Monday, August 30, 2010


One of the many things we (my friend Robert and I) did while we were in India a little more than a month ago, was drive and walk through a wide variety of villages. For the short amount of time we spent driving/walking through the villages, one thing was particularly apparent: there was no lack of happiness. The people were generally very helpful when asking for directions. Unlike many places I’ve visited in the past, they want you to successfully get to your intended destination. Another thing that stood out from any other place in the world is the smell. The scent of manure, kerosene, cooking, dust, and livestock among other things, made for a wretched combination of smells, but yet it’s so satisfying.

One village stood out more than others though.

One evening Robert, my uncle Bhargav, my cousin Neeraj, and I went for a drive in the country side of a city in Rajasthan called Udaipur. The roads curved through the very hilly and dry landscape. If the word “serene” had a visual definition, that particular landscape would define the word. We eventually drove through a very small village where agriculture seemed to be the focal point of the dwellers lives. The first thing we saw was a man who was trying to get his camel to go a certain direction. After mild difficulty, he finally managed to become successful.

Shortly after driving on the narrow path, we had to stop because of a herd of goats which was led by a man wearing all white. The instant after, we saw three or four kids: all around the age of six. They saw our cameras and decided to pose for us in a pseudo-western kind of way. We kept on taking pictures and noticed these kids having a very good time.

When we arrived back home in Udaipur I went through the days pictures and realized something. I realized how happy those kids were. I have never seen anyone else as excited about living as they were. They inspired me. Something about that picture made me question my own happiness.

Someone who has so little is so happy while I have so much more and am probably not as happy. How is this possible? The child in the picture made it very clear that money cannot buy happiness. That statement is obvious, but the way it was reiterated is what made it so unique. It’s the little things in life that create a joyous world, not material things.

When arriving back home in Brookings, I realized even more how many things we take for granted. Running water, electricity, certain foods, and accessibility to almost any product are all things among many others that I learned to be careful about in terms of conservation. People in villages live off very little of the things mentioned. Electricity is something few villages have and must live without. If electricity in Brookings alone were to be shut off for one full day, almost nothing could be accomplished. Having no electricity any longer could result in the town being completely functionless. At the same time villages are able to accomplish many things without electricity. Everything is done manually, which is healthier for both the world and the people. Even though we live in a society with different standards and demands, a new approach at the utilization of electricity and water wouldn’t hurt.

Everyday people go about their lives without knowing how much they have and let it slide as if it didn’t even exist. It takes a substantial loss in their lives to realize what great things they do posses, but then it’s too late.

Abhay Mistry, Guest Blogger
Freshman at University of Nebraska

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Village Model

This last summer I had a wonderful and unique opportunity to travel to India with a friend who has family in the country. During the course of our month-long visit we stayed for almost a week with his grandmother in Ahmedabad, a city of over five million individuals. On our last day in the city we took a rickshaw to the Satyagraha Ashram, established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917. Although it is no longer active (it was converted to a museum in 1963) in its heyday it saw Gandhi lead the famed salt march in protest of authoritarian British laws that taxed the sale of salt. The museum erected in the ashram has an impressive and powerful collection of artifacts from Gandhi’s life as well as presentations of his teachings.

Most of Gandhi’s teachings seem very intuitive to me – their truth is in their peace and simplicity, and I couldn’t disagree with most of them. One of his philosophies that I initially objected to was a call for the return to villages, a complete decentralization. I couldn’t accept it at face value; my life, country, and society were entirely at odds with it. What good could come from rejecting thousands of years of progress to return to the simple and seemingly insignificant lives our ancestors had lived, long before the advent of microwaves, Ipods, cars, modern medicine, or electricity?

I soon had an opportunity to have these questions answered. After we visited the ashram we took another rickshaw to Gujarat Vidyapith, a university also established by Gandhi. We had arranged to meet with Sudarshan Iyengar, who was the vice chancellor of the university. He was running late, and because of his limited time he asked us to talk with him in his car on the way to his next appointment. The three of us piled into the back seat, and his chauffeur drove us on our way. After brief introductions he asked us if we had any questions about Gandhi, and I asked why Gandhi was so fixated on villages. He gave me four key reasons.

