Friday, August 16, 2019

"Jesus said..."

Jesus Said . . .
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
When he spoke these words either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he was telling his followers something very important, something that we need to know in this time of crisis, when the earth itself is weeping for us. The ice caps and glaciers are melting and the seas are rising and fires are burning and scientists are warning that the time is short. Either we will change the way we life, or change will be forced upon us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. We have been told too often and for too long that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It’s a simply-minded half-truth. Guns are frequently the means of choice, especially when the killers intend to inflict maximum pain in the shortest time possible. Nine people were killed in Dayton in 30 seconds, half a minute. Today we grieve for the people of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, knowing that next week it is very likely that we will have a new cities and new communities to pray for. There have been 255 mass shootings in the United States already this year--in the first 8 months--and we have four more months to go.
        Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” But we are afraid. Bullet proof backpacks are the newest item for parents to buy as they prepare to send their children back to school, where they will learn active shooter drills.
We don’t want to remember, but I cannot forget that Stokely Carmichael once observed that “violence is as American as apple pie.” As if to memorialize this quote, the governor of Tennessee recently honored the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacist groups have been encouraged by our political climate, changing demographics, and economic stress.
Economist Paul Krugman says that the central story of US politics today is the rise of economic radicalism championed by the wealthy who want to reduce their taxes and shred the social safety net. Privatization is the name of their game. Think of this, the newly appointed acting head of the Bureau of Land Management is the poster child for privatization of federal land. He was a leader in the “Sagebrush Revolution.” The goal of that revolution was to privatize all the national parks and other federal land. The very man who led that effort is now the head of the Bureau of Land Management. He has responsibility for overseeing our national parks.
 I recite these events because, as Wendell Berry has said, we need to be clear-eyed. The news is not so good. The Center for Disease Control tells us that life-expectancy is a snapshot of our nation’s mental, spiritual and physical health and well-being. Over the last few years there has been a decline in our average life expectancy. According to the CDC suicide and drug overdose are two of the leading causes contributing to this decline.
In this toxic environment of fear and intimidation, let us hear and heed the words of our leader. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Either Jesus had his head in the clouds, or he knew something really important. Or, maybe it is because he had his head in the clouds he was able to see the world not only as it, but also as it might be for in the next breath, Jesus tells his followers, “Be dressed and ready for action.” These are not the words of someone who is willing to settle for the status quo, or accept the counsel of those who tell us: There is no alternative. Jesus’ words are a call to action.
Howard Thurman, a famous teacher and preacher and author wrote, Jesus and the Disinherited: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [Jesus of Nazareth] appears as a technique for survival for the oppressed.” Let us declare with the author of the gospel of John: “In him was life, and his life was a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
        Let us admit that the weight of the Christian movement is often on the side of the strong and the powerful. Establishment Christians have fallen in line with the politics and policies of racism and division. Let’s admit it. If you have not already done so, in the future you will hear establishment Christians talking about “public religion.” What they mean is that they want a Christian theocracy to replace our liberal democracy. The problem, as they see it, is that we have too much democracy. They contend that what we need is public religion, a puritanical code of conduct. Do not be fooled. Those who speak of “public religion” are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
 When Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your mother/father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Take no thought of your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; not for your body and what you shall put on. Your life is more than meat and your body more than raiment.” he was casting a vision of a new society; a society that is inclusive and open.
We live in a retributive society that believes in an eye for an eye. As a nation we want to reserve the worst forms of punishment for people whom we believe have committed the worst forms of crime--- those whom we label terrorists. Historically and in the present too often we, white people, are inclined, consciously or otherwise, to equate whiteness with goodness, and terrorism with everyone else. I will give you an example of how this works.
        Today in Louisiana and North Dakota and elsewhere people like Water Protectors, who organize to block pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline, are legally classified as “domestic terrorists.” Protesters, water protectors, are labeled terrorists subject to arrest, fines and in some cases jail. Meanwhile, according to the Brennen Center for Justice, only 10 percent of our states report any hate crime persecutions.
