Friday, September 30, 2011

Discovering Gandhian Thought: Perspectives of Women in Grassroots Environmental Struggles from Kerala

Before the dam.
After the dam.
The State of Kerala located in the south western tip of India is demarcated by natural features that contribute to a unique tropical environment. The Arabian sea bounds the State in the west and the Western Ghats (at an elevation of 900- 2450 m) lie on the eastern side. The State with a land area of 38, and population density of 819/ can be geographically divided into 3 regions- the coast, the midlands and the highlands, with unique natural, cultural and historical features. The State with 44 rivers and more than 150 wetlands was blessed with adequate freshwater for all human purposes including diverse livelihoods. The average rainfall of 3000 mm and humidity of 70-90% contributed to a lush environment with tropical forests covering more than 26% of the land area, conducive for the growth of spices and other special vegetation.

The west sloping terrain with the high Western Ghat mountains occupying half the land area, the biologically rich rainforest ecosystems, high rainfall and an agricultural system most suited to the humid tropical climate, are the living backdrop of the people of Kerala. The innate knowledge about the fragility and vulnerability of ecosystems has been jeopardized in the name of development and progress. In the face of the present ecological crisis and environmental disasters that Kerala is facing now, it is no wonder that people have responded spontaneously and strongly against the destruction of vital life –support systems. As early as the 1960s people have been raising questions on the very ethics of the model of development; especially basic facts about for whom development and at what cost. They have started questioning not only the viability of and sustainability of the western model of large scale development, but also its suitability to our culture. The social, ecological and generational justice which was being undermined by such indiscriminate ecological destruction and impoverization of communities dependent on natural resources for sustenance, was also questioned. In all these struggles, public dialogues and debates, women have taken a prominent role, perhaps much more than in other conflicts.

The Context :

The basis of this paper is the year long study that was done with women involved in grassroots environmental movements in Kerala and also individual women who have been for many years raising basic and ethical questions regarding development and civilization. The grassroots movements in Kerala connected to environment have undergone a drastic shift in approaches, strategies and attitudes. The latter has witnessed changes from trying to maintain a so-called romantic version of a utopian world to raising basic questions about development and science. The most striking shift that has happened is the presence of women in the struggles that are linked to, and which exemplify, the real ground reality where resources are depleted or taken away from the actual beneficiary in the name of progress. In fact many of these struggles question not only the inequality and unfairness of the process but are also representative of the politics of sustenance and survival. It is here that the voices of women involved in the struggles discover the basic ethics of Gandhiji’s often quoted aphorism –“ the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for everyone’s greed”. The most important aspect of the movements in which women are involved that echo Gandhiji’s philosophy is in passive resistance strategies that clearly contextualize “ refusing to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience and use soul force "(Hind Swaraj, p.69). This also transcends the ideology of Swaraj and forces the observer to place it in the larger context of the ethics of living and life that Gandhiji always searched for. (Ramachandra Guha, 2007).

Women’s voices : The most significant Gandhian element in the struggles:

1. Dialogue:

The voices of women in the 20 struggles from various parts of Kerala which has been documented, along with the 20 women who have been raising their voices and concerns about the present development paradigm, bring to light the most significant of Gandhian approaches- the power of dialogue. We have seen the power of dialogue in all the writings of Gandhi- the need to harmonize dialogue with action has been his forte always. In Hind Swaraj, one of the first documents written by Gandhiji, the concepts evolve through close dialogue between the editor and reader. In this time, where no one listens to anyone, the need to use dialogue as an effective means of communication has been felt by women. This is especially poignant in the case of Kerala, where the much lauded People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning with a concern for Gender Equity, included the Women’s Component Plan. The WCP fell short of expectations and the task to secure the interests of women remained a politically unsupported activity. The presence and absence of gender concerns, along with the rights-based approach that emerges, has been silencing women even in Grama Sabhas and other political forums. It is in this situation that women who have taken up highly localized causes like sand-mining, dam displacement, pesticide overkill and land alienation have raised their voices and concerns to dialogue with the society, the planners and developers and so on.

