Sunday, November 22, 2015

One Humanity

A few weeks ago I came home from work to find my back door shattered by a brick and my home burglarized. Many things were missing and it was quite a shock. The day of the burglary, the emotion I felt more than anything else was dehumanized. How could someone walk in my house and take my things without seeing that I too was human? As if somehow the labels I had built around me – caring, teacher, good neighbor, ally, hardworking, etc. – should protect me and bad things should only happen to bad people. Ha! Through the course of the investigation I learned that our things had been kept in an apartment just around the corner from my home. Standing in front of these apartments you can see my house. It was a reminder to me that although the physical distance may not be far, the worlds we inhabit can be vastly different, especially in a virtually still segregated South. So my roommate and I are left wondering, how do we bridge that gap? How do we get to know our neighbors? How do we keep from living in fear? How do we ensure that we treat each other as humans and not as our stereotype or labels?

As I think this week about the responses several governors and others around our country have had in response to the Paris attacks and refugees, I see several overlaps. People feel hurt and betrayed by the attacks, just as I felt when my home was burglarized. It is easy then to live in fear. It is easy to say “I didn’t deserve this” and demand retribution. It is easy to close yourself in to only the world you know already. But this response will not bring healing. It will only further dehumanize both ourselves and the perpetrators. I am reminded of a Teaching Tolerance article titled, “There are no bullies, only kids who bully.” In the same way perhaps it could be said, “There are not burglars, only people who burglarize” or “There are not terrorists, only people who terrorize.” Here I am reminded of each person’s unique humanity.  Our momentary actions do not need to be our permanent identity.

Can we find it within ourselves to look beyond labels of religion or nationality to the human inside each person applying for refugee status? Can we have conversations about how to bridge our misunderstandings? There may be miles separating us and our worlds may be very different, but we all want to be seen as human because in the end that’s what we all are.

Jennifer Arnold

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Veterans Day

Last evening the Brookings Inter-Faith Dialogue met at the local Islamic Center. Since we had just celebrated Veterans Day, the theme for the evening was the relationship of religions to war and returning warriors. Two local veterans shared their stories, giving some context for comments from others present. Almost immediately, a third veteran denounced the idea of "holy war," saying no matter what name you give to the divinity, God doesn't ask us to kill each other. Local Muslims agreed, citing the Koran and the conviction that groups like ISIS are misusing and abusing their Scriptures and religion.

The conversation led me to remember that Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day. It was celebrated at the end of the First World War. Cessation of hostilities between Germany and the Allies took effect at 11:00 AM on the 11th. day of the 11th. month in 1918. It was declared a national holiday and remained Armistice Day till after World War 2. The idea at the time was World War 1 was "the war to end all wars."

In establishing the national holiday, the U.S. Congress declared: "Whereas the 11th. of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed; Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …" 

Then there was World War 2! Once again, there were celebrations as the "greatest generation" returned. Given the destruction and global character of this war and hope for the future, the United Nations was created in 1945, where the world community could talk out their differences instead of going to war.

Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in the U.S. in 1954, maybe because we began to understand that we were always going to have veterans to honor because our wars were unending.

The other remembrance from the Inter-Faith gathering was a contribution to the Christian understanding of warfare provided by an early theologian by the name of Saint Augustine. He lived from 354 to 430 during a period of time when the Christian empire needed to be defended. So Augustine developed his theory of a "just war." What are the conditions one would have to meet for warfare to be considered "just?"

He cited seven, all of which should be met for a war to be considered a "just war". 

1. A legitimate authority must make an official declaration of war.
2. It must be a last resort. All peaceful means of resolution must be exhausted.
3. It has to be waged with the right intention; to secure human rights; protect innocent life, etc.
4. There must be a probability of success; the situation after the war should be better than before the war.
5. War must be waged for defensive, not offensive reasons.
6. The means must be proportional to the ends.
7. Combatants must be distinguished from non-combatants. Civilian populations must not be attacked.

