Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Water People

I've been reading a book called "This Stretch of the River." It's the response of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota writers to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Bicentennial. It's an anthology that includes poetry, fiction, memoir, history and literary criticism. A common thread in much of the writing is the Missouri River. It flows through the pages as it once flowed through the Northern Plains, unhindered and undamned.

I remember driving across the Missouri on a beautiful summer day, looking down at the water from a bridge near the Cheyenne River Reservation. The sky was a brilliant blue with small puffy clouds reflected in the glassy surface of the river. As my companion looked into the river, she volunteered, "on a clear day I can see my village."

Thousands of people were displaced and dozens of villages were buried by the dams on the Missouri. Whole ecosystems were changed. Cultures were impacted. Even today, the bones of Native people appear as evidence that burial grounds were immersed as well.

There's a similar situation half a planet away. I was first drawn to the struggle along the River Narmada by some postcards. They showed tribal people standing waist deep in the waters of the river. The people vowed to stay in their homes and villages as the government flooded them. But the government wouldn't allow them to drown. The authorities took to boats and arrested the protesters while they were in the water. The Narmada struggle continues.

The Adivasi people who have lived along the river Narmada for generations revere the river. For them it is a sacred entity. They walk it's length each year in recognition of the blessing it is and the life it brings to them. They object to the idea of controlling or curtailing its flow.

I've heard the same concern expressed here in the U.S., by a Lakota teacher. He spoke about the rights of the water people. Water was personified, perhaps so we might better understand and relate. Significantly, for the Lakota, one of the rights of water is to flow where it will, unhindered, undamned.

Increasingly, we need to recognize the rights of the earth, of water and trees and animals and soil. Doing violence to the sacred entity that nourishes and sustains us is ultimately self destructive. Tribal people all over the planet are risking and sometimes losing their lives to warn us.

Carl Kline

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sabbath of the Land - Happiness & Prosperity for All

On his ashram, Gandhi insisted that everyone participate in the range of tasks necessary for daily life. It was a way to insure that no task be regarded as menial, and to break down the barriers of caste by causing people to rub shoulders while laboring as equals. While Americans are not divided according to a hereditary caste system, we are divided by numerous factors, such as racial, social, economic, gender, ethnic and religious distinctions that create a class society of gross inequity. The impact of the current economic crisis is felt across class lines, but those who are starting with less carry the greatest burden. Whatever the difference in degree, if we can recognize the collective impact of economic moral failure, then perhaps as a nation we can also recognize the need for change.

The Torah offers a fascinating model of a cyclical social and economic corrective that is meant to inculcate humility. In the portion called B’har (Leviticus 25), the Torah lays out the cycles of Sh’mita/Sabbatical years and the Yovel/Jubilee. Every seventh year the land is to rest: Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath observed by cessation from work for the land…. In the Sabbatical year nothing is to be planted or harvested. The fields are open to all to come and glean from what grows of itself, not to take away as though a harvest, but to eat as needed right there in the field, the poor, the stranger, and landowner alike. Slaves are to be freed and debts cancelled. The Jubilee is the fiftieth year, following a cycle of seven sabbatical years, inaugurated with the sounding of the shofar/ram’s horn at the close of that Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement. A sabbatical year itself, but even more, in the Jubilee all property returns to its original residents, those who have been forced to sell due to hard times are now able to return to the place of their beginning. The land itself cannot be bought and sold, but only the right to farm the land, the cost dependent on the number of harvests until the next Jubilee. Stripping away the status of ownership, a powerful underscoring of equality, God says: And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine/ki li ha’aretz; for you are only strangers and tenants with Me.

Ultimately, not only about the land, but about the way people treat each other upon the land, we are told in the context of these laws of the land’s Sabbath: And you shall not grieve one another…. Concerning the impact of individual behavior on society, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers beautiful commentary in the context of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee: God is present not only in the Temple but also in the midst of all business and commerce transacted by the members of the nation. God will support and bless these transactions only if they bring happiness and prosperity to all; if no one “grieves” the other.

