Inspiration Amid Controversy: Van Jones at Siena College

I was surprised to find a pack of about fifteen-to-twenty people standing across the street outside of my Friary window last evening. These folks had gathered across the Siena College campus to protest the 2011 Martin Luther King, Jr., annual speaker: Van Jones. Mr. Jones, a former Obama Administration White-House Staffer, was one of the favorite targets of (soon-to-be ‘former’) Fox News television personality Glenn Beck. Beck had continually named Jones, a relatively unknown personality on the national scene prior to Beck’s denouncements, as a communist (a former affiliation that Jones does not deny while a graduate student at Yale University) and the negative attention garnered by these repeated attacks led Jones to resign during the early months of the Obama Administration and during the peak of Beck’s TV career.

Some of Beck’s loyal adherents continued to carry the mantle of denouncement, protesting Siena College’s (a Roman Catholic private college in the Franciscan tradition) decision to invite Jones to speak. Yet, it was precisely the Franciscan tradition that College President Fr. Kevin Mullen, OFM, cited as a central reason for Jones’s fittingness to deliver the MLK Annual Lecture.

Fr. Mullen noted in his introduction of Jones that in the Thirteenth Century there was a man who similarly spoke out against the injustice of society, cared for the environment and stood with the marginalized — Francis of Assisi. As a school in the Franciscan tradition, it is wholly appropriate to invite someone who similarly mirrors those values — albeit through a different expression, perhaps — in an age when the message of both Francis and those like Jones are needed so acutely.

Jones was an entertaining speaker to be sure. Peppering his address with humorous lines, often at his own expense (particularly in light of the Fox News Network’s treatment of his reputation), Jones began with a recollection of his experience in law school and what led him to become so “radical;” namely, the injustice both of an economic and racial variety in the city of New Haven, Conn., he witnessed in law school. His remarks reminded me of a line from Lawrence Cunningham’s book Things Seen and Unseen (Ave Maria Press, 2010), that I’ve quoted here before:

The newspaper reported that someone just recently paid over $250,000 for a private parking space in some exclusive part of the city of Boston. A friend of mine once said: it is not the misery of the poor but the excesses of the rich that has turned him into a radical.

There were some memorable lines from last night’s lecture. One in particular, early in the address, referred to the experience Jones has had following the Beck troubles. Jones said, “People want to talk about the controversial views I don’t have and the controversial views I used to have, but I want to talk about the controversial views I have now.”

I thought that line was particularly striking because it, in my opinion, captures the tension behind Beck’s focus on Jones. In an effort to avoid the important and, in a way, prophetic views Jones currently has about clean energy and the economy, certain commentators prefer to discredit the speaker through distraction and misrepresentation.

In a manner befitting a Franciscan lecture series, Jones, speaking about the perils of the world’s current energy issues, made this keen observations: “you live in a human civilization powered by death!” How true! Fossil fuels, he noted, are created from dead organic matter going back 60 or 300 million years. No wonder we get death on that return, pollution of the earth and asthma in the lungs of children, to name but two consequences.

Instead, Jones said in a way that sounded a bit like Francis himself, “don’t look down into some [mine], but look up at the living sun…living wind.” What an apt image to consider — “clean” or “green” energy is really an energy that gives life and renews the earth. Why don’t we harness the Sun or the wind? Why do so many continue to support, through their complicit political or social agendas, the efforts of a few to monopolize the “energy of death?”

John Paul II was correct to talk about a “culture of death,” but I don’t think he realized how true that moniker was in relation to the way we power our communities. It is now time for a “culture of life,” beginning with clean energy and nonviolent transformation of society.

Photo: Dan Horan, OFM

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