Monday, December 26, 2011

A Different Christmas Story

In my Advent reading this year, I read the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel and compared it with a statement issued on 17 December 2010 by a Buddhist-Christian consultation on “Structural Greed” and an earlier World Council of Churches study document “Poverty, Wealth and Ecology: The Impact of Economic Globalization—a Background to Study the Process,” written by economist Rogate Mshana.

In our popular culture we learn that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. The local establishment was booked because of the government decree that ordered everyone to return to the town of their birth. Sort of like telling people they need to get a birth certificate before they can vote in the 2012 election in the United States. The hidden poll tax is not exactly illegal since it is indirect, but it will prevent the poor from voting. Make no mistake about it: voter suppression is a campaign issue in this country. Communities of faith should be registering congregants and visitors to vote in record numbers on Christmas Eve, at least that’s my opinion. But the focus of my blog contribution is elsewhere.

Maybe Mary put Jesus in the manger not because the inn was full, but because she was poor. She was not in the inn because she could not afford it. Lack of housing is a common problem for the poor. Poverty is about more than not having enough money. It means not having housing, not being able to buy nutritious food, not having access to good schools or adequate health care, dealing with illness without resources, often living in unsafe environments, facing daily reminders of social discrimination and exclusion, and being reminded constantly that it is your own fault. One person running for the Office of President of the United States was candid enough to say that in his world if you cannot afford private health insurance--well, I don’t think he actually said you should curl up and die, but his intention was unmistakable. Christmas? “Bah-Humbug!”

We don’t hear a lot about Structural Greed this holiday season, but it’s a good concept. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed the authors write that “one of the primary reasons for the global financial crisis is that over the past centuries economic processes have been progressively motivated and structured by the goal of maximizing profits for capital owners and thus monopolizing the world market.” The writers go on to acknowledge that we have become comfortable with greed and the idea that accumulated wealth is necessary for human progress. In the statement, Buddhists identify Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion. The antidote is becoming a generous, loving and compassionate person. But the conference participants go on to say that if we only focus on individual greed we are maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, we need to develop strategies for countering Structural Greed.
Rogate Mshana’s paper offers both a framework for analysis of Structural Greed (although he does not use that phase) and strategies for addressing it. He says that we need theological reflection, economic analysis, ongoing dialogue, and practical action.

Theological reflection leads to the insight that poverty is a spiritual problem as well as an economic one. Economic analysis shows us that the market mantra of economic growth is not sufficient and cannot be sustained in a divided world. The 500 richest people in the world have a combined income that is greater than the income of the poorest 416 million people. Economic growth has not and will not lead to greater equality. We need to create conversations in communities of faith about the reality of wage theft, home foreclosures, unemployment, and poverty in our communities. Faith communities can be places for these sacred conversations. Finally we need proposals from practical action. Here is where I find Mshana’s idea of a Greed Line especially helpful. Establishing a Greed Line offsets the Poverty Line and creates a whole new conversation.

Mshana proposes five ways to measure greed. Absolute Greed could be defined in terms of annual personal income and total property and assets owned. Income Ratios, a second matrix, invites us to look at the income ratio between, say, management and labor, or wealth and poverty. A Dynamic Greed line, the third matrix, measures the rate of wealth increase and profit growth. Usually high rates or growth or return on investments could suggest undue political influence or insider knowledge. The fourth matrix proposed is Categorical Types of Enrichment. Where does the money come from: expropriation, bonuses, stock options, investments, wages, etc? Investments and dividends, primary sources of wealth for the wealthy, are taxed a lower rates than income. The fifth matrix is Other Considerations, such as consumption levels. There are both conceptual and educational advantages to the Greed Line. It is a creative way to frame the conversation and it offers guidelines for analysis, education, conversation and action.

The Occupy Movement reminds us daily that we need to turn the page. We need a new economy. We need to replace the ethics of apathy with a call to compassion. We need to challenge Structural Greed with Economic Democracy. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed, they recall these words of Buddha, “In a situation of crisis, act as if your turban is on fire.”

David P. Hansen

Thursday, December 22, 2011


“You have to learn to gush, people, you have to learn to gush!” It was the end of a four-day writers’ workshop and the leader was giving us her parting wisdom. Her philosophy for helping people to learn to write from the heart is one of positive criticism and affirmation. Over and over she would exhort the group to “tell her what you loved” after each person had read her piece.

She told the story of meeting a woman on the check-out line in a local supermarket. The woman looked sad and withdrawn. Our leader complimented the woman on the beautiful saffron colored scarf she was wearing - - remarked on how beautifully it brought out the color of her eyes and the highlights in her hair. A simple enough gesture on the check-out line.

A few months later, the same woman walked up to our leader on the street, wearing the same scarf. They greeted and the woman explained how our leader might just have saved her life. She had been depressed and was entertaining notions of suicide when the first encounter happened. By chance, an effusive and sincere compliment lifted her spirits just enough for her to be able to make the effort to get help with her depression. The woman placed the saffron scarf around our group leader’s neck, embraced her, and went on her way.

I am not a “gusher” but the story stayed with me as I wondered about how often I could have verbally expressed my appreciation and valuing of another person a little more enthusiastically - - maybe say “I love you” in place of the cursory “love ya!” Maybe “use my words” to let someone else know how much I feel cared for by their kindness to me. Maybe tell another person that I receive them as a blessing in my life. Maybe let them know that their inner beauty is visible to me or tell them how much I respect their opinion on things that matter.

We live in a vast and pervasive culture of disrespect and un-civility. Our social interactions are often liberally laced with insults and put-downs in the name of humor. We tend not to see others as wounded and we unthinkingly add to their wounds. We tend not to see others as valuable and easily de-value them with thoughtless, thrown away words of disregard. Human dignity can be stripped away so easily and in the process a person of infinite worth is de-humanized.