We need legal reforms, but even more we need more public discussion, not public religion. We need to break down religious, racial and gender barriers. The good news is, we are. Our nation is becoming more diverse, more inclusive, and more open.
When hatred and fear stalk the land, when the logic of the strong replaces moral judgment, when those who walk the corridors of power and occupy seats of privilege are eager to declare open season on any person or group or city that they perceive as weak or vulnerable--be it immigrant communities, cities like Baltimore, or people of color, or women, or children, we need to know two things.
First, we have to recognize that the most effective way that those who have power can hold on to power is to inject fear into the body politic. This was Machiavelli’s advice in his political manifesto, The Prince, a book that is often regarded as one of the first books on statecraft in the modern era. Machiavelli famously counseled the prince that it is better to be feared than loved.
Once this disease of fear has infected the body politic there is no simple way to eradicate it. There is no easy way to regain health. But there is a way. And this is the second thing that we must remember. There is a way. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother is pleased to give you the kingdom.” A kingdom founded not on fear, but on love. Love is a strategy for defeating fear.
Such love requires building relationships, confessing wrongs of the past and mapping out plans and pathways leading toward the restoration of justice--right relationships. Only in this way can we create a society in which people can live without shame or humiliation. Together we can build a society that is beyond thick walls of intimidation.
       Simply put to love one another means that we value and respect each other enough to look for strategies that will remove deprivations and emphasize human capabilities and capacities. Sitting Bull, a great leader of the Sioux nation, said to his assassins shortly before he was killed, “Come, let us put our minds together and see how we can make the world a better place for our children.” Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is a kingdom and a kin-dom strategy.
I submit that love is the strategy chosen by members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who were recently attending a church-wide assembly in Milwaukee, Wis. In the spirit of Martin Luther, who posted 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, five hundred members of ELCA assembly marched into the ICE office in Milwaukee and posted 9.5 theses to the office door declaring the ELCA is now a sanctuary church. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created a national agency called the Accompanying Migrant Minors and Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities ministry. When these church delegates marched into to the ICE office they declared: “This is what love looks like.” It looks like a ministry to protect, advocate for, and represent the most vulnerable members of our community.
           Jesus said: “Your mother/father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Love is the key to this kingdom. Love is the strategy used by a group of Roman Catholic peace activists known as the Kings Bay 7, who one year ago, in August 2018, broke into the US Navy Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base to protest war. They were arrested, as they knew they would be. Some have been in jail for a year waiting for their case to come to trial, which it recently did. What is particularly interesting about this case is that in their defense the Kings Bay 7 cited the same law that Hobby Lobby successfully cited in their challenged to the government’s contraception mandate. The Kings Bay 7 argued that they acted on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs. The judge who heard this case has yet to issue a verdict.
Love is a strategy for change and transformation, this is what we need to know. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe gained notoriety two years ago when Water Protectors led the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Now they have opened up a new front line of struggle and hope. Today the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has the largest solar farm in North Dakota, demonstrating their commitment to renewable energy based on an ethic of respect for the earth. Other indigenous communities in New Mexico, Nevada and elsewhere are also investing in renewable energy.
Friends, now is the time to believe that it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Now is the time to proclaim release to the people held captive by fear. Now is the time to set at liberty all people oppressed by poverty and discrimination. Now is the time to proclaim this is the year of the Lord’s favor. To borrow a phrase from Habitat for Humanity, now is the time, “to put love in the mortar joints” of our communities.
   When Jesus told his followers, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your father/mother has been pleased to give you the kingdom,” he may have had his head in the clouds, but he also had his eyes on prize, which was to create a community that would embody love and create strategies that would build on everyone’s capacities and capabilities, so that together we might see how we can make this world a better place for all children. So be it. Amen.
Rev. David Hansen, Ph.D.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Living with the Change