Writing in nineteenth-century Germany, Hirsch’s words speak with powerful resonance and warning to our time. An economy that does not bring “happiness and prosperity to all,” evaporating lines of caste and class before God, will undermine the wellbeing of the nation. However different the social and economic realities of our time from that of the Torah, in its promulgation of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year, the Torah offers the underlying values of the “Sabbath of the land” as a timeless vision and way of transformation.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Saving the Soul

The crowd was moving slowly, fitfully, down the dirt road toward the entrance to the landholders palatial home. They moved as one, not allowing any member to stray, as if certain danger would envelop them. These were landless peasants in India. They had been encamped on and around the property of this wealthy landlord for months. The peasants would plant an acre or two in a far field, left untilled, only to have the landlord plow the planting under as it neared ripening and time for harvest. The landlord would hire goons to descend on the landless camp in the middle of the night, trying to frighten them away. The landless burned the landlord in effigy. Day by day the violence was escalating.

Now, the landlord waited inside the fortified walls of his estate. The walls were made of thick concrete topped with barb wire and broken shards of glass to keep the criminals and landless out. But today, for the first time, the poorest of the poor would walk through the gate, onto the veranda of the estate. Here the landlord would announce a land sale to the still fearful crowd.

This event was made possible by the diligent and persuasive work of two followers of Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. Vinoba was the founder of the bhoodan (land gift) movement in India. He walked all around the country asking the landed to give a portion of their land for the landless. He invited people to consider him a member of the family. So if they had five children, they were to consider him a sixth, and then give him a sixth of their land for the landless. In this way he collected millions of acres all across India.

Krishnamaal and Jagannathan were walking in his footsteps. They had founded the organization known as LAFTI (Land for the Tiller's Freedom). In this particular case, they had finally convinced the notorious landlord it was in his interest to make this sale, at a reasonable price. The most convincing argument they used revolved around the condition of the landlord's soul.

I was watching this transaction as I spent a couple of days on a padayatra (walk) with Krishnammal and Jagannathan. Looking through the palatial home of the landlord I was drawn to pictures of his children, with their Mercedes and fine homes in European capitals. There was no such word as "want" in the family home. Yet, the patriarch was worried about the state of his soul. It made me aware of how the rich might be invited to share with the poor on other grounds than equality and Justice. There is a religious dimension that some might consider.

Proponents of nonviolence, especially those of us raised in a liberal, secular culture that abhors old-fashioned ideas of heaven and hell, might carefully consider contemporary conceptions of soul. Then we might develop the courage to add "saving the soul" to the conversation.

Carl Kline

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Nonviolence & Sacred Texts

The Five Books of Moses contained in the Torah, the first part of the Hebrew Bible, are divided into weekly portions to be read in the synagogue. The chapters that form the liturgical portion called Tazria, Leviticus 12 and 13, are arguably among the most dreaded by Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. Tazria begins with a brief introduction concerning the offerings attendant on childbirth, replete with reference to conception and to blood. The rest concerns leprosy and other afflictions of skin and body. I have witnessed the horror of more than a few young people upon realizing this to be their Torah portion. I have used such opportunity to share what I have come to see as a nonviolent reading of text as training for a nonviolent reading and living of life. The Torah, the word means “teaching,” is a teaching of life, at times ennobling and at times painfully challenging, and so we approach it, whatever the content of a particular portion. Like the beauty of a bright summer’s day, it is easy to find delight and meaning in the story of Creation, for instance. The more difficult portions, opaque at first, require a more diligent search for meaning. As in life so in Torah, beauty and meaning are not always apparent.

This is true in our encounters with people. There are those whom it is very easy to embrace, to appreciate, to love. And there are those who by manner or appearance may repel or simply make us uncomfortable. How to get close, how to see the image of God? Searching the text for meaning is a metaphor for searching the face and soul of a human being. Of all the unlikely chapters in the Torah, these in Leviticus offer powerful teaching on human dignity and compassion. In the end, it is precisely in these portions that describe people who are disfigured with disease, in whom it is more difficult to see the image of God, that we are reminded of the holiness that infuses the afflicted as human beings.

