Friday, January 28, 2011

My Handiwork Is Drowning in the Sea

As an American soldier during World War II, my father served in Great Britain as part of a medical unit. When the war in Europe ended with VE day in the spring of 1945, my father's unit was sent home. Unlike most of the others he had served with, who were discharged upon return to the states, my father was given a brief furlough and then sent to the west coast. Reporting to Fort Lewis in the state of Washington, though having directed a hospital laboratory in Britain, he was now to undergo weapons training as a medic prior to being deployed to the Pacific. Days before my father's new unit was to be shipped out, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war in the Pacific was over.

It was only over time that my father came to realize why the war had ended so abruptly. The enormity of what had happened was shrouded for him in the ecstasy of the moment, in the joy of war's end and in the promise of going home. As awareness grew in the months and years that followed of the untold suffering brought by the atom bomb, my father came to struggle with a great moral tension. What did it mean that he was spared from the war in the Pacific through the unleashing of such destruction on so many innocent people? Release came to him through the catalclysmic drowning of others in a sea of fire. He wondered what else could have been done. Why was Japan not warned, or its leaders not invited to witness a demonstration of the bomb's power? Through the years, my father has struggled to balance the elation he had felt in that redemptive moment long ago with the horror he came to feel later.

At a Passover seder, prior to reciting the ten plagues, I once asked my father to describe that struggle. He spoke in very emotional terms, explaining that at the time he was focused on himself, only later able to appreciate the impact of events on others. My father's self-understanding of initial rejoicing later tempered is reflected in the famous rabbinic telling concerning the drowning of the Egyptians in the Reed Sea. Even as Israel begins to sing on the far shore as the waters close back over the pursuing soldiers, the rabbis imagine the angels in Heaven wishing to celebrate as well:

In that moment the serving angels sought to offer a song before the Holy Blessed One. The Holy Blessed One said to them: My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you would offer a song before Me?

The Song at the Sea, Shirat Hayam, which is sung following the children of Israel’s safe passage through the parted waters, contains the central tension in the Torah portion B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:15). If God does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked, the angels being told not to sing, then why are the Israelites allowed to sing? The Israelites are the ones who have just been saved, who had themselves suffered as slaves. Delirious in the moment of realizing they are free at last, it is natural for them to rejoice, song bursting forth in amazement. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. Their focus is understandably on themselves. Removed from the immediate experience of the Israelites, the angels are expected to have a deeper and longer perspective that recognizes the ultimate tragedy in the drowning of the Egyptians.

Before we sing our freedom song we are meant to feel and internalize the tension of life lost in the process of redemption. This is powerfully taught through the Jewish ethical tradition of Musar, which here imagines even the Israelites on freedom's shore pausing in stunned silence before beginning to sing: ‘And God saved Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore.’ They had not yet uttered song, they had not sung their redemption song nor sung concerning the downfall of the Egyptians, for they were greatly distressed; for all this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy when seeing a great camp of human beings strewn upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the dying?

At the time the war ended, my father's response was like that of the Israelites at the sea, a response out of raw emotion. With the sobering perspective of time and distance, even though the same person, his reality became more like that of the angels, for whom, through remove, it was not appropriate to rejoice. As we sing the Song at the Sea, our challenge is to feel empathy, identification with the humanity of the other, however debased. This is the challenge that lies at the root of nonviolence as taught by Martin Luther King, whose life we celebrate when in the cycle of its reading the Torah brings us to the crossing of the sea. The Song we sing is about us and our response to events that affect our lives and our world. Though with ancient trope, if we sing the Song at the Sea as a victory song, we bring yet more triumphalism into the world of today. An interweaving of joy and horror, we are to engage the dynamics of the Song with awareness of its powerfully complex message, not simply as a celebration of our own redemption. Aware of the humanity of the other, may we bring the ultimate redemption of peace and freedom for all.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Icon by Alexander Sokolov, Moscow

