After writing my last column regarding the legacy of Doctor King, I read about the demise of Abbe Pierre. He was 94 years of age. Very few Americans are aware of who this great man was. Anyone who spent any length of time in France, as I have, would be saddened with the news of his death. Pierre was the most admired Frenchman in opinion polls for almost two decades. Then, he refused the media polls to allow his name to be listed. He was a French priest and patriot.
As a resistance fighter, Pierre helped many Jews escape Nazi tyranny. He also helped General de Gaulle's paralyzed brother escape France. He delivered radio messages to the French during the war. He wrote columns under the name of "Georges" for the resistance cause. Arrested in Spain, helping people escape occupied France, Pierre was released through the intervention of a powerful Spanish bishop. He was sheltered by the Red Cross and escaped to Gibraltar and finally Algiers, then a French province. General de Gaulle thanked this priest for his radio messages that were not completely approved by the Vatican. After the war, Vatican officials often did not approve of his statements regarding sexuality and papal customs. He had the "anticlericalism of the saints" as the French say. He was elected to the French Chamber of Deputies. Priests are not encouraged to be partisan political activists in the Roman Catholic tradition. They are forbidden to be members of Congress, for instance. Father Robert Drinan, who recently died, was a congressman from Massachusetts, who had to leave Congress after the Vatican ordered him to do so. Pierre remained in the French Chamber of Deputies until 1952. When he received the Croix de Guerre from de Gaulle in 1945, he complained about the need for adequate milk supplies for French children. He knew how to use an occasion to further his objectives. De Gaulle was angry because the war was not completely over and the priest was speaking about milk for babies. Pierre did not feel all discussion regarding social needs and justice must cease because of a war. In 1947, Pierre founded Emmaus House, which was a place for the homeless and poor. Charles Chaplin and many other international personalities gave to Pierre's new charitable efforts. He was often on French radio and television. In 1969 Emmaus International was founded. One particular radio message in 1952 became a classic message similar to Dr. King's dream speech. During a bitter French winter when the homeless froze to death on the streets, he challenged the entire French nation, believer or not, to show solidarity to those in need. The nation met the priest's challenge.
Pierre felt a civilized society is measured by the treatment of the outcast. "La misére qui juge le monde" he said. ("Our world will be judged by the poor") When I was a young man visiting my uncle in France, Pierre, interviewed on a news program, stated all governments, both of the right or left, engage in wealth distribution. This does not speak well of our federal government that neglects the needs of the poor, homeless, disabled, orphans and foster children, the evacuees of natural disasters, and our aged. President Bush feels all social problems can be alleviated with large tax cuts. Recently, it was demonstrated what a business friendly state government under Republican Governor Pataki meant to the consumer, worker, and the injured employees of the Empire State. A blackout last summer in a large part of our city lasted for more a week. An investigation indicates the lack of necessary personnel in a state regulatory agency contributed to this problem. Noncompliance with the worker's compensation system by employers who underreport their liability makes the compensation to injured workers less than adequate and causes other employers additional premiums to pay. Many workers work for employers that deem the workers independent contractors in order to deny them any job protections such as unemployment compensation or benefits such as health insurance. Our business friendly administration did nothing to cease employers from abusing workers by labeling them freelancers. There is legislation pending in the state legislature to allow many independent contractors or freelancers unemployment insurance if some criteria are met. Business friendly should not mean increased profits for a few and misery for many.
All great political, social and economic issues have a moral, ethical, and spiritual component. In the January 26, 2007 issue of the British newspaper the Guardian there was an article regarding the growing influence of equity companies. According to the article: "Phillip Jennings general secretary of the UNI global union-which has 15 million members in 150 countries-said organized labor has come to Davos with the intention of forcing the activities of private companies into the spotlight." Unions said that private equity companies were "sweating assets," the article continued to say. Is this business friendly? According to Jennings the philosophy of the private equity companies is to "buy it, strip it and flip it." Some corporate activity does not create wealth but only distributes the wealth to the more powerful of our society. This can only occur with government approval. One hundred years ago Gandhi started his non-violent movement in South Africa. Abbe Pierre received the French Legion d'honneur while alive and all of France mourned his death. Dr. King is remembered for his activities for peace, civil rights, and economic justice. We could use religious leaders, business leaders, academics, and politicians engaging in a dialogue regarding wealth creation and distribution. We can only hope they could follow the example of these three men.