The humanity of every person is affirmed in the very first word of the chapters on leprosy. The leper is referred to as adam/human being. The word does not mean “man,” as most often mistranslated. The first human, referred to as both male and female by the rabbis, is called adam, one who is of adamah, the earth. Of all the words that could be used to refer to a person, a modern Chassidic commentary known as the “Netivot Shalom/Paths of Peace,” points out that adam refers to the highest spiritual level; as it is written, “for in God’s image did God create the adam/the human.”

Far from affirming her or his humanity, the leper has been treated most often as pariah, a status transferred with equal fear and loathing to others who are vulnerable or who don’t conform to regnant social norms; those with AIDS, the disfigured, the socially awkward, lesbians and gays, the transgendered and others whose sexuality is not readily identified. Those who would justify and rationalize such cruelty in God’s name appear animated by the spirit of a tragically misread and misunderstood verse at the end of this portion of Tazria, Leviticus 13:45, whose proper reading, a nonviolent reading, teaches a very different way of response. The Hebrew words of the verse, v’tamei tamei yikrah, are generally translated as, and s/he shall call out: “Unclean! Unclean!” The leper appears to be required to call out for the sake of protecting others. Tamei does not mean unclean, however, a word of stigma, but is a technical term that refers simply to a state of ritual impurity that can affect anyone. It is also a noun referring to the person, not a word describing the person. Most significantly, in the traditional text a vertical line appears between the two words. Called a p’sik, the line is one of the trope signs by which the Torah is properly read and chanted, indicating a pause between the two words, like a rest in music. Grammatically, the phrase should be read, v’tamei | tamei yikrah/and the one who is tamei | the one who is tamei shall cry out. Read this way, the rabbis of the Talmud saw a call for compassion, explaining the intent of the phrase as teaching that one needs to make known their pain to others so that others can seek compassion upon the one who cries out. A beautiful 19th century commentary, the Torah T’mimah, says that the one who is suffering should cry out at night, when in the stillness others will hear, even as God hears, and will cry with the sufferer, shedding tears of prayerful sympathy.

A careful reading of difficult texts means to ask the right questions of God and of self. Compassionate One, is this what You really want? Is my response to text, as it leads me to respond to people, consistent with what I know God to be and want of me? Wrestling with God and with ourselves, we allow to emerge a stream of nonviolent teaching that flows just beneath the surface.

We do violence to holy texts when our reading of them causes hurt to others. A nonviolent reading of difficult texts leads us to look more deeply, until we encounter the underlying meaning that fulfills God’s ultimate purpose and hope. Holy texts provide context in which to wrestle with the hard issues of life. So it is that I hope my students will rise to the challenge of a difficult portion, learning as they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah to affirm the humanity of every person, each one created in the image of God.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I’ve been thinking a lot about shaming, that behavior that comes so easily to human beings as a defense or as a way of exerting power over someone else – especially over children. It has been on my mind for several days after observing a young dad’s response to his even younger son in the supermarket. The child had been eating from a box of Captain Crunch when the box slipped from his hands and spilled out into the grocery cart and, subsequently, all over the floor in the crowded aisle of chips and dips and twenty kinds of soda. “How can you be so careless?!? I can’t believe you did that!!! Who’s going to clean up that mess?” With each loud, angry exclamation, the little guy seemed to shrink even smaller on his perch in the seat in the grocery cart. Shaming has that effect.

I often awaken with the words “Elohay neshama shenatata bi tehorah hi” rippling through my mind. The Hebrew phrase comes from the morning prayer that says “My God, the soul you gave to me is pure. You have created it, you shaped it, and you breathed it into me, and you preserve it deep inside of me. And someday you will take it from me restoring it to everlasting life.” It is a reminder to me about the precious energy I refer to as “my soul.” It is an even more challenging reminder to me about the precious soul energy of other people.

In Jewish tradition, shaming another person is the moral equivalent of murder. Shaming has the effect of killing something divinely precious in the other person.

As I watched the young father, it was clear that he was embarrassed and frustrated by the spilling of the Captain’s sugary crispness all through the groceries and out on to the floor where other people either swerved to avoid it or ended up crunching through it. In his youthful parenthood, he was unskilled at knowing how to deal with the situation. Shaming words slip out so easily in that moment of embarrassment and an even younger soul is wounded.

