A Penny For The People

By Tom Airey, RadicalDiscipleship.Net
To choose what is difficult
all one’s days
as if it were easy,
that is faith.

W.H. Auden, For The Time Being (1944)

When Penny Lernoux graduated from the University of Southern California, she took her SoCal suburban privilege, Phi Beta Kappa intellect, lapsed Catholicism & journalistic brilliance to Latin America to work for U.S. Information Agency, an organization promoting American policy overseas. Little did she know that circumstances on the ground–unjust & violent–would soon prod her to write prophetic denunciations of the American cluster of principalities and powers (corporations, the CIA, Congress, armed forces, etc) that jimmy-rigged massive parcels of land away from the people of Latin America while propping up military dictatorships in virtually every single country to the south: all in the name of fighting communism.

In the process, Lernoux herself rediscovered a Catholic faith modeled in the martyr priests and base communities that sided with the poor and oppressed masses. In her 1980 classic Cry Of The People, she tirelessly footnoted and quoted poor peasants, liberation theologians, village priests and Maryknoll sisters, while chronicling the countless atrocities committed by police & military goons who pledged allegiance to political strong men who were financially resourced by American covert & corporate interests.

Lernoux’s research was impeccable, nuanced and inter-disciplinary, courageously detailing the history, sociology, political science, economics and theology of Latin America in a highly accessible manner. After all, like the American historian Howard Zinn who published his classic The People’s History Of The United States in the same year as her Cry of the People, the much lesser-known Lernoux never pretended to be telling an objective or neutral story. She was deeply compelled that such journalistic endeavors were both a fantasy and, inevitably, a fixture in the strategy of elites. In a world rife with institutional evil, writers, like everyone else, must choose sides.

She knew, through experience and eyewitness testimony, that injustice and oppression did not just happen: the world of inequality, of winners & losers, of millionaires & martyrs, was the culmination of a strategic script, policies that accurately predict which “fortunate” few get more than their manna-rotting share of power, prestige & possessions. The rest of humanity are left, like dogs, begging for the crumbs falling off the American table.

Cry was a wake-up call that the work of U.S. philanthropy, no matter how sincere, was not appropriate, acceptable or effective in alleviating the impoverished masses of their plight. Only when people of faith & conscience actively cut against the grain to expose and struggle against the cruel social, political, economic and religious systems–both North & South–will we have a better world. Charity and small acts of individual “sacrifice,” quite simply, will not cut it:

Giving up a hamburger will not provide grain for people who need it unless there is a real change in the distribution system. Likewise, well-intentioned Peace Corps members are neither needed nor wanted in a Latin-American slum, any more than they are in a black ghetto in the United States. The challenge is elsewhere, in white America, where power and affluence are concentrated.

In all of her books & articles, writing for major publications like National Catholic Reporter, The Nation, Harper’s, Newsweek & The Washington Post, Lernoux pledged herself to the lively dual vocation both to voice the experience of the poor of Latin America & to shake up the American suburbs & gated communities of faith into political action. After just more than a quarter-century into her Latin American exposé, Lernoux was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and was flown to upstate New York to live out her last month with the Maryknoll sisters, the subject of the book she was in the midst of writing.

Penny Lernoux died on October 8, 1989, 25 years ago today. Her works call out to be read and rehearsed in Christian communities committed to living in discontinuity with the practices & policies that have come to define U.S. Empire. Her vocation demands to be duplicated by free-lance journalists committed to telling the truth, no matter who it indicts. In this moment in time, the corporate, political & military trends that she documented continue to ravage the Third World, but also have intensely infected the bloated American inner-city as well as the depleted precious wilderness land that once abounded on the North American continent.

Corporate capitalism, in a single-minded obsession with profit, propagandizes for war, for oil pipelines, for privatized schools-health-care-water, for outsourcing jobs, for slashing the social safety net, for obstacles to voting for the poor & working class, for militarized police forces. And the strategy is covert & subtle: colonization becomes gentrification, communism becomes radical Islam, and, of course, oil is still oil.

Since Lernoux’s passing, we imperial subjects of the North have become, more & more, objects just like the Global south. The question for radical disciples, for all people who claim to follow Jesus, is, quite frankly, what the Church is going to do about this. When it comes to the social, economic & political brushstrokes that thoroughly paint our lives, silence & “neutrality” put points up on the scoreboard on the side of the oppressors. We all lose. Yet, tragically, this leaven of truth has not worked its way into the dough of American suburbia. Cultivating a manna & mercy world requires plenty more Pennies.

This is the legacy of an American woman who ditched upwardly mobile dreams and dared to tell the horrifying story that all our cheap consumer products & robust investments in the stock market during the 70s & 80s came from abuse, torture, killing, illegal land seizures & voter fraud in Latin America. The heroes have been the People (and the priests & professors who followed them) who believed–in the name of God–that it wasn’t their fault, but it was their fight. Penny Lernoux: ¡Presente!

One thought on “A Penny For The People

  1. Pingback: Learning From Counternarratives | Radical Discipleship

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