         I used to think our island was a place of relative immunity when it came to the many and stressful social ills that are so abundant on the mainland.  Neighbors care about neighbors.  We can still leave our homes unlocked.  It is not unusual to stop by to visit someone and find no one at home, doors and windows wide open, a vestige of an era long disappeared from so much of our country and culture.  It used to be the same with the various churches and the synagogue too.  Open doors, easy access for a moment of quiet reflection in a sanctuary, office personnel ready to welcome and provide assistance.

But we are living with change.  As the local Congregational Church prepares for a guest preacher from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the deacons meet to learn how to evacuate the sanctuary in the event of a crisis.  Police presence is considered. With rare exception, church doors in the community are locked with entry codes provided to church members.

There is police presence in the synagogue for Shabbat services now.   The doors are locked when services begin.  Latecomers must be admitted by an armed officer.  We are living with change - change initiated by fear as assaults on civilians by individuals armed with devastating weapons  happen with increasing regularity.  As happens with every unspeakable event, the outcry against gun violence and the urgency to "do something!" surges across the nation...and very little effective action is taken at the highest levels of government to insure the safety of human beings in this country.

Our pastor challenged us with her passionate preaching last week.  She spoke about privilege, economic and white: The problem with privilege, particularly economic privilege, is that it gives us a false sense of accomplishment.  It disregards whose shoulders we stand upon, and obscures the labor and struggle of those who have paved the way. Privilege inches us further and further away from our vulnerability , and our vulnerability is a key ingredient to our humanity...privilege inches us further and further into isolation and away from God, the Creator and Provider.

There is another type of privilege that requires just as much, perhaps even more, self examination, internal monologue and prayer, and that is the privilege of being born white, or  identifying as white.  The great sins of our nation, slavery and segregation, are painful and powerful and they remain unaddressed.   Since we dare not discuss such sins in public, they get twisted up inside of us in the form of racial prejudice and racial bias.  We all carry bias, the burden of our nation's sinful past, within us.  It's our societal inheritance, and it's a barrier to realizing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  (Rev. Cathlin Baker)

I sit with her words and realize once again that the gun violence that we experience across the country is but one symptom of a national and collective "soul sickness" arising out of the failure to address the sin's of the past. This is an enormous work, clearly not yet undertaken.  It is hard to hear "I'm not a racist" being shouted thru the national bull horn when the confession needs to be "Yes - I am a racist. Confession and repentance and truth and justice are part of the healing that I will work for across this nation."   This is the subtle melody I yearn for as the election rhetoric ramps up. Will we be able to identify and elect a leader who understands the sick soul of this country - one who can bear the pain of consciousness, who can confess, and repent and seek justice - one who will "lead us in the paths of righteousness", one who will inspire rigorous self examination and humility in us in the face of the enormity of the task of truth telling and healing and reconciliation? 

       Our pastor's closing prayer was this: May we be vigilant in our self examination, allowing God to illuminate the privileges that escape us.  May self-awareness disarm our prejudice and draw us into consciousness.  May we each reflect the virtues and values required for peace and justice -generosity over greed, compassion over coarseness, decency over denigration, humility over hubris.  AMEN 

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, August 2, 2019

As a Great Chorus of Inclusion

              In the video and sound recordings of the rally in Greenville, North Carolina, it was hard not to hear echoes of “sieg heil” in the frenzied chant of the crowd. It was hard not to imagine raised arms in Nazi salute; not to feel the psychic fear carried within us as Jews when venomous hatred is directed at one who is deemed different, regarded as other, and therefore unwelcome. I do not know the legal definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense. I do know when a moral line has been crossed in a leader’s cynically conscious effort to divide people from each other.

In the way of the Torah’s search for wholeness amidst its own narratives of brokenness, a poignant affirmation of diversity follows the violence of zealotry in whose grip the weekly Torah portion Pinchas (Numb. 25:10-30:1) opens. 
At the end of the preceding portion, Balak, Pinchas has slain two human beings, an Israelite prince and a Midianite princess. Now given names, Zimri and Cozbi are made real and become known to us as people. All victims of violence have names. However fraught the context of their killing, as though polemics and politics can justify, the dead are real people who loved and were beloved.

Tasting the bitter residue of violence throughout the portion, violence is challenged in ways both subtle and direct. At the outset of Pinchas, just after the zealot has done his murderous deed, in what seems to be an absurd act, God says, Lo! I shall give to him My covenant: Peace/hi’n’ni noten lo et b’riti shalom (Numb. 25:12). When translated correctly, we hear God’s prayerful hope that Pinchas shall rise to the challenge of peace. God has not given him a “covenant of peace,” as commonly translated, but simply “My covenant,” adding the word shalom, as though to say, “so may it be, peace…!” It is a covenant that is meant, in the view of one commentator, the Ha’emek Davar, to redirect the residue of violence that remains within Pinchas. In the word shalom that carries God’s hope, the vertical letter vav is traditionally written in two halves, upper and lower with a space or a line in between, the only place in the Torah of such orthographic teaching, a broken letter that becomes its own prayer for wholeness.

           Not with weapons, but with words, it is women in the portion who offer the most direct challenge to injustice. The daughters of Tzelophchad challenge Moses for the right to inherit following the death of their father, who had no sons. Engaging with God, Moses accedes to the rightness of their claim. This “squad” of women bravely stood forward and spoke truth to power. Perhaps moved more deeply than he realized, just after the claim of the daughters is made, Moses appeals to God with a name that is used only twice in the Torah.