First, any centralized economic system is necessarily economically and socially stratifying – there will always be poverty. Villages equalize all individuals; everyone shares in the labor for food and all other basic necessities. Secondly, there is greater independence. This sounded rather counterintuitive to me, but Sudarshan’s explanation made a lot of sense. In our extremely affluent society, we feel like we have a nearly infinite freedom of choice. Food from around the world is conveniently available at Wal-Mart, we can spontaneously choose to travel thousands of miles in short periods of time, and we have access to an absolute deluge of information through libraries and the internet. But we are completely dependent on infrastructure beyond our control – as soon as something like oil is eliminated, we are completely helpless. Contrarily, in villages you control all of your own factors of production; you’re never at the mercy of an unstable other. Thirdly, our economic system is endlessly consumptive. No matter how efficient we think we are at using our resources, on an infinite time scale we will eventually run out, which is indeed a scary thought. Villages can exist on the same plot of land for millennia without exhausting their food supply or causing damage to the land. The final reason was that the moral system in our society is all about the individual. Every facet is geared towards serving “me.” I believe that this has lead to a decline in our culture and society as a whole. We’ve become overbearingly narcissistic, selfish, and impatient. The village is the exact opposite. Everything is about the group, how it can better the lives of those in the community. Thinking outside one’s self like this solves most of the aforementioned problems.

I won’t say that I’m a complete convert to Gandhi’s line of thinking, but it has made me think a lot about my own life and my place in society, and the world for that matter. There are some important things we can take away from this alternative societal model. I asked Sudarshan if there was a possible way to reconcile Gandhi’s model with the structure of society today. He said that of course it wouldn’t be reasonable for us to abandon our cities and start a new life in villages, but we could change several things in the way we live our lives to be more environmentally friendly and create a better society. Essentially, we must think about what we really need and try to eliminate all else. Is weekly takeout Chinese a necessary fixture in our life, or can we survive with simple home cooked meals? He told me to ask my parents, and then grandparents, if they were happy growing up with their respective levels of material possession. The lesson we can take from that is that not all of our labor-saving devices are necessarily required to have a happy life. We can reduce the size of the community we think we need. We can do away with cars and switch to bikes, which reduces dependence on oil, decreases consumption of resources, and eliminates locations farther than we can bike. Another step we can take is having a garden – producing our own healthy food instead of being dependant on processed foods from grocery stores. By simply using only what we need, we can remove greed from our lives. We can be more generous with our money and resources. We can stop pillaging the earth’s limited resources and stop fueling our system’s infinite consumption. We become more self sufficient, and finally and most importantly, become happier. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have and want, we become free to enjoy what we do have, and what is ultimately important – the freedoms we enjoy, the beautiful earth we live on, and the loved ones we share our lives with.

Robert Francis, Guest Blogger
Freshman at Brigham Young University

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Inclusive Religion

One of the most significant and striking activities I've experienced in Gandhian ashrams is the practice of morning prayer. As a respecter of all religious traditions, the Mahatma was inclusive. Morning prayer might begin with a Hindu chant, followed by a reading from the Koran. Then the gathering might sing Gandhi's favorite Christian hymn, "Lead Kindly Light," followed by a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and a Buddhist prayer. The conclusion would likely be the repetition of OM and Shanti (sanskrit for peace). The order and content might vary, but the inclusiveness and intention would not.

I'm thinking about the relationship of religions as I experience the afterglow of an inter-religious marriage. Three weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of participating in a wedding where the couple had two ceremonies, both Hindu and Christian. As the celebrant for the Christian ceremony, I saw elements in the Hindu ceremony similar to those in the Christian ceremony, and other elements that were complements to it. There were some dynamics in the Hindu ceremony it would be wise for Christians to adopt. Speaking with a young person last evening about the wedding, she brightened as she talked about an intercultural marriage she witnessed. She believed it was a hopeful symbol for the future. I agree!

I'm thinking about how, just a few years ago, much of the society in the U.S. frowned on interracial marriage. Now, it's often hard to know a person's racial heritage by appearance. We're a truly wonderful cosmopolitan mix. And I'm hoping, if not in my children's lifetime, at least in the lives of my grandchildren, the same can be said about religion. Already, I'm discovering lots of Buddhist/Christians. It seems to me a natural alliance. Read Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ.

As fundamentalist Christians, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews, and Buddhists, struggle to hold onto the past and retain an exclusive world view, others are practicing inclusion. Or tragically, abandoning the wisdom all the traditions have to offer.

Personally, I'll choose inclusion! And for those Christians who want to debate, let's begin. For me, Jesus is one of the most inclusive human beings in all of history. Only as the institutional church and the political imperialists have manipulated his person and ministry has he been turned into a religious bigot. I suppose some would even claim Jesus would condemn building mosques, not only in New York City, but anywhere else in this supposedly Christian country. They would return us to the most reprehensible and unchristian times of all, those of Holy War. People need to wake up and recognize the reality, as Diana Eck relates in A New Religious America, the U.S. is now the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world.

Gandhi said, “I believe in the absolute oneness of God and, therefore, also of humanity. What though we may have many bodies? We have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source.”