As I was growing up, the old clichĂ©: “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” provided some momentary relief against a bullying insult – but belied the truth that words hurt in ways that do not heal.

I may never be a “gusher” but I know for sure that I can slip under the cultural penchant for insult and put-down and find words of grace and love and affirmation and comfort and appreciation for another person, and maybe, for just a few minutes, subvert the dominant paradigm. Who knows when a human life may be hanging in the balance?

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hind Swaraj for the 21st. Century

In my readings of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, I couldn’t help but make a strong connection between the problems Indian society was facing in 1920 and the problems we are facing now, almost a century later. Our problem is not that of an oppressive mother country, but a flaw in our society even more grave. Gandhi stated that “the English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them” (HS, 34.)

Like the Indians nearly one hundred years ago, we were not fully aware of the consequences of our actions. Now it’s evident that we have become slaves. But in my view, what makes our situation even worse is that there are no oppressive laws that have brought us to this state of injustice; only the indirect will of the people. We’ve made ourselves slaves to the corporations. We’ve allowed them and their marketing to make us believe that by consuming we can obtain happiness. We bought into the scheme perfectly and are only now seeing that the final result is far from the happiness promised.

Even now as I’m writing this, there’s an advertisement in the bottom corner of my Microsoft Word 2010 software telling me I can now have three dimensional effects in my power point presentations if I buy the full Microsoft Office 2010 software. Why do I need 3-D for any presentation? Yes, it may look cool and draw some attention, but does it add anything at all to the content of the presentation? Does it help me convey my point or opinion any clearer? This is one large aspect of the problem: at all moments of our waking life we are bombarded with the next latest and greatest gadget or style; told our lives will be bettered by always having something new, by always buying more. And now like a dog sitting patiently for another treat, society sits waiting for the next phone to come out that will allow us to send e-mails that much faster, even if there is no real problem with the phone we have now. At what price are all these new technological advancements and industrial progressions really coming? Is this materialism really worth the price we’re paying; the slavery it puts us into?

The Occupy Wall Street movement brings up some hope that our country may be moving in a better direction and that control may slowly be moving back towards the people, but I still have my doubts about the whole thing. We can’t expect that things will change and all those who are at the top of the corporations and government offices will give up their greedy ways only because we ask them to; a grander social change is necessary. I saw a picture on the web recently of a group of the Occupy protesters in New York. The person who posted the picture had gone through and marked all of the brand name products, from shirts, hats, bags, to the cameras and video recorders the protesters were using to capture the event. How can we expect the greedy to stop accepting and taking so much money, if we keep spending so much and paying their inflated salaries? Are not those who we are upset with just reflections, manifested to the extreme, of ourselves? Do we just “want English rule without the Englishman,” “the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger” (HS, 26), the capitalist and competitive system without the greed?

This is where I see the relevance and need for Hind Swaraj in the U.S. If we want to end corporate greed we must first end our own greed. If we want a deeper rule among the people, we first need a deeper rule over ourselves.

What is Swaraj? Gandhi points out that even if the British were to be expelled from the country, it would not mean that all the problems Indians had attributed to them would also disappear. It was up to the society to bring about that change, to stand up and form a system that suited them. For Hind Swaraj, for home rule, all must obtain self-rule.

The first crucial step the society must take for the social reform it wants is to look deeply into what is really going on around us and become fully aware of everything we see. Gandhi criticized civilization. Even in 1920, all the progress achieved in working towards a higher civilization was actually enslaving people into the system of civilization. Those who work towards those possessions of progress “are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.” (HS, 32)

This is the largest problem facing our society. We have been disillusioned like a dreaming man; all the marketing and advertisements have shown us the way we should be living, and being in a deep sleep and dreaming, we are not able to realize it’s not the truth. It’s not until the sleeping person wakes up that they discover the falsehood in their dream. Occupy Wall Street seems to be our alarm clock. It’s time to wake up and see the way of truth, no longer the dream life corporations have put in front of us. Civilization is more than monetary and material wealth.

We have forgotten not only to perform our duty but what our duty is. We’re not living to achieve wealth and luxuries, but to help those around us and better the livelihood of all. What kind of civilization pits all of its inhabitants against each other? We must no longer rate civilization by the industrial progression it has made but by happiness and moral fiber of the civilians. We need to set our hearts on the whole of the society not only ourselves. The drive for possessions has driven out care for those around us. Our civilization has led to the creation of the “99%” that are now calling for an end to corporate greed. We must be sure this call is not for the greed of the 99%, but for the bettering of our civilization.

Our freedom lies in our hands. Only through our actions
will the nation be freed from the immaterial bonds of material possession that hold it down. “Swaraj has to be experienced, by each one for himself. One drowning man will never save another. Slaves ourselves, it would be a mere pretension to think of freeing others.” (HS, 56) The nation’s freedom will only come from each of us freeing ourselves. We created the slavery so only we have the ability to abolish it. The first step must be a look at how drawn in we are to the “American Dream” and how conscious we are of all the things we purchase, a deeper understanding of why we buy the things we do. Only after we realize where the passions of our hearts are and where they should be can we become free and begin work towards a civilization and society that is truly for the people, by the people, and of a non-greedy people.

In our new clarity, we must see that the words of Gandhi from the past are still as relevant as they were a century ago.

Logan Fleer - Participant in a Gandhi Study Program, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, India

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Giving Thanks as a Source of Humility, a Counter to Arrogance

To be thankful both requires and engenders humility. I find myself looking back at Thanksgiving, reflecting on the teaching of one day for every day. As we pause to consider that for which we should be thankful, it seems to me that we would do well to recognize that many of our greatest gifts are not of our own making. Numerous “accidents of birth” determine so much of later opportunity. Skills that require great dedication to develop, whether in music or art, science or sports, often grow from native ability that springs of its own from our genes. The very act of giving sincere thanks, therefore, should be a counter to arrogance. If something that in its essence or origin is not of my own making and has not come to me due to some intrinsic merit, then my giving thanks should be an act garbed in humility.