Told of his impending death, Moses is reminded that he had struck the rock to bring forth water, rather than having used words as instructed. In a moment of selfless nobility, Moses does not argue for himself, as he does at other times, but pleads with God only that the people be given a leader who will, in effect, do justice to the holy calling of the people: yifkod ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/Let God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint one over the community who will go out before them and who will come in before them, and who will lead them out and who will lead them in, so that the community of God shall not be like sheep that have no shepherd… (Numb. 27:17).

The poignant power of Moses’ plea is in the way he addresses God, ha’shem elokei ha’ruchot l’chol basar…/God, the God of the spirits of all flesh…. It is a name that melts the heart in the fullness of its embrace of all, in its universal import, in its affirmation of diversity. It sings of the importance of each one, uttering a sacred call for leadership that recognizes both collective and individual needs as two parts of one whole. In the appearance in one verse of ru’ach/spirit and basar/flesh, expression is given to the essence of what it means to be human, each of us a physical vessel containing God’s spirit as refracted through the uniqueness of who we each are. A link is made between each person and the breath of God that hovered over the face of the waters in the very beginning, ru’ach elokim m’rachefet al p’nei ha’mayyim (Gen. 1:2). Moses reminds God of the gentle essence that is God’s own breath that is breathed into each one at the beginning, our own beginning and that of the world.

God as the God of the spirits of all flesh is the name by which Moses addresses God only twice in the Torah. The other place is in the portion called Korach, (Numb. 16:22). Each of these contexts is a moment of transition, even of danger, concern for what will be going forward. In Korach, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces when God threatens to destroy the whole people. Pleading for God's mercy, they appeal to God with this most inclusive name, reminding God, as it were, of God's connection to all the people, to all people.

               Seen through the lens of Midrash, Moses’ way of addressing God at a point of transition following the violence of Pinchas becomes an affirmation of diversity, an urgent call to see all the people as part of one whole. None are to be sent away, home is right there, and all belong. A classical Midrashic work called Tanchumah draws from the diversity in God’s name as God of the spirits of all flesh an opportunity to reflect on a blessing for diversity, considering when we should say a powerfully beautiful blessing, Blessed are you God, our God, Sovereign of the Universe/m’shaneh ha’bri’yot/who makes all creatures differently.

In that spirit, the midrash goes on to suggest the nature of the leader Moses seeks to succeed him, the rabbis speaking then for Moses: appoint for them one who will bear each and every one according to who they are…. Continuing in that way, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the leader of a generation is one who is able to raise up all the words and the stories of the people of the generation/l’ha’a lot kol ha’dibburim v’ha’sippurim shel anshei doro…. Reflecting the tensions in the portion between the way of weapons and of words, of Moses’ call for a leader who will go out before them and who will come in before them, Rashi imagines a military leader going into battle at the head of the troops. Many centuries later, in the way of the Torah’s seeking its own corrective to violence, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch nearly screams out, going out and coming in by no means designates only the leading of armies in war…, [but] is accordingly the term for the general activity of one set at the head of a nation…, who is at the forefront going about as an example for public and private life…, as the activity of a shepherd is devoted to the thriving and welfare of the flock.

In the face of the violence from which this portion flows, so in the face of all the violence of those who would shout “send her back,” may new leadership emerge that begins with each of us. Calling on God as the God of the spirits of all flesh, may we bless our diversity, enriched in our hearing and holding the stories of each one. As a great chorus of inclusion that would sing away zealotry, violence, and hate, may we yet witness the gathered crowd calling out to the leader and the leader to the people, Blessed is the One who makes all creatures differently.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, July 26, 2019


I offered this meditation on Romans 13:1-7 on July 21, 2019. It is undoubtedly the most personal sermon I have ever shared. It started when my younger sister reminded me that when we were children our father would often ask us, “What have you done today for God and Country?” What he meant was, “What have you done today to make the world a better place?” In our childhood minds we hyphenated God and Country. The two words went together like love and marriage and a horse and carriage. God-N-Country, the words belonged together.
It was much later that I read Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I discovered what seemed to be biblical injunction that justified the combining of these words. In the 13th chapter of this letter, Paul urges Christians, “be subject to the governing authorities,” because “all authority is from God.” To rebel against the authorities, the Paul says in this letter, is to rebel against God.
I grew up in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, and we lived in a white Anglo-Saxon culture, and we were very comfortable in our own skin. My father was a judge. I can’t say that I was always obedient, but I was subject to the governing authorities. The text did not require interpretation.
         I later learned that Paul’s admonishment for Christians to be subject to the governing authorities for fear of punishment and out of conscience because they are agents of God is a favorite text of what I now call “establishment Christians.” I do not think it is helpful to make a distinction between “liberal” and “conservative,” or “evangelical” and progressive,” Christians. I think it more useful to make a distinction between establishment Christians and transformative Christians. Establishment Christians love the first seven verses of Romans 13, especially when their candidate or party is in power. Even today you can hear some establishment Christians citing this text or making reference to it.
This text, which once upon a time, was not problematic for me, became a stumbling block. The 1960s erased the “N.” The turmoil of that decade makes it impossible for me to speak of a hyphenated “God-N-Country.” I am a child of that decade. The movement to stop the war in Viet Nam was in full swing. Dr. King led the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta led the United Farm Workers, the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party.  Malcom X and Mohamed Ali were towering personalities. Our bumper sticker said, “Question Authority.” We believed that we could change the world. The assassinations of many of leaders, the bombing of churches and other events of that period changed forever the way I have understood Romans 13: 1-7.
       Some of my friends said that if submitting to the authorities was the message of the Christian church, then they did not want to be part of it, and they left. Some biblical scholars started questioning the authorship of the opening verses of Chapter 13. They noted that Paul was both a Christian and a Roman citizen, and he was always in trouble with the authorities. If he wasn’t in jail, he was hustling to get out of town before the authorities could put him there. When he wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome, he was under arrest. He was going to Rome to stand trial, and it was very likely that he would be killed. Moreover, the heart of Paul’s preaching was Christ crucified. Could Paul really have counseled Christians to “submit” to the authorities?
Other scholars suggest that Paul was addressing a particular situation. Rather than interpreting these verses in Chapter 13 as Paul's theory of the state, these scholars remind us that Emperor Claudius had recently imposed a tax on Jews in Rome. When they resisted and refused to pay it, he simply sent them into exile and confiscated all of their property. When Nero became emperor, after his mother engineered the murder of Claudius and before he arranged for the murder of his own mother, Nero allowed Jews to re-enter the city. Nero used the presence of Jews and Christians, religious minorities, as scapegoats. It was useful to have such groups around every time anything went awry, or he needed to appeal to his base. Perhaps, these scholars suggest, Paul was simply telling his readers to go along in order to get along.
There is a third way to understand this passage. In Romans Chapter 12, Paul encourages his readers to make their bodies a living sacrifice. He tells them to resist the authorities. He tells them, “Do not let the world press you into its mold, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” He tells them to have the mind of Christ. Maybe he is remembering Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Do not underestimate the power of the state to create internment camps on the southern border, or institute a policy of perpetual war, or enact legislation that benefits the very rich at the expense of everyone else. People in positions of authority can and will and do use violent language to create a social and political landscape of fear. We are witness to this.
Thus, it is all the more necessary for transformative Christians to interpret this text not as a summons to submit to political authorities, but rather to see it as a reminder that even emperors and presidents are accountable to God. Therefore, as Paul says in Romans 13: 8, we are to owe no one anything but love. “Love your neighbor,” Paul says, because love does not harm.
I think, therefore, that there is common ground to be found in these words of Paul and Dr. King’s last speech as President of the Southern Leadership Conference. He told those gathered: “There is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action.” Rejecting calls for violence, he said, “I’ve decided to stick to love . . . . And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go” (from: “Where Do We Go from Here.”)
In the name of love Dr. King asked radical questions about our society and the economy. He asked: Who owns the oil? Who owns the ore? Who owns the water? Why do some people have so much, and others have so little? And he laid out a plan of action. He said we need four things: communities that will stick together, leaders who will not sell out, churches that are militant, and people who are trained in nonviolence.
       In another speech, “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” Dr. King said; “There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each [person] has a job and a house and where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is to be created . . . . It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by suffering themselves rather than inflicting suffering upon others. It will be done by rejecting racism, materialism, and violence . . . and by working toward a world of . . . [community], cooperation, and peace.”
Let the people say, “Amen,” and “So be it.”

David Hansen

Friday, July 19, 2019

Tell me a story...

Every so often I'm reminded of the power of stories. Facts may help to change a person's mind, but stories have a chance of changing the heart.

For instance, if you really want to understand what sacrifice for your country is like, sit down with a veteran and hear their personal story. That will stay with you much longer than a parade, speeches and fireworks. 

Better yet, hear the other side of the story as well. Hear the story from the adversary. Then you may come away with enough understanding of war that you'll join those veterans who know it's not something glorious and celebratory, but it's disturbing enough to eat at you all the rest of your life.