2. Civilization:
The women who have come to the forefront of the struggles do so because the present path to development with its inbuilt patriarchal approaches most often denies women access to resources, income and employment. The women who have gotten out of the victim mode say that the crisis is now related to impoverishment, food insecurity, financial and monetary disarray, environmental degradation and denial of access to life-sustaining resources which are related to the “Distinguishing characteristics of modern civilization (which) is an indefinite multiplicity of wants” (Gandhi, Young India, 1927). The women in Plachimada Coco-Cola struggle, the Athirapally dam displacement issue and the Vellikulangara quarrying problem have raised concerns that reflect on the definition of “civilization as the mode of conduct that points out to man the path of duty” (Hind Swaraj, p. 53). But we also come across individual women who go beyond in search of their defined identity as ‘Queens of the household” (HS, 33) and identify the “point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation”(Young India, 1921).

3. Morality, Chastity and Good Conduct:

The women in struggles that have been documented have brought to focus the most common allegation –their lack of morality. The word civilization in Gujarathi means “good conduct” (HS,p. 53). To achieve good conduct there has to be a strict moral code. The women in Vellikulangara, Muriyad, Athirapally, Kainur and Neyyatinkara have redefined morality, chastity, good conduct, in terms that go beyond the physical being, beyond fidelity and domestic/conjugal terms. It is here that they unknowingly and inadvertently adhere to Gandhiji for whom “chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness”(HS, p. 73). The women are also questioning morality as being part of “civilization that seeks to increase bodily comforts and fails miserably in doing so.”

4.True Home Rule and Swaraj;

It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. Do not consider this Swaraj to be a dream. It is in the palm of our hands."

Is this not what the 80 year old grandmother who sat in the Satyagraha hut for 3 years asking for a review of the Vamanapuram Dam project in Thiruvananthapuram district asked the planners and developers? She could forcefully stop all those who passed by, whether the local MLA, the Minister or any other VIP on the way to the tourist destination Ponmudi, and point out that Swaraj is in the palm of the people’s hand and not with a handful of politicians. The downstream panchayats who are adversely affected by damming the Chalakudy river in Thrissur came together and passed a resolution against the dam in spite of all the projected supposedly beneficial outputs. The 8 panchayats surrounding the famed Muriyad lake struggle in Thrissur district got together, shedding their political differences to protect the lake that was being reclaimed for mining by the land mafia. The women and community in Eriyamkudi in Thrissur district, who led a significant fight for the right to plant paddy and retain the water cycle in the wetlands, were able to get the Collector to ban the land developers and real estate lobby and rejuvenate agriculture in the area. These processes have happened, along with the ongoing debate on digression from decentralization and its essential pre-requisites like participation and transparency, along with community participation in major decision making processes. The Adivasi women in local self governments in Wynad, Attapady and Idukki districts in Kerala say ‘Politics is not just for power per se but for the power to preserve culture, value systems, autonomy and survival security”. Is this not what Gandhiji meant by “learning to rule ourselves”?

5. Passive resistance:

Passive resistance is “the method of securing rights by personal suffering. When I refuse to do something that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul force “(HS, p. 69)
The women in various struggles that have been documented have realized the strength and innovativeness inherent in soul force. The myriad ways in which the State and the executing machinery tries to suppress and oppress the passive resistance strategies and make it a law and order situation is shocking. The local Sub Inspector of Police who refused to give police protection to a lone woman who was being abused by the sand-miners by saying that “police protection cannot be given to an old hag” was shocked when she reacted that the “strength of my faith in what I am doing will protect me”. This is true in the case of the women who blockaded the road through which 20 lorries of untreated waste from Trivandrum city was being taken to the waste treatment plant in their village – there was no argument, no negotiation, no conflict- only resistance. The Adivasi women in Attapady, who physically obstructed the bull-dozers in diversion of Bhavani river project, were jailed for several days. The women in Alapad in Kollam district, who stopped the India Rare Earths Company from mining sand from their coastal homes, were also jailed as law-breakers. The women discover Gandhiji in this strategy and reiterate that passive resistance is the strongest weapon that cannot be suppressed –“passive resistance is an all-sided sword- it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used. It never rusts and does not exhaust. The sword of passive resistance does not require a scabbard” (HS, p. 71-72).

