Sunday, February 27, 2011

This Is the Century; This the Generation

Last week I met a Mexican youth worker. He works with young people caught in the web of violence around drug running and gang conflict in the streets of Mexico. He knows those streets, since that's where he spent his childhood. He knows the temptations beckoning the kids because they are the same ones he chose. He knows their abusive family situations because he grew up in a similar family. He knows violence and prison, attempted suicide, fear and hopelessness. He knows all that and more.

But now, with the support of a wife and children who love him, with a devout faith in a loving God, he's working to help those street kids find another way. The program he and his co-workers follow is the result of eighteen years experience. How do you reach kids in a drug running gang with automatic weapons and the impunity to use them? The answer is: thoughtfully, carefully, with a well practiced and disciplined plan. And that is exactly the approach they are using.

In my recent visit, I met many young people like this youth worker determined to find ways to turn around the violence in their society. For two days we met, struggling with the questions of how to use nonviolence in a violent culture. The night before we gathered, six young boys under the age of sixteen died in a gang fire fight. Their dead bodies were left at their homes. The deaths and the impunity with which the criminals operate escalates with each passing day. The challenge is enormous. Fear is pervasive.

Still, the fearlessness is also palpable. There were people present in our nonviolence training who have had guns pointed at their head. They should be dead. But through quick thinking, talking, and God's good grace, they survived. And there were people present who have had kidnappings in their extended family and understand the fears kidnappings feed. And everyone had been impacted in some way by the climate of violence. And yet, and yet, these young people are fearlessly exploring nonviolent action.

I left my friends in Mexico encouraged and inspired. Like those young people in North Africa and other places where violence has oppressed and ruled whole nations, these Mexican youth have a vision of another way. They are realizing that common people hold in their own hands a new path into the future that doesn't need weapons and war. They see there is a power that doesn't come out of the end of a gun and it's enthroned in the very core of the universe. They are determined to use it. They have convinced me to repeat a new mantra, that I expect to say again and again and again, in their honor and with faith in their vision: "This is the century! This is the generation!"

Carl Kline

Monday, February 21, 2011

Without Regret or Shame

I feel a twinge of sadness, perhaps on some level even a sense of abandonment, when I encounter people who once described themselves as liberal/progressive, but now see themselves as politically conservative. Surely, I recognize that people change, and I respect political differences that are expressed respectfully, whether from left or right. I feel a particular sadness and hurt when people explain a conservative conversion as coming from wisdom acquired with age. While thought and opinion come to be shaped in many ways through the experience of living, there is special beauty in the discovery of new-found depth along paths that began in younger years. The deepening of faith and belief in the possibility of social change for the sake of greater justice and peace should be a source of pride. These thoughts came to me during the past week as I reflected on a group letter from a friend. He spoke of the gradual process of his own transition from liberal to conservative, for lack of better terms. I was particularly struck by his expression of regret for much that he had done during the years of the Vietnam war, from the chanting of mindless slogans to the hurling of expletives at returning soldiers.

As I continue coming back to re-read my friend’s letter, I have thought about his sense of regret, which I have heard others express as shame, as a catalyst for later rejection of an earlier liberalism. I have thought about the fairly constant thread in my own social and political outlook, as it weaves through my life from earliest years. There are certainly things that I have done and words that I have spoken in various facets of my life, for which I have regret, even shame. Through the process of t’shuvah/turning, returning, I have sought repair, even as God and the inner voice of our souls calls us to do all along the path of our lives. In regard to those years of the Vietnam War, however, I have no regrets and certainly no shame in regard to my own behavior as an activist. I was on the executive of the SDS chapter (Students for a Democratic Society) at my college, but when SDS turned toward violence through the faction known as the “Weathermen,” I left. I reached out to soldiers and others who disagreed with me. I spoke with police to explain the purpose of a sit-in as part of its organizing process. For me, the nascent buds of pacifism grew hand in hand with an embrace of Torah as a life path.

In a verse that I have often lingered over in the Torah portion called Yitro/Jethro (Ex. 18:1-20:23), I found in the cycle of this year’s reading a framework for the thoughts that swirled in response to my friend’s letter. Seeing how hard he is working, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, advises him to decentralize, to appoint judges who will decide cases in Moses’ stead, teaching the laws of life and helping people to resolve conflict. Jethro tells Moses that if he does this, you will be able to endure, and all this people too, each one of them will come to their place in peace/al m’komo yavo v’shalom. There is a special poignance in the last phrase of these words to Moses. They are said at the graveside during a Jewish funeral as the coffin is lowered into the ground, al m’komo yavo/tavo v’shalom/may she come to her place in peace. Even as we linger at that wrenching moment, so I tend to linger over these words of Jethro, coming this year to new understanding.

The verse does not say el m’komo/to one’s place, but rather al m’komo/concerning one’s place. In every place we are, we should be there in peace. Al m’komo concerns behavior more than direction. It is about how we relate to each other as people, those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree, and about our ability to see the common humanity that is shared by all. Concerning each moment and place in which we dwell, we should be there in a peaceful way. In the end of our days, at the harvest of our years, our portion shall be one of peace if that is how we have lived. Seeking peace and pursuing peace in all parts of our lives and in every place and stage we come to, we are guided toward each new place without regret or shame. It is true in all facets of our lives, the political and the personal.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What If?

My dear friend and study partner and I meet at 7:30 AM on Wednesdays to touch base with the weekly Torah portion before the workday begins. Last week’s parashah imparted the description of the priestly robes that were created for Aaron, the brother of Moses, to wear as he carried out the functions of the High Priest in ancient Israel.

As I read the description of some of the accoutrements of the priestly garments (Exodus 27:20- 30:9), my eyes kept filling with tears. I have read these passages any number of times in the past and not had this reaction, so I felt puzzled. I am left with a big “Why?”

The text describes the construction of the garments. The people are to take two lazuli stones and engrave the names of the b’nai Israel on them –the names of the 12 tribes. Aaron was to wear these two stones on the shoulders of his garments, “as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder pieces for remembrance before the Lord.”

Farther along in the passage is a description of a breastplate, to be imbedded with 12 precious stones again representing the tribes of Israel. “Thus Aaron shall wear the breastplate over his heart before the Lord at all times.” Even after reading the passage over several times, I am still deeply affected by it. And it seems to have little to do with any scholarly understanding of the text – rather it touches me as a human being.

The image so deeply imbedded in the text is one of a human being charged with the responsibility for keeping the children of God in the forefront of consciousness as a sacred responsibility - - a deeply moving and colorful image of a profound kind of intercessory prayer - a priestly function.

But I still ask “Why?” Why does this particular ancient text have power to move me to tears every time I pull it into focus? Over the span of a few days an answer begins to come in the form of other questions: “What if I immerse myself in the metaphors of the text?” “What if I see myself putting on the shoulder pieces and the breastplate?” What if I carry on my shoulders and in my heart the children of God? What if they become to me my sacred responsibility? What if? What if? What if?

I yearn to make the leap from the description of priestly garments to a clearer understanding of my responsibility for touching the world through living nonviolence. I circle around and around with it. I don’t want the burden of what is implied in the text. It is way too heavy. And yet, maybe there is a very fundamental step to be taken - - perhaps a clearer way of seeing. The Hebrew scriptures tell of a people called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In my child’s eye, I imagine a whole realm of priests, dressed as Aaron was dressed – with beautiful carved stones on their shoulders and equally beautiful jewel-encrusted breastplates over their hearts – all inscribed with the names of earth’s children – a kingdom of priests whose soul responsibility is to keep the children of the earth foremost in their consciousness.

My old black down jacket with its frequently escaping feathers, my colorful neck-warming scarf, my blue and yellow and black and green polka dotted Thinsulate gloves with matching hat - - I don them each day to make my way through my winter errands. They are a far cry from priestly garments – but they are garments nonetheless and they can be imbued with the same kind of holiness. If I wear them with the same intention of carrying earth’s children into the presence of the Holy they become priestly garments. What if? What if I let the tears that come with seeing the role and garments of Aaron be tears that move me into my own priesthood?

What if I wear these strange looking winter garments with the intention of holding all human beings in a Holy space. Can I then ever countenance any indignity, any harm, any shame or injury, any rejection befalling them? Another step toward living nonviolence? “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” What if???

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Consent of the Governed

Governments can only govern with the consent of the governed. This is one of the principle concepts underlying the work on nonviolent action of Gene Sharp When the citizens of a state decide they can no longer tolerate the government, they withdraw their support (even silent or tacit support) and the government collapses. This is a principle upon which the idea of democracy flourishes. The governed should be freely and continuously participating in governing, in order for democracy to be functioning appropriately.

The necessity for the consent of the governed was also a basic understanding in Gandhi's thought. He often said that the British didn't take India, the people of India gave the country to them. And Martin Luther King Jr. reminded civil rights workers, "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed".

In time, because the arc of the universe bends toward justice, the governed will throw off unjust and oppressive regimes. Witness Tunis! Witness Egypt! Who will be next? Algeria?

There certainly were costs for many in Tunis and Egypt. Some gave their lives. Even so, Gandhi said, "Freedom of a nation cannot be won by solitary acts of heroism even though they may be of the true type, never by heroism so-called. The Temple of Freedom requires the patient, intelligent and constructive effort of tens of thousands of men and women, young and old."

Those who have experienced social movements in the U.S. should appreciate the value of the dispersed leadership and the constructive efforts of thousands. Public and visible leadership like King are too easily murdered or jailed or exiled. And a movement communicating through social networks can organize quickly and effectively without the difficulty of meeting times and places.

Witnessing the patient adherence
to nonviolence in Egypt in the face of harassment and intimidation; watching the crowds returning again and again to Tahrir Square even when violence threatened; one could only celebrate with the people as they demonstrated to all the world, once more, that determined nonviolent action will bring down a dictator.

I say "once again," because we are seeing nonviolence succeed time after time after time, in our lifetime. In the years since Gandhi, citizens using nonviolent action have changed oppressive governments in the Philippines, Chile, Poland, South Africa, and Serbia. Nonviolent action helped change oppressive and racist laws in the U.S.

It is clear that change is coming. It's in the air. We need it, desperately. The common people are recognizing that governments use war and violence to protect the privileged and to plunder the earth. But nonviolence is the way to freedom for all. Even dictators, even billionaires, even exploiters, can be sent packing. All we need do is withhold the consent of the governed.

Carl Kline

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Messages of Ancient Kathak Dance

The word “kathak” means story. Kathak is one of the classical dance forms of northern India. The Kathak dancers have obtained an incredible command of rhythm and movement, as demonstrated by their control of bell-laden feet and intricate synchronized hand and body movements. One foot can be adorned with over one hundred bells. A trained Kathak dancer can jump without causing the bells to sound. It is clear the dance requires a rigorous and committed training process. Historically, the dances took place in village squares or temple courtyards. I had the privilege of experiencing this dance at the Modern High School for Girls in central Kolkata. Although this location did not provide the same atmosphere as a temple courtyard, the intriguing part is that the location did not seem to matter. I am convinced the dances can speak to anyone in any setting.

When reading an article about the history and style of Kathak, I realized how words cannot sufficiently capture the dance. I was completely captivated by the dancers to a seemingly meditative state. I felt as though I could have watched for an endless amount of time. When I reflect on this feeling, part of this sentiment derived from the main female dancer. There was a liveliness and energy about her presence that flooded over into her dance. I wished to bottle up that radiating energy and somehow take it with me and share it with others. I am now unsure whether the magic of Kathak lies in the energy of the people who are dancing or if the dance training itself allows the dancers to develop the tranquility they project. Regardless, I was most thankful for this memorable afternoon as a reminder of the spirit that brilliantly shines when people are passionate about what they do.

The dancers create an unmistakable and firm *slap* sound with their feet, immediately drawing attention to the footwork of the dancer. This could easily lead one to think that this sound is achieved through force and strength. However, the opposite is true. I was surprised to find out that the key to making the *slap* sound of the foot is made possible through relaxation of the foot and presence of the mind and body. The ancient art of Kathak speaks to us today: our messages can resonate more clearly through practice of mental-centeredness and not through application of force.

Haley Yseth

Guest Blogger

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Open Letter to the Protesters in Tunisia and Egypt

I've been watching you, and listening to you--first in Tunisia, now in Egypt.

I don't watch with a political eye.
I don't listen with a political ear.
I watch and listen as a fellow human being
who shares with you the deepest longings of the human heart.

I admire you young people, most of all:

In this revolution you have the most to lose, and the most to gain.
I admire your vision. I admire your courage,
which moves you to speak and to act
in the face of tremendous risk.

I admire your not waiting any longer,
your refusal to abide any more excuses,
your seizing of the day.

I admire your trust in one another.

I admire your criticism of us on the outside who are afraid
of "instability" and "spiking oil prices"
and "a possible terrorist regime" taking Mubarak's place.
I admire your making us Americans look in the mirror--
if only we will actually look, and see.

I admire your asking us what in fact we mean when we say, repeatedly,
that we value freedom more than anything,
that we regard it as a universal human right,
that we will support any and all around the world who seek it.
Do we in fact believe what we say,
or do we mouth the words and live them out
only when it is expedient, serving our own best interests?
Do we in fact believe what we say,
even as we supply the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets
now being used against you, who so long for freedom?

I watch. I listen. I admire.
But I also fear for you, there in the streets.
I remember the violent crackdown in Iran,
just a couple short years ago.
I remember Tiananmen Square
as if it were yesterday.

Today, you women and men march a million or more strong
into Cairo's Tahrir Square--"Liberation Square."
And I sit here, writing you this letter
that you will probably never read.
I write you as worried sister, aunt, mother.
I am writing to say
I am helpless to help you,
but still I will try to help you.

At the moment, I give you prayer.

This prayer, in music, is "Bring Him Home,"
from Les Misérables, a musical based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel
of the same name, set in early nineteenth-century France,
as the citizenry made revolution against its own Mubarak.
The song is sung in this video by Colm Wilkinson,
who plays Valjean, the protagonist.

Valjean has arrived at a barricade
that the young people of Paris have erected
on the eve of the 1832 Uprising.
He is searching desperately for Marius,
a young man toward whom he feels like a father.
He finally finds the young man asleep, resting before the looming battle.

Valjean pleads with God
that his "son" not come to harm
in this fight for freedom.

That same desire now flows through me,
as I sit in front of my computer and my television,
so safe,
watching you, listening to you.

May all of you in the streets come home tonight,
and the next night,
and the next.

May all of you come home safe.
And someday soon, may all of you come home free.

(Note: Lyrics are provided below the viewer. If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch this video.)


God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there

He is young
He's afraid
Let him rest
Heaven blessed
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

He's like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone

Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy

You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home