Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Anderson: Ahoy, sir.
Saul: How’s it going, man?
Anderson: It’s going alright. Getting ready to launch this project. Got the first interview tomorrow.
Saul: Awesome. That’s Reverend John Fife, right?
Anderson: Yeah, it is. And you know, I’ve been thinking about…as we were cooking up ideas of who we wanted to talk to, and trying to think of that perfect first interview, I think John Fife is going to be really good.
Saul: So, I’ve got to admit I don’t know a whole lot about him. I think you mentioned him to me last time I was visiting you up on a mountain. You kinda pointed out his church. Real quick, just tell me who this guy is.
Anderson: Okay, yeah. So in the early 80s, he was one of the co-founders of the Sanctuary Movement, which is basically a modern-day Underground Railroad, helping people who were fleeing civil wars in Central America find sanctuary in the US. And that was orchestrated starting primarily through churches in Tuscon, and it branched out to like 500 churches and synagogues across the country helping these people basically not get killed. As you would expect, the US government didn’t want these people coming in. It was illegal.
So long story short, Reverend Fife and some of the other founders of the Sanctuary Movement are helping people in. The FBI sends informants into their churches and other congregations and starts spying on them. Eventually takes them to court. Reverend Fife ended up doing five years probation. But a lot of people came into the US through the Sanctuary Movement who might have actually died in Central America. They came in illegally, but that was probably what saved their lives.
Saul: I mean, in some way this seems like a fairly old idea. This is the sanctity of human life over the sanctity of worldly governments.
Saul: In many ways this is a fundamentally old, Christian idea. What makes this new?
Anderson: One of the interesting things that I think we’re going to face again and again in this project is like, so many ideas that are very outside of the mainstream now, ideas that challenge our common sense, are old ideas. And they may be old ideas that were never really implemented, or old ideas that were in fashion, fell out, and maybe will come back another day. So I think Christianity has so many of these ideas that are still incredibly controversial. And the idea that someone like Reverend Fife or any of his other collaborators in the Sanctuary Movement are basically assuming that God’s law is higher than national law. That we have a duty. That people have sort of intrinsic value and it’s your duty to help them when they need it. And it’s really remarkable that you know, I mean… As a nation that is so observant, that his position is actually so radical.
Saul: Yeah. That is very interesting.
Anderson: I feel like he’s taking an old idea. His implementation of it is still challenging our common sense. So I feel that here’s a guy, maybe he’s not that well-known outside of people who are interested in humanitarian aid. Maybe he’s not that well-known outside of the southwestern US. But his ideas are I think really part of, or could be, a part of the Conversation.
Saul: I’m sold. That sounds good.
Anderson: What are some of the questions you’d want to ask him? This is our first interview, so we’re still going to be getting our sea legs here.
Saul: Right. I think what we were just talking about is something that I would be interested in hearing from him. How do you reconcile the idea of the sanctity of human life with worldly politics? Is it your duty to go against the law if you think that it’s fundamentally denying the rights of another human? What does that mean for the existence of nations in the future?
Anderson: Suddenly we’ve taken this huge jump from the Sanctuary Movement and the idea of treating these people with compassion, and there’s a weird sort of logical extension there that gets us to the idea of like, a critique of the nation-state. That is big.
Saul: It’s a large conceptual jump but I do feel the latter follows from the former. I’m very intrigued to hear what he has to say.
Anderson: We’ll see, and hopefully I don’t screw up this first conversation too badly. I’ll give you a ring once I wrap it up tomorrow and we can maybe do a little follow-up and we can talk about our next conversation, who’s going to be Dr. Max More at Alcor.
Saul: Sounds good to me.
Saul: Alright, man. Well, have an excellent interview tomorrow morning, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow afternoon.
Anderson: Sounds good. I’ll catch you then.
Saul: Excellent. Take care.
John Fife: Borders are always fascinating places. No matter where you are on the globe, borders are unique places of transition and migration and relationships. I mean, one of the reasons I came to Tuscon was precisely because of that. I fell in love with it and have obviously spent a lifetime here on this border. Didn’t plan to get mixed up in it quite to the extent that I have. But that’s the nature of borders, right?