I've heard stories from Vietnam veterans that touched my heart. There was the vet who spent forty days alone in the desert, like Jesus, fasting and reading and praying to put his life back together again. There's the friend who will die taking pieces of debilitating shrapnel with him. There's the veteran who will never have children because of her exposure to toxic substances. 

        Last summer I had my first opportunity to hear from a person native to Vietnam, a casualty of war in his own country. He was a child when the war came to his village. In the confusion and terror of the initial fighting, he was separated from his family and left behind. Another fleeing family grabbed him up and took him with them. He never saw his birth family again; still has no knowledge of what happened to them.  

As he recounted the story of his loss and eventual adoption in the U.S., he had to gather himself in long periods of silence and tears. I envisioned him with veterans I have known, both of them far more open hearted to the other than those of us who have never seen the violence of war up close. We can make lots of excuses and rationalizations in our minds about the necessity of war, perhaps because we don't have the stories of reality that touch the heart.

I'll never forget my week end with the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The small village where the event was located was filled with huge circus tents. Thousands of people were there to hear storytellers from diverse backgrounds. 

Brother Blue, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill,  was black, walked around the crowds with balloons tied to his blue clothes and told folk tales from Africa and Asia; or sometimes he told Shakespeare's stories in a contemporary context. A playwright from Yale, he became famous as a storyteller on the streets of Boston. 

Moving from tent to tent and storyteller to storyteller, over the course of two days, one joined hundreds of others in times of laughter and grief, joy and tears, all through the power of oral storytelling. I came away convinced that the power of the spoken word was alive and well, if only we were prepared to listen.

My habit is to read stories before going to sleep at night. I read fiction, novels. There is far too much non-fiction in my daylight hours. Fiction, stories, help me sleep. Perhaps as I've aged, I need the story time of childhood again. Reading The Chronicles of Narnia to our children before bedtime is one of my most memorable experiences. I still hear them saying, "One more chapter dad, one more."

         Stories help put politics in context. There's a story I remember of parents fleeing to another country with their new born child, because there was a danger he would be killed. There's a story I remember of a whole people fleeing, seeking a "promised land," because they were oppressed and treated as slaves where they were living, There's a story of a person of another ethnicity helping a wounded traveler on the side of the road. There's a story of one laying down his life for others.

One could hope those Biblical stories still resonate as people reflect on our southern border. One could hope those stories are still being told, again and again and again. 

My fear is of a different story. It's a story where things get reversed, where lies become truth and evil becomes good and war becomes peace. It's a story with phrases like Big Brother, Hate Week, Thought Police, Fake News, Not One of Us, and Doublethink take on a life of their own. An Orwellian society is not my idea of a story with heart.

      How about the story of estranged brothers finding peace with each other again? Or what about the story of the hated brother, sold into slavery, forgiving his brothers and coming to their aid? Or can't we remember the story of the flood, or the garden, or who is responsible for this amazing creation?

Carl Kline

Friday, July 12, 2019

"What Does America Stand For?" - - Of Leader and People as One

           In my most cynical moments, coming at times in spite of myself, I have wondered if America has gotten what it deserves in this president and all the damage and harm that he has done. I catch myself quickly. All those who have been so harmed cannot be deserving of such harm, whether of people or earth, and of relations one to another in the fragile web of life. My thinking shifts then from the cynical to the intensely sad, wondering if all that has transpired today through a masquerade of leadership is the natural consequence of American emphasis on independence rather than interdependence, of self more than group. I wonder if today’s government has emerged from attitudes once carried in such expressions as “better dead than red,” or in the notion that anyone should be able to “pull them self up by the bootstraps.” I wondered in the week of the Fourth of July what it says of a nation’s character and values that in singing of who we are it is of “bombs bursting in air,” rather than of “purple mountain majesty,” which might have been our anthem. I wonder if our poisonous legacies of racism and xenophobia that make some unworthy of compassion,  blind us to the image of God in every human being. In such views and values there is reflected an essential lack of inter-human connection and of compassion, attitudes that have become full blown today in our national disconnect from the good and from goodness.

