murphy seems nothing if not candid. He told us he holds out little hope that the groundswell of support for Wisconsin teachers and public employees precipitated by the actions of the governor and the legislature will translate into meaningful change for the better.

I asked him about his now-famous conversation with Walker. Murphy said he didn’t know what he was going to say before he got the governor on the line. He knew Walker wasn’t taking calls from people who did not like the “budget repair” bill he’d introduced, including Democratic legislators, so he tried to think of who Walker might accept a call from. Fossil fuel magnate David Koch was the first person he thought of.

As almost everyone in Wisconsin now knows, the legislation Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature passed, and which will become law on March 26 unless pending court challenges stop it, strips teachers and public employees of collective bargaining rights and allows no-bid sales of 37 state-owned power plants (among other things). Representatives for Koch Industries have gone on record saying they have no interest in buying Wisconsin’s power plants, but many people, myself included, have serious doubts about that. Just yesterday the state’s Republican-dominated Building Commission approved millions of dollars worth of repairs to those power plants, an interesting move considering how broke Walker says our state is.

My companion and I were curious to know whether Murphy thought what he’d done was ethical. Murphy said he didn’t really care if it was ethical or not, although he referred to the fact that the Society of Professional Journalists criticized him for violating its ethics code. Murphy has been quoted elsewhere as saying that he believes his action abided by the spirit of that code.

I must say that much of what I’ve since read on the online newspaper Murphy edits, The Buffalo Beast, appears to cross a host of ethical lines. In one recent article Murphy calls Gov. Walker a “Koch whore.” In another he writes, in language much more colorful than I’ll use to describe it, that climate change denier Anthony Watts deserves to be sodomized by a dragon.

Although I certainly don’t condone such statements, I think Murphy’s prank call to the governor was valid and, yes, ethical. It certainly didn’t violate any laws (but now Republicans want to pass one). I told Murphy, in not so many words, that I agreed with him that there was nothing wrong with his posing as David Koch to expose the ties between Koch and Walker and reveal our governor’s true motivations. I reminded him that even Jesus had asked trick questions.

In retrospect I wish I’d used a different word. Jesus asked lots of questions, but they were more often used to expose the hypocrisy and injustice of the high and mighty than to trick them.

Jesus was brilliant at seeing through the trick questions asked of him, however, as when the religious authorities tried to get him to admit he’d broken Jewish law by healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus stymies them with a question of his own: “If any of you have a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” Later, when the Pharisees try to trap him by asking him if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, he asks them to show him a coin and then asks them to tell him whose picture is on it. When they answer “Caesar’s,” he tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give to God what is God’s. Once again the religious authorities, who were often in cahoots with the Roman rulers, were thwarted in their attempt to use the law to trap Jesus.

A nod to Wink

Theologian and author Walter Wink has written that Jesus often endorsed the ridiculous in order to amplify the injustices of authority figures. In Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink writes that by urging his followers to give their inner garments, or underwear, to those who would sue them for their outer garments, Jesus is urging victims of economic injustice to literally strip naked before those seeking to take the very clothes off their backs. In ancient Judaism, Wink explains, the shame of nakedness fell upon the person who caused or witnessed nakedness, not the naked party.

“Jesus in effect is sponsoring clowning. In doing so he carries on a venerable tradition in Judaism. As a later saying of the Talmud reads, ‘If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back’.”

In this spirit, Wink says, Jesus also urged those forced to tote Roman soldiers’ packs a mile to carry them twice as far. Wink asks readers to imagine the hilarity of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!”

“The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity,” Wink writes. “Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning.”

But Wink stresses that such tactics must never be designed to demonize one’s opponent. Although the people who are engaged in oppressive acts can only repent if they are made uncomfortable by their actions, the “human quality of the opponent must be continually affirmed.” Therefore, Wink says, justice activists must use only tactics that they wouldn’t mind their opponents using on them.