For all of the beauty of Thanksgiving, I think that what might be one of its deepest lessons is often missed. As with so many holidays, we can easily avoid grappling with the implications of particular moments in sacred time, and forget as well to draw meaning and responsibility beyond the bounds of a day. As a day to inculcate humility through the act of giving thanks, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity through which to address and redress inequities that divide Americans into a de facto class society. Gratitude for what we have is a tacit acknowledgement of what others don’t have, of the fine line that separates having from not having. Offering a time in which to consider what separates people from each other, Thanksgiving can open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to feel the needs of others. If fortunate enough to be gathered on Thanksgiving with friends and family, our very gathering might awaken us to the loneliness of so many who have no one to be with and no place to call home. As Phil Ochs sang long ago, “there but for fortune, may go you or I.”

The story of Thanksgiving, so much a part of the American myth, especially so in New England, is most often told and transmitted in a way that violates what could and should be its essence. Rather than drawing from and speaking in accord with the humility that is meant to go hand in hand with giving thanks, the telling becomes one of arrogance. It is the arrogance of leaving out the consequences of white settlement upon indigenous populations, a process that began with Plymouth Plantation, of peoples and nations, of cultures and languages destroyed. How much deeper our expressions of gratitude would be, if carried on the same breath came acknowledgement of the pain and suffering of so many that is such a part of the founding and becoming of this nation. Approached as a source of humility learned through the act of giving thanks, Thanksgiving could be a day of national t’shuva/repentant turning.

I found these thoughts coming to me in reading the Torah portion that came during the week of Thanksgiving, Parashat Toldot. Bringing to mind the ways of Native Americans, I heard the description of Esau with perhaps a twist of irony, a man who understood hunting, a man of the field/ish sadeh. We are told that Esau called himself Edom/the Red One. Beloved of his father, Isaac, Esau is able to hunt and then prepare a meal with which to satisfy the hunger and longing of his father. His way as a hunter is not rapacious, but the way of one who knows and loves the fields and forests of home. Twice wronged by his brother Jacob, the birthright and blessing of the first-born are each taken from Esau through trickery and deceit. Upon realizing that the blessing meant for him has been given to his younger brother, Esau said to his father, “Is this, then, the only blessing you have? Bless me, too, O my father!” The text then tells us very simply, And Esau lifted up his voice and wept/va’yisa Esav kolo va’yevk’.

The Jewish People, descended through the line of Jacob, has been blessed with a legacy that invites us to wrestle with God and with people, to engage with text as seekers and questioners. We are invited to interpret Torah and to add our voices to an ever-unfolding dialogue as part of the “inheritance of the community of Jacob/morasha k’hilat Ya’akov.” It is a beautiful inheritance, a beautiful legacy of the other son of Isaac and Rebecca, the brother who was a simple man who dwelled in tents/ish tam yoshev ohalim. It should be possible to love that legacy as it has come to us, and also to hear the pain in Esau’s cry, as it too has come to us. It is a personal challenge for each one of us, as people, as Americans, to be grateful for the blessings we have been fortunate to receive and to respond to the injustice that leaves others in want.

Of Isaac, the father of these two brothers who were so different, the rabbis said, it is for his great humility that our father Isaac is praised/g’dolah anavah she’bah nishtabach Yitzchak Avinu. May we too be praised for great humility, the key that can open our hearts to hear the cry of another’s pain, the tone and song of our prayers of thanksgiving.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Silent Clown Speaks

Chaplin with Gandhi, London, 1931
Perhaps you have heard of Charlie Chaplin, the "Silent Clown" so famous for his slapstick films of the silent-movie era. But his most commercially successful film--and perhaps his most prophetic--was actually a "talkie." Released in 1940, when the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator was almost entirely a product of his creative genius. He wrote it, he produced it, he directed it, he starred in it. Notably, it was the very first feature film to satirize and condemn the antisemitic and fascist policies of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Chaplin was an admirer of Gandhi. His son, Charles, Jr., would later recall "how admiringly he spoke of Mahatma Gandhi...not only one of the most brilliant men he'd ever met, but one of the most godlike as well" (My Father, Charlie Chaplin, p. 339). The actor was inspired by Gandhi's choice to live in solidarity with the poor and the outcast. He was also impressed by Gandhi's assertion that supreme independence requires shedding all that is unnecessary. He regarded this principle as the foundation of Gandhi's argument against the varieties of "machinery" that destroy human beings politically, economically, socially and spiritually. That he shared Gandhi's perspective on this point is quite evident in The Great Dictator.

In this film Chaplin plays a Jewish barber trying to survive in the fictional nation of Tomania (i.e., Germany). Toward the end of the movie, his character is mistaken for the country's ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (i.e., Adolf Hitler), with whom he shares a remarkable resemblance. (Chaplin was playing both roles.) Made to deliver a victory speech in front of a massive military crowd and also over the radio to the entire nation, the Jewish barber instead rails against "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts." He begs his people to unite as human beings, to "fight [nonviolently] for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security."

"Let us fight," he cries, "to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness!"

The Jewish barber's speech, of which I've quoted just a few lines, is the rousing climax of the film. Its delivery is so passionate that I agree with those critics who believe that Chaplin stepped totally out of character to speak the words from his heart. Comedic commentary this is not. It is an ardent humanitarian appeal. Today, if we forgive the sexist language of his day, Chaplin's final speech as The Great Dictator continues to resonate powerfully. Such is the timeless nature of prophecy. It testifies to Truth, just as a finger points toward the moon. Truth, like the moon, is unchanging.