There is wisdom here.

Carl Kline

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Living Nonviolence through Tax Resistance

When the government of the United States and its allies launched its “shock and awe” terror campaign against the people of Iraq, I quit my job and reduced my income and expenses so that I could live below the income tax-paying threshold and stop my financial support of the U.S. war machine.

I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to say that I disapproved of the war, or that I wouldn’t put on a uniform and go carry it out. In matters like this, the government relies on our practical, financial support more than on our moral support... more even than on the support of those who directly carry out the politicians’ orders.

Thoreau wrote: "I have heard some of my townsmen say, 'I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico, – see if I would go;' and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war..."

In this way, at least, the “peace movement” hasn’t changed much since 1849, when Thoreau wrote this passage in Civil Disobedience. By and large, pacifists and anti-war “activists” disapprove of war, parade and preach against it, but pay for it all the while.

That wasn’t going to be good enough for me. I was having a hard time sleeping at night, and a hard time looking myself in the mirror in the morning. I knew that as long as the government had my practical support, my refusal of moral support was just for show. To follow my conscience I would have to put my money where my mouth is.

I decided to withdraw my practical support as well, particularly my taxes. I started working for my values instead of against them. I quit my job and deliberately reduced my income to the point where I no longer owe federal income tax. I transformed my life, concentrating on what really matters, so that I could live well and securely on a lower income. (As a bonus, I came to find that my lower-income lifestyle was more fun, fulfilling, and interesting than the life I had been leading before.)

I went in to tax resistance blindly, following a moral imperative rather than a how-to guide. I’ve since learned that there are many different methods of tax resistance, and that you can find a wealth of information and accumulated experience about using these methods from the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. Over the last several years, I’ve been refining my tax resistance by listening to the advice of people who have been doing this for decades.

People in war tax resistance circles sometimes remark that there seem to be about as many methods of tax resistance as there are resisters. This can make it confusing to talk about “war tax resistance” as though it meant one particular technique, but the plus side to this is that there are many techniques to choose from, depending on things like your family, job, and financial situation, what goals you want to achieve, and what risks you are willing to confront.

Sometimes otherwise well-meaning people discourage tax resistance by pointing out good things that the government does with our money. The U.S. government may spend as much as the rest of the world combined on the military, may threaten everybody with the worlds most fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, may shamelessly practice torture, may imprison on a mass scale, may have military outposts all across the globe – but if we stop paying taxes, won’t we also stop our contributions to such worthy collective projects as social security, health care, support for education and transportation, food stamps, environmental regulation, and the like?

When I hear this argument, I try to imagine a favorite charity: maybe Amnesty International, or Habitat for Humanity, or Doctors Without Borders... something like that. What if I learned that my favorite charity were spending half of the donations I send to them on a campaign of murder, brutality, and torture? Would I continue to send them checks to support the good things they were doing with the other half of my money, or would I find another charity to support?

Nothing about tax resistance prevents you from contributing your time and money to beneficial projects. It just means that you intend to do so in a way that doesn’t also contribute to the plague of government-led violence.

If I want to be nonviolent, disapproving of violence is not enough, not lifting my hand to strike another person is not enough, even chasing violent intentions from my heart is not enough: I have to consciously trace the practical effects of my actions, including my superficially nonviolent actions, through to their effects. People who think of themselves as nonviolent may be torturing, maiming, and murdering by writing checks and licking stamps, or by remaining passive when a portion of each paycheck is withheld for war – “just following orders” like any other garden-variety war criminal.

We know that there are places in Nevada where people sit at computers and fire drone-based weapons half a world away. Their physical distance from the anguish they inflict does not amount to a moral shield. The same is true for those of us who send the checks to buy the drones – another essential link in the same chain.

Living nonviolence means striving to live 100% of our lives nonviolently, not just the percentage the government deigns to let us keep after taxes. War tax resistance is an essential technique for pursuing the goal of a nonviolent life and a just, peaceful world.

David Gross, Guest Blogger
of The Picket Line

Sunday, August 8, 2010

We Can't Be Quiet, or Shy!

Word came last week that an old friend of mine, Dan Dick, had died. He worked in the library at Worcester State College when I first met him. He was the reference librarian. Someone referred me to him, I don't remember why. Imagine my surprise when I introduced myself to him and he responded with this booming voice loud enough to fill the farthest corners of the main reading room. And his laugh! His laugh was incomparable, absolutely huge. And in his presence, there was always lots of laughter.

