Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not in Facts but in Story

Marilú Ríos Guerrero recently suggested, via email, a video that might be posted to LivingNonviolence. The link she provided our editor was passed to me for consideration.

I don't know Marilú. I've been told that she's an artist and environmental activist who lives in Mexico, but these are only facts. I don't know her story. And because I don't know her story, I've been struggling to figure out what I should write here on the basis of the video she was kind enough to recommend. What, I wonder, would she have liked to say?

The video Marilú suggested features the song "Anything but the Truth" by Jack Johnson (pictured left). I've now viewed it many times, searching for an angle for this post. Finally the song lyrics have led me to ask, "What is the truth," exactly?"

The answer that comes to mind is this: "I don't know, exactly. But whatever else it might be, truth is story. Not facts, but story."

Without story meaning is hard to come by. Relationship is hard to come by. So is respect. So is peace--real peace, beyond the mere absence of overt conflict.

In the absence of story there is despair. Estrangement. Malice. In the absence of story, the distance between widens and deepens; huge chasms form across which bridges of understanding and reconciliation can no longer be built, but across which indifference and apathy can be maintained, insults and accusations hurled, Molotov cocktails and cruise missiles launched. The void is one that perhaps only story can fill. Story, and the sharing of story, creates connection.

Back in the 1700s, a great Jewish teacher named Israel Baal Shem-Tov lived in Poland. It's said that whenever the good rabbi became aware that tragedy was about to strike the Jewish people (as often happened), he would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and say a very special prayer. And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would somehow be avoided.

When Israel Baal Shem-Tov was no longer walking the earth, his disciple Magid of Mezritch would go into the forest on behalf of his defenseless people. Going to the same place his rabbi had once gone, he would cry to God, "Listen to me! I don't know how to light the fire, but I know the right words to pray. Let this be enough." And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would be avoided.

Then it was the turn of Moshe-Leib of Sasov to save the Jews. He went into the forest and prayed, "O God, listen to me! I don't know how to light the fire, and I don't know the words to pray. But I know this place. Let this be enough." And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would be avoided.

Finally, responsibility for protecting the Jews fell on Israel of Rizhyn. He prayed to God in his house, sitting in his chair with his head in his hands, eyes closed. He said, "Listen to me! I don't know the place in the woods. I'm unable to light the fire. I don't know the words to pray. But I can tell the story. Let this be enough." And it was enough.

This Jewish tale reminds me of the spiritual power--the living and lived out truth--of the stories we tell. We need stories. We need to know one another's stories, and the stories of (not just the facts about) this good earth and its creatures. It is in and through story that we live; it is in and through story that we support the lives of others. Without story we are not enough. Without story we destroy, and allow our own destruction.

The video you're about to watch, courtesy of Marilú Ríos Guerrero, opens with a Cree Indian prophecy:

Only when the last tree has been cut down
Only when the last river has been poisoned
Only when the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten

Let me, as conclusion, offer this response:

Only when we listen to the stories of the trees
Only when we listen to the stories of the rivers
Only when we listen to the stories of the fish
Only then will we stop the cutting down
and the poisoning
and the wasting
Only then will we stop eating money
Only then will we stop spewing violence
Only then will we live the truth

Thank you, Marilú.

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

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beyond Conflict to Compassion

I spoke recently as part of a panel at an interfaith gathering. Our challenge for the evening and beyond, until the world and its people is healed and whole, was to share the wisdom of each tradition, seeking together the will and the way to move “Beyond Conflict to Compassion.” We were asked to share from our own faith the sources of compassion from which we draw in reaching out to others. We were asked how we respond to those of our own who would hijack our traditions, who would stop up the wellsprings of compassion, and how with our own, as well, we foster cooperation, building bridges of peace. Thoughts interweave now, of interfaith sharing and of the Sabbath coming.

Inspiration came through an open window, bird song on the breeze, small green shoots breaking through the softening ground….

Such beauty amid so much horror…, of nature’s other side, of human brutality.

To each of my Bar and Bas Mitzvah students I give a small folding magnifying glass to carry with them. Given in memory of my mother, science teacher and naturalist, a magnifying glass has become for me a ritual object, helping to see the small miracles of Creation.

To see and be touched by the beauty of the world around us is to soften the soul…

I do not know that I could ever change an extremist’s view of the world and of others, though I have tried and will continue to try in whatever context I might have such encounter. Dialogue with my own has proven the most difficult of engagements, face to face with the other who is me.

My greater concern is to reach young people and to plant within them seeds of beauty and understanding and hope, to create gardens of the soul in which nonviolence flourishes; in which twisted vines will not choke out the tender shoots of hope bravely rising toward the sun; in which the sweet song of small birds shall not be drowned out by the dissonant din of triumphal shouting. That is my goal as a teacher of Torah.

It takes courage to look at our selves…; (perhaps I should also give out small mirrors, to be held for oneself and then to be turned toward another), to see the image of God as it shines within each one.

There are texts that serve to be the mirror, some known by every Jew, others that are barely known that need to be brought out and learned and lived deeply. And there are ways of reading familiar texts that open them up along with our selves, to deeper meaning and possibility.

Sh’ma Yisra’el, Hashem Elokeynu, Hashem Echad/Hear O Israel, God Our God, God is One. The words are widely known, but more often than not their radical essence fails to be grasped. An affirmation of God’s oneness, the Sh’ma is also an affirmation of the inherent oneness of humanity. If God is one, and all people are created in God’s image of oneness, then all people are one. Bearing witness through the Sh’ma to the fullness of its truth, we shall not be false witnesses.

The Sabbath of the week of the interfaith gathering was Shabbat Zachor/Sabbath of Remembrance, themes bearing directly on our selves in relation to others, memories of pain and hope, leading to the holiday of Purim, complex holiday of joy and salvation, brutality and violence, blood on our hands as well as theirs. Reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, Remember what Amalek did to you…, the warrior chieftain swept down upon us, a massacre, the desert journey just begun, newly freed slaves attacked at our weakest.

We need to remember hurt done to us in order that we not visit such hurt on others. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught of the Sabbath of Remembrance: Every person needs to blot out that portion of evil called through the name Amalek that is hidden in her or his heart…, for the potential for evil is in every person.

Also reading from the book of Leviticus on that Sabbath, of offerings enumerated in all of their details, the rabbis find unlikely locus for teachings of peace. Flowing associatively from instructions for the peace offering, the sh’lamim, of the same root as shalem/shalom, wholeness/peace, we find the surest way to challenge the ways of Amalek. We are to go out and create a different reality, replacing evil with good, “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu/Seek peace and pursue it” -- seek it in your own place and pursue it in another place.

I spend a lot of time following what I see as a stream of nonviolence that flows through the Torah just beneath the surface, at times bubbling up, at times a wellspring waiting to be tapped….

In their desert journey the Israelites come to the stream of the Arnon, to Vahev b'Sufah/Vahev at the Red Sea, a very strange verse that refers to the “Book of the Wars of God” (Numbers 21:14-15). The rabbis create a nonviolent transformation of a seemingly violent reference, Vahev becomes ahava/love; sufa becomes sofa/end. Then the rabbis tell of people engaged in conflict, differing opinions in learning, in life, but they do not move from out of each other's presence until in the end there is love.

So it is for us, we are to engage with each other and not move until we come to love each other. If we would counter our own extremism and triumphalism, and those who cannot extend a hand to the other, feeling their pain and their joy, these are the texts and ways of reading them that Jews need to know. So may we move beyond conflict to compassion, nurturing with love the gentle shoots of spring that rise toward hope.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Saturday, June 18, 2011




This story is based on my personal experience of working among women in Uttarakhand, India for many years.

The Kosi River flows through the valley just below the Lakshmi Ashram, in Kausani (about 50 kms from Almora). Since its inception in 1946, we in the Lakshmi Ashram have always been closely associated with the villages in the area. The women here have always had a deep insight into problems of the environment since this is so closely related to their lives. They are brave and courageous and prepared to do or die to protect the environment. But there has never been any occasion to start a movement on this issue.

In 1977-78, however, a situation arose, which caused the village women to rally around a cause. The village forest (Gram Van)of Khirakot village in this area was almost in danger of being wiped out. A contractor had landed a contract for thinning the forest. Some trees were marked out for the purpose. But the wily contractor somehow managed, through corrupt means, to cut not only these trees, but cut others as well. As a result the villagers were deprived of their firewood, which they normally obtained from the fallen branches or twigs of the big trees. So now, the villagers began to cut the small trees here, and in some cases even dug up their roots as well, and soon, even these disappeared from the forest!

