Monday, December 26, 2011
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
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 cliché: “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?
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
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
|Chaplin with Gandhi, London, 1931|
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.
(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer above, please click here to watch the video.)
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Sunday, November 6, 2011
|Outside the garage, the morning after.|
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.
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
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
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.
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.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
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 amongthe 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.