So, the first crisis that we had to deal with was the crisis that led to the Sanctuary Movement. It happened to us and it happened on this border, so we had to figure out what’s our role in this new context that’s emerged on the border. And it was basically my colleague Jim Corbett who came to me and said let’s look at history, and there were two moments he pointed to. One was the abolition movement in this country, when slaves were trying to cross state lines to more and more secure places and were in jeopardy of course of being captured and returned to slavery, and [he] said as we look back the folks who did it right were the folks who smuggled slaves across the border and moved them through an underground railroad.
And then the second time he pointed to was the 1930s in Europe when Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were fleeing across national borders, and the complete failure of the church and most of Europe, most of the world, is just a tragic failure of human beings and institutions, quite frankly.
And so he simply said, “We can’t allow what happened in Europe in the 30s to happen on this border, now.” So finally after a couple of months I went to him and said, “Damnit, Jim, you’re right. I can’t be a pastor of a church and ignore what’s going on here.”
And that led eventually to the Sanctuary Movement and that whole decade, which turned out to be an important moment. We learned that churches and synagogues could form the base of a social movement, and that faith communities could engage in active non-violent resistance to government policy. And that we could change it. We eventually got them to stop the deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala and give everybody who was here without documents some legal status.
That was a difficult but important decade, and I learned a lot about the fact that the church and faith communities could take advantage of the natural relationships of churches on both sides of the border, and we could do bi-national stuff very easily because of what we had in common.
And lastly that we could engage in non-violent active resistance and make it stick. And they floundered around and flailed around trying different tactics that they had used against social reform movements in the past. And they were not successful. They really blundered, badly.
Anderson: Do you think the fact that you were religious made a difference there?
Fife: Yeah. It made a huge difference. They acknowledged in some of their documents that they really didn’t want to go up against us, but finally had to because we were a significant movement that was causing them all kinds of problems. So when they moved, they moved in traditional ways. Well, we’ll pick off the leadership and tie them up in trials and criminal charges and stuff like that. And the Sanctuary Movement doubled during the trial [laughs] ’cause religious communities responded like we had hoped they would, and that is realized, “Oh, we have to be public, and we have to act now.”
The government never figured out what to do with us.
Anderson: That’s great.
Fife: And finally gave it up.
So those were important lessons during that decade. Now the crisis is very different on the border. Now the crisis on the border is the whole context of can national borders in the name of national sovereignty be defended militarily, with walls and technology and boots on the ground and armed forces and border patrol and all this stuff that we’re seeing?
The attempt to do that has made the Tuscon sector of the border, which is really from the New Mexico border to Yuma, that sector of the border has been the epicenter now since about ’99, 2,000, of the migration and drug trafficking that used to occur along 300 miles of border, 2,300 plus. And the disaster that has occurred has been the thousands of deaths of poor migrant workers and women and children out here in the desert. This border enforcement strategy is tragic in that it’s caused, deliberately, to use the death of poor people as a deterrent, as a strategy to enforce the border, which is in my language a sin. It’s a gross violation of human rights, in secular terms.
And it’s been a failure. The border is no more secure today, after all of the hundreds of billions of dollars that’s been spent on this venture, than it ever was. And it’s been totally unnecessary from any kind of strategic perspective. And so what’s the reason for it?
The second reality is the price of cocaine on the streets of the United States has not changed over the last thirty years. It’s actually gone down a little bit, which means that the cartels are over-supplying the need here in the United States.
And thirdly, it has resulted in not only the deaths of thousands of poor migrant workers and their families, but it has meant real labor shortages in many areas of our economy here in the United States over that period of time. So what’s this all about? That question is critical to understanding this whole phenomenon and trying to deal with it.
Anderson: That’s that kind of link to where it becomes the really big idea. When I’ve read about the issue, people feel like we have the right as a nation to police our borders and to say who and who doesn’t come in. What’s the moral mindset that allows you to say that?
Fife: The kind of ethic behind all of that is an outmoded concept of national sovereignty, which is an 18th century construct. There were no national boundaries until they had cartographers who had to draw maps of the world, and they had to draw in borders and say, “This is the United States. This is Mexico. This is Great Britain. This is France.” The political result of that was the concept of national sovereignty, that these nations had borders now. And before that there were kingdoms and there were monarchs and realms and all that sort of thing, but it was a very fluid concept and it was constantly changing. The whole idea evolved that if that was the border, then we had the right to define that border and to defend it. And that’s been a constant since.
Anderson: Was that a step backwards for sort of thinking about people as a whole, like people as a people?
Fife: Yeah. Because people were contained and had an identity now of national identity. Before, it was a cultural identity, and got formed around language and custom and religion and all kinds of stuff. And that became a very fluid concept, too, as we know from migration through this area for centuries. There was this constant interaction and exchange of culture and trade and religion, even.
And now, the world as it’s constructed doesn’t pay any attention to that. The idea of national boundaries and borders and national sovereignty has all been blown away by globalization. The economy has moved into a construct that says there’s no such thing as national borders or national sovereignty. We’ll move money and investment and products and the assembly of products across all those lines without any regard to that stuff at all. So economics has changed the whole idea of what it means, that nation and borders are totally irrelevant.
Except, on this border and on all the other borders where they’re still clinging to that old idea, and there’s a deep-seated need to cling to the old. Whenever you see the whole world changing, the immediate response of the culture is always to go back to the good old days. To reinforce the concept of the tradition. So that’s what we’re seeing right now along this border, along with a huge renewal of racism, which has always been a part of this nation’s history and relationship with new waves of immigration.
So I think that people are having a great deal of difficulty now articulating the irrelevance of national sovereignty and that sort of thing. Folks don’t think in those terms. But the traditional way of dealing with the new reality is to just revert to racism. So that’s what we’re debating. But that’s not an appropriate ground to talk about this issue.
Anderson: Right, it seems like that’s not how we discuss it.
Fife: That’s right. That’s right. So we’re talking the political rhetoric is all about defending our borders, and securing our borders, and the horde of brown-skinned threat from the south. And what the real conversation ought to be about is what has globalization done to us and the people south of here who are migrating? And what’s it doing to the whole world? And why is the whole idea of the United States of America totally irrelevant in the world we’re being thrown into? And nobody wants to have that conversation.
Anderson: And that’s kind of very much this conversation, you know. I’ve traveled around and I’ve interviewed a lot of different people sort of about the present. I sent a summer asking people what the most exciting thing in their life was, and what the most concerning thing was at the very moment that I met them. And what surprised me was how many people felt a real— It was really odd. It was a sense of disquiet about the present, where it seemed like— And these were people from all different political backgrounds, people from the left who were really worried about the environment, people from the right who were worried about the loss of values or community. But across the board they all seemed to have this sort of holding onto the arms of the chair sense.
Fife: And they should. Because it is all changing.
Anderson: Yeah. It is.
Fife: More rapidly than they even know.
Anderson: And that, I find, makes me want to hold onto the arms of the chair, you know?
So, are you optimistic about the future?
Fife: Yeah. Yeah. I’m very optimistic, because in many ways this globalization thing is creating the opportunity for significant change, for genuinely examining where is it we need to go. But globalization is going to create that change that’s going to force us into the serious discussion about what that looks like.
And I don’t think it’s too hard. If you look at the history of this country, what we did at the close of the 19th and throughout the 20th century was deal with essentially the same phenomena. We had basically a neoliberal economic system in the 19th century here, where capital was free to do pretty much anything it wanted to do. And what we learned out of that experience was that doesn’t work. It does not work. It results in what economists call the externalities of capitalism. You get a huge divergence between the very wealthy and the rest of the majority of the population, duh. You get the exploitation of labor. And you get the exploitation of the environment, right.
Anderson: These sound like familiar themes.
Fife: That’s right. That’s right. So we grappled with that and we determined, which I think many sectors of the global economy are determining now, you have to have certain restraints on capital. You have to put some boundaries on the playing field. And you have to have an umpire.
Anderson: That seems like a real question of, we’re kind of getting to that point where capitalism and morality sort of touch. Who’s the umpire and does the market have values of itself?
Fife: Yeah. And the theory is the market has value in itself. The invisible hand will eventually result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Anderson: So that’s sort of a utilitarian idea.
Fife: Exactly. And what we learned was in the United States that doesn’t work. What we’re learning globally is it’s not working for the vast majority of the people of globe. And the driver for this conclusion is already upon us. It is going to be the environment.
Anderson: That’s what I was going to ask.
Fife: It’s going to be the exploitation of the environment that drives the rest of the agenda, because as I understand it, unless we begin to put an umpire globally in place, we’re going to pretty much destroy the planet by the end of the 21st century.
So if that’s the driver, then that’s going to enable us to raise the other questions. Where else do we need an umpire? Do we need an umpire in the banking system? Do we need an umpire in the labor market? That was a bloody struggle here. It’s going to be a bloody struggle globally. There’s no other way that we do it, given human beings.
But, I have great confidence that if we could do that in the United States, and Europe could do that, and lots and lots of other places are doing it already, at the grass roots, we can do it globally. And we’re going to have to conceive of and dream of global institutions that can be the umpire.
But what we’re seeing now is that labor is also finding national borders irrelevant, just like capital already has for the last fifty years. And labor is responding by saying, “Okay, if there’s going to be all of this displacement by capital of the labor market, then labor has to move.” And they’re moving across borders. And they’re not paying any attention to national sovereignty or national visas or passports. They’re going where the work is. And they’re going where they can feed their children. And that’s happening moreso than any time in history.
So the labor market is catching up with the capital market. And the thing they have in common is there’s no such thing as a national border or national sovereignty anymore. Everything’s on the move and it’s moving freely. And already we’re seeing the environment being a major cause of migration as well, globally.
So all those factors are in play, but we can’t talk about it. We can’t talk about those very very important and significant issues, so we talk about building walls and militarizing borders and we just can’t have that conversation, politically. Because it scares the hell out of people.
Anderson: Well, it seems incredibly disruptive. I mean it seems like we’d have to throw out all these ideas of governance that we’ve had for so long.
Anderson: And what do we replace them with?
Fife: Remember in the 19th and through much of the 20th century, the mantra was state’s rights. We’re still grappling with it in some very old ways. Arizona wants to run its own immigration system, right? So we’ve got a case in the Supreme Court, does state’s rights take precedent over federal law? Well, both of those are totally irrelevant now. Both of those. Somebody ought to just say to the Supreme Court, “Guys, we’re in the 21st century. We should be talking about the global institutions and the global mandate that’s going to be necessary for us to even survive at the end of the 21st century.”
Anderson: Yeah, I’m thinking about the global survival and sort of going back to the idea of the umpire that you were talking about earlier. We’re having a difficult time having the conversation about where we’re going, what the future is anyway. How do we get sort of a moral foundation amongst all these different people that have all these different moral traditions, and a lot of people who I think have moral traditions that’ve also been overlaid with sort of a market ethos. Which is so it feels like we’ve got Christian capitalism here and you can have Confucian capitalism in China, but really capitalism is wearing the pants. [crosstalk]
Fife: Is the dominant. That’s right. That’s right. Both of those faith communities have been corrupted by capitalism. What a surprise.
Anderson: How do we get something moral that’s more than just market morality? Because it seems like even if it opens up free labor, or if we have mobile labor and mobile capital, it’s still going to be running on the path of exploiting resources at a rate that is always very fast.
Fife: Exactly. And you have Christians and Confucians and Islamists and Jews who have sold out to the idol of capitalism. Of course. Of course. That’s been true of every empire in history, too, that the church has blessed whatever the empire was up to.
But what has redeemed the faith community throughout the centuries of history has been that there has always been a sector of the faith that has not sold out, that has recalled the genuine moral and ethical values of that faith and its tradition, and has renewed that, and therefore moved the agenda into the future, that is moral and ethical and just. And peaceable.
So, that’s why I’m a part of the church. Because what else happened to faith communities during that 19th/20th century was we became a global institution. We are globalized. And therefore we have the capacity, the possibility, of being the global moral and ethical force that sets the agenda for that umpire, okay? And I don’t want to say Christianity because that’s old, 19th century stuff, too. But what I want to say is that the great faith traditions that are global have that capacity. That’s Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism to a great extent. And indigenous faiths, as well.
So if you look at that configuration, what you have is deep and easily exploitable differences, but no difference ethically. We’ve had those conversations globally, and all of those faith traditions have agreed on an ethical set of standards that they all hold in common. And so what I expect is that the old conversation will be how do we exploit the differences in those religious traditions so that there is not a conversation about the common ethical standards of each of those groups? And at the same time you have serious folks from each of those faith traditions identifying what their common ethical standards are and looking at the effects of globalization and the neoliberal economic theory and saying, “We need to take that on, together.”
So that’s going to be the struggle in the 21st century, and I don’t have a crystal ball but I have a great deal of hope that, what is it Dr. King said? “The arc of history is long indeed, but it always bends toward justice.” And that’s my reading of history. Roughly translated, what Dr. King said means the bastards never win in the long run, I think. And so I’m very hopeful that we have moral and ethical institutions that have the capacity to form the standards of the umpire at the end of the 21st century.
Anderson: And it seems like to get there, you know you were mentioning the environment and the idea that it seems like in a lot of ways this will come through some sort of crisis.
Fife: That’s right.
Anderson: Do you think there is—
Fife: That’s going to be the first crisis.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. Even if we just start with the first crisis, is there a chance that we don’t make it through?
Fife: Sure. There’s always a chance. We could blow this whole thing up. Yeah. But people have the capacity, and have demonstrated it historically, to overcome what theologically we call “evil.” And to keep moving the agenda ahead, step by step, agonizing step, disaster after disaster, war after war. But they keep moving it ahead. We’re not where we were in the 19th century.
Fife: And we’re not where we were in the 20th century. So I have genuine hope that we can pull this one off in the 21st century. So, yeah.
Anderson: I’m going to be talking in this project to a bunch of sort of technological futurists, to a bunch of people who are into deep ecology, to all sorts of different folks. As I go down the road in the project I’ll be able to refer back to people, and we’re at the point where I can’t refer to any of these people backwards. But I’ve read some of their ideas, so I just want to toss one or two of them into play. This is kind of a new idea for me. But futurists who are talking about the idea of actually changing what we are. As I read more and more from these people who are thinking about a future in which man through genetic engineering improves his own intelligence and tries to create superintelligent things, and for them that’s the future that they’re pushing towards. And I wonder what kind of future is that and why is that good or why is it not good.
Fife: Well, it’s not good if the values are the values of the neoliberal market economy. If you can afford it and you can do it, you’re free to do it. And it’s only when people are free to do whatever is possible that there’s an invisible hand that will sort all that out and make it right. I don’t believe that. I do not believe that. I believe that just and peaceable communities have always been created when people have thought through the moral and ethical implications of those questions. And that there is such a thing as a soul, a spirituality, that is also essential to what it means to be human. And we can’t let the guys with the technology just have a free market, and trust the invisible hand, because we get things like bombs that will wipe out all of creation. And people who are willing to use them.
Anderson: Well it seems like we’ve talked a little bit about this moment in time and how this is a moment where a lot of things are changing. The premise of The Conversation, do you think that’s happening today?
Fife: No, I don’t think we’ve found the language to really ask and pursue those questions, because it’s politically not expedient to have this conversation. So we have it about kind of disconnected, old concepts. And I hear people complaining about that who are really pretty thoughtful people. We’re not able to engage in that dialogue yet. So how do we move it? We won’t do that until we have the crisis. And the crisis is going to be global and it’s going to be environmental. And it’s only when we get to that point that we’re going to be able to have that conversation.
Anderson: So there’s almost like a moment in history that creates the conversation. The conversation can’t just be…we can’t snap our fingers and have it.
Fife: You can’t do it.
Fife: We’re not capable, because we haven’t had the crisis yet.
Anderson: So it’s sort of like even though we all kind of can see that there’s a storm cloud off on the horizon [crosstalk] we’re just going to ride into it.
Fife: Oh, yeah. Everybody can see it. Everybody’s really uncomfortable. Why live through a dull period of history, right?
Anderson: That’s true.
Fife: Why be around when nothing much is changing? Why not be there when everything is going to change, and you get to put an oar in that water? I’m really envious of guys your age, because you’re going to be there for the real crunch times and the real excitement and the real time of possibility for enormous change. I wish I was going to be around for the next fifty years. I really do. But they’re going to bury me very soon. So I’m going to miss out on the really exciting stuff. Unfortunately, I’ve got to put up with the debate that’s completely misplaced, and the issues that don’t really define the conversation that we need to have about where do we want to be at the end of the 21st century?
Anderson: That was the Reverend John Fife, recorded May 2, 2012 at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Arizona.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.