Waves and meltdowns

From what he said when I talked to him on Saturday, and from what I’ve seen of his writing, Ian Murphy doesn’t seem to hold out much hope that many, if any, Republicans can be made to see the error of their ways, at least not unless people like him use hateful language against them. When I suggested that climate change is not really a partisan issue and that there are still some decent Republicans out there who would rather unite and build up than divide and tear down, Murphy seemed doubtful.

Two of the most successful, albeit martyred, civil rights leaders in history, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, understood that it was essential to teach followers not to write off their opponents as lost or irredeemable. King was so successful in large part because he never gave up on racist whites. He continually reminded them that their racism was hurting them, too. He also reminded his own followers that he and they had the capacity to commit the same brutal acts as the whites who opposed them.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

When I read Wink’s words again as I prepared this post, I was convicted of my own capacity for dehumanization. In my last post, I referred to Walker as a puppet of the Koch brothers. While I remain convinced that the Koch brothers are using Walker (and vice versa), I didn’t have to use a word that seeks to deny the man his essential humanity.

That said, I believe being bolder and more creative is essential if we’re to prevail in this struggle. As Bill McKibben pointed out in a recent op-ed, the forces allied against us are extremely powerful. The Koch brothers are in league with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Tea Party movement. Indeed, the billionaire brothers played a significant part in the Tea Party’s formation. With no disrespect intended to the poor people of Japan, these forces, combined with the recent Supreme Court decision allowing a tsunami of corporate cash to flow into campaigns for elected office, threatens to precipitate a triple meltdown of our democracy, climate and society.

And yet movements for justice have prevailed against overwhelming power and long odds before – in South Africa, in Poland, in Romania, in the Philippines, in India and many other places – without resorting to violent deeds or words.

The right time and place?

It seems only fitting that a crisis of biblical proportions should employ biblical tactics. The tactics Jesus used, what Wink calls a “third way,” is a kind of moral jujitsu that uses our opponents own momentum to throw them. It offers an alternative to the primitive fight-or-flight responses that most of us grew up believing are  the only tools at our disposal to deal with those who would hurt us.

As Wink writes, “Violence is simply not radical enough because it generally changes only the rulers but not the rules.”

I suspect that a highly creative, third way approach could be especially effective here in the heartland, where the Judeo-Christian ethic is deeply rooted. We Midwesterners are – most of us – polite, tolerant and peaceable. So much so that we’re often stereotyped for it (remember Marge in Fargo?). And if the peaceful and mostly respectful demonstrations that occurred throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest in recent weeks are any indication, we seem to have learned a lot since the ugly and violent clashes between protestors and police that rocked our cities in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

And whether you believe we are broke, as Gov. Walker said in his budget address, or awash in money like Michael Moore said when he spoke to protestors in Madison a few days later, there is no shortage of creativity in the Midwest – or in America.

We who struggle against the forces of economic injustice and climate change can learn a thing or two from brash and brazen Easterners like Ian Murphy, yes. But as we adopt more bold and creative tactics, let us not lose sight of the humanity of our opponents. Because if we do, the joke will ultimately be on us. And it won’t be the least bit funny.

UPDATE: In an earlier version of this post, I reported that the “budget repair” legislation would allow no-bid sales of 27 state-owned power plants. There are actually 37 heating and cooling plants affected by the legislation.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. As you point out, it is essential that we remember that we battle the actions other people are taking and that we don’t dehumanize them. It’s hard, in the heat of the moment, to keep that lesson in mind. Thank you for this eloquent reminder.

  2. Right on target as usual, Rick–a peaceful target. Thanks for reminding us that the most radical change takes place when we oppose not just the ideologies of opponents but their tactics as well. Remembering the humanity of those we profoundly disagree with, in this era of cruel rhetoric, is truly radical. Lampooning without demonizing–now there’s a real trick.

  3. ‘Tis tricky, indeed, Priscilla. Perhaps the most effective lampoons are the ones that mirror and amplify the actions of unjust authorities rather than paint horns and tails on them . Often it is we who must be prepared to look ridiculous, as in the example of the counsel of Jesus to those who are sued for the very clothes on their backs.