In the way time and text become entwined, I was stunned to come across a Talmudic debate that leapt off the page and played into my musings. Chad amar/one says, dor l’fi parnas/[the character of] a generation is according to its leader. And one says, [the character of] a leader is according to their generation (Arachin 17a)…. I stared at the page and kept going back over the words, still needing to explore and go more deeply. I wondered if it is as clear-cut as the debate might suggest. It would seem it is some of both, that a leader does emerge from the values and character of the people.  So too, a leader can help to shape the national character, drawing out that which is most noble in the people, or that which is most ignoble. 
In a way that I think can equally be seen as natural consequence, the great commentator Rashi suggests God’s role in choosing leadership that reflects the nature of a society. Commenting on the Talmudic view of leadership and people as offering a moral mirror of each other, Rashi teaches: im ha’dor az/if the generation is arrogant/the Holy Blessed One raises over them an arrogant leader/parnas az; v’im ha’dor nochin zeh la’zeh/and if the generation is peaceful one to another, the Holy Blessed One raises over them a leader who guides them peacefully/parnas ha’manhigam b’nachas….

        Continuing to muse on the symbiotic relationship of national character and leadership, the weekly Torah portion called Korach (Numb. 16:1-18:32) offers its own challenge and warning. In a jarring moment of conflict and turmoil, Moses is challenged. The portion pulsates with an underlying question of how we make room for challenge as part of political and communal dynamics. We watch Moses to see how he as a leader responds to challenge. There is merit in Korach’s charge that Moses has taken on too much power, that all the people are holy. The way of our speaking truth to power is held up for us to examine, to consider what works and what doesn’t work and why and why not. Is Korach seeking to disburse power more equally or to usurp more of it for himself? Whether it is Moses’ job he seeks or Aaron’s, tensions play out as between branches of government, here a divide between priest and prophet and the underlying question of how each is meant to serve the community and a greater good.

Each forming parts of one whole, as branches of government, the priests in the line of Aaron are those who would serve in the sanctuary, giving symbolic structure to the ideals to be nurtured in the people. In the prophetic line of Moses are those called to remind the people of what God seeks of us, as the Prophet Micah taught, it has been told to you, O mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God… (Micah 6:4). Neither way, the role of priest or prophet, of legislator or judge, is to be sought for personal gain. Each role is to be placed as a mantle in response to God’s call. Each as a call to service, the call to leadership was meant to help shape national character, and so too the character of the leader.

As the struggle between Moses and Korach plays out, it is a mistake to see the Torah as offering a model for leadership. Nor does the Torah offer an explicit model in most realms of human struggle. For all of the explicit mitzvot that it gives, the Torah is not primarily prescriptive. Rather, it offers a context in which to struggle with real life situations, which, however much the details may vary through time, remain timeless in their familiarity and immediacy.

Holding all of my wrestlings with Talmud and Torah and the day’s tortured news, Mieke and I took a delightful break for a Fourth of July FaceTime visit with grandchildren. Oma asked, “why aren’t you at camp today?” And the older two answered as though, “of course, Oma,” “it is the Fourth of July.” And what does the Fourth of July celebrate?” In one voice, they answered, “It is America’s birthday!” “What do you think we could give America as a birthday present?” Seven year-old Leo answered with a shy a smile, “We could make Trump not be president any more.” “Yes, that would help,” I said, “but we need to do more than that. America needs to be about more than one person.” I thought of the Talmud’s question about leaders and people and who determines the character of a nation. “What can we the people do?” I asked, making allusion beyond their understanding to the essence of which the day is meant to remind.

Feeling my way I said, “We could remind everyone what America is supposed to stand for.” Without a moment to expand on my tentative response, four year old Ruby asked, “what does America stand for…?” “Wow, what a great question, Ruby,” the question giving me pause, the pure innocence of a child’s asking causing my voice to crack for a moment.

“It is supposed to stand for equality, Ruby. That means that every single person is just as important and has the same rights as everyone else.” One of the kids chimed in as though on cue, “That means everyone can vote….” “Yes, that is true,” I said, “and so important. Do you know, though, that when America started only white men could vote, not women and not Black people. That doesn’t sound very equal does it? That has changed over time, but not enough. Not everyone is able to vote today even though they are supposed to be able to. Also, not everyone has what they need in America. Some people have so much and others don’t even have enough to eat, so that is not equal yet either. As a birthday present, we can remind all Americans about what equality really means and help to make it happen. That is what America is supposed to stand for.”