6. Fear and Fearlessness:

Strength lies in the absence of fear (HS, p. 38)
Those who defy death are free from fear
Passive resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness (HS, p. 72)

The words of the lone women fighter for the rights of the river to flow at Neyyatinkara where the sand miners are indiscriminately mining, reflect the above statements of Gandhiji. "I am not afraid. Let them abuse, throw stones, come and pull my house down. I am not afraid of death."

The women who are lobbying against the huge rock and stone quarrying company in Vellikulangara in Thrissur, in spite of witnessing the ‘accidental’ death of two young resisters by a lorry, brave the threats and say, "We are not afraid. How can we be silent when the blasting has cracked the walls of our homes and also the school where our children go? Fearlessness certainly is the hallmark of a true passive resistance movement.

The above are some of the main areas in which women have found Gandhiji in their own strategies and approaches. Even now they do not refer to him or use him as a model, but there is definitely a strong undercurrent of Gandhian thought here. As Gandhiji wrote (Harijan, 1935) “we do not know we are burning these lights at the expense of the poor.“ The young Kada girl who travelled all the way to Trivandrum to meet the Chief Minister remarked on seeing the neon lights and hoardings shining all night through. "Is it for this that you are damming the Chalakudy river? Why should we pay the price for this opulence?"

Gandhiji’s famous comment, “ the blood of the villages is the cement on which the edifices of the cities is built" (Harijan, 1946) is echoed in the response of women in Vilappilsala and Kainur, where the waste of a city and waste from a pig farm destroyed life in the small villages. "Why should we take your waste? Why are our waters and health being sacrificed so that you can be neat and clean?"

The analysis of macro processes of economic development, the prescriptive positions and effective solutions for rural reconstruction and ethics for living that Gandhiji put forth in all his writings and dialogues, form the basis of many women-led reconstruction and rejuvenation processes happening in the State. The most striking among these are the organic farmers group called the Jaiva Karshaka Samiti, led by women, and the Eco-san initiative combining sanitation, health and restoration of health in coastal villages, along with the Zero-Waste and Organic bazaar program in Thiruvananthapuram city.

The stories and narratives that emerge from the adivasi women in governance, and in struggle for basic land and resource rights, reveal the real questions that modern human civilization needs to ask ourselves and to which Gandhiji offered a talisman. At a time when survival rights are under siege by corporate regimes, delving deeper into the mindsets of the women who are silently but strongly in true citizenship movements, holding close the talisman of seeing the face of the poorest before planning an action, would give the human race the path to a more secure, democratic, egalitarian world.


The women in the environmental grassroots movements of Kerala have been thrown into the face of struggle and opposition and have taken it not by choice or compulsion but because there is no choice at all. But all of them have found immense meaning and fulfillment in the self-sacrifices, the corrections, regulations, abnegations and learning that the chosen path demands of them. They admit that this exposure and the need to go beyond their secluded private lives with a Do or Die attitude has opened a vast and challenging world hitherto unknown to them.With little or no precedence of activism or ideological positioning, most of these women have stumbled, struggled, fallen and stood up with a courage, honesty and steadfastness that their conviction and commitment granted them. The pitfalls associated with fighting the invisible enemy within and outside has empowered them to evolve their own strategies and action plans.It is here that we see the hidden shadow of Gandhian thought and action that seems to be a directing force and strength too. The most poignant linkages that remain as we near the end of this sojourn from one end of Kerala to the other, is the moral courage, the capacity to dialogue, and the realization of their own infinite reserves of fearlessness, that women have rediscovered and rejuvenated in their lives and in the lives of those around them. The new social transformation that this has initiated in Kerala, which surpasses all existing political, social, communal and religious alliances, is the only path to Swaraj as Gandhiji envisioned a century ago. The women here have not read Gandhian thought or do not refer to him in any way, but they ‘perenially return to Mahatma Gandhi while at the same time going beyond him’ (Ramachandra Guha,2007).


This paper is based on the field work done by Anitha. S ( HYPERLINK "" and Dr. Santhi. S ( HYPERLINK "" as part of a project entitled ‘Gendering Governance or Governing Women? Politics, Patriarchy and Democratic Decentralization in Kerala State, India’ conducted by Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala supported by IDRC,Canada.