Dan was irrepressible! He was a peace activist. He was a union organizer. He was a feminist. He was an environmental gadfly. And when his Catholic conscience could no longer tolerate a conservative bishop, he and his wife, with others, started the "Floating Parish." Every Sunday morning this parish floated from home to home. The gatherings were always child friendly, always included the sharing of bread and wine, always required the liturgist, lay or clergy, to engage in dialogue about their homily. Most important, it was just generally understood that people would give form to their worship during the week. It was as close to the early church as I've ever been. As one might expect, rather than flowers for the funeral, people were encouraged to contribute to an organization dedicated to the ordination of women or a Catholic Worker house.

The thing that caught my attention more than anything else about his last days in year 86 was included in his obituary. He was well known for his letters to the editor. He was not shy about expressing his opinion on matters of social import. His last letter to the editor appeared the day after he died. As the obituary said, "he got the last word."

One of the reasons I'm thinking about Dan today and grieving his loss is because of an article I read this morning. I've been trying to figure out why South Dakota has become so humid. When I was growing up here, all our summer days were hot, but dry. The wind came from the North, or Northwest. Now, almost every wind comes from the South, and it feels like we've been dropped in the tropics. To move is to perspire.

And I've been wondering why every storm is a deluge? Rain has been replaced by downpours.

As my reference librarian, if Dan didn't know the answer to my question, he would help me find it. And if the conventional wisdom tried to downplay the change I felt, he'd help me dig deeper to ferret out the inconvenient truth. He probably would have introduced me to the article I read this morning. The air is warmer, because of global warming. Warmer air holds more moisture. So far, nine nations have set all time temperature records in 2010: Russia at 111 degrees; Niger at 118; Sudan at 121; Saudi Arabia & Iraq at 126; Pakistan at 130. The planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest year, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record.

Sitting here sweating, I'm grieving the loss of a big, consistent voice for this good Creation. At the same time, confident as I am that his was an irrepressible Spirit, I'm listening to hear it booming out again, in unexpected places; like quiet library reading rooms, perhaps in union organizing halls, or in classrooms and boardrooms, in banks and shareholder meetings, at the Pentagon and at Congress. We can't be quiet or shy. Dan wasn't!

Carl Kline

Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't Give Up

Just a few days ago I became aware of the work of Michael Franti, a 44-year-old singer/songwriter from California. He's the founder and lead vocalist of Michael Franti & Spearhead, a band that blends hip hop and a variety of other styles, including funk, reggae, jazz, folk and rock. Franti's music can be incredibly moving and quite politically charged.

Franti enlists his deep, edgy voice to advocate for a wide range of peace, justice and environmental issues. For example, to encourage peace in the Middle East, he traveled a few years ago to war-torn Iraq, Palestine and Israel "to explore the human cost of war with a group of friends, some video cameras and his guitar" (see photo below right). (Among others, that "group of friends" included two human rights lawyers, a retired U.S. Army captain and a beauty salon owner.) As Franti explains, the film arose "out of my frustration with watching the nightly news and hearing generals, politicians, and pundits explaining the political and economic cost of the war in the Middle East, without ever mentioning the human cost. I wanted to hear about the war by the people affected by it most: doctors, nurses, poets, artists, soldiers, and my personal favorite, musicians."

From this three-week encounter with people living every day under the harsh conditions of war and occupation, first-time filmmaker Franti created the award-winning documentary I Know I'm Not Alone. You can watch the movie trailer and the music video of the title track on that website.

What I'd like to share with you now, though, is yet another music video by Franti, called "Hey World (Don't Give Up)". As we all know, the difficult work of co-creating a less violent world can be a slow, discouraging slog, sometimes with as many steps and painful slides backward as forward. For today, at least, may this piece by Franti help you keep your chin up and your feet moving.

I'll provide Franti's lyrics beneath the viewer. If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to view the video.

Tell me why the grass was greener
years ago

I swear it used to grow here

but no more here

Tell me why
on this hill
all the birds they used to come to fly here
come to die here

And tell my why I need to know
Sometimes I wish I didn't have to know
all you show me

Hey world
What you say
Should I stick around for another day or two
Don't give up on me
I won't give up on you
Just believe in me like I believe in you

Tell me why on the corner
all the kids that used to come to run here
load their guns here
And tell me why
it's okay
to kill in the name of the gods we pray

Tell me who said it's okay
to die in the name of the lies we say
Tell me why there's child soldiers
Tell me why they close the borders
Tell me how to fight disease
and tell me now won't you please

The only thing I want to do
is to be in the arms of someone
who believes in me

like I believe in you

I try try try try
I try try try try for you
Don't give up on me
And I cry cry cry cry
I cry cry cry cry for you
Just believe in me
like I believe in you

Phyllis Cole-Dai