Obviously, these principles have not been at the forefront in governmental circles of so called Christian nations. Even though they are clearly dated criteria, were they to be honestly followed in decision making, we'd have far fewer veterans to honor and far fewer casualties abroad.

For instance: (1.) The U.S. Congress refuses to accept their constitutional authority to declare war. (2.) The historical record is increasingly clear that President Bush intended to invade Iraq from day one; it wasn't a last resort though the administration tried to make it look that way with their "weapons of mass destruction." (3.) You mean Iraq wasn't about oil; Vietnam about ideology? (4.) Fourteen years into the war in Afghanistan, are things better? And Iraq? We'll make things better in Syria with boots on the ground, right? (5.) Why have U.S. Special Operations forces been deployed to 147 countries this year and why isn't the National Guard still guarding the nation, here, in the nation? (6.) Let's not even talk about nuclear war and how the missiles are still aimed and armed. (7.) These days, more civilians are killed in conflicts than combatants. Check the recent documents on U.S. drone strikes and the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Clearly, veterans should be honored. We honor them best when we provide them and their families with the things they need and deserve, especially when they return home. And we honor them best when we make sure far fewer of their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, are remembered by memorial walls and fields of white crosses. 

Carl Kline

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gandhi & Jesus

I had the opportunity to be in the presence of a friend and mentor for close to three weeks this summer. His name is M.P. Mathai and he comes from India. We first met in India in 1982 at the Institute for Total Revolution, a rather formidable title for a rather modest place.

The Institute was located in the state of Gujarat on a few acres of land with some simple buildings for eating and sleeping, a large shade tree under which we carried on our discussions and a few rice fields where we leaned how to plant rice. There was nothing spectacular about the site or the circumstances or the participants. But the experience enabled a quiet revolution of perspective and practice in those who were there. 

Under the thoughtful and loving eye of Narayan Desai, son of Gandhi's personal secretary and founder of the Institute, we learned about Gandhi's idea of nonviolence as a way of life. From the East and from the West, some forty of us, ate, played, prayed, learned and lived together for three weeks. In the concluding evaluation of the program, Narayan praised the way the group cared for the sick. He saw this as the most meritorious indication of having learned nonviolence. In essence, nonviolence for him was about a life of service.

How hard it is to open the mind to the reality of a different way of being in the world, without violence. Even in a society that calls itself Christian and takes as a model one who suffered and died on a cross for others, without violating anyone, even praying for those who put him there, we can't seem to believe one can live in a world without violence. In the U.S. we put Jesus at arms length, as people in India put Gandhi at arms length, as if treating people with respect and love, healing the sick and touching the lepers is only possible for God men or those far holier than us. And in our disbelief, even despair, we fail to look deeply into alternative methods of resolving conflicts without resorting to threat, coercion, harm and violence.

Lately I've been questioning whether human beings are inherently rational beings. We seem to make all these irrational choices, like expanding and updating nuclear weapons arsenals or promoting oil drilling in the Arctic, all threats to the future of life on the planet. So being with and hearing from the likes of an M.P. Mathai give me hope for the future. For he is able to communicate a clear and hopeful worldview of Gandhi, who has thought through the dynamics of violence and nonviolence and charted a path toward a less violent future. If only more would follow.

Mathai came to the states to participate in the first Satyagraha Institute. Some forty five people joined him in the Black Hills to learn more about Gandhi's worldview and his understanding of nonviolence. The program included knowledge about the theory behind nonviolent social  change; skill building in conflict resolution; opportunities for deepening the inner life through meditation, prayer and yoga; and the broadening of one's sense of community across all those barriers of race, class, gender, orientation, culture and country that separate us.

One day the Institute participants visited Ellsworth Air Force Base to visit the Air and Space Museum and learn about the nuclear mission of the base. And then the group refurbished the peace and ecology symbols at the end of the runway with a new coat of paint and replaced the poles and flags on a Native American prayer wheel, all in the hope that the planes coming and going would never again release a nuclear weapon.

On the last day of the program the group went to Bear Butte, a sacred site for many native nations. As one walks the trails there, one sees many prayer flags blowing in the breezes and tobacco ties left by Indian people. There are even stones lodged in the crooks of the trees carrying prayers for those who left them. 

That's my favorite symbol for an eternal prayer at Bear Butte. One puts the prayer in stone and as long as it stays in place, the prayer is offered into the heavens.

There's a great hunger on our lonely planet. It's not just for food that sustains the body. It's also for food that sustains the Spirit. And we need to reclaim those teachers like Jesus and Gandhi who have shown us a path of selfless service and suffering for others, modeling effective and nonviolent methods of social change. 

Before he left the country Dr. Mathai spoke at our public library on "Jesus and Gandhi," the title of a new book he is writing. He is convinced from his scholarship that the life of Jesus was the most formative influence on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the cross the most formative symbol and the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament one of the most significant writings. 

Both of these teachers, Jesus and Gandhi, are more relevant in our time than they were in past ages and their ideas are as fresh, though ignored, as ever. Let's resurrect them!

Carl Kline

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Tolerance & Acceptance

We hear all the time that we need to practice tolerance. We need to tolerate different races, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, and so on. While tolerance is a virtue and necessary for a peaceful society, we will not achieve true peace until we begin to preach acceptance. Tolerance promotes the fair treatment of an individual; it prevents discrimination and bigotry. Acceptance, though, goes further than tolerance.

When you tolerate something, you are saying you can put up with a certain behavior or certain viewpoint. Acceptance, on the other hand, means you welcome a certain behavior or viewpoint, even if it is different than your own. You can have tolerance without acceptance, but there is no acceptance without tolerance. You may be wondering why it is so important that we change our framework to preaching acceptance rather than tolerance. Why must we accept another’s views that are different from our own? Isn’t tolerance sufficient?

Tolerance is a good step, and a step that many people in our society still need to take, but the world we live in is filled with differences. There are cultural differences, religious differences, ethnic, national, and historical differences; there are racial differences, ideological differences, and the list goes on and on. Instead of saying "I can put up with this viewpoint or behavior or race that is different from my own” it is imperative that we begin to think “I will accept this viewpoint or behavior or race that is different than my own.” Some people may think if you accept someone else’s difference you are conforming to it. That is simply not the case.

We can accept that someone has a different view on something without conforming to these ideals. Accepting the fact that someone has a different outlook than you does not only promote peace, it promotes freethinking and the betterment of society. If we are able to accept that a person’s opinion is different from ours when we are challenged with a different idea, we are not only open to new perspectives, but we are able to strengthen our own convictions through discussion. This is an extremely important aspect of development and one that modern political philosophers have long advocated.

Next time you hear a politician or leader talk about tolerance, commend them, but push further. Preach the practice of acceptance. Do not stop at “I can put up with this” but try “I am welcome to new ideas, cultures, religions, etc.” By pushing for acceptance, we are pushing for a world that is open, a world that is free, and a world that lives in peace. Once we begin to accept that others have views we do not agree with and realize that that is okay, even good, we will begin to understand the true meaning of peace. 

Kathryn Meggan Ust
Guest Blogger

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cultural Exposure

Growing up I never considered myself a minority. I am a white woman that was born in Virginia, how could I ever be considered a minority? Then my family moved to a small reservation town in South Dakota. I grew up in White River, South Dakota which is a town that is divided by a highway. On one side it is reservation land and the other side is not. In elementary school our school had a pretty good ratio of white and Native American kids. By middle school our school combined with the small communities of Norris and Corn Creek and my classmates were predominantly Native American. So I guess you could say that my childhood was a little different from the typical “white kid”. I was a minority in my school and I got the opportunity to experience a whole culture that I would’ve known nothing about if I hadn’t moved to South Dakota.

This experience gave me a unique outlook on life and the way that I looked at people of different cultures and different lifestyles. I was judged a lot in school as being a typical rich white girl when really that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I lived on a reservation that showed extreme poverty and very little wealth. I was not the typical “white girl” by any means. Being put into a stereotype that didn’t represent me correctly and was based on my skin color made me think about the way that other stereotypes are put onto other groups of people.

One situation that I experienced in high school that has stuck with me throughout my life comes from the South Dakota State B Boys Basketball tournament in Aberdeen. Our small town made a name for itself by having an outstanding boys’ basketball team. We had kids come from all over to play on our team and we were recognized all over the state. Even the Rosebud Sioux Tribe had honoring ceremonies for the team. I cheered at the state tournament for four years and seeing the way that people reacted to the Native American culture was crazy to see. Every year that we attended the tournament we brought a young boy to sing the Lakota Flag Song at the tournament. The crowd’s reaction every year to this never changed, they didn’t know how to react. They would look around at each other or just stare as the young boy sang in Lakota.

So many people in South Dakota would never have experienced this cultural aspect that so many people in our state recognize, if it wasn’t for our high school giving them this small bit of exposure. Even now, being in college, I see that so many people don’t know about Native American culture and they are shocked that I grew up on a reservation. Lessons like this have shown me just how important it is to respect other cultures and their practices but also not to judge a book by its cover.

Jessie Rounsley, Guest Blogger

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Creating Personal & Political Power

In the process of my perennial efforts to sort, simplify and discard, I came across a journal entry that I wrote more than 20 years ago. It was written following a 2nd International Conference on Nonviolence held in South Dakota in the summer of  1993.  The journal entry surfaced at about the same time that I received the program report from the recent, successfully completed Satyagraha Institute a week or two ago:

“$100, a mailing list, and a lot of goodwill.  That’s how the 2nd International conference on Nonviolence began.  A year of planning, fund raising, communicating and hard work brought together 250 people from all over the United States, from India, Uruguay, El Salvador, Switzerland, Japan, and South Africa.
The conference was held on Marv Kammerer’s ranch - - a nuclear free zone that borders Ellsworth Air Force Base, the largest site of nuclear weapons in the United States.
For four and a half days a small international community lived on the prairie in an area called a Holy Triangle – its base formed by Bear Butte and Harney Peak, both holy places for Lakota Sioux, and its apex pointing toward Ellsworth AFB. 
The roar of low flying B-1 bombers provided a constant reminder of our reason for gathering to share and to learn from one another and to encourage one another in our common commitment to a world without violence. The theme of the conference was “Creating Personal and Political Power”.
As the conference progressed we learned in many ways that our most personal concerns and efforts were the most universal.  We reaffirmed that our personal power is political power.  Each time we speak a word or perform an act out of our personal convictions and commitment to a nonviolent world, we make a political statement - -perform a political act.
Were we effective?  Do gatherings and conferences like this make a difference?  Is anyone impacted by a diverse group of 250 people living in peace together in the open air on a windblown, wildflower strewn stretch of mid-western prairie land?  Does anyone pay attention to people who find their greatest power in prayer and meditation - - who love one another - - who take seriously the work of loving their enemies?
Perhaps the fact that we were under continual aerial surveillance the whole time is an indicator.
Perhaps the fact that group members who visited a missile silo site were immediately surrounded by heavily armed military personnel is an indicator.
Perhaps the local news headlines alluding to secret strategies by a peace group on the concluding day of the conference are an indicator.
Perhaps the fact that one of the most powerful and heavily armed military installations in the world had to call a security meeting to determine how to deal with the threat at their borders is an indicator.

My musings ended there.  I still often chuckle that our small group, armed with prayer, nonviolent intentions and plastic forks and knives was able to cause such concern.  
While other threats to world peace and a nonviolent future have risen in the last 20 years and we are still the most heavily armed country in the world, it is interesting to note that many of the missile silos in the area of that earlier conference have been retired and the land has reverted to pasture land.  One or two sites are now historical sites under the auspices of the National Parks Service.  
As we continue to be assaulted daily by news of violence and by threats of war on a variety of fronts, perhaps the vision we need to hold in our minds and hearts is a vision of the effectiveness of every single endeavor, large or small on behalf of a nonviolent and harmonious future for the planet.  Perhaps a vision of cattle grazing in rich, mid-western pastures over sites where weapons of mass destruction have been disarmed is one we can cultivate as a collective vision for a more peaceful world.

Vicky Hanjian

Monday, October 19, 2015

Here We Go Again

Last weekend my wife and I traveled to Deadwood S.Dakota for the annual Festival of Books, sponsored by the South Dakota Humanities Council. Every year there is an awesome collection of writers, with a huge schedule of presentations and special events. You can't go to it all. You have to be selective.  We signed up for a workshop with a novelist and short story writer from Florida, an old friend from our days in MA. His workshop was titled "Flash Fiction: Writing the Short, Short Story."

This was listed as a workshop but I didn't go well prepared. It didn't really occur to me I was going to have to write, not just hear about writing. I didn't have writing materials with me. So when we were told we were starting with a writing assignment, I had to borrow a pen. Then I used the back of my ticket, printed from my computer on a sheet of 8 1/2 by 11 paper, for my first "Flash Fiction" assignment.

The assignment went like this. "Think of a time when someone said something to you that really hurt. Write about it. I'll give you a few minutes."

The seconds ticked away. I thought and thought. I was beginning to think I would fail the first assignment when out of the blue a memory arrived. And this is what I wrote. 

"My younger brother, who I had helped mentor, said 'You weren't there for me when I needed you the most.'  … I knew he broke down crying when he first fired a gun at Y camp. When he talked about going into the Army I didn't say, 'don't.'"

What is it about love that allows us to abandon others to the violence of the age? It could be as simple as purchasing that video game for Christmas; or taking the kid hunting for the first time; or encouraging their interest in guns by buying them one; or being passive as they go off to war.

Gandhi believed that violence was an aberration of being human. Love was the ruling principle in humankind. Jesus gave flesh to that conviction, teaching self giving love rather than violence and brute force.

I'm thinking about these things this morning because our society seems to be descending into a dark, dark night of the soul. Why are so many young people killing others and themselves? Charleston was horrendous! A 21 year old killing people he just sat with in a Bible Study in a church, with clear racial implications. Now it's a 26 year old killing students at a community college in Oregon. And then there's the 16 year old in Harrisburg, right here in South Dakota.

One of the headlines this morning is about the arrest of a 16 year old in CA who is charged with shooting his father, his father's fiancee and their 8 year old son, then setting the cabin they were in on fire. Then there's the infant, 5 months old, shot in a drive by shooting Thursday in Cleveland, the third child killed by gunfire in Cleveland in the last month. In Chicago, in 3 September weekends, the numbers were: 4 killed, 35 wounded; 8 killed, 45 wounded; 4 killed, 53 wounded. All these killings are becoming so common we can't keep up with them. Do we even remember Columbine, Aurora, Oikos, Virginia Tech, Red Lake, or Sandy Hook? God help us if we can't remember Sandy Hook! And I must confess, the school shootings are becoming so common I had to think long and hard before I could remember the name of that massacre.

Personally, I'm soul sick about the violence in our society, especially the way it's affecting and impacting the young. Suicide is still the second leading cause of death among the young, just behind automobile accidents that could sometimes be classified as suicide, and ahead of cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, pneumonia, stroke, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. Many of these mass shootings by young people are tragically, "suicide by cop". 

The terrorists are not just outside our borders, they are among us and growing like ISIS. News sources have now compared the numbers of people in the U.S. killed by terrorists from abroad and those here at home. From 2001 to 2014, the "at home" terrorists win, by 50 to 1. And that's not including "legal" killings and suicides. 

The terrorist recruiters at home are feeding our young people the same kind of propaganda as ISIS, on the internet, in movie theaters and social media sites, on TV and radio hate talk. They are propped up by the weapons industry, organizations like the NRA, ideologically driven politics and religion, and moral and political cowards in government.

Only engaged families and an engaged citizenry, convinced that we can do better by our young people, can make the changes necessary to make our schools and streets safe again. It all starts right here, at home. Once more, I recommend Americans for Responsible Solutions as one organized effort to save lives.

Carl Kline