Sunday, October 19, 2014

Militarized Police

There was a picture in the New York Times recently of the police in Hong Kong, confronting all the demonstrators shutting down major highways in the city. The thing that grabbed my attention was the way the police were dressed. Militarizing the police seems to be international in scope. Plastic shields over the faces makes it hard to know if there's a person in there or not. One can hope the guns they carry shoot rubber bullets, but who can be sure from a distance, especially with the police in camouflage. 

Probably most Americans would consider the reason for the protests in Hong Kong appropriate, as the demonstrators are challenging the idea of the Chinese government confirming who can run for elective office. Besides, these demonstrators are in Hong Kong and challenging an admittedly repressive regime. (I read one article where the writer thought folks in the U.S. should be in the streets for the same reason. Considering how much money it takes to run for elective office and how party politics plays such a significant role before anyone goes near a voting booth, the author may have a point).

But my concern is what is happening to the traditional role and symbol of the police right here at home. These are the people we have always depended on in cases of accidents on our streets, robberies in our homes, saving folks from natural disasters as well as saving cats in trees. I called them when a young person who had way too much to drink was banging on the doors and windows of our 90 year old neighbor's house yelling she wanted inside. When we had a similar unexpected caller at 2:00 in the morning banging on our door, the police came and gave him a place to sleep it off. And if you read the police logs in the local paper, it's surprising and frightening how often they respond to potential suicides.

It's only right that we make our police as safe as possible, especially as more and more guns of every persuasion flood our homes and neighborhoods. But if the way we react to the threat to police is by making them soldiers, with weapons of war, we're only escalating a bad situation into a catastrophic one. Especially when people assemble in constitutionally protected and legitimate protest, facing off with tanks and machine guns, unknowable and unrecognizable officers, drones and barb wire. That will inevitably lead to revolt, not reform.

The recent experience in Ferguson, MO is a prime example. 

A video titled "Call the Cops" came across my desk the other day. It's several minutes of clips of police brutality, all the way back to Rodney King. Many of the victims are people of color, homeless, mentally ill, women. It's performed by Rob Hustle featuring the Bump. There are other similar videos out there and they seem to be multiplying with each new incident.

That's not good news for those of us used to appreciating personal relationships with law enforcement. There are certainly other ways of doing things so the violence de-escalates, rather than developing into all out war, which always seems to take more innocent victims than engaged ones.

Friends in Monterrey, Mexico have shared plans for bringing police and gang members together in mutual listening sessions. The gang members have agreed. The police have agreed. Instead of simply retreating into their respective war camps, they intend to try understanding the situation of the other, building some potential relationships, and moving beyond violence.

I still recall a video of that student protest at the University of California, Davis. That was the one where all those students sitting nonviolently on the ground were sprayed in the eyes with pepper spray. There was no threat to anyone. They were simply exercising their first amendment rights. In that situation, the police dressed for war eventually had to leave because they were surrounded by hundreds of students upset at their activities and yelling "shame".

But there was one officer who had removed his helmet. You could look in his eyes. You could tell when he smiled and when he was unhappy. He was engaging the students around him in dialogue and de-escalating the whole situation. It might have gotten uglier except for him.

Fortunately for those of us who live in small towns and cities like Brookings, South Dakota, we can still encounter persons behind the badge. They are usually neighbors, not just hired hands or hired guns.

Police work is risky business. So is publicly exercising democratic rights. There are tried and true ways of keeping the peace while protecting the citizens and respecting their rights. Just because we seem to have adopted perpetual and pervasive war overseas, it's no good reason we have to bring it home. But there's an old saying, "the chickens come home to roost."

Carl Kline

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Intentional Ignorance

There's a new disease sweeping the U.S. It's not as immediately life threatening as the Ebola outbreak in Africa but the long term consequences could well be catastrophic. It appears that the sickness has been developing slowly but surely over the last several years in my country, especially in the thinner air of public life and filtering down to the whole population.

I realized the other day that I had come down with it. The most prominent symptom in my case was fatigue. I was on the internet reading the news of the day and came across a story from March 5th. about the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. On that day they held their 50th. vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In the story, Representative Slaughter was saying she was unable to celebrate this golden anniversary as the Affordable Care Act was already helping 7 million citizens.

My response to the story was severe fatigue. I shut down the computer, went to the freezer, pulled out the vanilla ice cream and had a big bowl with maple syrup and walnuts. As I ate the ice cream, I turned on the TV. Our Republican Senate candidate Mike Rounds came on the screen with an advertisement saying he wanted to be our Senator so he could help repeal the Affordable Care Act. I turned off the TV, finished my ice cream and went to bed.

