Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Shadow Knows.

It seemed like a reasonable question. I fired off the email to the Worship Committee chairperson, asking if there were a rationale for the shift in the order of worship that placed the celebration of the sacrament of communion prior to the reading of the scriptures and the sermon instead of following - - a departure from 2000 years of liturgical tradition. I felt a sense of disruption in the liturgical movement from “Word” to “Table”, the comfort of tradition, the rhythm of centuries of practice. I was uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. So - -I asked my question.

The responses came back, neither measured nor explanatory, but full of defense and pain. I had to examine my original question again. It had seemed reasonable enough, but something was awry. I had unwittingly activated great discomfort and sorrow. I had opened old wounds.

So –another inward quest began and I began to see how unskilled my question was. Underneath it was the muck of a lot of my own dissatisfaction with a variety of issues related to our little church – and all that hidden stuff found its way into the tone of my question - - and a certain violence to the soul of another was the result.

It took awhile for me to connect all the dots and arrive at the awareness that I had relaxed my vigilance and compassion toward my inner “terrorist”, that shadowy part that I prefer to keep away from the light of day. In the process, I allowed it to hold sway and I ended up hurting another person.

This was a very instructive episode for me. It was all too easy to give expression to the negative impulse within - - to act out of the needs of ego rather than out of the desire to offer understanding and compassion. Not a pleasant awareness for one who aspires to live a life that honors the way of nonviolence.

So – another process had to be set in motion. All of this happened during the Days of Awe –the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – days filled with opportunity to do tshuva, to return to a higher way, a higher truth. So, after much examining of motivations, I made my apologies and asked for forgiveness from the parties involved. Relief, restored relationships, a deepened understanding of the fragility of other human beings all became the fruit of an uncomfortable lesson.

As the nightly news and the headlines are filled with Khadafy’s death, with the various “occupations” happening around the country, with disastrous earthquakes, with conflict about the economy, with questions about the troop draw-downs and the ending of wars, I am ever more mindful of the fragility AND the resilience of the human spirit.

The discovery embedded in the High Holy Days is that forgiveness works. The strenuous part of the process seems to be finding the way into the shadowy places within where pain and dissatisfaction and rage and frustration and fear reside. With compassion for the self that endures in the shadows, light is brought into the pain. Until I can do that, I run the risk of the shadowy places “calling the shots”, as it were.

So I sit pondering questions about our collective ability to examine the shadowy places of our collective unconscious processes –our collective ability to do tshuva. It so often seems as though our collective “inner terrorist” is in charge and we choose not to recognize it. It does its unexamined work in the halls of congress, in the canyons of Wall Street, and in the hidden depths of the “situation room.” I look to the worldwide community that embraces and practices nonviolence to shed its light of compassion into the shadows, to bring into broad daylight the fear and anger and self-righteousness that so often determine the behavior that shapes world events. It is in this often unseen community that I find the fortitude to continue the work of shaping my own life into an expression of compassion. Thanks for being there.

Vicky Hanjian

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Sukkah Among the Tents

It has been a hard week to sit in the sukkah, the harvest booth that is the central symbol of the Festival of Booths. The blustery winds and the driving rains of autumn have been discomforting. In a mundane way, our hope for the weather as we would like it to be and living with the weather as it has been is ironically instructive. It is about living with the tension between the ideal and the real. This is exactly what the sukkah is meant to teach, how to live in the world as it is with the faith that we can yet see and help to bring the world as it might be. Though learning to persevere is no small lesson, in regard to weather there is little we can do to make change. In regard to social realities as they are and as they might be, there is much that we can do.

Change begins with the faith that change can happen, that we are not stuck where we are, either as individuals or as a society. The Zohar speaks of the sukkah as tzilah di’m’heymanuta, “the dwelling of faith.” As one great dwelling place, pulsating with themes of Sukkot, the faith that change is possible fills the air at “Occupy Boston.” Tents neatly arranged in ordered formation, one so close to another, I thought of the camp of Israel dwelling in sukkot along the way of the desert journey from slavery to freedom. For all of the winds that have torn at their tents and the driving rains that have soaked them, there is among

the encamped a pervasive sense of hope before the harsher storms of social and economic disparity that have brought them together. Marking the perimeter at one end of the camp is a fragile sukkah of bamboo poles and of colorful fabric fluttering joyfully in the breeze. The entire structure sways in time to the wind, its strength found in the love and commitment that built it. The utter fragility of all these dwellings of faith united in common purpose underscores the illusion that a fractured society can find strength in brick and mortar.

Some four hundred years ago, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the “Sh’loh,” an acronym from the title of his book, “Sh’nei Luchot Ha’b’rit,” looked around at the excesses of his day and wrote, “my heart burns whenever I see people building houses to be like the castles of princes…, as though it will be forever…. If God gives you great wealth, build houses according to your needs, and not more….” Excess has become an American way of life that undermines the common good. If heeded, the advice of the Sh’loh offers a way to furrow wealth back into the society from which it comes, rather than using it to fund excess.

Engaging in tzedakah as the pursuit of justice for all, enriching the

soil and psyche from which collective wellbeing grows, those with more can become leaders in the way to a healthier society for all. Rather than identifying the “one percent” of highest earners as evil, our challenge is to make common cause. Giving more of one’s own if one had more to give was the way of the farmers of ancient Israel. Offering perspective and critique on our own tax debate, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes from nineteenth century Germany, “concern for the welfare of one’s needy neighbor was seen as a direct result of the landowner’s enjoyment of his own harvest before God; the Jew was taught not to rejoice in his personal happiness before God without first having done everything in his power to give practical aid to his less fortunate brother.” Generosity and concern for the common good were affirmed as a mark of pride, the farmer stating on completion of the “poor tithe,” a tax of ten percent, “I have rejoiced and I have also given joy to others.” As a harvest festival, Sukkos was a time of such pronouncement.

Like Shabbos, Sukkos represents a vision and a way, a path of ordinary deeds leading toward the “day that is all Shabbos,” the time when a great “sukkat shalom,” a sukkah of peace, will embrace the whole world. Welcoming guests, inviting others to share from one’s own bounty is the way of the sukkah. It is the way modeled by the basket of apples from which all may take at the entrance to the ingathering that is Occupied Boston. Critiqued for not having a detailed plan and clear goals, the overarching goal of those occupying public space in our cities is very clear. It is to create a more just, equitable, and peaceful society. Gathering in witness to what is wrong and to what might be, those faithfully dwelling in the public sukkah are offering an invitation for all to join together in finding the way. As we leave the sukkah and arrive at Parashat B’reishit, the Torah portion of Genesis, it is time to begin.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Reflections on the 23rd Psalm

The 23rd Psalm is without a doubt one of the best known and most memorized and most frequently recited passages in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It offers solace to the hungry (“thou preparest a table before me”), rest for the weary (“thou leadest me beside still waters”), and hope for those in despair (“yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear for thou art with me"). Visions of the Garden of Eden abound. The psalmist seems to be telling us, “These are hard times, but hold on to hope, better days are coming.” But what if there is more to it than this?

I'm reading this psalm again as the "99 per centers" continue their demonstrations on Wall Street and around the county, the drive to circulate petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin gains momentum, and people are organizing in communities all across America. They are doing so in the face of the determined opposition of some political leaders, the steadfast refusal of some segments of the media to cover the story, and the stubborn indifference of certain financial establishments. I tell my wife that the "1 per centers" would like us to believe that we have the right to be poor but we do not have the right to protest about the fact that we are poor.

Reflecting on the 23rd Psalm, I recall a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On January 1, 1956, as the boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was entering its second month and a new year was dawning, Dr. King reached for words of hope as he prepared his sermon. He did not, however, turn to the 23rd Psalm. He opened his Bible to the Letter of Jude and read these words, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forever more! Amen.” The title Dr. King gave to his sermon on that January morning was “Our God is Able.” He told members of the congregation, “God is not incompetent . . . . God is able to beat back great mountains of opposition.”

Years later, in preparation for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King called for an “economic bill of rights for the disadvantaged” and for a national program that would abolish unemployment and establish a supplemental income program for those whose earnings were below the poverty level. In this same article ("Showdown for Nonviolence"), he proposed a national health care program and an end to investment in an immoral war, which, as he saw it, was diverting money from social programs.

Now, as I see it, people of faith are confronted with a problem. If, as Dr. King said, God is not incompetent, but able; and if, as the Psalmist assures us, God is actively going before us—preparing and leading—and walking with us, how do we reconcile our faith in this God with the plain fact that 99 per cent of us are on the street while 1 per cent of us is in the penthouse? The Occupy Wall Street website says, "We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We suffer from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent."

How might people of faith reconcile the reality of the 99 percent with the vision of the 23rd Psalm? I find the answer to this question in the first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Americans have subscribed to the myth that utopia, a world without want, can be realized if we each pursue our private dreams. This myth tells us that an abundant life that satiates all our wants and desires is possible if we only focus on what it is we want for ourselves. The psalmist is not against personal responsibility, but as I read it, the psalmist defines this myth not as utopian but its opposite. It is anti-utopian, leading not to personal fulfillment but to the destruction of the common good. With its opening line the psalm debunks the picture of a perfect world in which personal whims and private greed are satisfied. Rather, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” means that abundance is found in respecting relationships and in honoring our commitments to each other.

In a world in which the pursuit of wealth is widely regarded as the most important thing, and human beings and relationships are transformed into commodities to be used to satisfy personal desires, we who are people of faith say with the psalmist, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." That is to say, greed is not our guide.

My next contribution to LivingNonviolence will follow this line of thought with reflections on a proposal being offered by the World Council of Churches that we should establish a “greed line” as well as a “poverty line.”

David Hansen, Ph.D.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Something That Matters Has Started

An "Occupy Wall Street" rally.

I hope that you've been following "Occupy Wall Street," an ongoing demonstration against socioeconomic inequality and corporate greed in America. (Read its "Declaration" here.) Keeping current with OWS developments isn't easy except through "alternative" news sources. Coverage by the conventional media has been, for the most part, spotty, contemptuous and dismissive, even though this demonstration--or perhaps more accurately, this movement--that began in New York City on September 17 has now spread to more than 80 cities across the country.

I'm heartened by these nonviolent protests, even as I'm deeply distressed by the violence often perpetrated against the protestors by police. It's offensive to see my fellow citizens being harassed, pepper-sprayed, roughed up and beaten with batons. It's also offensive that their abuse is rarely shown, and just as rarely denounced, by the mainstream media. I shouldn't be surprised. The mainstream media are embedded in the very system the protestors are crying out against: a system in which predatory capitalism, represented by Wall Street, is squeezing the life out of American democracy, threatening the futures of all Americans, jeopardizing other nations, and endangering the health of the planet.

I watch these protests from afar, here in South Dakota, wishing I could be there. While the movement has been criticized for not being organized enough, for not being representative enough, for not having a clear enough agenda, and so on, none of this bothers me one whit. These same criticisms are routinely leveled against nascent social movements that have arisen from the anger and agony of citizens who refuse anymore to be partners in their own oppression. Yet such movements have often been this country's best conscience and its most dynamic catalysts for reform when its highest ideals have been betrayed. Simply put, we need them.

This fact is indisputable: the economy of this nation no longer serves the needs of its people (but for a wealthy fraction); rather, the people are now meant to serve the economy. This is backwards. This is wrong. And the people are finally rising up to say so. I hope somebody is listening. The people in this social movement may not yet have strategic clarity, but they do have moral clarity, and that's where it all starts.

This is, I believe, a potentially historic moment in this country. Decisions must be made, now, not by the powerful few but by the rest of us, who for too long have abdicated our own (greater) collective power and acquiesced in our own economic subjugation. It's time to make up our minds. Who do we want to be as a nation? What are we willing to do as citizens to help make it so? With whom are we willing to join to help bring it about?

There is no question who is on the right. The OWS protesters have laid bare the truth that we should have recognized long ago: Our economic system has lost its legitimacy, because it no longer has as its priority the welfare of the people. That same system now directly threatens the legitimacy of our democracy. Last week I actually heard on a cable news program some political pundits discussing the advisability of postponing national elections until the country and its economy are more stable. Imagine: "Let's postpone democracy now for the sake of democracy later." As I said, things are falling apart.

Things are falling apart, and they need to be rebuilt. Rebuilt with creative and courageous moral vision, not to be the same as they once were, but to be the most they can be--not for the sake of the corporations or the banks or this or that political party, but for the sake of the people. All the people. This is a tremendous, even revolutionary, undertaking. OWS is giving us a start on the job. We ignore this citizens' movement, and this critical moment in history, at our own peril. 

I can't go to Wall Street or the other protest sites around the country. But I can demonstrate, speak up, advocate, organize, bear witness to a better way here, where I live. I'm going to find a way to, somehow. There are infinite ways I might do so. I doubt that I'll be carrying a sign or shouting slogans or sleeping in a park until the System finally risks stepping out of its mansion to talk--really talk. But I'm going to do something. And I'm inviting you to do the same.

This historic moment calls on each of us to do something constructive, right where we are, as we're able. In the video below, the young performance poet David Bowden (pictured right) inspires us to "unpack our boxes of brilliant ideas and share something that the world can use":

Paint, all you painters, paint something that captures
Write, all you writers, write something that answers
Build, all you builders, build something that shelters
And start, all you starters, start something that matters

If you ask me, something that matters has already started in New York City. I thank everybody who started it. I thank everybody who's keeping it going. Let's all keep it going, wherever we are. There's too much at stake, not to.

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

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Swadharma: Our Soul Duty

It’s true we all have our own duties. Some we choose for ourselves and don’t feel obligated to always abide by. Others we are born into and no matter how difficult they may be, we can’t trade them in for more appealing or attractive ones. Some we may search all our lives for the understanding of and never learn until the end, we lived by them every day. Some are simple and easily recognized; such as in a family we can be a father, a mother, a brother or sister. With each comes a sense of obligation that we must carry out to insure the safety and wellbeing of those closest to us. We may also define our duties by the career paths we have chosen. We may be students working towards their path, bakers, accountants, or artists; knowing that our job fulfills a need or want of our community; but these are only temporary duties, ones we shouldn’t base all actions of our life around. But is there a universal duty that we all share? One that can be found in each human being that transcends beyond our day to day duties?

Lately it wouldn’t seem that way. With all the distractions we have in our world it’s easy to forget what is truly important, our soul duty, our “Swadharma”, in Sanskrit. We get so wrapped up in the drive for material possessions that our true calling is confused with the illusion of duty our jobs create. We start to believe our duty in life is to work so we can make money to support our family and give them a leisurely life style. Suddenly our careers become our swadharma; and our happiness is judged by the number of digits in our bank accounts. Not that living comfortably is a sin but when we lose focus of what we are working for, what we’re making money for, that is when our soul duty is lost. We must recognize that the jobs we work, the money we make, must be used for something greater. 

Our swadharmas are all interlinked. Our duty is to simply help better the livelihood and wellbeing of the people and the community around us; to be good people, nonviolent people, loving people. We are all humans and we all have the soul force that Gandhi spoke of. It’s time for us all to realize the power that force can really have when we unite globally for a greater good. But the whole process must start with ourselves. We must “be the change we want to see” and find an inner peace and understanding. Once we do that we are able to reach out to those around us. Let our love reflect onto them. We cannot possibly expect to directly affect the entire globe, but only reach those around us and watch as the connection spreads. Because only love can bring love, only nonviolence can bring about nonviolence, and violence will only ever bring more violence.

In my search for inner peace and happiness I’ve found that in all the texts of all the major religions one theme really stands out, service. All the prophets speak about bettering yourself by bettering others; helping those who have less then you do, those who are weaker than you; and bringing about a sense of equality. But my belief is that service is more than a meal, more than donating our old clothes to the local Goodwill, because food, shelter, and clothing all allow a person to live; but it’s conversation, human contact, and empathy that allow a person to love.

For the past several years each summer I’ve attended a church camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota. As you leave, an arch stands over the road way with the phrase “Depart to Serve” painted across it. A phrase that has always stuck in my head and will forever be over the doorway of my home as a simple reminder of the swadharma we all live by and the great changes it can bring.

Logan Fleer, Guest Blogger

(Logan is presently a participant in an international program on Gandhian nonviolence at the Gujurat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad, India.)