Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Remembering Pogo's Wisdom

Many years ago a cartoon possum named Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” It is one of the most memorable statements ever made in the cartoon world. Recent scenes of my neighbors taking to the streets in acts of violence reminded me of Pogo’s wise words from so long ago.

In July of this year I was in a primary race running for an elected office. In campaign mode I was walking my districting knocking on doors and introducing myself to everyone I could meet. Most of the conversations were positive and I found the experience rewarding. It is an honor and an education to run for elected office. One morning I was sitting in a local restaurant visiting with the owner. I wanted to put my yard sign on his property. He wanted to talk. I was answering his questions and learning about his concerns when he pulled a .45 caliber pistol from behind his back where he had it tucked into his belt, placed it on the table between us and began to caress it. “Everyone should have one of these,” he said. “Every teacher, every preacher, every student, every one should have one of these.”

He meant his act to have shock value, but he was way off target. In our fair city of 380,000 the police have shot and killed eight people in the first six months of this year—all acts of self-defense. Outraged parents and citizens are protesting police violence. At least one inmate has died recently while in police custody and “problems” in the jails are frequent. Meanwhile, the city’s “entertainment” district seems to be reverting to the days of yore. We have had a steady diet of shootings on Friday night when the bars close. Things got serious when someone fired three shots at the police. There are now cameras on every lamp post and more police on every block. City officials are holding special meetings as they look for ways to gain control of the situation. Yet, in another part of the city only a few weeks ago a six year old girl was killed in her sleep when someone shot up her mobile home in a random act of drug-induced violence. 

Beyond the borders of our fair city, the idea that we are locked in a perpetual state of war has broad bipartisan support. When President Truman sent troops to Korea in 1950, he said it was a “police action” and, therefore, he did not need congressional approval. When President Nixon invaded Cambodia he justified the attack as a pre-emptive strike. President G.W. Bush used the same justification when he launched the second invasion of Iraq. President Obama has distanced himself from the “War on Terror” but he has embraced the doctrine of perpetual war. I remember that not many years ago when he was running for the Office of President of the United States, John McCain was heard singing, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” In the video of his performance he was smiling as he sang and people in the audience were laughing—they got the joke. 

Writing on “America’s Perpetual War,” columnist Jack Kenny recalls a comedian in the 1950s who said, “Satire doesn’t stand a chance against reality anymore,” (New American, 28 May 2012). 

We are ensnared in what theologian and author Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.” The power of this myth was on full display when Donald Rumsfeld, then President Bush’s Secretary of Defense, spoke in glowing terms of “shock and awe” as pictures of carpet bombing flashed across U.S. television screens. I think it was shock without awe, which means “fearful reverence of something sacred.” At best, Mr. Rumsfeld was expressing an ideology of raw power, at a deeper level he was venerating an idolatry of redemptive violence, which teaches that if we are big enough, strong enough, mean enough and powerful enough we can vanquish all our fears and create a new Garden of Eden—at least for ourselves if not for others. Cartoonist Walt Kelly knew better when he wrote Pogo’s memorable sentence. There is a deeper wisdom.

At the end of the Civil War President Lincoln asked members of his Cabinet what action the government should take toward those who had tried to destroy the union. The Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, told the president that we must teach them a lesson. Those who declared war on the United States must pay the price. They had forfeited their right to life. Those who tried to destroy us must now be destroyed. All the members of his Cabinet agreed. Lincoln then asked, “If we make the enemy our friend have we not thereby destroyed him?” Lincoln was asking for a new narrative.

In the early days of the Cold War, on April 16, 1953, President Eisenhower delivered a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors entitled, “The Chance for Peace.” He told the editors, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . . . This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

And on September 20, 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations. In his address, Kennedy said, “The badge of responsibility in our modern world is a willingness to seek peaceful solutions. . . . The problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.”

It begins with me, with us and with our willingness to put our guns on the table and walk away, together. Wink offers the myth of redemptive love as the antidote to the myth of redemptive violence.  Every major faith tradition agrees for each one teaches us to treat our neighbor as we wish to be treated, or, more strongly, to love one another. 

David Hansen

Thursday, September 20, 2012

War Books

Walking into the Brookings library the other day, the newly acquired book section caught my eye. As I surveyed the titles, two stood out. They required closer inspection! After scanning the contents, I decided to take both of them home. 

On the one hand, they should both be required reading of all Americans. On the other hand, I almost wish they hadn't been there. It wasn't particularly pleasant reading. Absorbing and gut wrenching, yes! Revealing and insightful, yes! But pleasant, no! Unless of course you have a penchant for the horrors of war and their aftereffects, from the battlefield experience in Vietnam and Iraq to the trials and difficulties of "coming home." 

Or, unless you want to know why record numbers of our military are taking their own lives.

July of 2012 brought a record number of U.S. military suicides. Thirty eight service members killed themselves, more than the number killed in battle. Twenty four were active duty and twelve were National Guard or Reserves. It was the highest number since the military began compiling these statistics. According to Iraq war veteran Aaron Hughes, every day in this country, 18 veterans are committing suicide.

Hughes reports, seventeen percent of the individuals in combat are on psychotropic medication. Twenty to fifty percent of the individuals being deployed are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma (currently one third of the women in the military have been sexually assaulted) or traumatic brain disorder.

Hughes is head of the Iraq Veterans against the War. He decries a failed policy in Iraq that has had a profound effect on his brothers and sisters in the military, who continue to have to live with that failed policy, and often die because of it.

Hughes is not the only one concerned about the rise in the number of military suicides. So is Defense Secretary Panetta. In June he remarked, "This issue, suicides, is perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I've come across since becoming secretary of defense last year. Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction."

And then, believe it or not, the Army has just handed out a contract for an anti suicide nasal spray. One whiff and you don't want to kill yourself anymore. The Army has given a $3 million grant to the University of Indiana School of Medicine, led by an associate professor of biology, to develop the spray.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff said, in announcing new suicide numbers. Austin is spearheading efforts to find ways to halt the surge in suicides. "That said, I do believe suicide is preventable," Austin added. "To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills." 

To the jaundiced eye, the nasal spray is an attempt at a unique technological fix, one that might get soldiers back in the conflict rather than in a psychiatric hospital or in a pine box. 

But, back to the books. The General might be wise to read them rather than throwing taxpayer money at nasal sprays. Since neither are written by professional writers, one needs to forgive needless credentialing in one and chronological confusion in the other and read them cover  to cover.

Autopsy of War: A Personal History by John A. Parrish, M.D. is an account of his Vietnam experience as a doctor and the trauma and tragedy that followed in his personal and family life. As my friend, a Vietnam War veteran says, there's no such thing as a warrior who isn't wounded. All are wounded, often with invisible and too often unspoken pain. Parrish was deeply wounded as a triage physician and invisible scars gradually became visible.

The Long Walk: The Story of War and the Life that Follows by Brian Castner brings our knowledge of the mental, emotional and spiritual damage war causes into the reality of the present conflicts. Castner  was one of those bomb disposal warriors in Iraq. He led a team who picked up the pieces after an IED did its damage or who detonated unexploded ordinance. His descriptions of what happened in his daily life are detailed and horrific. It becomes clear that if you escape from even one tour of duty in such circumstances with your mind and spirit intact, it would be a miracle.

I dare you, especially all who used that phrase "Support the Troops" before "shock and awe" in Iraq, read these books. Support these veterans willing to tell their personal stories with all the warts and failings. Then maybe next time some administration lies to us about why we're sending our troops into battle, we'll make Congress do their Constitutional duty and decide whether there are merits to the commitment and actually declare war for the first  time since WW2. Maybe we'll even avoid these lengthy wars of "occupation," that put our military men and women in utterly untenable positions. Or, maybe we'll decide war is a failed institution, producing only grief and loss, for both sides.

Carl Kline

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Around the Pond & Through Life

 I didn’t know Kimberly Curran. I have come to feel, though, as if I did, as if I do. She was someone who touched souls and made a difference in the world, a gentle presence in the lives of those who knew and loved her. She was an abiding presence in the life of her son, who has sought to honor her in the way of his own living, making her name and spirit known to others. In a place of beauty, whatever our mood, whatever the time of day or night, she reminds us to pause, to take it in, to breathe more fully and go easier on ourselves, even as she models for us her own way of carrying and caring for the world. In the relationship of mother and son, I am reminded of my relationship with my own mother. Kimberly reminds me of my mother, as I felt from the first time I met her.

Perhaps you have met Kimberly, as well. For about the past year, every time I run or walk around Jamaica Pond I stop by a certain bench. Unlike the weathered gray of most of the benches around the pond, this one stands out for its soft golden finish. On the east shore of the pond, not quite midway on that side, the bench sits just about right where the stairs from the old John Hancock mansion come down to the path. As I get to that point, I always pause and smile, often stopping to read yet again the bronze plaque embedded in the wood of the bench’s back. The beautiful words never fail to touch me:

Kimberly Curran, the most loving mother a son could ask for; a friend to all; life-long advocate for justice and peace.