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Annie Dillard is one of my favorite writers. She has a connection to the natural world that pervades her writing. Often, she writes what I call poetic prose. Her first book that I discovered was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In it, she writes:
"I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge. An anchorite's hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It's a good place to live; there's a lot to think about. The creeks - Tinker and Carvin's -are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."
In another of her books, Holy the Firm, Dillard lives on an island in Puget Sound. Here she explores the firmness of "the Holy." Her picture of a burning moth caught in a candle flame is only one of her unforgettable descriptions and it parallels in its rendering of the hard things in life, the burning face of a seven year old girl trapped in a flaming airplane crash. Dillard asks the age old questions about suffering and meaning and gives her response.
"Does something that touched something that touched Holy the Firm in touch with the Absolute at base seep into ground water, into grain; are islands rooted in it, and trees? Of course."
The other book by Dillard I'm thinking about as I write this is For the Time Being. In it she has a rather extended discussion of dust. The sunlight is coming through my window and as I look in the beam there is all manner of stuff floating there. Dillard writes:
"Earth sifts over things. If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. The debris on the tops of your shoes thickens, windblown dirt piles around it, and pretty soon your feet are underground."
She goes on to describe how a ton of micrometeorite dust falls on the earth every hour; and how ruins are discovered, buried under yards of earth. And what are the possible origins of those bits floating in my sunbeam: rug, dung, eroding tires, coal, leaf hairs, spider legs, skin, sand, spores, sweat, spit, and so forth. We're being buried, so "why aren't you dusting?" she asks.

Dusting, indeed! How is it that we are so out of touch with what we breathe and torch and drink? How is it possible that we are so little aware of burying the earth in fragments of chemicals, computers, carcinogens? Where are our anchor-holds?

Dillard suggests some answers. She is a person who writes about places she has experienced. She has an anchor-hold. People of place best know their place in the world.

She is also an astute observer of nature.

I can usually recall those few times I've seriously observed the natural world. Like the summer day forty years ago when I heard a buzzing sound and discovered a common house fly caught in a spider web on the window. I watched it struggle without success for ten minutes. The spider casually waited nearby for the struggle to end. After fifteen minutes, the fly tore a wing off in it's effort at freedom. Although I have little sympathy for flies, I had to intervene. The spider lost a meal and a one winged fly disappeared behind the curtain.

It's hard to miss the mystery and joys of this world, if you are a person of place, carefully observing the richness of Creation. It's also hard to make war on the planet, if you look, up close, at burning moths and one winged flies, especially with an anchor-hold.

Carl Kline

Monday, January 17, 2011

Paying the Price for Peace

Published on Thursday, December 16, 2010 by Waging Nonviolence

by Anna Brown

On December 13th, a Tacoma-based jury declared five Disarm Trident Now Plowshares activists “guilty” of trespass, felony damage to federal property, felony injury to property, and felony conspiracy to damage property. The charges against the Disarm Now Trident activists resulted from their November 2, 2009 Plowshares action at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base, which is located just outside of Bremeton, Washington. The activists, who will be sentenced on March 28th, 2011, each face a potential prison sentence of ten years.

According to the Disarm Now Plowshares blog:

Anne Montgomery, 83, a Sacred Heart sister from New York; Bill Bischel, S.J., 81, a Jesuit priest from Tacoma Washington; Susan Crane, 67, a member of the Jonah House community in Baltimore, Maryland; Lynne Greenwald, 60, a nurse from Bremerton Washington; and Steve Kelly, S.J., 60, a Jesuit priest from Oakland California … cut through the chain link fence surrounding the Navy base during the night of the Feast of All Souls … They then walked undetected for hours nearly four miles inside the base to the Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific (SWFPAC). This top security area is where the Plowshares activists say hundreds of nuclear missiles are stored in bunkers. There they cut through two more barbed wire fences and went inside. They put up two big banners which said “Disarm Now Plowshares: Trident Illegal and Immoral,” scattered sunflower seeds, and prayed until they were arrested at dawn. Once arrested, the five were cuffed and hooded with sand bags because the marine in charge testified “when we secure prisoners anywhere in Iraq or Afghanistan we hood them…so we did it to them.”

After the jury rendered their verdict, Father Steve Kelly “faced the jury, and all the Disarm Now Plowshares defendants stood with him with their hands raised in blessing as he said, ‘May you go in peace and have a safe, happy holiday.’” These words and loving gesture well encapsulate the profound spirit that animates the witnesses of Plowshares activists and their supporting communities, as well as that of generations of nonviolent peace activists and actions that root the Plowshares.

This spirit was well expressed, for example, by theologian William Stringfellow, who, during an autumn of 1968 Baltimore gathering in support of Catonsville Nine activists, exclaimed: “Death shall have no dominion!” Or, currently, as Lynne Greenwald wrote in a recent Disarm Now blog entry: “Now more than ever I am convinced that this [Plowshares] is the community I want to remain a part of, and with whom to continue working towards the creation of a world without violence. This community embodies the world we previously dreamt and have had glimpses.”

The animating spirit and nonviolent act of the Disarm Now Plowshares provides a clear and stark contrast to the spirit of death and destruction that wields its iron fist at the Kitsap-Bangor Naval Base. The Disarm Now blog reports:

The eight Trident nuclear submarines home ported at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor each carry 24 Trident D-5 nuclear missiles. Each missile carries up to eight warheads, each one having an explosive yield of up to 475 kilotons, over 30 times the destructive force of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima.

Additionally, Bangor is home to SWFPAC where nuclear warheads are stored ready for deployment. Located just 20 miles west of Seattle, it is home to the largest single stockpile of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal, housing more than 2000 nuclear warheads.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the 2,364 nuclear warheads at Bangor are approximately 24 percent of the entire U.S. arsenal, more than the combined nuclear warheads of China, France, Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan.

In his book, The Nightmare of God, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a Catonsville Nine and Plowshares Eight activist, writes that few in our society recognize the “mortal danger” and depraved spirit of nuclear weapons. “It isn’t so much that we have The Bomb,” he continues, “as that The Bomb has us.”

The importance of the Disarm Now activists and action—indeed of each of the over 150 Plowshares actions since 1980—is that they show us how not to be held captive by The Bomb. Each of the activists has spent the better part of their lives working in service to others, risking numerous arrests on behalf of peace, living unencumbered by consumerism, building loving communities, and, in some cases, risking their lives in war zones. Given the possibility of a ten year prison sentence, they demonstrate what it means to “pay the price” that peace in our world demands of us.

Having lived in community and acted with Steve Kelly, Anne Montgomery, and Susan Crane, I can attest to the radiant, compassionate, and courageous spirit of these good people. A sharp intake of breath, upon my hearing of the guilty verdict and sentencing date, was soon followed by a moment of prayer and praise: praise to those who are awake, praise to those who work for peace, praise for those who dare to love. Now it is up to each of us—in our own daring and imaginative and loving way—to “cut through fences, plant sunflower seeds, and proclaim that way of peace not war shall be ours.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Anna Brown teaches political science and is the Director of the Social Justice program at Saint Peter's College, Jersey City, NJ. She is a member of the Kairos community, Witness Against Torture, and the Garden State-Los Amates (El Salvador) Sister Cities Program. She can be reached at: ajbspc[at]

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thought, Word, Deed

There's a rather intense debate going on in the U.S. about the use of violent language in politics. Some claim the massacre in Tucson, Arizona was a natural consequence of the heated and often violent rhetoric in the political arena. One such claimant is the sheriff responsible for responding to the tragic event.

Others say there's no credible relationship between rhetoric and murder and those who claim there is are trying to politicize an unfortunate event. Their response is a variation of the old argument that "guns don't kill people, criminals do." Here they would substitute "words" for guns, and "nuts" for criminals.

I'm of the opinion we need to adopt an understanding of the use of language consistent with an understanding of ahimsa. Ahimsa is a sanskrit word often translated as "no harm." The idea is not to do any harm to any living being. It's a primary concept for the Jains who provide animal sanctuaries in India for disabled and abandoned creatures, abide by strict standards of vegetarianism and profess and practice nonviolence in their social and political relationships.
Ahimsa was one of the vows in Gandhi's ashram.

One of the ideas implicit in ahimsa that has always recommended it to me is the intimate relationship between thought, word and deed. Only a thin thread separates one from the other.

For instance, I like nuts, preferably mixed nuts. We got a large can as a gift for the holidays. During the course of the day, I would think about that can of nuts sitting in the cupboard. If I allowed my thoughts to center on those nuts for very long, without fail, I'd be reaching for the can. Deed followed thought.

Sometimes, word stood between thought and deed. I might have to say quietly to myself, "I didn't have much lunch, I think I'll have a handful of nuts." Deed followed.

When I was working as a campus minister, it was important for me to know something about suicide. What I learned was, there is a fine line between thought, word and deed. If someone mentioned they had thought about suicide, it needed to be explored with a mental health professional. If someone talked about committing suicide, it was doubly important for them to get help. The barriers between thought, word and deed were miniscule. A life was on the line.

To me, it's tragic that we have millions of children and young people in this country, thinking about killing, verbalizing killing, and practicing (training) for killing in our video game culture. I'm only surprised we don't have more of our young doing what they've been thinking about, and talking about, for much of their lives.

Thoughts provide the tinder for the fires of assassination and massacre. Words can provide the spark. Words carry power to harm or help. They are the bridge between thoughts and deeds. They connect one life with another, for good or ill.