But the women needed wood for fuel, and the dry leaves of the trees for the cowshed. They were now compelled to walk long distances to obtain these things. "Once they were so easily available but not so now," they all cried. "Often the whole day goes off for this, and we have to leave our children alone at home for long hours." As they walked, the women discussed their problems, and they decided to once again create a Gram Van (Village Forest), and frame some laws to keep it secure. No one would be allowed to cut the trees, and villagers themselves started protecting the trees. Gradually the forest cover improved. Slowly the vegetation began to regenerate, so that grazing could be possible also.

But as soon as the situation began to improve a little, another contractor was given a contract to dig a khaira (soapstone) mine in this very village forest and soon, without any warning, his men just came and started digging at those places where soapstone could be found. The women were naturally upset, as they had worked hard to regenerate the land and the forest. Imagine their shock and dismay when they found their beloved forest dug up at several places and the trees so heartlessly uprooted, one by one!

As always, they were the ones who would have to bear the brunt of any damage to the environment as it would affect their daily lives. The men did not agree as they felt it would help them to get jobs locally and they would not have to move out of their village in search of employment. They tried to explain this to the women and asked them not to do anything drastic. The women, who had been through all this before, did not agree with them, but were temporarily silenced by their argument.

However, their patience was severely tested when they had to go to fetch their water or bring the fodder on their heads, or simply go to their farm lands but found their way blocked by 150 or 160 mules hired by the contractor to transport the soapstone. They were indignant that their pathway was being used by the contractors to further their own business interests. "Why should their mules obstruct our paths as well," they cried in unison? "Why can't they build their own pathway? This is highly unjust!"

The women poured out their woes to the young people of the area. Now, two walls are usually constructed on either side of the path to prevent animals from straying on to the fields and destroying the crops. What the young people now did was to construct a second line of a low wall at several places, to make the path narrower. This made it difficult for the mules to pass when they were laden with soapstone! The contractors were livid and told the youth, "you are obstructing government work." The boys replied, "this is our road and we can use it any way we like." The contractor slyly tried to win over the youth by offering them positions of power. The women were furious.They said, "If neither the men nor the youth will support us, we will fight our own battle."

One night there was heavy rain, and all the open debris from the mines were washed into the fields. This hardened and formed a cement- like substance which buried all their crops. This was the proverbial last straw! The women lost their patience and came to the village and threw their farming implements before the men. "We had told you that the mines would ruin us, but you did not pay heed to what we said. Now if you do not protect our lands, nor raise your voice against this, we refuse to work on your farms."

The men had no option but to take note and start a protest movement against the mining. However it should be pointed out that the leadership came from the women! One woman leader, Malti Devi , requires special mention. She was not highly educated, but had received some education; but more than that, had the capacity to gather women for a cause, and organize rallies and meetings, and also to think patiently and calmly and strategize. She invited Lakshmi Ashram women to join them. I rushed to Khirakot, the village which was at the centre of all activity. I saw the extent of the damage and told the women, "You have every right to protect your land and forest and ask for stoppage of work on the mine." The women immediately started raising public awareness on the issue by holding meetings, distributing leaflets and so on. But this takes a long time. Something more drastic and immediate needed to be done. They decided to rush to the mine, and snatched the digging implements like pickaxes, shovels etc from the laborers, and said, "we will not let you continue with this work if you will not listen to us."

The contractor was a worried man and believed that the women should either be bought over by tempting offers, or suppressed. He decided to embark on both options. One day, the contractor himself came to Lakshmi Ashram followed by an old man, carrying a brief case. "I want to provide a generous donation for your ashram activities," he told me. "But you must withdraw your support to the Khirakot agitation." My clear "NO" must have disappointed him, but did not stop him from spreading a rumor that Radha has withdrawn from the agitation! Malti Devi was naturally alarmed. She immediately called a meeting at Chanouda Bazar, to which I was summoned , so that I could personally tell the truth and stop the rumors . This was another display of Malti Devi's skill in dealing with difficult situations, backed by the power of the state.

Then the contractor began his other option of threatening the women. Disguised as police officers, some of the contractors' men went to the villagers in Chanounda Bazar, and said, "We have received information that the women of Khirakote are obstructing official work. Now we are here and we shall arrest all the women." The young boys, one of whom was Malti Devi's nephew, came rushing and reported the matter to her. "The police will come to arrest you, Chachi", (aunt) he told her. Malti Devi remained calm. "How do you know they are policemen," she asked? The reply came, "They are dressed like the police and they are carrying huge sticks." She asked the boy to come along with two or three of his friends, and together they went and sat down on a hillside, from where they could get a clear view of the path below leading up to their village. The contractors men could not see them, but they could see them coming up! As soon as the so-called lathi (stick)-wielding police, in their khaki uniforms approached the village, Malti Devi asked these boys to collect little pebbles, and start showering them on the approaching men, but to be careful that no one was hurt. The pebbles should fall on either side of these men, but not on them. As soon as the first pebbles fell, the startled men began to run away, back in the direction from which they had come. Promptly, Malti Devi concluded, these are not policemen. The police would never run away from the field with this small provocation. They would want to stay on, and probe into the incident. These must be the contractors men, come here to frighten us into submission. But we shall not yield.

Malti Devi did not disclose this to anyone. Many months later I asked her why she had not told even me about this, because she usually took me into confidence. "Had I done so," she said, "word might have spread that we were resorting to violence, and the government would have lost no time in discrediting us, and thus break our movement." I was amazed at this woman's far sightedness and wisdom.

When this movement was at its height, the District Magistrate of the area sent the patwari and spread the word that the men should come for a meeting at Chanod Bazar. But the women were not told about this meeting. Visibly annoyed, Malti Devi said, "this is our movement, we are leading this, and we shall also go there. Why did they not call us? The men would be taken in by their words and may agree to halt the agitation. That would not be right." Along with 15 women, Malti Devi set off for the meeting. The DM arrived and began his speech, directed only at the men. It was as though the women were non-existent as far as he was concerned. The DM, as expected, spoke on the benefits that were to accrue from the mines. Just think of the amount of employment opportunities that will be generated? Why are you agitating? This is for your development. Why are you bent on obstructing development work? As always, the men nodded their heads in assent.

Malti Devi could no longer restrain herself. Greatly agitated, she marched up to the DM, pulled at his shirt, and directly facing him, asked, "what development are you talking about? What need have I for this kind of development? What employment are you talking about? My employment is in agriculture, in growing crops, in dairy farming. The crops help to feed my family. Milk and dahi (curd) are also for them. It keeps my family happy. Your employment, ie. digging mines, ruins my livelihood, which is agriculture. I have no need for this kind of employment." The DM was astounded. He had no answer to Malti Devi's outburst.

Malti Devi was a simple village woman, who was speaking out of her own life experience. It was no academic theorizing. Without using big words, she was talking about sustainable development and sustainable life style. What the men could not say, this simple woman had articulated beautifully, with self belief and confidence. The other women took the cue from her."Your development ruins our forests where our animals graze. It ruins our agriculture, our fields, our soil, on which generations have been raised. You have no right to destroy this in the name of development. You cannot destroy the basic resources of our life," they said.

Again the DM was silenced. He went back and after a month, the official orders to close down the mines were passed. The women said, "all these mines have to be closed, and we have to plant trees where these mines existed." A camp was held for this purpose. Men and women came together and closed the open mines with earth, rubble, stones, etc. A successful nonviolent action thus came to a close.

In my view, only overt physical violence is not violence. Anything that harms and destroys the harmonious lifestyle and environment is violence. It is anti-peace. It disturbs the balance of nature, and between man and nature. This is also violence and it is our duty to prevent this through nonviolence, through collective action, together, as a society, as happened in this instance. Maybe, there was no talk of laying down lives for the cause, but certainly there was talk of going to jail. These women showed the courage, readiness and willingness to face the consequences of their action, essential to any nonviolent movement. They continued their protest for two and a half years with the firm belief that truth was on their side, and they were working for the benefit of the people, which was a greater cause!

**Radha Bhatt (SAPA Core Group member and Chairperson, Gandhi Peace Foundation and Sarva Seva


Post Script: The legacy of strong women working and fighting to save the environment continues. Currently the women of Uttarakhand have undertaken Save the Rivers Campaign to protect and save the rivers in the state from growing threats posed by the dams being built across the glacier-fed rivers, villages sinking as a result of these dams and their tunnels, the water, the lifeline of the people being diverted.