I invite you to watch the Silent Clown deliver his plea to Tomania in the video below. It is a plea to us as well. It is a plea to that within us which too readily obeys, and becomes, The Machine; to that within us which can resolutely rise up and resist The Machine. The original film clip has been remixed in this version with news footage and music by Hans Zimmer. Generations after Chaplin, its claim upon us is as contemporary as ever.

If for some reason you can't see the viewer above, please click here to watch the video.)

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Diary Of A Peacekeeper: Healing And Security For Miracle

By Maria Helena Ariza

I was born and raised in Colombia, a country that has endured more than 50 years of armed conflict between the government and armed groups. Thousands have died and 3 million people had fled their homes. But like the majority of the urban middle class population, I never directly witnessed political violence.

I’m lucky for having felt safe and free. But I know that people in remote villages are vulnerable to terror and recruitment by armed groups. They are underserved by the government, deprived of education and other services, and forgotten by those who have the luxury of security.

I have made it my personal mission to overcome the indifference that leads to vulnerable people being ignored. I have built my career around protecting people threatened by violence.

Working for Nonviolent Peaceforce gives me the opportunity to be an agent of change in the South Sudan. Every day, my fellow peacekeepers and I strengthen relationships with locals, build their capacity to prevent violence, and provide protective accompaniment to people at risk of violence.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Miracle.* She was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to become a combatant and a “forced wife” of soldiers. Days before we met, she was reunited with her family. Like other returnees she faced the risk of re-abduction and being ousted – or even killed.

Miracle desperately needed psychosocial services and safe transportation to the Child Transit Center where she would receive them. Our peacekeeping team and a government social worker met with Miracle’s family at their home and explained the services available for Miracle.

Miracle was deeply traumatized and unwilling to speak. Although she didn’t talk or smile, she got into our car and waited for the adults to finish their conversation – a sign that she felt safe in our presence.

With Miracle in tow, we traveled for hours on one of the most dangerous roads in the region. We dropped Miracle off at the Child Transit Center and she began the long journey toward overcoming the effects of abduction, physical abuse, and sexual violence.

After Miracle spent a month in the transit center, the NP team accompanied her to her family’s new home. As she adapts to her new, more secure life, we have follow-up visits with her, monitor her physical and emotional wellbeing, and address the security challenges she faces.

Stories like Miracle’s demonstrate the vital role Nonviolent Peaceforce plays in remote areas. For me, it’s personal. Visiting Miracle’s village takes me back halfway around the world to Colombia. I can empathize with the vulnerable communities in isolated areas of my home country. As I travel dangerous roads to meet with Miracle, I know that I am overcoming the indifference that is pervasive among my countrymen. I am risking my safety and moving out of my comfort zone to stand up for people affected by violence. Each time I meet with Miracle, I defy indifference.

Maria Helena Ariza (back row center in above photo) is a peacekeeper in South Sudan. She was born and raised in Colombia and has an M.A. in International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame.

* Name changed to protect client.

Date Published:
Wednesday, October 19, 2011, from the Nonviolent Peaceforce Newsletter

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Amazing Faith Dinner

I recently attended an “Amazing Faith Dinner.” The meal was sponsored by a local interfaith group called Global Interfaith in Action (GFIA). The theme of GFIA is the Golden Rule. Positively stated it enjoins us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and negatively, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you.” In one form or another, this rule is found in all major faith traditions. One of the goals of GFIA is to promote interfaith dialogue by creating opportunities for people to live in the spirit of the Golden Rule. The Amazing Faith Dinner is such an occasion. The dinner that I attended in November was a first for me. The following is a report about what happened during the evening. I offer this account in some detail with the thought and hope that others may replicate this gathering in other communities.

The plan is simple, which is its charm. GFIA selects a host for the evening and provides the meal and a facilitator to guide the discussion that occurs as the dinner is shared. The dinner is kosher and vegan. The meal and time for sharing is two and one-half hours. The setting is a private home. Everything is done to make the setting inviting and the guests comfortable. GFIA extends an open invitation to the dinner on its website and then selects the hosts, facilitators and guests for each household. I did not know the name of the host until a few days before the dinner. I met the other guests and the facilitator at our host’s home.

When I arrived at our host’s home at the appointed hour of 6:30 two other guests were already there. We sat in the living room and exchanged greetings and pleasantries while waiting for others to arrive. Soon the facilitator for the evening joined us. We were told that two or three of the people who had planned to join us for the evening had sent regrets. This meant that our group was two Moslem women, me and our facilitator. The couple hosting the evening had not planned on participating in the meal or the discussion. We quickly agreed that everyone would be welcome at the table, including the teen-age daughter of our host couple.

After we were seated around the table, our facilitator began the conversation by asking each of us to introduce ourselves. One of the women wore a hijab. She was Syrian by birth and has lived in the U.S. for twenty years. She and her husband own a popular restaurant that we all knew and frequented. The second guest introduced herself as a Moslem but she did not wear a hijab. She told us that she and her former husband were divorced. Our hostess, the daughter of a Christian minister, identified herself as a Christian but she allowed that she had many questions about the church and about Christianity. Our host identified himself as non-religious. Their teen-age daughter said that she thought the Golden Rule was a good thing. Our facilitator identified himself as a member of the Church of the Brethren. He said he was attending seminary on line and preparing to become a pastor. I introduced myself as a retired Christian minister. We were an eclectic group. The facilitator was the only one who had participated in one of these dinners previously. It was a new experience for all the rest of us.