Carl Kline

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Star Knowledge

Several years ago I stood on a hill near He Dog Lake in Indian country. I was coordinating an intercultural education program on the Rosebud Reservation in south central South Dakota. We were some twenty people from Europe and the states with a wide range of backgrounds and ages. Our host was Florentine Blue Thunder, a local artist, and recognized by his peers for his spiritual gifts. At the time, Florentine and his brother Joe lived in a small house a quarter mile off the asphalt, hidden behind the crest of the hill I was standing on and nestled in a small grove of trees. You could see the lake in the distance and a farm house or two. Otherwise, it was just rolling prairie in all directions with nothing to detract from the star lit sky above.

It was an absolutely awesome night. The stars filled the whole sweep of the sky. They were bright, undimmed by electricity and absolutely endless. We had left our campsite near Florentine's home to take a night hike. We didn't get far. The sky stopped us. Standing there with other members of the program, someone asked if anyone knew the constellations. Another person volunteered. The group listened and looked in rapt attention as orion and sagittarius and several other constellations were identified.

As I listened and looked I noticed that our host was some distance away with one member of the group. They, too, were looking at the sky and pointing. I wandered over to discover that Florentine was also describing constellations. These were Lakota constellations with Lakota stories. The star knowledge of Lakota people was quite extensive and for them, helped guide their movements and their cultural and spiritual understandings.

As I listened to Florentine I realized, perhaps for the first time in such a profound way, that not everyone saw the universe in the same way. My way of looking at the universe was not the only way. In fact, from the place where we were standing, Florentine's description of the universe was far more accurate and appropriate than the one the rest of the group was hearing. The rest of the group should have been standing in Greece or Rome, since they were exploring Greek and Roman myths.

I was starkly confronted with my own cultural imperialism. I had to recognize that all people saw the universe from different perspectives and made sense of it in light of their own cultural experiences. It was part of the richness of human life on our planet and a reservoir of knowledge and wisdom available to the whole human family, if only we were wise enough to seek and know it.

Carl Kline

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Standing with One Another on the Great Stage

What do legendary author Studs Terkel, convict Paulette Jenkins, a Korean-American shopkeeper in Los Angeles after the ’92 riots, and a rodeo bull rider have in common?

Well, for one thing, the magic of Anna Deavere Smith.

Deavere Smith, a prize-winning actor and writer who has been hailed by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in American theater," brings all of these characters and many more to life in her solo show "On the Road: A Search for American Character." The 23-minute video below is a thought-provoking excerpt from that show.

Deavere Smith is said to have created a groundbreaking form of theater. Her work combines the journalistic technique of interviewing people with the art of interpreting their words through drama. She has been interviewing individuals across the United States for more than 20 years, then translating those real-life encounters into gripping onstage monologues, presenting word for word the original recorded interviews ("organic poetry") of those with whom she has spoken. With an uncanny ability to seemingly inhabit the souls of the people she's representing, regardless of who they might be, she helps her audiences explore such issues as race, identity and community.

Through Deavere Smith's magic, we hear in this video Studs Terkel lamenting how "the human touch is disappearing," how "there ain't no defining moment in American history [but] an accretion of moments that add up to where we are now, where trivia becomes news, and [there's] less and less awareness of the pain of the other." Then, in a study of "the negative imagination," we hear inmate Paulette Jenkins describing the night when her husband, in domestic rage, inflicted a torturous death on her young daughter, while she herself, in a drugged stupor, listened to the brutality from the next room, and eventually helped cover up the murder. "My own chil', I let that happen to," Jenkins says, in bewildered voice.

We hear Mrs. Young Soon Han, a Korean-American shopkeeper victimized by rioting African-Americans after the four policemen accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, "swallowing the bitterness." "Where do I find justice?" she asks, this woman who Deavere Smith says has taught her more about race relations in the United States than anyone else. "The fire is still there," Young Soon Han declares. "It can burst out any time."

Finally, there's Brent Williams, rodeo bull rider. Hear him talk about toughness, and maybe you'll begin to believe that you, too, can survive almost anything.

The greatest magic of Anna Deavere Smith may be that she helps us understand that in our particularities is found what is most universal--our shared humanity, our common wish to love and be loved, our common desire to be happy and avoid suffering. This is the Great Stage on which all of us stand, and there is no exit but death, so perhaps we would do well to learn better, from Deavere Smith among others, that we can indeed bear witness to one another, and make sure that no one is left standing all alone.

Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch the video.