Shaming is an act of violence against the soul. The questions that rumble within me now are “How could I have related to that young father without shaming him in the process? Could I have engaged my own soul energy to soften the effect of his words on his son?”

The beautiful words of the prayer waken me with a lot to think about as I enter the day. Perhaps, at least for today, I can commit to “seeing” the precious soul of the other and refrain from language that would kill.

Vicki Hanjian

Friday, June 5, 2009

Humans and Animals

Our dog Toby had some very strange habits. Every time we went to the lake, he would dig and burrow in the shallow water for stones. When he successfully dislodged one, he would get it in his mouth and drop it on the bank, just out of the water. We thought about hiring him out for clearing beaches, but he was awfully slow removing just one stone at a time.

Toby could also sit on his haunches like a gopher. And he could back those haunches up to a tree with wonderful accuracy. He would deposit his droppings right at the base of the trunk, as if it were his duty to fertilize the tree. He rarely left his business anyplace else. Scooting the rump up a tree trunk was always the prelude to another deposit. Even though this seemed unusual and highly skilled behavior, I was astonished on one walk. He backed up to the cap on a water pipe, sticking up six inches off the ground, and delicately left his business on the cap. The cap couldn't have been more than three or four inches in diameter!

Of course, there were the usual things that make a dog dear to us. He expressed his love through his tail, his tongue, his eyes. He could make you change your mind by looking sad or glad. Those big brown eyes revealed his soul.

I don't know. I think dogs have souls; and cats, and polar bears, and ground hogs, and pigs, and tigers. I'm thinking about animals today because I just read about a girl who put a kitten in the oven, turned up the heat and left it to die. She said she "hated cats." I'm also thinking about that polar bear picture I saw, where the bear seems lost on a small chunk of ice, floating into oblivion on a warming planet. And I'm thinking about that ground hog I ran over in the Black Hills. I thought it was road kill. It surprised me when it was too late to avoid it. And I'm thinking about the pigs I saw stuck and bled and cut up and packaged, in the Meat Management Lab at South Dakota State University. I remember how sterile the whole process seemed, as one student kept the hose going the whole time, flushing anything organic, like blood, down the oversized drain in the floor.

And I'm thinking about that old Buddhist legend I read, where the Prince goes walking in the forest one day, in the midst of a terrible drought. He comes upon a tigress with two small cubs. It's obvious they are all hungry to the point where the tigress will be tempted to eat her own kind. The Prince scratches his arm till the blood flows and lies down to wait. We are told that there is an eternal light in the forest at the spot where this act of compassion took place.

If Toby was an unusual dog, the Prince was certainly an unusual human. The time is upon us where we need to understand that our relationship to each other and to the animal kingdom must be rooted in nonviolence. It's our only path to survival.

Carl Kline

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Change Is Gonna Come"

You may be familiar with Playing for Change, a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. As part of the movement, musicians and singers from around the globe are brought together to perform, either through the magic of technology or (more recently) live on stage.

Within the past week the Playing for Change producers released their latest work, a performance of "Change Is Gonna Come," a song written and first made famous by the legendary Sam Cooke, one of the founders of soul music. This performance was recorded and filmed live last year before a street audience of thousands in New Orleans.

Featured in this video are Grandpa Elliott, a blind street musician and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana; singer Clarence Bekker from Amsterdam, Netherlands; guitarist Louis Mhlanga from Harare, Zimbabwe; and bass player Reggie McBride from Detroit, Michigan. They had never met until their rehearsal for this event.

Witness the soul and conviction of these talented men whose powerful performance demonstrates that we can truly come together as a human race, one song at a time. As Playing for Change co-founder Mark Johnson reminds us, "We are the Change we want to see in the world."

Note: This six-minute video may take a long time to load. Please be patient. The wait is worth it. While loading, you may want to busy yourself doing something else, then listen by clicking "Play" whenever you're ready.

Submitted by Phyllis Cole-Dai