Interviewing Reverend Stephen Du Bois


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Reverend Stephen Du Bois. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.

–Michael Albert

Stephen Du Bois, you were born in 2001. You were a seminary student at the time of the first RPS convention, and you later became a priest in a progressive church in San Francisco. Famous for your hunger strikes, you became highly influential and active in the development of RPS policies regarding religion and ecology. To start, I wonder, do you remember how you first became radical?

When I was 16 I read a book about global warming. I was mind blown. How could this happen. How could people allow it to happen. I then read more about ecology, and then about economy. Before long I was Green, then anti capitalist. I became a priest and started to become socially involved. It was natural to join RPS.

Can you remember a particular event or situation during the rise of RPS that was especially moving or inspiring for you?

I remember many. The Religious Renovations movement has defined my life, as but one example. But the thing that now comes to mind had to do, I guess a bit strangely, with rape and prostitution. I was a young pastor. I was taking confession from an equally young parishioner. She was incredibly distraught while confessing that desperate for income she had begun selling herself. She had endured rape, earlier, and now she was raped for a fee. She knew what was happening, with incredible accuracy, and she did it. She knew the price, and she paid it. She knew the future, and she abided it. She was miserable, but saw no other way to escape destitute hunger.

I heard the misery and pathos of it, and I was supposed to be strong in reply. Like a doctor over a dying patient I guess, I was not supposed to let it affect my countenance or my ability to reason, but it did. And it stayed with me and affected how I started seeing everything. For a time, it wasn’t so great. I saw pain everywhere. I saw vile injustice and inhumanity toward anyone who lacked means, everywhere. And I was furious at it. I don’t know if that was a necessary step, or not. But it was my path.

By the time RPS emerged, I still saw it all, felt it all, but now there was a positive aspect. I had fury, but also hope and direction. I was less into complaing and whining then earlier, and more into dogged work and striving. Without that young woman – and I have no idea, to my chagrin, whatever became of her – would I have become who I am? I don’t know. Maybe. But I doubt it. There but for her perhaps I would have been just another priest, turned off to the pathos he encountered save to do his “professional” duty.

Religious participation in social activism has been a constant, but so has religious opposition to change. How would you characterize the emergence of new religious activism in the early RPS period?

I would call it a continuation of what had been best in earlier religious involvement, as well as a challenge to what had been worst.

To extend the best, RPS enlarged the efforts of many religions and churches to directly challenge oppressive cultural and economic relations. To challenge the worst, RPS urged many religions and churches to jettison relations, beliefs, and rituals that mirrored social injustices and prevented practitioners from challenging those injustice or even made religious practitioners actively support them.

Can you give an example or two of each aspect as it was nearly 20 years ago, when RPS was first emerging?

First two examples of the best. Churches had become profoundly active in the Sanctuary Movements opposing Trump’s Islamophobia, Jingoism, and racism as RPS was being conceived and the first convention planned. At the same time, and following the same pattern, Churches expanded their efforts to address hunger and homelessness, but they didn’t only open their doors to provide holiday meals, or only support homeless shelters, or protect folks facing deportation, though they certainly did all those things. Two innovations occurred.

First, for people using the meals and housing or seeking sanctuary, many churches urged participation in skills development and discussion programs based largely on RPS insights. These learning programs were meant to empower those involved by conveying skills that could help them find a job and also seek social change. And the second innovation was that church members and clergy participated in those programs equally with the hungry and homeless participants, and then in local activist political campaigns as well. The impact on people who needed to become involved in efforts at change cannot be exaggerated.

Was this a bit like what right wing churches had been doing for many years?

In some ways, yes, and at the time I remember thinking quite hard about this possible criticism. The reactionary approach had been to steal and then bribe. First right wing politicians would eliminate social services to leave poor families desperate. Then mega churches would offer meeting spaces, food banks, social gathering places, job training, and so on. The condition of receiving the services was simple. Go along with the beliefs of the church, at least nominally – by attending services. Get some benefits but only if you ratify and even imbibe homophobia, sexism, and the rest. This was also the way of the fundamentalist madrases in Pakistan and indeed may even have arisen in the U.S. church community by emulating the fundamentalists abroad. Destroy public services. Supply replacements. Require fealty.

But isn’t what you were describing a left version of the same process?

In some ways, yes, which is why I had to think quite a lot about it before becoming a militant advocate for it. The difference was our approach was without coercion and had different content. When a poor person availed themselves of food or housing or other benefits that an RPS-oriented church offered, it was true they would be asked to participate in discussion circles and in training programs of diverse kinds, and then also in social struggle to win public delivery of the missing services as well as broader changes in society. But joining the efforts was optional. And the content of further involvement, if one chose to pursue it, wasn’t about isolating, ridiculing, and dominating others. It was about advancing one’s community while supporting other communities as well. If a Nazi party hands out a leaflet, and an anti war group hands out a leaflet, the acts are similar but not the same.

What about inward looking innovation?

Two examples come to mind of the many that arose in the Religious Renovations movements of the period. First was opening all roles in various churches to women which continued efforts already underway. Second, less a continuation and more an innovation, was aggressively questioning church hierarchy and wealth. Beyond providing emergency food and shelter, why not work to redistribute the gargantuan wealth accumulated by religious communities to the communities that constituted their constituencies? And, beyond including women as full participants, why not challenge the authoritarian nature of religious hierarchies and their power over those below, in essence, improving the positions so they would deserve female participation? All this started to get very serious not long after RPS started growing, and as you know, the trends have continued ever since.

At the time of the first RPS convention, what did you think ought to be the role of religions and belief in God?

I was still in school to become a pastor in a local church in a working class mixed race neighborhood in my home state of Ohio. I saw religion as a moral compass for society. I believed, already, that religion should steer clear of claims about how things are – such as religious anti-science – and should only provide values, and sometimes, when needed, insights about what social relations could deliver the sought values.

I also thought religions ought to embody what they preached, and the history of violence and sexual predation of even my own religion was incredibly disconcerting to me.

I thought the God aspect was a matter for each person to navigate as they chose. If one person devoutly believed in god but had a value system that served him or her but forsook everyone else, and another person did not believe in god, devoutly or otherwise, but had a value system that served all equally, I felt the moral atheist was a far better model of what we needed for the future than the self serving theist.

More, no one I went to school with ever explicitly disagreed with that while they were a student, yet the church, including our schooling and the hierarchy we were headed for, did of course disagree with it.

I guess you could say I was ready for a new type of religious commitment even before its wide arrival.

How did religious involvements start to alter, in practice, as RPS grew? What were some of the important milestone steps along the way?

It was different in different regions, but overall, rituals began to accord better with social values, which themselves also began to alter.

Milestones? Women becoming priests was a big one. Just imagine an otherwise caring priest or parishioner, much less a higher official, who firmly believed that women priests would destroy religion, trying to relate to parishioners who would no longer attend if that stance persisted, and with students who considered such views insane, albeit they tried to be civil about it. This was tumultuous, and yet in Church time, it happened very quickly, just as gay marriage advances had earlier been absent and then complete, albeit subject to continuing attack, in a very short span. Of course, there had been endless earlier conflict, but the surge of recent success was undeniably quick. The unstated assumptions or habits, as well as the emblazoned beliefs of religions fractured and in doing so revealed the limited sense in which the fears of people who were trying to hold on to old ways were warranted.

When a fundamental feature of some institution is assaulted and finally overcome and replaced, a broader lesson is learned. Change is possible. The immovable moves. The insurmountable is surmounted. Those fearing that changes in some horrible aspect that they too didn’t even like would spread to many other aspects that they did like, had a point. Change can indeed unleash more change. The task of the left was not to deny that truth, but to admit it and take responsibility for ensuring that all ensuing change was good.

The massive outpouring of activism across religions in the multi city, many million person marches that simultaneously ratified both religious freedom and religious devotion to social justice, was another incredible milestone. This time the implicit message was that our sacrosanct old ways really are old and often habitual. They sometimes not only lacked sound moral and logical foundation, they even lacked support. We, the people were ready to revolutionize our lives and our religions. Of course when various major leaders like the Pope got on board with demands for change, that helped speed things up.

What was the role of your personal hunger strike in all this? And what about controversy and opposition? How did that emerge and what was done to address it? 

As for the hunger strike, I think it generated a lot of visibility and provoked many conversations leading to new views for people. I did it in 2023 to reform church practices.

As to opposition, well, as you can imagine, there were two main kinds. On the one hand, those high in various religious communities did not want to surrender their power and influence, nor their elevated living conditions. Their hostility to me while I was doing the strike shook me, I admit, and of course persisted into opposing our marches and other endeavors and policy changes. However, no one literally said they wanted to preserve their own elevated circumstances. You could read it in some people’s words and actions, but they would claim that they were trying to avoid dissolution of faith and a collapse of morality that would harm everyone, especially those least prepared to withstand it. But the same people would often act in ways that displayed not the slightest concern for precisely the people in less well off communities. So, if concern for denigrated people wasn’t really operative, and it often wasn’t, what was left? Self interest was the obvious answer. But, in fact, most often, when I actually talked to people to try to hear their thinking, I found it wasn’t solely self interest at work, even for defenders of the past.

For one, I realized that those who were benefitting materially from their place in religious hierarchies weren’t the only source of resistance to change. Instead there were huge numbers of parishioners as well, including ones who were horribly poor, who resisted each and every innovation, including even innovations that would very clearly materially and socially benefit them. How could I explain that? How could I explain when a poor parishioner would be hostile to my hunger strike against poverty, or to our marches?

Consider someone who believes in some value or norm, say the person you have in mind is anti war. Along comes a war. Suppose society overwhelmingly supports it. The anti war person can support it, shut up, or oppose it. The last of these options could incur social ostracism, perhaps loss of a job, or perhaps even jail. Yet, such a person would often choose to oppose the war. Why?

Well, it isn’t open and shut. There is more than one possible explanation. Suppose the person has a bunch of like minded friends. Maybe retaining their friendship is a more powerful pressure than fearing broader social ostracism or jail. In that case the choice to oppose the war may have had little to do with attitudes to war per se. Or suppose the person had become so vested in peace beliefs and habits that to renounce them intuitively seems like a kind of psychological suicide that is reflexively rejected. Or perhaps the person truly believes in the morality and necessity of peace, and pursues the implications of that belief.

Now suppose we return to a parishioner resisting innovative views about marriage, abortion, or obedience and initiative, and getting hostile to those seeking changes. Clearly any number of factors analogous to those mentioned for our hypothetical opponent of war could push his or her choice.

Our culture tends to impose on us a habit of assuming the worst about others. In this case, that would be to assume people defending old ways do so only out of narrow self interest or vile personal attitudes. But the worst possibility, while sometimes partly accurate, isn’t always completely accurate and is sometimes totally inaccurate. To reflexively take the worst explanation for granted without its having serious supporting evidence, is therefore not only often wrong, but also always unfair.

For these reasons, we who sought religious change against some parishioner opposition by and large assumed the best of our adversaries and tried to calmly, patiently, and supportively address the resistance we encountered on its own stated terms. As we know, the results, though still in process, have been admirable and desirable.

How has your thought on the place of religion in society changed over the past 20 years? When you think about the future of religion after RPS fully succeeds, what do you see?

I don’t know that my thought about religion has changed very much. Twenty years ago I knew it made zero sense that there were all these views of god, different from one another, held by different religions. The idea that one view was right and the rest were wrong was downright silly.

I used to watch athletes perform wonderfully and then thank god. It wasn’t just the incredible egoism that bothered me. I wondered what they thought would be the reason god pushed them higher, or faster, or whatever, then he pushed their opponent. I was pretty certain that they couldn’t possibly believe what their words suggested. This was often just people playing a role to retain credibility. But, I also knew that you are what you do, and if you play a role often enough, eventually you commit to it, often incredibly tenaciously. Clearly, all were equally wrong in touting that their god was true and everyone else’s god was false, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t make themselves feel that they were right about it. And nor did their coming to feel right about it alter that any priest who ratified their views was largely standing naked.

I knew that what actually mattered about any religion was the worthy values it extolled and whichever rituals and relations flexibly embodied, taught, and applied those values. I knew that completely dismissing religion was a fool’s errand, because dismissal had no prospect in real human interrelations. Humanity was not going to forego religion, meaning shared values and consistent rituals and celebrations, nor should it. Having various cultural codifications of moral sentiment and attitudes was a good and needed aspect of life.

I guess the thing I didn’t have clarity about years back, and that I hadn’t really come to terms with, was the role of ritual in it all. Was there a place for well conceived rituals? Was it reasonable to require abiding rituals as a condition for involvement in some religion? I am still not sure about that. On the one hand, rituals provide a sense of shared experience and community, and, if they embody sought values, then they are also a positive learning experience and reminder. On the other hand, it is very hard for mandatory rituals not to become impositions demanding obedience. Where to draw the line, and how, I am still unclear about – and I think RPS is too.

I hope a conception of flexible and growth oriented ritual emerges, where there is a burden of proof on rejecting what has a heritage of success, but there is also a positive valuation for questioning everything, so that ritual too can be improved. But can an old version of a ritual and a different new version, or even a complete replacement, coexist simultaneously in one religion? That is not so easy to answer.

As far as the implications of a full RPS success for religion, I think many are evident in the changes so far. There will still be diverse religions. Many will still identify with and to greater or lesser extents relate to religious rituals. But each religion will respect the efficacy of the rest. And the heart of the matter will be the values extolled and lived. No religion will think it ought to imperially spread and wipe out others. No will any religion need to circle the wagons and fight for survival because society will collectively guarantee the rights of religions to persist and will provide means to ensure it. Diversity will be a value all comprehend and support.

Stephen, how did you become deeply involved in ecological activism?

I happened to be in Haiti during a massive hurricane in 2016. I saw water swamp hopes, wipe out homes, and take lives. It was devastating. And it was not just depressing, but frightening, and then, in short order, infuriating. The last emotion, not so priest like, I felt for a few reasons. On the one hand the local poverty and lack of serious international help made the damage even more devastating than the winds entailed. On the other hand, I realized due to directly experiencing it, that the storm itself wasn’t just nature howling. This storm and so many others like it since, have owed significantly to corporate elites making earth distorting decisions.

I was only 15 for that hurricane, but I had already heard a bit about global warming and climate change in school and from my parents. Still, I was a kid, and everything seemed possible, and nothing seemed so bad that I should be deterred from my daily wants. I had personal world’s to conquer. Global warming was beyond my reach. But the hurricane changed that.

I was right there. I felt its fury. I couldn’t say to it, okay, I have had enough, stop already. It was relentless. I now had an experience to go with what I had read about global warming. Global warming wasn’t just scientific blather and paranoia or fear mongering. It wasn’t abstract and exaggerated. It was horrendous disasters crushing humans and places. It was as real as rain.

I had a hard time even righting myself from the experience. If you haven’t been in a really major storm, it is shattering, assuming you allow the whole thing to register. And I did. And so I was shattered. But then I gained back some equilibrium, and I started to read about the interconnections of living things and their environments, and about the effects of human choices on the environment.

If being in the storm was frightening, and it was, then reading and thinking about global warming, as compared to my prior practice of just letting it all slide by, was even more frightening. Calls for action weren’t alarmist. If we didn’t change our ways, devastation would rain down from the skies and rise up from the oceans. It would be even greater than the horrors of war, which, I was also coming to understand, were almost incalculable.

So, I became Green, and then seriously radical.

Did you feel there was a turning point from just witnessing ecological decline to being on a path toward ecological success?

I think that that is a very good way to pose the question because it perfectly captures the reality. The more I read the more it felt that most people were either delusionally denying the obvious, or that they admitted it at least somewhat, but just went on about their lives in the belief that whatever will be will be. Doing anything to affect the possibilities was beyond them. It was the alienation of our times.

I soon realized this was precisely the popular state of mind a corrupt, unjust, and in this case effectively suicidal system needed in order to maintain its ways without serious interruption. Yet even knowing that didn’t always prevent people being quiet. People knew, often, the situation, and even its utility for elites. But so what? They still felt powerless, albeit also sad. I soon realized that to alter our deadly trajectory people would have to see a clear path to a better situation. They would have to see how they could lend their energies so their contribution would matter.

Which is why I think the turning point was significant sectors of the population not only believing in the reality and immense danger of global warming and, indeed, of ecological dissolution more broadly, but also realizing there was a route to survival and dignity that they could meaningfully contribute to.

Of course, some people honestly thought getting a long lasting light bulb or keeping the thermostat down, or taking short showers, was all they could or should concern themselves with. But most people knew that was barely even stop gap. Most people knew the economy had to transform away from fossil fuels toward carbon free renewable energy – among many other changes. And most people knew that such transformations would require massive public pressure.

So the issue for each person was, can I contribute to generating that pressure within my means, and worth my time, given my impact? And this possibility, even this inevitability of their own personal efficacy, is what RPS had to get people to see if they would become part of the broad movements and of RPS itself. But when that message got through to millions of people – not reams of documentation about climate disasters and prospects, but a simple message about the changes that could correct the faults and especially the behaviors that would make change likely – I think we passed the turning point.

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