References :
Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule: M.K.Gandhi (1938) Ninteenth reprint, 2006,Navjivan Trust.
Environmental Issues In India : Mahesh Rangarajan (2007) : Dorling Kindersely, (India) Pvt Ltd.

Hind Swaraj: Its appeal to me : T.S.Ananthu (2008)
Navadarshanam Trust, HYPERLINK ""

Mahatma Gandhiyude Hind Swaraj: Naleyude Manifesto :Dr.M.P.Mathai (2009)
Kerala Sarvodaya Mandalam.

Hind Swaraj Engane Vayikkam : Dr.K.Aravindakshan(2008-2009) : Patabedham magazine.

Gandhi on Women : compiled by Pushpa Joshi(1988).Navajivan Trust.
First Presented at the National Seminar on Gandhi, Science and Environment
March 14-16, 2009 Wardha (Maharashtra) by Anitha S.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Erosion of Trust

Some months back my wife and I were talking about taking a trip to visit our grandkids. We would have to fly. The federal government had just started putting people through those machines that spray you with radiation to see under your clothes. I threatened I would strip down naked so they could see I wasn't concealing anything, rather than go through those awful, humiliating and depersonalizing machines. We've flown several times since the threat. I haven't been confronted with one of those machines and will probably just refuse it rather than strip. My wife claims I'm too modest to answer the telephone naked.

Anyway, that invasion of personal space makes me angry; as does the nonsense of always taking off your shoes. All of this depersonalization is because of two deranged and violence prone individuals, the "underwear bomber" and the "shoe bomber." Two individuals effectively destroyed the natural trust in the human community so everyone, millions of people, must remove their clothes and shoes in obeisance to their memory. Talk about honoring false Gods!

I've met several people who are deeply committed to nonviolence. They have demonstrated their commitment in the face of threats and death. I expect they would die rather than betray their vow of nonviolence. However, governments and airlines are not basing their policies on the actions of these individuals. Why not? It seems as logical as basing policies on the actions of the deranged and violence prone.

A government might say that the shoe bomber and underwear bomber were members of a group committed to acts of terror. They were part of a larger conspiracy. Governments have to develop policies and procedures that take this conspiracy into account. Of course, there is also an organized nonviolent movement on the planet. It is worldwide and strives to fulfill the aspirations of almost all the world's people. Why not institute policies and procedures that are humanizing and personalizing, that make use of nonviolent strategies to resist those who might choose terror?

There were Indian terrorists in the time of Gandhi. They were causing destruction in England. Gandhi met with them. He discovered they were basing their terrorism on sacred literature, which Gandhi read quite differently. When he returned to India he wrote extensively about how the tradition could not appropriately be used to support terrorism. Why aren't we encouraging and supporting those religious voices who recognize the abuse of faith?

There are those who profit from an erosion of trust. It ranges from the makers of so called security systems in your homes to X-ray machines in the airports to nuclear weapons in the belly of a B1 bomber. "Don't trust your neighbor," they say! "Don't trust the 'other,'" they say. "Don't trust! Let us make you secure."

Living nonviolence is trusting. Trust is subversive to the security state, with all of its tentacles. Trust starts with knowing our neighbors, reaching out to the "other," and saying no to those efforts to make us all afraid, but "safe" in the hands of big brother.

Carl Kline

Sunday, September 18, 2011

That Their Memory Be for a Blessing

We each remember in our own way where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. Emotions swirl, and images, and memories, the fears amid the chaos, of people and places lost forever, of others encountered, and of those in whose presence we found comfort. I was the school rabbi at a Jewish day school then. Early on that morning I was sitting on the floor with young children in a kindergarten class, telling of apples and honey and the sweetness of starting a new year. Later on, as the enormity of what had happened became known, I stood in a gathering of older students, some of their classmates already picked up by parents, struggling to inform, to explain, to console, hugging and crying, trying to chant words of psalms together. I thought about the cocoon of that early morning kindergarten class where neither that day’s evil nor any other was yet known, and I wished that I could be there amid the innocence and sticky sweetness.