I've discovered fatigue is only one symptom. There are others. One I can fall victim to is refusing to hear, really listen to, a point of view that differs from mine. Many symptoms are emotional or psychological in nature. For instance, one has feelings of ennui and listlessness. There is a sense of being powerless and ignored. Physical manifestations can be obesity (from ice cream) and addictions (like eating too much ice cream).

I've named this new disease "intentional ignorance." It's a variation on "I don't care" or "leave me alone." And I do think the disease is new. Let me give an example.

From all I can tell, when the U.S. went to war in World War II, the whole country was engaged. Congress actually voted a declaration of war. I've seen those Rosie the Riveter ads where women were working in the war industry. And people had victory gardens, for heavens sake.

Now, Congress heads home for politicking without even debating the implications of the U.S. arming and training Syrian "freedom fighters." The Washington Post reported the Senate couldn't even fill five hours designated for the subject. One Senator used the time to praise the Baltimore Orioles for a great baseball season. 

And most people would rather not hear about beheadings and ISIS and Assad and the new "coalition of the willing" and what's that new rulers name in Iraq, that country still in shambles from another war? And who wants to know about all those Syrian refugees overwhelming Jordan?

There was coverage on NBC of the first air strikes against ISIS. Most of what we saw were from the point of view of the pilot. You know, those shots where you see a vague outline of a building or vehicle below and then it all blows up. Unfortunately, NBC also included a shot on the ground as the narrator mentioned that there were civilian casualties. That unnecessary information impinged on my intentional ignorance. 

Drones and airstrikes are terrific technologies for spreading and embedding the disease. Do people know our Nobel Peace Prize winning President is droning people to death in several countries? Do we want to know? The disease is infectious! We can pass it on to others! 

Closer to home, we see the disease in South Dakota in the EB5 political scandal. A name that seems to keep coming up, but everyone seems to be intentionally ignorant about, is Joop Bollen. Who is this guy and why haven't we heard from him? Of course, the politics of the situation make it difficult to get the truth from the Governors or anyone else, but one wonders if the disease is so embedded in our society that we'll never be able to ferret out why a person takes his own life and why a committee designated to find answers prefers ignorance.

There are so many other instances of the disease cropping up it could fill a book. There's the Colorado School Board that wants to censor U.S. history, leaving out the bad parts. There's the corporate influence and sometimes ownership of higher education. Intentional ignorance seems rampant.

Now that I have a name and possible diagnosis of my illness, perhaps I can identify and pursue a cure. I think I see one in some of my students, not yet old enough to catch the disease. They actually want to learn. They're in school to learn. They appreciate sharing differences of opinion and respectfully listen to others. And they seem to relish the idea of change. Maybe it's infectious!

Carl Kline

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nonviolence Through a Military Brat's Eyes

Just imagine what a child can be exposed to when they move from state to state, or west coast to east coast as being part of the military life.  You listen to stories about work, you listen to debates at the dinner table about world conflicts, and you are constantly surrounded by men and women in military uniforms.  You are raised knowing that what your parent does is in the duty of your country, and in a small way you are doing your duty of moving around the country, from base to base.

When the time comes for your mom or dad to get deployed overseas, the first thing that doesn't come to mind is that they will be safe or that there will not be any violence.  On the contrary, it is the exact opposite.  You are afraid for their safety and you know there will be times in which they must engage in violent encounters.
In summary, you grow up thinking that what your military parent does is needed to protect you and everyone around you.  However, if you look at it in another light, there should be other ways of solving a conflict without having a child's parent, or in worst cases parents, risk their lives.  What other approaches can we take to spreading nonviolence that doesn't have to allow the suffering of a military brat?

Mary Lack
Guest Blogger

Friday, October 3, 2014

Turning from the Curse of Violence, Choosing the Way of Blessing

In the end, as at the beginning, it is about how we see each other, whether we see each other at all. Through gun sights and bombsights it is impossible to see the image of a human being, nor the image of God, therefore, but only a target. Perhaps not so different than at many other times, but seeming to explode lately, so much violence and brutality surrounding us from so many places, choking the human spirit, Ferguson, Gaza and Israel, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine. Reliance on might masks deeper issues, while illuminating them with terrifying clarity, the underlying violence of shattered human connections, of justice deferred, of our inability to see each other as human beings.

The Torah portion Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17) is about the nature of our seeing and the way of our going, and about the curse of violence in the place where God dwells, which is every place. It is about place itself, Place as God’s name, HaMakom/the Place, God’s most embracing name. It is about a place in Jerusalem, a certain mountain top, place of God’s dwelling that in not being named becomes both rooted in space and transcendent, beyond one place and time. The portion is about our struggle to find and define place, to name it, leaving enough place for our selves and for the other, each one with a place in which to breathe and to be. 

The portion opens with an imperative, a plea, Re’eh/See! Anochi noten lifneychem ha’yom/I am setting before you today/b’racha u’kla’la/blessing and curse. It is all in the present tense. The choice is before us today, every day. We are not told explicitly to choose, to decide, that is understood. It is in our hands, not God’s. Of course we would choose blessing rather than curse. But the choice is not like low-lying fruit just waiting to be picked, blessing as the more luscious fruit upon the tree. We so easily loose sight of the blessing, of the beautiful fruit upon the tree of life, failing to see through the thicket of the way things have always been. It becomes clear that blessing and curse are about how we live, about how we go in the world, as people and as nations. It is about choosing the way of blessing, the way that affirms life; that affirms humaneness and therefore humanity.

I find myself thinking this week of the old and bitter ways made manifest in so many places. People think they are seeing the blessing and choosing it, but really they are seeing the curse. Trapped in a brutal cycle of violence that destroys all, how can that be the way of blessing? How to see through the thicket, the miasma of the way things have always been and see the goodly fruit, to truly choose the way of blessing? 

I try to imagine…, looking ahead with hope, looking back for lessons missed…, what if Israel had stayed in Cairo when the cease-fire ended? What if Israel took a disarmingly different approach than what has ever been and said, “In the interests of peace, we are going to wait for Hamas. We understand that the people of Gaza, as all Palestinians, have legitimate needs, as do we. Your needs will not be met by firing rockets into Israel. Our needs and your needs depend on each other. We will wait for you….” Focusing only on what the other is doing to us will not bring peace.

And in Ferguson…, what if the police had called a day of mourning for Michael Brown, a day of shame, setting aside public space in which to apologize, issuing a public expression of grief, acknowledging the insidious sickness of racism, a statement calling on citizens to join together to work for healing through justice? If we only see the dynamics of protest gone awry through violence, then we miss the cry of a multitude pleading for change, for integrated policing, for an end to the curse of economic and social disparity, for an end to fear and reliance on force. Failing to see the essence of what has happened, we don’t even see through the thicket the body of one more young African American man lying dead in the street.

The evil of idolatry is underscored in Parashat Re’eh as the consigning of children to the fire. That is the greatest evil in all times and in all the ways that we do it. We are called to see evil clearly, to identify it, not to avoid challenging it, but to do so in the way of blessing, not to choose the way of the curse in the name of or while seeking the way of blessing. Amidst the violence all around, we are called to name racism and anti-Semitism for what they are, one more expression of the curse of violence. No matter how brutishly or cleverly framed, attacks on Jews are dichotomous with love or concern for Palestinians. The way of blessing needs to include all, or it is the way of the curse.

The word place/makom appears some fourteen times in the Torah portion. Twelve of those times it refers to the unnamed place where the Holy Temple shall stand in Jerusalem. The essential phrase is repeated each time, framed the first time as conditional, if you would come to the place/ki im el ha’makom…, that God, your God,  will choose…, to give God’s name a dwelling there. And in its first expression, we are told, so shall you search for God’s presence/l’shich’no tid’r’shu. Rabbenu Bachya asks from thirteenth century Spain, why does it not say clearly it is Har Ha’moriah/Mount Moriah? That is the place that is to be the mountain of God’s house, the place of the holy Temple. It is the place that in almost consigning his son to the fire, Abraham called Adonai Yireh/God will see (Gen. 22:14). Maimonides offers three reasons why that holy place is not named: naming the place would cause strife; the Canaanites would destroy the place; the tribes of Israel would contend with each other. Each reason expresses a concern and a hope to avoid violence. 

Not named, one place of God’s presence, of God’s seeing, becomes all place. The question is whether we will see, whether we will truly see and choose the way of blessing. Turning away from the curse of violence, we allow God to dwell in all of the holy places where people have learned to dwell together, seeing each other as human beings.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Holiday Dreaming

        It is Erev Rosh Hashana.  The Jewish High Holy Days begin tonight at sundown.   For nearly a month now, since August 27, the 1st of the Jewish month of Elul, Jews (and not a few non-Jews like me) have been anticipating  “the holidays”.

Elul is called chodesh hacheshbon, “a month of accounting”. It is a time of taking stock of the previous year, repairing relationships, examining mistakes in order not to repeat them.  The month is also a time of preparation.  The two themes – accounting and preparation  - interweave.  How we account for the past is related to how we prepare for the future.

It’s a strenuous time.  Soul examination is something I would prefer to avoid.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds me that evading responsibility for our mistakes is a thing we humans do.  Still, wiser voices than mine remind me that going through the process of identifying mistakes, apologizing for them, moving forward with the intention of not repeating them again, are all part of the process of both creating and moving into a future more whole than the past has been.  I am glad I have many companions on the way.

As the 24 hour news cycle constantly peppers consciousness with the violence we humans are capable of inflicting on one another, it is tempting to wonder what difference does it make whether or not I try to make amends with others, whether or not I ask for forgiveness, whether or not I offer forgiveness when it is sought from me?  Searching and examining the dark shadows is exhausting - -a little like being in a dark cave and the flashlight batteries are giving out.  But the ever present news points to the necessity for this process of accounting and preparation - - and puts a glaring spotlight on what happens when humankind is unwilling to do the necessary work of seeking out and owning responsibility for the actions and attitudes that have brought us to where we are. What kind of miracle would it be if we created a moratorium on all violence for a month?  If as a species we agreed to do the accounting?  To face into our responsibility? To own all that we have contributed to the estrangement that results in so much of the horror that assaults us in the morning news?  What would we be like if we recognized that we have the ability to stop hurting one another, to refuse to make the same mistakes again?  What if we could take into a new year the intention to reconcile, to let go of hatred, to heal the wounds of the past.  What if we could summon a corporate will to create a more intentional and merciful future for ourselves as a species.

              A little nagging voice says “Dream on, fool!”   

        But I am not willing to give up the vision.   The traditions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur  have carried the vision for untold generations – a vision of a humanity with swords beaten into ploughshares, a vision of justice, of love and mercy, of walking humbly with the Source of Life, a vision of accountability for the past, and of hope and forgiveness and reconciliation for the future.

If this is a foolish dream, then I will, indeed, dream on.

Vicky Hanjian

 60 Days –A Spiritual Guide to The High Holidays  by Simon Jacobson  Kiyum Press, NY.  p. 12.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014


It all started, as it often  does, with that book shelf just to the right as you walk in the public library.There always seems to be a good read there that I just can't put down. This time it was Mother of God by Paul Rosolie. That's the English title. It should be in Spanish, Madre de Dios, because it's a high adventure story about the Amazon.

It's not only high adventure, with the author riding on the back of enormous anacondas and sleeping in a hammock with a jaguar breathing on his neck. But at heart it's a summons to save one of the few remaining wilderness areas on the planet. Paul travels into some interior regions of Amazonia where it is unlikely any but isolated indigenous tribes have ever been. He sees and begins to understand the way everything works together for the sustaining of an immensely diverse ecosystem. 

Bill McKibben, an amazing naturalist himself and founder of says about the book, "A great adventure with a great and enduring point: we simply must protect these last, vast slices of the planet that still work the way they're supposed to."

As someone who actually believes in a higher power that set this whole creation in motion, there's no escaping the amazing diversity of life forms on the earth and the tenuous yet marvelous way it all relates and interacts. Even the smallest of organisms plays a role and can impact the largest ones, should it disappear or go on a tear. This is especially the case in the region of the Amazon Paul writes about, as man's smell and relentless quest for more has not yet upset the interrelationships. The delicate balance is still intact.

E.O. Wilson, a renowned naturalist, would like to set aside half of the earth's land mass for wildlife. He sees it as essential, a last ditch effort to prevent mass extinctions. Hundreds of species go extinct each year, primarily because of habitat loss and climate change. At present, about seventeen per cent of the world's land area is set aside for wildlife. Wilson wants fifty percent.

There are some who have taken Wilson's ideas to heart. M.C. Davis is a commodities trader who heard a talk on the disappearing black bear from the forests of Florida. He ended up giving the speakers enough money to continue their work for two years and started an educational program for himself that included understanding the longleaf pine forests of Florida, forests that once stretched all the way from Virginia to East Texas. That 90 million acre forest has been reduced to about 3 million acres. No forest, no black bear, or gopher tortoise, or ??? (Southeast longleaf forest is a biological gold mine with as many as 60 different species in a single square yard).

Davis then set out buying land for a nature reserve, 51,000 acres at this point. Davis has cleared thousands of acres of pulpwood pines (more profitable for harvesting than longleaf pines but not home to black bears) and planted millions of longleaf seedlings.

When asked about the construction zone quality of much of the acreage, Davis replied, "I tell people we're in year 13 of a 300 year program. I could easily make 1,000 acres look beautiful but the extinction clock's ticking, so I decided to take on the bigger challenge."

Irony of ironies, Davis made the money he is spending lavishly on environmental restoration, as a commodities trader in timber and oil and gas rights, leading industries for habitat destruction and climate change. Would that more such wealth would be invested in restoration.

Closer to home, we have milkweed growing in our backyard garden. It's essential for the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. This year some of those stalks were home to the monarch chrysalis. Monarchs are now fluttering around the neighborhood gathering enough flower power to help them make that long journey to Mexico.

Our garden is a monarch way station. Development (I call much of it de-development) in this country consumes monarch and other wildlife habitat at 6,000 acres per day. Pesticides and genetically modified crops have reduced monarch habitat by another 80 million acres according to Monarch Watch. And the mowing and use of herbicides in roadside ditches has further eroded the growth of milkweed. No milkweed, no monarch butterflies!

The reality is, we're doing ourselves in. In our arrogance and greed and our pervasive mantra of "economic development and growth," we're destroying the very balance that makes life on earth possible.

Gandhi said. "What  we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another."

And John Muir. "Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity …"

Loren Eiseley tells us that religious thought back to it's very origins, has always seen wilderness, away from other humans, as the place for visionaries and insight. For an age with few we might recognize as insightful, wilderness becomes essential.

Carl Kline

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Way to Prophetstown

I am fascinated by the highway sign, rather non-descript, green with white letters, as familiar in appearance as all those other markers of place and distance that we see along the way of our automotive journeys. This one is for Illinois Route 73, Exit 33. One of our synagogue members knew I would be fascinated by it so she stopped and photographed it as she drove cross-country this summer. It is the announced destination, coming up in just half a mile, that intrigues me, a place called “Prophetstown.”

Would that such a place was so close, I thought, just a slight turn off the highway. As I looked at the photograph, I wondered from where and why such a name came to be. I mused about who it was that might have been the prophet for whom the town was named. Or were all the founders and early citizens of the town of such noble quality, touched by something in the air, perhaps; moved so deeply by human experience, by a sense of God’s love within themselves, that the name refers to all of them? Whether one or many came to be regarded by others as a prophet, it gives beautiful challenge to a sobering rabbinic maxim: lo navi b’iro/one is not a prophet in their own town! If the name refers to all who lived there at the time of the town’s founding and naming, then it affirms the gracious hope of Moses, Would that the entire people of God were prophets (Numb. 11:29). 

The photograph of the road sign pointing the way to Prophetstown came to me this week, the week of the Torah portion Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21-9). Parashat Shoftim concerns civil administration and the pursuit of justice, that both should go together. In this portion is the exhortation, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue. The ways of government and the pursuit of justice are meant to be as one strand for the sake of the commonweal. Too often at odds, the two become so easily frayed, the thread of social justice as a dropped stitch upon the floor. So enters the prophet, to remind of what is meant to be, ready to speak truth to power. In this portion that speaks to matters of social and civil administration, therefore, God tells the people, I will raise up for them a prophet. The way of the prophet is given, not as one who will tell the future, not in the way of the soothsayers and diviners we have just been told to shun, but as one who will remind the people of God’s path, the way to Prophetstown.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, the prophet is one who feels God’s pain for human suffering. God’s pain is the pain of human beings, pain that is felt in the bodies and souls of God’s children. As a parent feels the pain of their children, so God feels our pain, and the prophet cries out with God’s anguish. In his own prophetic voice, Rabbi Heschel speaks of the prophet as one who is “thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words…” (The Prophets, pp. 3-5).

With Rabbi Heschel’s teaching, it becomes clear why the nature and role of the prophet is presented in Parashat Shoftim, the portion of Judges, judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates. The prophet is needed to speak truth to power, to challenge those very judges and officers when they forget God’s call for justice and fairness and no longer see the needs of the people, becoming deaf to their cry. The prophet is needed to remind society and its leaders of when we have lost the way and to call us back. As in a town where all are prophets, justice depends on all of us. The way to Prophetstown is in the end not on a map or in big letters upon a road sign, but in the way that we feel and respond to God’s pain for human suffering as our own. The way to Prophetstown becomes clear, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein