Monday, December 26, 2011

A Different Christmas Story

In my Advent reading this year, I read the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel and compared it with a statement issued on 17 December 2010 by a Buddhist-Christian consultation on “Structural Greed” and an earlier World Council of Churches study document “Poverty, Wealth and Ecology: The Impact of Economic Globalization—a Background to Study the Process,” written by economist Rogate Mshana.

In our popular culture we learn that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. The local establishment was booked because of the government decree that ordered everyone to return to the town of their birth. Sort of like telling people they need to get a birth certificate before they can vote in the 2012 election in the United States. The hidden poll tax is not exactly illegal since it is indirect, but it will prevent the poor from voting. Make no mistake about it: voter suppression is a campaign issue in this country. Communities of faith should be registering congregants and visitors to vote in record numbers on Christmas Eve, at least that’s my opinion. But the focus of my blog contribution is elsewhere.

Maybe Mary put Jesus in the manger not because the inn was full, but because she was poor. She was not in the inn because she could not afford it. Lack of housing is a common problem for the poor. Poverty is about more than not having enough money. It means not having housing, not being able to buy nutritious food, not having access to good schools or adequate health care, dealing with illness without resources, often living in unsafe environments, facing daily reminders of social discrimination and exclusion, and being reminded constantly that it is your own fault. One person running for the Office of President of the United States was candid enough to say that in his world if you cannot afford private health insurance--well, I don’t think he actually said you should curl up and die, but his intention was unmistakable. Christmas? “Bah-Humbug!”

We don’t hear a lot about Structural Greed this holiday season, but it’s a good concept. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed the authors write that “one of the primary reasons for the global financial crisis is that over the past centuries economic processes have been progressively motivated and structured by the goal of maximizing profits for capital owners and thus monopolizing the world market.” The writers go on to acknowledge that we have become comfortable with greed and the idea that accumulated wealth is necessary for human progress. In the statement, Buddhists identify Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion. The antidote is becoming a generous, loving and compassionate person. But the conference participants go on to say that if we only focus on individual greed we are maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, we need to develop strategies for countering Structural Greed.
Rogate Mshana’s paper offers both a framework for analysis of Structural Greed (although he does not use that phase) and strategies for addressing it. He says that we need theological reflection, economic analysis, ongoing dialogue, and practical action.

Theological reflection leads to the insight that poverty is a spiritual problem as well as an economic one. Economic analysis shows us that the market mantra of economic growth is not sufficient and cannot be sustained in a divided world. The 500 richest people in the world have a combined income that is greater than the income of the poorest 416 million people. Economic growth has not and will not lead to greater equality. We need to create conversations in communities of faith about the reality of wage theft, home foreclosures, unemployment, and poverty in our communities. Faith communities can be places for these sacred conversations. Finally we need proposals from practical action. Here is where I find Mshana’s idea of a Greed Line especially helpful. Establishing a Greed Line offsets the Poverty Line and creates a whole new conversation.

Mshana proposes five ways to measure greed. Absolute Greed could be defined in terms of annual personal income and total property and assets owned. Income Ratios, a second matrix, invites us to look at the income ratio between, say, management and labor, or wealth and poverty. A Dynamic Greed line, the third matrix, measures the rate of wealth increase and profit growth. Usually high rates or growth or return on investments could suggest undue political influence or insider knowledge. The fourth matrix proposed is Categorical Types of Enrichment. Where does the money come from: expropriation, bonuses, stock options, investments, wages, etc? Investments and dividends, primary sources of wealth for the wealthy, are taxed a lower rates than income. The fifth matrix is Other Considerations, such as consumption levels. There are both conceptual and educational advantages to the Greed Line. It is a creative way to frame the conversation and it offers guidelines for analysis, education, conversation and action.

The Occupy Movement reminds us daily that we need to turn the page. We need a new economy. We need to replace the ethics of apathy with a call to compassion. We need to challenge Structural Greed with Economic Democracy. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed, they recall these words of Buddha, “In a situation of crisis, act as if your turban is on fire.”

David P. Hansen

Thursday, December 22, 2011


“You have to learn to gush, people, you have to learn to gush!” It was the end of a four-day writers’ workshop and the leader was giving us her parting wisdom. Her philosophy for helping people to learn to write from the heart is one of positive criticism and affirmation. Over and over she would exhort the group to “tell her what you loved” after each person had read her piece.

She told the story of meeting a woman on the check-out line in a local supermarket. The woman looked sad and withdrawn. Our leader complimented the woman on the beautiful saffron colored scarf she was wearing - - remarked on how beautifully it brought out the color of her eyes and the highlights in her hair. A simple enough gesture on the check-out line.

A few months later, the same woman walked up to our leader on the street, wearing the same scarf. They greeted and the woman explained how our leader might just have saved her life. She had been depressed and was entertaining notions of suicide when the first encounter happened. By chance, an effusive and sincere compliment lifted her spirits just enough for her to be able to make the effort to get help with her depression. The woman placed the saffron scarf around our group leader’s neck, embraced her, and went on her way.

I am not a “gusher” but the story stayed with me as I wondered about how often I could have verbally expressed my appreciation and valuing of another person a little more enthusiastically - - maybe say “I love you” in place of the cursory “love ya!” Maybe “use my words” to let someone else know how much I feel cared for by their kindness to me. Maybe tell another person that I receive them as a blessing in my life. Maybe let them know that their inner beauty is visible to me or tell them how much I respect their opinion on things that matter.

We live in a vast and pervasive culture of disrespect and un-civility. Our social interactions are often liberally laced with insults and put-downs in the name of humor. We tend not to see others as wounded and we unthinkingly add to their wounds. We tend not to see others as valuable and easily de-value them with thoughtless, thrown away words of disregard. Human dignity can be stripped away so easily and in the process a person of infinite worth is de-humanized.

As I was growing up, the old cliché: “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” provided some momentary relief against a bullying insult – but belied the truth that words hurt in ways that do not heal.

I may never be a “gusher” but I know for sure that I can slip under the cultural penchant for insult and put-down and find words of grace and love and affirmation and comfort and appreciation for another person, and maybe, for just a few minutes, subvert the dominant paradigm. Who knows when a human life may be hanging in the balance?

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hind Swaraj for the 21st. Century

In my readings of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, I couldn’t help but make a strong connection between the problems Indian society was facing in 1920 and the problems we are facing now, almost a century later. Our problem is not that of an oppressive mother country, but a flaw in our society even more grave. Gandhi stated that “the English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them” (HS, 34.)

Like the Indians nearly one hundred years ago, we were not fully aware of the consequences of our actions. Now it’s evident that we have become slaves. But in my view, what makes our situation even worse is that there are no oppressive laws that have brought us to this state of injustice; only the indirect will of the people. We’ve made ourselves slaves to the corporations. We’ve allowed them and their marketing to make us believe that by consuming we can obtain happiness. We bought into the scheme perfectly and are only now seeing that the final result is far from the happiness promised.

Even now as I’m writing this, there’s an advertisement in the bottom corner of my Microsoft Word 2010 software telling me I can now have three dimensional effects in my power point presentations if I buy the full Microsoft Office 2010 software. Why do I need 3-D for any presentation? Yes, it may look cool and draw some attention, but does it add anything at all to the content of the presentation? Does it help me convey my point or opinion any clearer? This is one large aspect of the problem: at all moments of our waking life we are bombarded with the next latest and greatest gadget or style; told our lives will be bettered by always having something new, by always buying more. And now like a dog sitting patiently for another treat, society sits waiting for the next phone to come out that will allow us to send e-mails that much faster, even if there is no real problem with the phone we have now. At what price are all these new technological advancements and industrial progressions really coming? Is this materialism really worth the price we’re paying; the slavery it puts us into?

The Occupy Wall Street movement brings up some hope that our country may be moving in a better direction and that control may slowly be moving back towards the people, but I still have my doubts about the whole thing. We can’t expect that things will change and all those who are at the top of the corporations and government offices will give up their greedy ways only because we ask them to; a grander social change is necessary. I saw a picture on the web recently of a group of the Occupy protesters in New York. The person who posted the picture had gone through and marked all of the brand name products, from shirts, hats, bags, to the cameras and video recorders the protesters were using to capture the event. How can we expect the greedy to stop accepting and taking so much money, if we keep spending so much and paying their inflated salaries? Are not those who we are upset with just reflections, manifested to the extreme, of ourselves? Do we just “want English rule without the Englishman,” “the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger” (HS, 26), the capitalist and competitive system without the greed?

This is where I see the relevance and need for Hind Swaraj in the U.S. If we want to end corporate greed we must first end our own greed. If we want a deeper rule among the people, we first need a deeper rule over ourselves.

What is Swaraj? Gandhi points out that even if the British were to be expelled from the country, it would not mean that all the problems Indians had attributed to them would also disappear. It was up to the society to bring about that change, to stand up and form a system that suited them. For Hind Swaraj, for home rule, all must obtain self-rule.

The first crucial step the society must take for the social reform it wants is to look deeply into what is really going on around us and become fully aware of everything we see. Gandhi criticized civilization. Even in 1920, all the progress achieved in working towards a higher civilization was actually enslaving people into the system of civilization. Those who work towards those possessions of progress “are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.” (HS, 32)

This is the largest problem facing our society. We have been disillusioned like a dreaming man; all the marketing and advertisements have shown us the way we should be living, and being in a deep sleep and dreaming, we are not able to realize it’s not the truth. It’s not until the sleeping person wakes up that they discover the falsehood in their dream. Occupy Wall Street seems to be our alarm clock. It’s time to wake up and see the way of truth, no longer the dream life corporations have put in front of us. Civilization is more than monetary and material wealth.

We have forgotten not only to perform our duty but what our duty is. We’re not living to achieve wealth and luxuries, but to help those around us and better the livelihood of all. What kind of civilization pits all of its inhabitants against each other? We must no longer rate civilization by the industrial progression it has made but by happiness and moral fiber of the civilians. We need to set our hearts on the whole of the society not only ourselves. The drive for possessions has driven out care for those around us. Our civilization has led to the creation of the “99%” that are now calling for an end to corporate greed. We must be sure this call is not for the greed of the 99%, but for the bettering of our civilization.

Our freedom lies in our hands. Only through our actions
will the nation be freed from the immaterial bonds of material possession that hold it down. “Swaraj has to be experienced, by each one for himself. One drowning man will never save another. Slaves ourselves, it would be a mere pretension to think of freeing others.” (HS, 56) The nation’s freedom will only come from each of us freeing ourselves. We created the slavery so only we have the ability to abolish it. The first step must be a look at how drawn in we are to the “American Dream” and how conscious we are of all the things we purchase, a deeper understanding of why we buy the things we do. Only after we realize where the passions of our hearts are and where they should be can we become free and begin work towards a civilization and society that is truly for the people, by the people, and of a non-greedy people.

In our new clarity, we must see that the words of Gandhi from the past are still as relevant as they were a century ago.

Logan Fleer - Participant in a Gandhi Study Program, Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, India

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Giving Thanks as a Source of Humility, a Counter to Arrogance

To be thankful both requires and engenders humility. I find myself looking back at Thanksgiving, reflecting on the teaching of one day for every day. As we pause to consider that for which we should be thankful, it seems to me that we would do well to recognize that many of our greatest gifts are not of our own making. Numerous “accidents of birth” determine so much of later opportunity. Skills that require great dedication to develop, whether in music or art, science or sports, often grow from native ability that springs of its own from our genes. The very act of giving sincere thanks, therefore, should be a counter to arrogance. If something that in its essence or origin is not of my own making and has not come to me due to some intrinsic merit, then my giving thanks should be an act garbed in humility.

For all of the beauty of Thanksgiving, I think that what might be one of its deepest lessons is often missed. As with so many holidays, we can easily avoid grappling with the implications of particular moments in sacred time, and forget as well to draw meaning and responsibility beyond the bounds of a day. As a day to inculcate humility through the act of giving thanks, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity through which to address and redress inequities that divide Americans into a de facto class society. Gratitude for what we have is a tacit acknowledgement of what others don’t have, of the fine line that separates having from not having. Offering a time in which to consider what separates people from each other, Thanksgiving can open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to feel the needs of others. If fortunate enough to be gathered on Thanksgiving with friends and family, our very gathering might awaken us to the loneliness of so many who have no one to be with and no place to call home. As Phil Ochs sang long ago, “there but for fortune, may go you or I.”

The story of Thanksgiving, so much a part of the American myth, especially so in New England, is most often told and transmitted in a way that violates what could and should be its essence. Rather than drawing from and speaking in accord with the humility that is meant to go hand in hand with giving thanks, the telling becomes one of arrogance. It is the arrogance of leaving out the consequences of white settlement upon indigenous populations, a process that began with Plymouth Plantation, of peoples and nations, of cultures and languages destroyed. How much deeper our expressions of gratitude would be, if carried on the same breath came acknowledgement of the pain and suffering of so many that is such a part of the founding and becoming of this nation. Approached as a source of humility learned through the act of giving thanks, Thanksgiving could be a day of national t’shuva/repentant turning.

I found these thoughts coming to me in reading the Torah portion that came during the week of Thanksgiving, Parashat Toldot. Bringing to mind the ways of Native Americans, I heard the description of Esau with perhaps a twist of irony, a man who understood hunting, a man of the field/ish sadeh. We are told that Esau called himself Edom/the Red One. Beloved of his father, Isaac, Esau is able to hunt and then prepare a meal with which to satisfy the hunger and longing of his father. His way as a hunter is not rapacious, but the way of one who knows and loves the fields and forests of home. Twice wronged by his brother Jacob, the birthright and blessing of the first-born are each taken from Esau through trickery and deceit. Upon realizing that the blessing meant for him has been given to his younger brother, Esau said to his father, “Is this, then, the only blessing you have? Bless me, too, O my father!” The text then tells us very simply, And Esau lifted up his voice and wept/va’yisa Esav kolo va’yevk’.

The Jewish People, descended through the line of Jacob, has been blessed with a legacy that invites us to wrestle with God and with people, to engage with text as seekers and questioners. We are invited to interpret Torah and to add our voices to an ever-unfolding dialogue as part of the “inheritance of the community of Jacob/morasha k’hilat Ya’akov.” It is a beautiful inheritance, a beautiful legacy of the other son of Isaac and Rebecca, the brother who was a simple man who dwelled in tents/ish tam yoshev ohalim. It should be possible to love that legacy as it has come to us, and also to hear the pain in Esau’s cry, as it too has come to us. It is a personal challenge for each one of us, as people, as Americans, to be grateful for the blessings we have been fortunate to receive and to respond to the injustice that leaves others in want.

Of Isaac, the father of these two brothers who were so different, the rabbis said, it is for his great humility that our father Isaac is praised/g’dolah anavah she’bah nishtabach Yitzchak Avinu. May we too be praised for great humility, the key that can open our hearts to hear the cry of another’s pain, the tone and song of our prayers of thanksgiving.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Silent Clown Speaks

Chaplin with Gandhi, London, 1931
Perhaps you have heard of Charlie Chaplin, the "Silent Clown" so famous for his slapstick films of the silent-movie era. But his most commercially successful film--and perhaps his most prophetic--was actually a "talkie." Released in 1940, when the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator was almost entirely a product of his creative genius. He wrote it, he produced it, he directed it, he starred in it. Notably, it was the very first feature film to satirize and condemn the antisemitic and fascist policies of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Chaplin was an admirer of Gandhi. His son, Charles, Jr., would later recall "how admiringly he spoke of Mahatma Gandhi...not only one of the most brilliant men he'd ever met, but one of the most godlike as well" (My Father, Charlie Chaplin, p. 339). The actor was inspired by Gandhi's choice to live in solidarity with the poor and the outcast. He was also impressed by Gandhi's assertion that supreme independence requires shedding all that is unnecessary. He regarded this principle as the foundation of Gandhi's argument against the varieties of "machinery" that destroy human beings politically, economically, socially and spiritually. That he shared Gandhi's perspective on this point is quite evident in The Great Dictator.

In this film Chaplin plays a Jewish barber trying to survive in the fictional nation of Tomania (i.e., Germany). Toward the end of the movie, his character is mistaken for the country's ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (i.e., Adolf Hitler), with whom he shares a remarkable resemblance. (Chaplin was playing both roles.) Made to deliver a victory speech in front of a massive military crowd and also over the radio to the entire nation, the Jewish barber instead rails against "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts." He begs his people to unite as human beings, to "fight [nonviolently] for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security."

"Let us fight," he cries, "to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness!"

The Jewish barber's speech, of which I've quoted just a few lines, is the rousing climax of the film. Its delivery is so passionate that I agree with those critics who believe that Chaplin stepped totally out of character to speak the words from his heart. Comedic commentary this is not. It is an ardent humanitarian appeal. Today, if we forgive the sexist language of his day, Chaplin's final speech as The Great Dictator continues to resonate powerfully. Such is the timeless nature of prophecy. It testifies to Truth, just as a finger points toward the moon. Truth, like the moon, is unchanging.

I invite you to watch the Silent Clown deliver his plea to Tomania in the video below. It is a plea to us as well. It is a plea to that within us which too readily obeys, and becomes, The Machine; to that within us which can resolutely rise up and resist The Machine. The original film clip has been remixed in this version with news footage and music by Hans Zimmer. Generations after Chaplin, its claim upon us is as contemporary as ever.

If for some reason you can't see the viewer above, please click here to watch the video.)

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai