This is chapter twelve of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. In its twealth chapter Peter Cabral and Rev. Stephen Du Bois discuss athletic and religious renovation.
Peter Cabral, born in 1978, you were a militant anti racist activist focused on police violence, prison policy, and inmate organizing. You were active in ensuring that RPS program and culture nourished seeds of a racism-free intercommunalism. After a time in prison, you became a tireless speaker, organizer, and activist for legal change. You served as Secretary of the Interior in RPS shadow government and you were also a professional ballplayer for a time. Long before RPS emerged, various athletes have stood up for social justice but with RPS things took a dramatic turn. I am sure a great deal was like it was for actors and Hollywood. What was different?
I would guess that as hard as it was for actors to radicalize, athletes had greater difficulty. You see, a high proportion of us came from intensely poor circumstances. Once successful, we supported not only ourselves, but our extended families of relatives and friends. Our educational background tended to be less than that of Hollywood actors, but our sense of entitlement tended to be even higher.
Hollywood actors often started as outsiders, ridiculed, without work, sharing apartments. Successful athletes, and star athletes in particular, often grew up poorer, but typically received special treatment from high school on. So athletes typically had lower income origins, less education and more responsibility for others who they know, and, by way of those ties and also their own past, a greater level of connection to criminality and oppressive culture, yet athletes also typically enjoyed a more rewarded path. We were celebrated and even worshipped much earlier in life than actors.
All that made athletes’ and actors’ situations different. What made athletes’ and actors’ situations similar was our success, whenever it came, conveyed to us feelings of immense worth and specialness. Both successful actors and successful athletes tended to think we fully deserved our incredibly inflated incomes and stature.
A few athletes took the lead when RPS emerged, just as a few athletes had related to Black Lives Matter and anti Trumpism earlier than other athletes. But, as with Hollywood, instead of relating only as individuals, athletes involvement after RPS emerged came through a range of’ athletes’ organizations, the largest of which pursued campus organizing for college athletes and professional organizing in the large sports. But we also had neighborhood organizing focused on stadium use as well as parents organizing focused on the cultural deviance of youth athletics. We had extensive organizing around safety and for respect and income in semi pro and minor leagues.
Athletes faced severe work conditions once one took into account health risks. This began with football concussions but awareness grew dramatically with the emergence of RPS. Oscar winners and others involved in films didn’t wind up crippled or dead before their time, athletes did.
For athletes to begin to renounce our wealth and status meant challenging the logic of sports itself. It led us to question why performing at a higher level got more income. Of course this was no different than questioning the link between output and income throughout the economy, but in the case of athletics it was more graphic.
How did you understand the role of athletes in society at the time of the RPS first convention, and later?
As a successful but rookie ballplayer, I knew athletes worked with intense focus to hone our abilities and perform under great pressure. I was fine with the idea that income should track our differences in achievement. Of course, in time I realized not only that it shouldn’t, but that it didn’t. It tracked, instead, differences in power.
I also relished all the perks that society’s preoccupation with athletics conveyed, not least access to sexual favors, free goods, and endless praise. I later realized, the preoccupation revealed a society so economically skewed that it made sense for people to try to befriend or even seduce us. The whole system – and not just how we conducted ourselves when reacting to it – needed to change.
I saw the early moves by athletes to take less income in order to support their team having funds to get additional good players. On the one hand it was obscenely ludicrous. I will take 160 million instead of 210 million for five years because I support my team. On the other hand, in the perverse context these star athletes inhabited, it was a big step. It also proved to be a slippery slope. If you would take a third less to seek more wins, how about giving away half, or two thirds, or 95% to save lives and win more justice?
Like for Hollywood activists, we too had to become confident representing RPS views and to learn how to deal with our ridiculous income and the media. We began to give away large sums not only to charities, but also to RPS and other radical projects. We seriously considered the world around us. We made our first informed social judgements.
What were some of the key events for a new kind of athletics emerging?
The football player boycotts and political actions of basketball players were big, but I think the organizing among student athletes was even more important because it was so quickly rooted in organization and militance that provided a model for the pros.
A case might be made that the first step was when the quarterback, Colin Kaepernik, opposed police violence by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. That prodded so much personal soul searching. And when he started giving donations to organizations with similar agendas, his teammates heavily praised his choices. But I think the key was not one thing happening and then another, and another, with no connection among them, but when each event and project started to see itself as part of a larger process that was all of them together. This not only strengthened each individual effort, it broadened them. Collectivity made it all matter.