Introductions completed, a stack of three-by-five cards was placed on the table. Questions were written on each card. We were instructed that each person at the table would take a card in turn and have five minutes to answer the question while the rest of us listened attentively. There would be no discussion during or after each speaker. The questions were open-ended. “What does faith mean to you?” “Do you think doubt is the opposite of faith?” “Do you believe in miracles?” “What has your faith been important to you?” “Do you meditate or pray?” Because our group was small, we were able to have two rounds of questions. The last half-hour was open for general conversation. At the end of the evening we were asked to fill out an evaluation form and on a separate card asked if we would consider hosting or facilitating a dinner in the future.

I have participated in interfaith panels and discussions in the past, but this evening was one of the most intimate group conversations that I can recall. The design of the evening was simply to have us to break bread with people from other faith traditions and enjoy a conversation, and to do this in a private home with a limited number of people. At the end of the evening we exchanged emails and facebook information and agreed that we want to continue to meet together in each other’s homes.

Obviously our group was self-selected in the sense that each of us chose to participate in this dinner, but there were no preconditions. I believe that in total there were probably eight to ten dinners that evening. Each dinner probably had six to eight people. I think this is the second or third year for the Amazing Faith Dinner, but I have not checked with GFIA about either the total number of participants or how many years they have sponsored this event. The plan is simple in design and relatively easy to implement. Bon appétit,

David P. Hansen

Friday, November 18, 2011

Of God's Promise and Ours

I had the opportunity recently to speak as part of an interfaith panel at a program sponsored by Franciscans at the St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center in downtown Boston. Participating in the discussion were the usual suspects, a priest, an imam, and a rabbi. The name of the program was, “Pilgrims of Peace: Reflections on Peace framed by the Abrahamic Traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The gathering was held on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Assisi Interfaith Peace Gathering, convened in Assisi by Pope John Paul II on October 27, 1986.

Though I hope I can help to move others, I am not always especially moved as a participant on a panel. Last night was different. I was deeply touched by the sensitivity and the depth of thought and struggle shared by my colleagues on the panel. Speaking first, Imam Talal Eid, someone with whom I have been on other panels, managed to address a deeply challenging topic, the perception of Muslims as terrorists, with a remarkable touch of humor that set people at ease. He told of participating in a similar gathering at which a Hindu speaker preceded him. As words of peace were offered from the Hindu tradition, Imam Talal’s wife whispered to him with agitation, “who is he to speak of peace,” referencing the killing of Muslims by Hindus in India. Imam Talal whispered back to his wife, “you should be careful because some people are going to say the same thing about me when I speak.” The point brought home with a gentle smile, he then went on to speak of the need and the challenge to reach out to each other beyond stereotypes as the start of peacemaking.

Wearing the traditional hooded woolen robe of a Franciscan Friar, Father Joseph Nangle spoke passionately and poignantly of the historic sins of the Church against both Jews and Muslims, in his own way asking for the forgiveness of the Jew and the Muslim sitting next to him. Reflecting my own commitments drawn from Jewish sources, he went on to speak of the activist way of pacifism, as it is rooted for him in Christian tradition. His words formed a natural bridge to my talk. Looking back to the recently read Creation story at the beginning of a new year’s Torah reading cycle, I sought to convey the underlying ethos of Torah and life as it flows from the very first words of the Torah, from the first moments of Creation, v’ru’ach Elokim m’rachefet al p’nei hamayim/and the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters. The world begins in a moment of utmost gentleness, simply as a breath upon the waters. In every moment of creation continuing to unfold, that gentleness offers a vision of the future toward which we strive, and the way of our own being in the world if we would arrive at that time.

In the printed program for the evening, words written by one of the organizers offer a natural bridge from the creation story to the following week’s Torah portion, the story of Noah and the flood. It is a bridge from the hope of creation’s beginning to the horror of violence that comes to fill the world, destroying people, animals, the earth itself, “we are now being challenged to reach out beyond humanity, because violence is being visited on God’s creation as well. There is an ever-growing consciousness in all religious traditions that respect and peaceful relations must be fostered not only between people, but also between humans and all creatures as well.”

That is what lies at the heart of the story of Noah and the flood, a warning that if we do not recognize and embrace the common bond that joins all life then life shall not be sustained on this earth. The ark itself, rising upon the flood waters, becomes a symbol of wholeness, all species living together, eating of the same food, the wolf and the lamb and the little child to lead, a reflection of the garden that was and that yet might be. Of the rainbow in the sky, formed of tears and light intermingled, a sign of God’s covenant made with all creatures, with people and animals, and with the earth itself, God’s promise never to destroy the earth again. And God continues to wait and hope for a sign from us, that finally we too shall make the same promise.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exclusion and Religious Violence

One of the fondest memories I have of Gandhian communities in India is of morning and evening prayers. There was a school in Bangalore where we sat with small children as they began their day with prayers from all the wisdom traditions of the world. There was an evening with a boys school in Coimbatore, where some 300 young voices joined in the chants and hymns from all the world's religions. There were those times in Gandhian communities as the sun rose, and again under the stars, when we sat in a circle on the raised prayer site in the center of the ashram. We chanted Hindi prayer songs, sang Christian hymns, read from the Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures, closed with a universal prayer

I marveled at these experiences. How I wished my countrymen could try it. What a difference it might make if public schools in my country started their day with a recognition of religious wisdom and diversity. What a difference it might make with respect to religious tolerance, religious acceptance, religious understanding. What a difference it might make in preventing religious violence.

The problem is exclusivity. Christians misuse sayings of Jesus to promote Christian imperialism. Jews use ancient promises in their tradition to justify occupation of another people. Muslims misuse the Koran to uphold acts of terror against the innocent. Fundamentalist Hindus foment violence against their Muslim neighbors.

In each and every case, adherents to each religion claim exclusive rights to the truth and the path to the divine. In ruling out the pathways of others, they lay the ground for dissension and violence.

In my own Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, I'm grateful we are a "united and uniting" church. We are a combination of three Protestant communities that joined together in the 1950's. We have also been working consistently to work more closely with others and heal some of the brokenness in the body of Christ, the church. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming church, the first major denomination to recognize the ordination of women and of gays and lesbians. Still, we are light years behind the need.

As Christians continue their efforts to talk to each other, the world is aflame with inter-religious conflict. And with each new spate of violence, more people despair of religious understanding or succumb to the inevitability of warfare.

Here in Brookings, South Dakota, we have an inter-faith dialogue. We have been meeting for two years now, once a month. The evening begins with a meal. When the Hindu community is host, we know we will have an excellent vegetarian meal. When we visit the Islamic Center, we anticipate and enjoy dishes common to the Muslim community. When we are hosted in a Christian church or at the public library, we know we will sit down to a buffet of excellent pot luck.

Conversation and discussion follows the meal. We avoid presentations and experts. All questions and comments are acceptable, as long as they are respectful and don't steal speaking time from others. We have gone from the polite to all questions are appropriate. We include persons who are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Bahai, Quaker, Agnostic and Atheist. We find our traditions often have similarities we didn't recognize before.

Because the Hajj had just concluded, at our last session, we found ourselves exploring the topic of pilgrimage. We discovered how many of our group, from several different traditions, all had a profound experience of pilgrimage. The characteristics of each were common. It confirmed again the words of Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century saint: "God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion."

Gandhi respected all the wisdom traditions. A way of nonviolence does as well. But even more important, those of us who profess nonviolence must constantly find ways to practice and preach inclusivity, rather than the violence of the exclusive.

Carl Kline

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Homage to One, and to Seven Billion

Outside the garage, the morning after.

Around 1:00 a.m. on October 9, in the peaceful college town of Goshen, Indiana, Linda Miller was painting in her garage. Her 58-year-old husband Jim, a biology professor at Goshen College, was in the house. The couple's two school-age children were out of town at a marching band competition. It was just another ordinary night in the ordinary life of an ordinary family in an ordinary town.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, Linda was attacked by a young, well-dressed white man whom the police would later describe as a "would-be robber", a "home invader." Linda's cries of distress roused Jim out of the house. He managed to divert the assailant's attention, and Linda, though severely wounded, managed to get to a phone inside the house and dial 9-1-1.

When the police arrived, two minutes later, Jim lay dead of stabbing wounds in the yard. Linda, however, was still alive.

Today, after a period of hospitalization, Linda continues her recovery at home. The couple's attacker has not been found.

Jim Miller
Goshen College is my alma mater. Jim starting teaching there the same year I enrolled out of high school, more than 30 years ago. Like nearly every other professor on that Mennonite college campus, he was a man whose faith was synonymous with a commitment to a life of service and an ethic of nonviolence.

Since learning about Jim's murder, I've often wondered what the final moments of his life were like. But imagination fails me. It simply won't take me where real life took him. This is all I know for certain: Unarmed, he put his own body between his wife and her attacker; between her flesh and her attacker's knife. He sacrificed himself for the woman he loved. I suspect, though, and with good reason, that he would have done the same for a complete stranger. To say this is not to diminish his love for Linda. It is to acknowledge his love for humanity, despite the horrors we human beings are so capable of inflicting upon one another.

"It is in the shelter of each another that people live." So goes the Irish proverb. Jim Miller embodied this proverb, by the way he taught and the way he died, and whether we knew him or not, his life can inspire the rest of us. And "the rest of us" are many. In the very month that Jim died defending his wife, our world's population reached seven billion. Seven billion lives. Seven billion people needing to be sheltered by one another.

Not many of us will be asked to sacrifice our lives to shelter even one of those seven billion. But I do think our commitment to nonviolence asks us to sacrifice something. What are we willing to do? What are we willing to give? These are not questions to be answered once and for all. They are questions to be lived, and answered, daily.

As you reflect on these questions, I invite you to watch the video below. It's presented by Playing For Change, which has partnered with the United Nations to create an original anthem for a world now seven billion strong. The song, called "United," is performed by musicians and singers from around the globe. "We have to bring the world together, we have to live as one," they tell us. "We have to bring the world together, we shall overcome."

It's a song Jim Miller would have loved.

(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch the video. Also, translations of those verses that are sung in languages other than English are included beneath the viewer.)

Verse (in Lingala):
This is the answer for the people
Who lost their loved ones from war
This is the answer for the people
Who lost their loved ones from hunger

Verse (in Spanish):
The moment is what counts
Live smiling until the end
But happy days will come
That nobody can believe (Chorus)

Verse (in Hebrew):
It´s time to say
We are all one heart
This song is of all of us
So let´s sing it together in one big voice. (Chorus)

Verse (in Arabic):
Lord of peace
Gift us with peace (Chorus)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Evolving Nonviolence in Mexico

I just returned from a few days in Mexico with groups of nonviolent activists. In a climate of violence, these courageous people are waging a struggle to reclaim their society for their children and their nation's future.

The primary inviting organization was These are people who are working to return the political process to ordinary citizens. They favor citizen power over political party power; solidarity over egocentrism; lawful behavior over corruption; competition over monopolies; empowered citizens over paternalism; systemic leadership over pyramidal leadership; and participation over passivity.

They are a countrywide network with tens of thousands of members. They are able to turn out large numbers for mass demonstrations and have done so in recent months. Their patience and work ethic seems admirable, especially as they are people with jobs, families, a life. But as violence escalates, one wonders if their efforts won't escalate as well. After a nine hour nonviolence workshop, it was evident people were interested in more, and that what had transpired would find a home in their future work.

Evolucion Mexicana has much in common with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has much in common with those citizens who we now refer to as the Arab Spring. As monolithic economic interests have gone global, purchasing political power in country after country, so have peoples' movements gone global. And we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg so far.

A second group I met with was comprised of a dozen or so activists who recently staged an office occupation. They occupied a government office responsible for investigating the abuse of alcohol laws. After staying in the office for twenty seven hours, they secured pledges from several officials to consider community selection of investigating personnel. The final result from this occupation is still not known, but it was an empowering experience for those who participated. They spoke about how they now know the power and possibility of nonviolence. Some of their peace flyers began appearing on office walls in the building. The police who were supposed to be giving them a bad time were actually supportive, so much so, the office manager had the police arrested.

A third group has started a half-way house for young men just coming out of prison. The home has eight occupants, all under the age of 22. The average age for gang members is probably 16 years of age with the average life expectancy in a gang of 3 years. Going to prison may have saved their lives and the half-way house offers a fresh start. They are helped with work or school opportunities and all the residents are required to do one or the other. Plans are in the works for a second home as the first can only hold ten.

The final group I encountered was a school class of 150 thirteen and fourteen year olds. I was asked to speak with them about nonviolence. Little did I know while I was speaking, that very morning, the father of a classmate had been found murdered. He had been kidnapped a couple days earlier and only now had his body been discovered. Nor did I know a government official had tried to come into the school that morning with his bodyguards, only to be turned away by the principal as no guns were allowed on the campus. The government official was not happy.

Here were teachers and administrators working diligently to provide a peaceful environment and a hopeful future for children and young people. And here were students with insight beyond their years into the causes of violence in their society, and possible alternatives. As two of the girls said after the program, "we want to know more about nonviolence. So do several of our friends."

Carl Kline

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Shadow Knows.

It seemed like a reasonable question. I fired off the email to the Worship Committee chairperson, asking if there were a rationale for the shift in the order of worship that placed the celebration of the sacrament of communion prior to the reading of the scriptures and the sermon instead of following - - a departure from 2000 years of liturgical tradition. I felt a sense of disruption in the liturgical movement from “Word” to “Table”, the comfort of tradition, the rhythm of centuries of practice. I was uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. So - -I asked my question.

The responses came back, neither measured nor explanatory, but full of defense and pain. I had to examine my original question again. It had seemed reasonable enough, but something was awry. I had unwittingly activated great discomfort and sorrow. I had opened old wounds.

So –another inward quest began and I began to see how unskilled my question was. Underneath it was the muck of a lot of my own dissatisfaction with a variety of issues related to our little church – and all that hidden stuff found its way into the tone of my question - - and a certain violence to the soul of another was the result.

It took awhile for me to connect all the dots and arrive at the awareness that I had relaxed my vigilance and compassion toward my inner “terrorist”, that shadowy part that I prefer to keep away from the light of day. In the process, I allowed it to hold sway and I ended up hurting another person.

This was a very instructive episode for me. It was all too easy to give expression to the negative impulse within - - to act out of the needs of ego rather than out of the desire to offer understanding and compassion. Not a pleasant awareness for one who aspires to live a life that honors the way of nonviolence.

So – another process had to be set in motion. All of this happened during the Days of Awe –the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – days filled with opportunity to do tshuva, to return to a higher way, a higher truth. So, after much examining of motivations, I made my apologies and asked for forgiveness from the parties involved. Relief, restored relationships, a deepened understanding of the fragility of other human beings all became the fruit of an uncomfortable lesson.

As the nightly news and the headlines are filled with Khadafy’s death, with the various “occupations” happening around the country, with disastrous earthquakes, with conflict about the economy, with questions about the troop draw-downs and the ending of wars, I am ever more mindful of the fragility AND the resilience of the human spirit.

The discovery embedded in the High Holy Days is that forgiveness works. The strenuous part of the process seems to be finding the way into the shadowy places within where pain and dissatisfaction and rage and frustration and fear reside. With compassion for the self that endures in the shadows, light is brought into the pain. Until I can do that, I run the risk of the shadowy places “calling the shots”, as it were.

So I sit pondering questions about our collective ability to examine the shadowy places of our collective unconscious processes –our collective ability to do tshuva. It so often seems as though our collective “inner terrorist” is in charge and we choose not to recognize it. It does its unexamined work in the halls of congress, in the canyons of Wall Street, and in the hidden depths of the “situation room.” I look to the worldwide community that embraces and practices nonviolence to shed its light of compassion into the shadows, to bring into broad daylight the fear and anger and self-righteousness that so often determine the behavior that shapes world events. It is in this often unseen community that I find the fortitude to continue the work of shaping my own life into an expression of compassion. Thanks for being there.

Vicky Hanjian

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Sukkah Among the Tents

It has been a hard week to sit in the sukkah, the harvest booth that is the central symbol of the Festival of Booths. The blustery winds and the driving rains of autumn have been discomforting. In a mundane way, our hope for the weather as we would like it to be and living with the weather as it has been is ironically instructive. It is about living with the tension between the ideal and the real. This is exactly what the sukkah is meant to teach, how to live in the world as it is with the faith that we can yet see and help to bring the world as it might be. Though learning to persevere is no small lesson, in regard to weather there is little we can do to make change. In regard to social realities as they are and as they might be, there is much that we can do.

Change begins with the faith that change can happen, that we are not stuck where we are, either as individuals or as a society. The Zohar speaks of the sukkah as tzilah di’m’heymanuta, “the dwelling of faith.” As one great dwelling place, pulsating with themes of Sukkot, the faith that change is possible fills the air at “Occupy Boston.” Tents neatly arranged in ordered formation, one so close to another, I thought of the camp of Israel dwelling in sukkot along the way of the desert journey from slavery to freedom. For all of the winds that have torn at their tents and the driving rains that have soaked them, there is among

the encamped a pervasive sense of hope before the harsher storms of social and economic disparity that have brought them together. Marking the perimeter at one end of the camp is a fragile sukkah of bamboo poles and of colorful fabric fluttering joyfully in the breeze. The entire structure sways in time to the wind, its strength found in the love and commitment that built it. The utter fragility of all these dwellings of faith united in common purpose underscores the illusion that a fractured society can find strength in brick and mortar.

Some four hundred years ago, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the “Sh’loh,” an acronym from the title of his book, “Sh’nei Luchot Ha’b’rit,” looked around at the excesses of his day and wrote, “my heart burns whenever I see people building houses to be like the castles of princes…, as though it will be forever…. If God gives you great wealth, build houses according to your needs, and not more….” Excess has become an American way of life that undermines the common good. If heeded, the advice of the Sh’loh offers a way to furrow wealth back into the society from which it comes, rather than using it to fund excess.

Engaging in tzedakah as the pursuit of justice for all, enriching the

soil and psyche from which collective wellbeing grows, those with more can become leaders in the way to a healthier society for all. Rather than identifying the “one percent” of highest earners as evil, our challenge is to make common cause. Giving more of one’s own if one had more to give was the way of the farmers of ancient Israel. Offering perspective and critique on our own tax debate, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes from nineteenth century Germany, “concern for the welfare of one’s needy neighbor was seen as a direct result of the landowner’s enjoyment of his own harvest before God; the Jew was taught not to rejoice in his personal happiness before God without first having done everything in his power to give practical aid to his less fortunate brother.” Generosity and concern for the common good were affirmed as a mark of pride, the farmer stating on completion of the “poor tithe,” a tax of ten percent, “I have rejoiced and I have also given joy to others.” As a harvest festival, Sukkos was a time of such pronouncement.

Like Shabbos, Sukkos represents a vision and a way, a path of ordinary deeds leading toward the “day that is all Shabbos,” the time when a great “sukkat shalom,” a sukkah of peace, will embrace the whole world. Welcoming guests, inviting others to share from one’s own bounty is the way of the sukkah. It is the way modeled by the basket of apples from which all may take at the entrance to the ingathering that is Occupied Boston. Critiqued for not having a detailed plan and clear goals, the overarching goal of those occupying public space in our cities is very clear. It is to create a more just, equitable, and peaceful society. Gathering in witness to what is wrong and to what might be, those faithfully dwelling in the public sukkah are offering an invitation for all to join together in finding the way. As we leave the sukkah and arrive at Parashat B’reishit, the Torah portion of Genesis, it is time to begin.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Reflections on the 23rd Psalm

The 23rd Psalm is without a doubt one of the best known and most memorized and most frequently recited passages in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It offers solace to the hungry (“thou preparest a table before me”), rest for the weary (“thou leadest me beside still waters”), and hope for those in despair (“yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear for thou art with me"). Visions of the Garden of Eden abound. The psalmist seems to be telling us, “These are hard times, but hold on to hope, better days are coming.” But what if there is more to it than this?

I'm reading this psalm again as the "99 per centers" continue their demonstrations on Wall Street and around the county, the drive to circulate petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin gains momentum, and people are organizing in communities all across America. They are doing so in the face of the determined opposition of some political leaders, the steadfast refusal of some segments of the media to cover the story, and the stubborn indifference of certain financial establishments. I tell my wife that the "1 per centers" would like us to believe that we have the right to be poor but we do not have the right to protest about the fact that we are poor.

Reflecting on the 23rd Psalm, I recall a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On January 1, 1956, as the boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was entering its second month and a new year was dawning, Dr. King reached for words of hope as he prepared his sermon. He did not, however, turn to the 23rd Psalm. He opened his Bible to the Letter of Jude and read these words, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forever more! Amen.” The title Dr. King gave to his sermon on that January morning was “Our God is Able.” He told members of the congregation, “God is not incompetent . . . . God is able to beat back great mountains of opposition.”

Years later, in preparation for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King called for an “economic bill of rights for the disadvantaged” and for a national program that would abolish unemployment and establish a supplemental income program for those whose earnings were below the poverty level. In this same article ("Showdown for Nonviolence"), he proposed a national health care program and an end to investment in an immoral war, which, as he saw it, was diverting money from social programs.

Now, as I see it, people of faith are confronted with a problem. If, as Dr. King said, God is not incompetent, but able; and if, as the Psalmist assures us, God is actively going before us—preparing and leading—and walking with us, how do we reconcile our faith in this God with the plain fact that 99 per cent of us are on the street while 1 per cent of us is in the penthouse? The Occupy Wall Street website says, "We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We suffer from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent."

How might people of faith reconcile the reality of the 99 percent with the vision of the 23rd Psalm? I find the answer to this question in the first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Americans have subscribed to the myth that utopia, a world without want, can be realized if we each pursue our private dreams. This myth tells us that an abundant life that satiates all our wants and desires is possible if we only focus on what it is we want for ourselves. The psalmist is not against personal responsibility, but as I read it, the psalmist defines this myth not as utopian but its opposite. It is anti-utopian, leading not to personal fulfillment but to the destruction of the common good. With its opening line the psalm debunks the picture of a perfect world in which personal whims and private greed are satisfied. Rather, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” means that abundance is found in respecting relationships and in honoring our commitments to each other.

In a world in which the pursuit of wealth is widely regarded as the most important thing, and human beings and relationships are transformed into commodities to be used to satisfy personal desires, we who are people of faith say with the psalmist, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." That is to say, greed is not our guide.

My next contribution to LivingNonviolence will follow this line of thought with reflections on a proposal being offered by the World Council of Churches that we should establish a “greed line” as well as a “poverty line.”

David Hansen, Ph.D.