Off to the side, their mom’s voice reminded them about the long line of people walking past their corner with signs supporting immigrants, “like Zayde did in Boston,” Noa said.” My voice cracked again at the unexpected opportunity to so meaningfully mark the Fourth of July. “We have to make our birthday present even bigger,” I said. “When we remind people what America stands for,” Ruby, “we have to remind them that we are supposed to welcome the stranger and the immigrant, to be kind and caring to people in need. That is what the Torah teaches us too. There is a poem on the Statue of Liberty in New York that welcomes every one. It says to come, everyone who is tired, and poor, everyone who wants so much to be free. The poem was written more than one hundred years ago by a Jewish woman whose name is Emma Lazarus.”

As we said good-bye, I thought of Isaiah’s words of hope that a little child shall lead. On a day that should be given to reflective pause, it was the question of a child that led me to consider, “what does America stand for?” In all of their innocence, the children knew just what to ask. As the children lead, so may we merit the leaders we truly deserve, and together give shape to a national character rooted in interdependence and compassion, of leader and people as one in purpose and destiny.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein

Friday, July 5, 2019

It doesn't have to be this way...

     During the farm crisis of the 1980's, there was a steady stream of students in my campus ministry office, looking for someone to listen to the troubles on the farm. I remember one young man describing the tension whenever he went home. His mother and siblings were walking carefully and talking quietly because his father was hitting the bottle big time. The student had found half empty liquor bottles hidden in several places in the barn.

On another occasion a student wanted to explore what an alternative future for him might look like. It was becoming obvious that his future was not in farming. The family homestead of several generations was about to go under. There wouldn't be a farming operation for him to take over. You could see the grief of his forebears in his eyes.

Farmer suicides are back on the front pages. Statistics are being debated, as comprehensive studies are not available, but some suggest the suicide rate of farmers in this country is higher than for veterans, and we all know suicide rates among veterans are extreme. The latest statistics are 20.6 veteran suicides per day, including active duty troops and national guard.

Net farm income has declined by 50% since 2013. Median farm income for 2019 is forecast at -$1,449. You can only go so many years where the cost of production is more than the income from the product before it's bankruptcy or, increasingly, suicide. Besides, that 2019 projection was likely before we understood the continuing consequences of the trade war with China. Soybeans have already taken a nose dive and can likely drop further with the increased tariffs. One wonders how farm state Republicans like our own can stay so muted about what's happening to their major constituents, as a clueless President strives to run the business of trade like his personal real estate investment. It seems this President is at war with everyone, either in a war of words, a trade war, a sanctions war, or, God forbid, a new hot war with Iran.

If all that wasn't bad enough, we have an administration hell bent on doing everything it can to increase the climate crisis while farm families are underwater. The future farming climate is clear, as we hit 415 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in human history; hotter and wetter. That's not very good news to agricultural workers in the Midwest, already waiting on flooded fields to plant their crops. Now, as I write this, we're looking at five more straight days of rain.

      Actually, farming as we know it, is not a life sustaining occupation anywhere anymore. The suicide rate among farmers is a global problem. In India, since 1995, 270,000 farmers have taken their lives. Many attribute this extraordinary number to the adoption of modern agricultural practices, where one has to buy seed, and fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and equipment, year after year, going into larger and larger debt to moneylenders. Instead of traditional practices of saving seed and using more organic methods for regeneration of the soil, and plowing with the bullock, farmers line up at the Monsanto store and fill the till.

Suicide among farmers is not limited to India and the U.S. In Australia a farmer dies by suicide every four days. In the U.K. it's one a week. And in France a farmer dies by suicide every two days.

It doesn't have to be this way! The growth of farmers markets in this country is one example of a return to simpler days and healthier ways of being. Here is farm food going right to the dinner table. You don't have to have a huge operation with all the attendant inputs to grow food fit for human consumption and to provide an income. You don't have to "feed the world" or buy up another section. We can move in the direction of smaller operations and more sustainable livelihoods. There are organizations all over the country prepared to help those with a desire to live on the land and work with it, to do farming in a sustainable way.

One such organization in our own backyard is Dakota Rural Action. The DRA mission statement reads, "Dakota Rural Action is a grassroots, family agriculture and conservation group that organizes South Dakotans to protect our family farmers and ranchers, natural resources and unique way of life." As important, is their mission statement for rural vitality. "To lead South Dakota citizens toward a knowledgeable understanding of the relationship between agriculture and the environment; supporting and promoting agricultural systems that protect our air quality, water quality, public health and socio-economics; and sustaining vibrant communities for future generations."

        We are failing our family farmers. We need to wake up and recognize our food doesn't come from the grocery store. It comes from seeds someone plants in healthy soil that needs to be watered well, needs sunshine to grow and harvest.

Carl Kline