Soon athletes were not individually pursuing an agenda solely rooted in their own personal experience. I think that was the main RPS contribution. We went from “do the expected thing personal optics,” to “take a stand for better situations for ourselves and others,” to “join together to win change for all.” RPS vision and practice enlarged athlete’s perceptions and aspirations causing athletic activism to become more strategic, coherent, and sustained.
Do you think the Olympics battles were a factor?
Certainly. Athletes sought to bring social concerns into the Olympics starting strongly in 2020 and then overwhelmingly in 2024. Athletes began fraternizing and shunning glorification and commercialization. We began to take back sports for those doing and appreciating, and away from those commodifying and profiting.
Rio’s travails, on top of those of Athens, London, and other cities became so pronounced for the bulk of their citizens, that the constant clamor by elites to get games for geopolitical and profit-seeking reasons became swamped by the correct beliefs of populations that it would happen at their expense. When athletes supported resistant communities by saying they would no longer participate if the events gutted sponsoring cities, the movement to have the games repeatedly dispersed to a bunch of cities simultaneously, with each city hosting the same single theme every four years, and with each using only venues based on existing structures or built at international expense in a manner designed to be of lasting local value, grew overwhelming.
At first pundits, athletes, and fans complained that with gymnastics in one city, track and field in another, and swimming in another, there would be no single gathering of all 10,000 or more athletes in one place. We would lose some scope of the opening and closing TV events. The complaint was correct, but it was also correct that we would gain a sane, locally beneficial and more humane set of events.
The battle for decentralizing, like almost every other battle once the proposals of RPS existed, was partly a battle for going toward RPS. But it was also beneficial in the present.
How do you think full RPS success in the future will alter athletics for athletes and fans?
I don’t think the way we view an athletic contest or achievement will alter much. A beautiful shot or hit, a timely catch, a great race, will still uplift us. What will change is our view of the athletes. We will still admire great talent and focus, but we will no longer think a person should be made rich on account of it. If it is morally and economically sound for income to be for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor at balanced jobs, then that applies not only to assembly work, farming, and doctoring, but to athletics too.
Going further, many people have been exploring the benefits of non-competitive sports and even considering what competition is and what it should become in the new society we are building. There is still plenty to resolve, but we know the basics. Excellence and accomplishment will persist even as giant material rewards for excellence and accomplishment fade and finally disappear.
Stephen Du Bois, 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 in developing RPS policies regarding religion and ecology. Do you remember how you first became radical?
When I was 16, I read a book about global warming. I was blown away. How could people allow this to happen? I then read more about ecology and economy. Before long I was trying to reverse global warming, then to combat market violations of the environment. Then I was anti capitalist. My personal and school trajectory led to becoming a priest and as an anti capitalist pastor, I became socially involved and joined RPS.
Can you remember a particular event during the rise of RPS that was especially moving or inspiring for you?
The Religious Renovations movement defined my life, but the event that first comes to mind had to do with rape and prostitution. I was a young pastor taking confession from an even younger parishioner. She was incredibly distraught confessing that, desperate for income, she had begun selling herself. She had endured rape, earlier, and now said she was “raped for a fee.” She knew the degradation and endured it. She abided her grim future. She was miserable, but saw no other way. She had to choose between commercial rape and destitute hunger. Yet, she also fought to make the best of her seemingly inescapable lot. She had courage and discipline for her fatherless daughter.
Like a doctor over a dying patient, I was forbidden to let this young woman’s plight affect my reasoning. But the moment stayed with me and affected how I started seeing everything. I suddenly saw pain everywhere. I saw injustice and inhumanity toward everyone who lacked means. I was furious. I don’t know if it was a necessary step, but it was my step.
I learned more from the young prostitute’s experience. A person trapped by circumstances often hammers out an existence which they take pride in and often come to see as natural and worthy. They may even begin to defend, protect, and celebrate their situation rather than trying to escape it. Once you understand that possibility it becomes visible everywhere, including in yourself. Robbed of well being and freedom, we learn to get by for ourselves and our families. We take justified pride in navigating deprivation and denial, but then even begin to fear its end. Organizers needed to understand that reaching people is often a more delicate task than we had earlier understood.
By the time RPS emerged, I had hope. I complained and whined less. I organized. But without that young mateless mother would I have become who I am? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I may have done my “professional” duty lockstep with religious dogma and church structure.
Religious participation in social activism has been widespread forever, but so has religious opposition to change. How would you characterize the emergence of new religious activism in the early RPS period?
Our new activism continued what had been best in earlier religious involvement, but also challenged what had been worst. To extend the best, we enlarged the efforts of many religions and churches against oppressive cultural and economic relations. To challenge the worst, we urged many religions and churches to jettison whichever of their relations, beliefs, and rituals mirrored societal injustices and prevented practitioners from challenging those injustices.
Can you give some examples of each aspect when RPS was emerging?
First, two examples of the best. When RPS was being conceived and planned, churches had become profoundly active in the Sanctuary Movements that opposed Trump’s islamophobia and racism. At the same time, churches had begun expanding our efforts to address hunger and homelessness. But we didn’t only open our doors to provide holiday meals or homeless shelters, or to protect folks facing deportation. Two innovations took our activism further.
First, for people using the meals and housing or seeking sanctuary, we urged participation in skills development and discussion programs based largely on RPS insights. These learning programs empowered those involved by giving them skills that could help them find a job and seek social change. The second innovation was that church members and clergy participated in those programs alongside the hungry and homeless, and then in local activist campaigns as well. The impact on people who needed to become involved in efforts at change cannot be exaggerated.
Wasn’t this a bit like what right wing churches had been doing for years?
In some ways, yes, and at the time I remember thinking quite hard about that. The reactionary approach had been steal, and then bribe. Right-wing politicians would eliminate social services thereby making impoverished families desperate. Then, mega churches would offer meeting spaces, food banks, social gathering places, and job training. The condition of receiving the services was go along with the beliefs of the church by attending services. Get benefits only if you ratify and even imbibe homophobia and sexism. 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 before advocating it. The difference was when a low income or homeless person availed themselves of food, housing, or other benefits from an RPS-oriented church, joining our other efforts was optional And the content of further involvement wasn’t isolating, ridiculing, and dominating others. We advanced our community and supported other communities as well.
What about inward looking innovation?
Two examples come to mind. First, building on past efforts, we opened all church roles to women. Second, beyond providing emergency food and shelter, we asked, why not also redistribute the gargantuan wealth accumulated by religions to their constituencies? Similarly, beyond including women as full participants, why not challenge the authoritarian nature of religious hierarchies and their power over those below? Why not improve religious responsibilities so they deserved female participation?
All this began not long after RPS started growing and the trends have continued ever since. There is no way to quickly communicate the personal turmoil, conflicts, and awakenings that these pursuits provoked. Religious renovation wasn’t a tweak here and there. Basic beliefs were transcended. We underwent real rebirth.
Our work didn’t just alter religious practices, it also addressed religious constituencies. And toward the latter, we were never dismissive and always respectful. We avoided the kind of anti-religious tone so prevalent earlier on the left. We rejected the idea that deeply religious communities, even ones who dismissed science and abided some outrageous customs were so different and so backward that communication was forever impossible. We had two reasons.
First, thinking we are two incompatible worlds was suicidal for winning real change. You can’t attain a participatory society while denigrating, writing off, and making enemies of much of the population.
Second, such dismissiveness was arrogant and ignorant, really it was lazy. Of course conversation and change was possible and, however difficult, absolutely necessary.
At the time of the first RPS convention, what did you think should 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 religion should avoid claims about how things are – such as being anti-science – and instead provide values and, when needed, insights about compatible social relations. I thought religions ought to practice what they preached. The history sexual predation within even my own religion was incredibly disconcerting to me. It almost prevented my becoming a priest.
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 no one else, and another person did not believe in God, but had a value system that served all equally, I felt the morally admirable atheist was a better model than the self serving theist. I also thought an arrogant, dismissive atheist was no model at all. You might be surprised to hear that most students I went to school with agreed, yet the church existed precisely to root such sentiments out of us..
How did religious involvements start to alter, in practice, as RPS grew? What were some important steps along the way?
It was different in different regions but, overall, rituals began to accord better with social values, which in turn also began to alter. Women becoming priests was a big milestone. Just imagine an otherwise caring priest or parishioner, much less a higher church official, who firmly believed that female priests would destroy religion. Think of him trying to relate to enlightened parishioners who would no longer attend if women weren’t elevated and with aroused students who considered his views not only antiquated but immoral.
The awakening was tumultuous, and yet in Church time, it happened suddenly just as gay marriage advances had earlier been sudden, albeit subject to continuing attack. Of course the change emerged from endless earlier conflict, but the surge of recent successes was undeniably quick. The unstated overall assumptions, habits, and emblazoned beliefs of religions fractured.
When any fundamental feature of some institution is assaulted and finally replaced, a broader lesson is that change happens. The immovable moves. The insurmountable is surmounted. Conservatives feared that changes in some single horrible aspect that they too didn’t even like would spread to many other aspects as well, and they had a point. Specific change can unleash general change. The task of the left was to admit the possibility and take responsibility for ensuring that all the ensuing change was good.
The massive outpouring of activism across religions in the multi-city, mass marches that simultaneously ratified both religious freedom and religious attention to social justice, was another milestone. This time the implicit message was that our sacrosanct ways really are archaic and largely habitual. Huge numbers of religious people were ready for change. When the Pope also demanded change, especially while respecting the affected base of religious participants, change quickened, but desires of the many drove it.
What was the role of your personal hunger strike? And what about controversy and opposition to change?
I held the hunger strike in 2023 to reform church practice, but the countless acts of parishioners were far more important and also more difficult to undertake. After all, I always had support, praise, and was never stepping out on a limb I couldn’t step back off. Others stepped out with way less support.
As to opposition, we encountered two main kinds. On the one hand, those high in various religious communities refused to surrender their power, influence, and elite living conditions. Their virulent hostility while I was fasting shook me, as did their opposing our marches and other endeavors. These opponents never said they wanted to preserve their own circumstances. They claimed they were fighting a dissolution of faith and collapse of morality but I had a hard time hearing that because the same people who claimed such virtuous motivation displayed not the slightest concern for people in worse off communities. But if they weren’t moved by concerns for denigrated people, what was left? Self interest was the obvious answer.
And yet when I actually talked to people to try to discern their thinking, I found more than self interest at work. Those who were benefitting materially from their place in religious hierarchies weren’t the only ones resisting change. Huge numbers of parishioners, including poor parishioners, also resisted even innovations that would materially and socially benefit them. How could I explain when a poor parishioner would attack my hunger strike against poverty?
Consider someone who believes in some value, say she 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, despite the costs, such a person often chooses to oppose the war. Why?
Suppose the person had investments that would suffer from this war. Maybe his opposition was self serving and only for this case. Or suppose the person had a bunch of like-minded friends. Maybe retaining their friendship was a more powerful pressure than fearing broader social ostracism or jail. Or suppose the person had become so vested in peace beliefs that to violate them felt like psychological suicide. Or perhaps the person sincerely believed in the morality and necessity of peace, and pursued the implications of that belief.
Now return to a parishioner who resists innovative views about marriage, abortion, or obedience and initiative. Various factors analogous to those mentioned for our hypothetical opponent of war could push his or her choice, yet our culture tends to impose on us a habit of assuming that people defending old ways do so only out of narrow self interest or vile personal attitudes.
Instead, when RPS sought religious change we assumed the best of our adversaries and tried to calmly and supportively address the resistance we encountered on its own stated terms. But without compromise. As we know, the results, though still in process, have been desirable.
What do you see as the future of religion after RPS fully succeeds?
I used to watch athletes perform and then thank God. It wasn’t just the incredible egotism that bothered me. I wondered why they thought God would push them higher, or faster, or whatever, than he pushed their opponent. I was pretty certain that they couldn’t possibly believe what their words suggested. To my eyes, this was people playing a role to retain credibility and defend identity. But, I also knew that you are what you do, and if you play a role often enough, long enough, eventually you commit to it. Clearly, all the athletes 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.
I knew that what actually mattered about any religion was the worthy values it extolled and whichever rituals flexibly taught and applied those values. I felt dismissing religion had little prospect in real human interrelations and only antagonized religious communities. Humanity would never fully forego 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. What I didn’t have clarity about years back, was the role of ritual. Were there well conceived rituals? Should we require abiding rituals as a condition for involvement in some religion? I am still not sure about that.
Positively, rituals can provide shared experience and community, and offer a learning experience. Negatively, rituals can become inflexible impositions demanding obedience. I hope a workable conception of flexible, growth-oriented ritual emerges. I favor having a burden of proof on rejecting what has a heritage of success, but I also favor seeking improvement. Can an old version of a ritual and a different new version, or even a complete replacement, coexist simultaneously in one religion? That’s a hard question.
What will full RPS success mean for religion? Surely we will still have diverse religions and many people will still identify with and celebrate religious rituals. But just as surely each religion will respect the efficacy of the rest and the heart of the matter will be the values extolled and lived. As with all cultural communities, no religion will need to circle its wagons and fight for survival. Society will collectively guarantee the rights of religions and all cultural communities to persist and will provide means to ensure it.