Evil stared us in the face on that September day. Knowing the presence of evil, ours is not the innocence of the very young, however much we would like to flee to a safe and distant place. Neither to flee, that we not be touched or tainted by evil, nor to destroy evil, blotting out its memory from under heaven, is enough. Rebbe Kalonymos Kalman Epstein, known as the Ma’or Vashemesh, teaches that there are times when one needs to “flee to the forests,” to find remove from society, in order to be saved from evil thoughts and evil deeds. He then adds, but this only serves to save one from those things that impede the service of God. Underscoring that this is not enough, the Ma’or Vashemesh emphasizes that the need is to cleave oneself to Godly people and to participate together with them in the great and holy task. Not enough to blot out evil, our task is to fill the earth with such good that there will be no room for evil.

The tension between good and evil runs through the Torah portion that brought us to the eve of the tenth anniversary of September 11th, the portion called Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19). Framed by violence, of war at the beginning, our own hands wielding the sword, the portion ends with the brutality of Amalek, eternal symbol of evil, attacking us at our weakest as we began the desert trek from Egypt. A countervailing thread challenging the violence wends through the portion, ever so subtle at times, even as goodness rises slowly and quietly in the world. Taking hold in our consciousness, at least by the third time of its saying, we can’t miss the repetitive exhortation to care for “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the most vulnerable among us. Containing more commandments than any other portion in the Torah, Ki Tetze also includes commandments meant to instill compassion for animals. In his “Moreh N’vuchim/the Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides points to the kindness that is to be shown to animals and says, “all the more so concerning human beings.” In commentary at the very end of this portion that begins and ends with violence, his words rising in a timeless crescendo of confident hope, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch bids us to look beyond strife and to see our transformative role in creating a better world; “Justice and humanity will forever triumph over brutality and violence, and you yourself have been sent to proclaim that future by your fate and to help bring about that future by your personal example.”

That it is not enough to remove evil if we would bring that time, Psalm 34 demands positive action, concretizing the abstract and directing our steps, sur me’ra v’aseh tov/turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it/bakesh shalom v’rodfehu. There is something unique in the wording of this commandment to pursue peace that is different from all other commandments. In regard to all other commandments, including so many that are found in this Torah portion, we fulfill them when the opportunity arises or at designated times. Concerning the double imperative to seek peace and to pursue peace, it is taught in Perek Ha’shalom/the Chapter on Peace, one of several small later additions to the Talmud, seek it in your own place and pursue it in another place/bakshehu mimkomcha v’rodfehu b’makom acher. Not to turn the other way, but to engage in the place we are and where we are called to be, the 19th century Torah commentator known as the Malbim reminds us of the obvious, you can’t seek peace if you flee from people, only pursue it where there is found among people conflict and strife, there you shall pursue peace/tirdof atah et hashalom.

As memories flood our consciousness, both individual and collective, on this tenth anniversary of September 11th, we step back, taking time to pause, to remember, to feel the pain, to mourn and comfort. That some day little children shall yet lead us to a time of peace, when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, we cannot flee or presume to share their innocence. That time shall not come through war, however noble the intent and the spirit of those who serve, nor shall it come through fear, suspicion and hatred. Only when we fill the earth with so much good that there shall be no room for evil will that time come. As individuals and as a nation, seeking peace in our own place and in every other place, may that be our memorial for all those who died, and may it be the blessing of their memory.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Little Subversions

We recently returned from a brief trip to Alaska, The Great Land. We had opted to try to travel as “group free” as possible and so did not sign up for tour packages as advertised. Even so, to be able to enjoy even a little of Alaska in a short period of time involves being engaged with the “hospitality” industry. Our trip was seamless. Flight connections, transfers from hotels to busses to trains to boats and back again happened without effort on our part. The vast tourism companies are good at efficiently moving large numbers of people from one place to another .

In seven days we were able to enjoy several glaciers, vast expanses of tundra, and clear, unobstructed views of Denali/Mt. McKinley which is often enshrouded in mist. A mama grizzly and her cub glimpsed at a safe distance, a herd of Dall sheep, playful sea otters and porpoises and water teaming with salmon all made the Alaskan experience one to remember.

On our last day we were to catch a red-eye flight at 12:40 AM so we had a long rainy day in which to amuse ourselves in Anchorage. We were in the midst of organizing our luggage for the flight when our hotel room door opened unexpectedly. The housekeeper thought we had checked out and had come to clean the room. She was very apologetic for entering. We assured her that there was no harm done and she said she would return later. The first and only glitch in the perfection of the hospitality extended to visitors!

We finished packing and left our room only to encounter the housekeeper again. She repeated her apologies and we stopped to have a conversation. Ilyana was from the Philippines. There are hundreds of Filipino workers in the hotel industry in Anchorage. She was divorced many years ago and came to Alaska to earn a living so she could support family members back home. A familiar story. We asked her what her life was like working in Anchorage. She said “all of us do what we are told to do so we can earn money. And then at night, I go out dancing - - I dance - - it keeps me alive.” When she heard we were celebrating our 50th anniversary she beamed at us and then hugged us both and said she would pray for us. She was the missing element in our trip. She was a real person in the midst of a well-oiled hospitality machine. She was genuine. A little subversive. She welcomed us with herself, with her joy for dancing, with her life as an immigrant worker. The hospitality machine had not stolen her soul.

A short while later, my watch battery died and we entered the seemingly ever-present world of Walmart to see if we could get another one. When we reached the Timex counter, another diminutive Filipino woman offered to help us. “I need a new battery for my watch.” “Are you sure you need a new battery?” “Yes, my watch has stopped.” “Let me test your battery.” She pried open the watch and quickly tested the battery in her tester and said “your battery is fine. I can fix your watch.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a scotch tape dispenser and put a piece of tape over the battery to secure the proper connection inside my watch and then snapped the cover back on and re-set my watch to the proper time. She smiled and said “See? Good as new!” Another little subversion. For her, and for us, the human connection was far more important than the sale of a battery. Her kindness will not break Walmart, but it was surely an act of subversion of the huge system in which she was but a very small player.

I thought a lot about these two women as we made the long flight home. In the midst of their de-personalizing work-days, they “subverted the dominant paradigm” of their respective industries and by their refusal to be less than human, they helped me to be more human. In a vacation world where hospitality means a smoothly functioning “machine” that requires little genuine human interaction as huge numbers of people are shuttled from one attraction to another, these two women fed us like refreshing springs in a desert.

Little subversions. Another example of living nonviolence.

Vicky Hanjian

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Human Spirit Rising

How gentle is the late summer breeze that rustles the leaves today and carries the sweet scent of fall. And how different from the fierce winds with which the week began, wreaking havoc along the path of the hurricane. Both the fierceness of nature and the fragility of nature, as the grandeur of people and our vulnerability, were on full display in the span of a week. In Vermont for a Bat Mitzvah, joy and sorrow swirling together, the devastation was overwhelming and utterly heartbreaking, immediately apparent once having left the main highway. Passing through small towns, the entire contents of homes, one after another, were piled in front yards and on sidewalks, belongings that told the stories of ordinary lives cast into dumpsters. Fields of crops so recently thriving, tangled as so many weeds held down by the mud. A cloud of dust from so much sediment drying on the street turned the afternoon overcast, casting an eerie light. It was surreal, and yet so real in the earnestness of people responding to tragedy. People were everywhere, frontend loaders and dump trucks, shovels and buckets, neighbors helping neighbors, buckled streets and broken bridges joining communities even more than when whole.

Natural disaster brings home the limits of human control, whether of ecosystem or social system. Time and again, the human spirit emerges as the element most indestructible in the midst of devastation. In our efforts to control both nature and people, we lose sight of that indestructible essence, failing to harness it in ways that might prevent tragedy rather than waiting for it to emerge as a response to tragedy. That grand spirit with which we are endowed, could it not be the source if harnessed well to heal the environment and to end war, abuse of nature and of each other? In the Torah portion of that week, Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9), the week of the hurricane, there is a joining of nature and human, of tree and person become as one, arms and branches uplifted in prayerful plea, “do not destroy.”

As the great failure of humanity, war casts its pall in the Torah too, not to be celebrated, if as we sing, “all her ways are peace,” nor is it enough to lament, but to engage the Torah’s own struggle to feel the tension from within and find another way. In the portion Shoftim that tension is set in the very midst of war, from a context of utter destruction comes the plea not to destroy. We are told that in laying siege to a city, “you shall not destroy its tree…, for you shall eat of it but not cut it down.” Tree is in the singular. It is about more than the trees of one place, but about every single tree. The verse continues with four words through which the Torah nearly shouts a condemnation of war, if we would hear the words as the mystics did, seeing the obvious, hearing the obvious question, ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh/for the human is the tree of the field! In all their simplicity, that is the literal meaning of the words. For all the complicated efforts to translate them in accord with the way things are, with assumptions about power and violence and control, the plain meaning is lost and the Torah continues to cry out. The human being, every single one, is the ultimate tree that is not to be destroyed.

From this verse, from these words, emerges the commandment called bal tashchit/do not destroy. Wanton destruction of any kind is a sin. In a medieval work called Sefer Hachinuch/the Book of Instruction, its origin unknown due to the author’s humility, we are told that the purpose of this mitzvah is to instruct our souls to love the good/l’lamed nafshenu le’ehov hatov. “So we are to cleave to the good,” the text continues, “and distance ourselves from every matter of evil and every matter of destruction…, loving peace and delighting in the wellbeing of all creatures/s’maychim b’tuv ha’bri’ot.

Natural disasters bring out that concern for the wellbeing of others. In the interplay of people and nature, we come to know the essence of both. If we turn away from destruction wrought by human hands upon climate and environment, a greater peace shall inhere upon the earth. In response to nature’s storms that are beyond our doing and control, turning toward each other we transcend devastation and despair. As trees uprooted in the field, suffering of people at the hands of people, the clash of arms, the cruelty of injustice, is ours to control and bring to an end. Of broken bridges and washed out roads, homes and dreams carried away on the hurricane’s flood, the human spirit rising in Vermont, and so among us all may it rise higher still.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Thin Line

The line is thin, and it runs red.

I'm referring to the line between nonviolence and violence. Between harmony and discord. Between peace and war.

That line is so thin, so permeable, that it scares the "powers-that-be." Today I read a blog post that clearly reveals this. It told of how a poet had been corresponding recently with a good friend who is serving in Afghanistan. Hoping to ease the soldier's obvious distress, the poet emailed her "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats. The poet hoped its verses would bring the soldier the same "solace" they had always brought her. Perhaps you're familiar with the poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Imagine the shock this poet felt when Yeats's harmless and quite famous poem was cut from her email message by military censors and returned to her with this message: "UNFIT MATERIAL FOR MILITARY PERSONNEL."

There is no way to know for certain why the Yeats poem was censored from that email. We can only surmise, along with its sender, that we mustn't encourage soldiers to "long for peace." With their minds on peace, their willingness to bear arms might waver. To the powers-that-be, even poems are a threat.

The line between peace and war is thin, and it runs red. A government can easily rouse its citizens to make war and send its citizens to fight war. But as that same government knows, those same citizens can easily decide they've had enough of the battlefield. They can read a little poem, and because they've read that poem, they might cry out, "No more!" and walk away in spirit, even if their bodies stay put. They might find ways to resist, even while appearing not to. The line between war and peace is thin. It can easily stop running red, and run green.

Juan Diaz
This is the message of which artist Juan Diaz reminds us. Last March in Naples, Florida, he created a huge painting, 23' wide by 8' tall, while in live performance before an audience. He titled it "The Thin Line Between PEACE\war." To paint the picture, he used what he calls "a light wall," on which he "lives the creative process without interruption." His artwork is an invitation to his audience to do the same.

It took Diaz 21 minutes to paint "The Thin Line," but the process has been condensed into eight minutes in this video. The footage includes the music used during the live performance. Diaz says that "the piece tells a story with unpredictable flowing color," color that "transforms as the sounds and lights alter."

I must confess that when I first watched and listened to Diaz's performance--peace gradually becoming war (by my interpretation), then the violence of war deepening--I was tempted to stop the video. I'm glad that I didn't. For in the end Diaz reminds us in a powerful way that "The Thin Line Between PEACE\war" is permeable in both directions. If green can turn red, red can turn green.

It all depends on us.

The thin line between PEACE\war from Juan Diaz on Vimeo.

(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer above, click on the link to watch the video.)

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai