On this episode Heather joins Rev. Willie Francois at his church Mt Zion Baptist in Pleasantville NJ to talk cannabis, capitalism, human nature, and philosophy
Great Respect for Rev. Francois
Since Heather is traditionally quite critical of Christianity, if she has a religious leader on the show, it really speaks highly of her respect for the person. This is 100% the case with Rev. Francois. He has been serving the Mt Zion family for 3 years and has come to know and deeply care about the communities of Pleasantville and Atlantic City. It shows in everything he does to speak for justice for these communities.
What does Pleasantville look like?
Pleasantville is about 6 miles outside of the entertainment capital of Atlantic City. The local economy is completely tied to the economy of the neighboring city. 40% of city residents are employed in the casino industry. It is a small town of roughly 20,000 residents, predominately black and brown. The 2010 census put the city at about 50% black and about 40% latinx. In recent years those numbers have shifted to being predominately latinx.
Deep Poverty Zone
Pleasantville is also a deeply impoverished town especially since the crash of 08. Unemployment is 11.9% which is 7 points above the national average. The high school graduation rate is about 70% which is well below the state average of 90.5%. 29% of residents live below the poverty line. In Atlantic County it is completely a gig economy. The community is plagued by all the trappings of being economically disadvantaged such as crime rate and being a food dessert. Displacement due to gentrification of Atlantic City has concentrated the poverty in Pleasantville. These are the demographics of the community Rev. Francois serves
Loss of Vitality
Since the state considers them a high poverty zone, it removes them from funding for affordable housing. The state’s goal is to move people out of poverty areas in wealthy areas, which causes a displacement from community and people. A community is made up of its people, and it causes real trauma to be forced out of your home.
No Real Community Development
There is no economic development happening for the residents of Pleasantville. The school district has been under state monitor for over a decade. Rev. Francois comments on corruption in the school board and that we are literally gambling with the future of black and brown communities.
Stolen Land; Stolen People
This is just another iteration in our country’s long history of white supremacy and radical displacement of black and brown people. It what the country is built on. It is no surprise that gentrification happens in minority communities which displaces non-white people. Mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline is another form of that displacement. Our country’s legacy is the terror of displacement of native bodies or the trafficking of black bodies for slavery.
Trauma of Gentrification
People in Atlantic City are being priced out of their homes in the name of urban revitalization. In many cities including Atlantic City, community is not interest based it is place based. Families have invested generations into the development of a community. Memories of growing up and forming relationship on certain streets form your life and history. There is a real trauma when families are involuntarily displaced from “Home”. It damages people for an increase in the value of property. This is a significant form of economic exploitation under capitalism.
Strange Bedfellows: Capitalism and Christianity
Heather brings up how in so many religious beliefs capitalism equates to goodness, when really, it’s the exact opposite. Rev. Francois explains his journey of how he became critical of capitalism as a part of expressing his faith. He mentions people like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Dr King as helping him deconstruct our economic arrangement and forecast what type we should have.
A Dangerous Marriage
Rev. Francois calls it a dangerous marriage between global Christianity and global capitalism. It spreads all the worst that western society has to offer. He also suggests the work of Cornel West as having deeply influenced him. These thinkers helped him come to understand how capitalism exploits human bodies and although it demands work it does not dignify what it means to work.
Does Marx Find Inspiration In Religion?
The Reverend proposed that Marx found some of his inspiration in Acts 2 of the bible. This early form of a Jesus community talks of pooling resources and having all thing in common and seems deeply anti-capitalist. This was a subversive community in the empire. The early collective economics is what Rev. Francois calls Pentecost economics. In this community, poverty is eradicated because there are no rich or poor or any type of class. He also compares it to an Ubuntu philosophy. This collective is centered on radical equality and radical egalitarianism. That is how he knows the Jesus movement and at its heart it is anti-capitalist.
The Dangers of Prosperity Theology
This strange and dangerous philosophy suggests that poverty exists because of lack of faith. This lets the system off the hook for all the failings of society and places the blame on individuals for being poor. It masks that you can not have capitalism without a permanent under caste. It is required for its very existence. Capitalism undermines the myth of the American dream and economic mobility. That dream is the opposite of the capitalist agenda. It uses racial and gender disparity as a way of forcing this under caste. We perpetuate this debt-based thinking, but we know it to be untrue. It creates contrived competition among workers. If we have resources to bail out banks, then we have resources to share amongst the working class.
What is Human Nature?
Often when Heather identifies herself as a socialist or communist, the knee jerk reaction is to tell her that its against human nature. That humans are selfish or greedy. So, Heather asks Rev. Francois to define his view of Human Nature. For him, human nature is goodness. It is direct manifestation of the goodness of a higher consciousness or a God. All humanity is created in the image of an ultimate source of goodness, light, love, and creativity. To be a physical manifestation of that makes us beautiful and we are disabused and dehumanized of that birthright. Rev. Francois mentions the early writings of Doctor King about personalism which affirms the inherent good of the person.
3/5th of a Person
Rev. Francois then brings up what to Heather is one of the most impactful statements of the entire interview. People of color have systemically been dehumanized by the structures in place in society. They were trafficked here as a commodity for sale, then it was written into the early language of the country that people of color are not fully human. Then on top of that there is the religious tradition that speak of human depravity and inherently sin. He speaks about how his ancestors had to fight to become recognized as fully human and then once they finally attain that, then they were slapped in the face with the story that being human is not valuable. That it is depraved and flawed. Its another way of dehumanizing those who have been robbed of their humanity.
Heather and Rev. Francois then transition to his cannabis activism. It is one of his main activism outlets on a state level. The prohibition of cannabis is based deeply in white supremacy. Henry Anslinger, who was the original drug czar in the 20s would say things like “It is cannabis that causes a black man to look a white man in the eye” and he created this deeply racist fear mongering that marijuana makes black men go crazy and sleep with white women. Henry Anslinger appealed to every deeply racist troupe and paranoia in his effort to criminalize cannabis.
A Racist Prohibition
The prohibition does not come from a place of safety but of social control of non-white bodies. Rev. Francois’ activism is committed to ending the terror of incarceration and from a deep sense of social justice. He speaks about the repair that needs to be done to for communities. This can not just be a tool to fuel capitalism but must be a tool for community repair.
A Cannabis Forum
Keep an eye out because Heather, Rev. Francois, and Henry Green are in the process of organizing a community forum on cannabis. We will post the details on New Jersey Revolution Radio as they develop.
Other Avenues of Activism in the Church
He also speaks about other issues important to him such as restoring voting rights to those who have finished serving their time in prison. He also mentions the importance of having an id that is accessible to everyone. The church has quarterly townhalls about social justice and activism. They seek to counter the religious right and reclaim the activist tradition of black churches to counter then with the religious left. They also will be working on the dignity of work and a job guarantee. There is no good or bad jobs and all work has dignity and all jobs should pay a living wage. It makes no sense for someone to work 40 or 50 hours a week and still be poor.