While jogging around the pond one day this week, I decided I would stop to stretch when I got to Kimberly’s bench. As I approached, I looked with disbelief, feeling I would cry. The plaque was gone, only the space of rough chiseled wood where it had been. I felt pain and consternation that I wanted to share with someone, but there was no else there in the fading light of dusk. I wanted to ask a passerby if they had ever seen Kimberly’s plaque, that perhaps another would share my concern, but none passed by. I looked in the bushes behind the bench, so hard to go on. If it was vandalism, perhaps someone had pried it loose and maliciously tossed it, causing enough pain just by removing it. If stolen, more likely for the value of the bronze.

It is all about the way of our going, around the pond and through life. The way of our going and of our treatment of each other, two themes that form an entwined thread that runs throughout the weekly Torah portion called B’har-B’chukotai, a double portion (Lev. 25:1-27:34). In the first of the two, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee cycle, seven years and seven times seven years teach of homecoming and return, of rest and harmony. The land is to rest, slaves set free, those distant come home now, returning to family and ancestral land. From this portion, a teaching that we are not to hurt each other, even with words, as the rabbis understand the verse: you shall not grieve one another, and you shall revere your God (Lev. 25:17). So we are warned concerning ona’at d’varim/hurting with words. I wondered about the hurt caused by removing words, withholding words when they should be said, removing a plaque with beautiful words so soothing in their presence, emptiness in their stead. Even when there is none to know the doer of the deed, hurt caused in secret, so we are to cultivate reverence/awe before God in Whose presence we stand, whether to hurt or to heal. That is to be the way of our going, as the portion B’chukotai opens, im b’chukotai telechu/if you will walk in My statutes (Lev. 26:3). The root halach, to walk, to go, echoes throughout the portion, reminding of the way, around the pond, through life.

Around the pond early this morning, I searched in the bushes again. In the rising light, fading white flowers, Lily of the Valley perhaps, but they were not, enough alike though to make me think of my mother and her favorite flower and of what she might say. I don’t think I really believed I would find the plaque. I was hoping most of all to be wrong, to realize that I had been too quick in my judgment. Like my mother, Kimberly would probably look through eyes more optimistic and forgiving. “Why do you think it was stolen, perhaps it was taken out to be cleaned and reaffixed?” Perhaps. I would like to think that. I look forward to its return. In the meantime, Kimberly’s presence is still felt, her spirit gentle along the shore as we walk around the pond and through life.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sacred Cows

After more than a dozen trips to India, I got used to questions from Mid Westerners about "sacred cows." The question was usually framed like, "Well, if they have so many hungry people, why don't they eat those cattle?" 

Most folks didn't know that muscle was the foremost energy source in India, and cattle provided a lot of the muscle. An Indian farmer behind cattle can plow as proper a furrow as any John Deere and with a lot less fossil fuel expense. I've seen them do it. And many a cow still turns the water wheel to water the fields.

Cattle in rural India also provide a basic resource, dung. In rural India, dung is used for fuel for cooking, glue for the walls of the home, fertilizer for the fields, and food for the biogas facility. 

In India, cattle provide milk for the children and the rest of the family, perhaps when other sources of nutrition are few and far between. Once, sleeping in a peasant hut in a poor village, I shared the space with the family cow, who kept me awake all night chewing cud. The cow was part of the family, not like a pet but more like an honored guest. The milk didn't need refrigeration because it was fresh in the morning right in the hut.

Cows are still sacred in India at least partly because they are a primary contributor to sustaining life in rural areas. People all over the planet often honor those elements of creation that make life possible and revere them as sacred. 

Sacraments are essential to human wholeness and health. Hindus revere the cow, as they know the contribution it makes to human life and how essential it is to human health and wholeness. And Native Americans in our part of the world revered the bison, from which they gained their livelihood, not only for food and clothing, but for shelter and many other human needs.

In our own culture, even if you don't agree with the politics, one has to admire the position of the Roman Catholic Church on how all life is sacred, from the womb to the tomb. Even though some followers seem a lot more concerned with the unborn than with the murderer on death row or the malnourished in the inner city or the drone victim in Afghanistan, at least the teaching of the church is consistent. All life is sacred.

Occasionally, some may be reminded that bread and wine are basic necessities of life, maybe even reflecting on the deeper meanings of those "sacraments" in the beliefs of the Christian church. But for the most part, our culture doesn't encourage a sacramental world view; rather, it's an exploitative one. 

In a throw-away culture like the one we live in, not much is sacred. A materialistic world view says everything is there to be used for our benefit and disposed of as we see fit, even other people. I'm convinced we desperately need to reclaim philosophical and religious understandings about the sacred! We ignore it at our peril.

I'm especially thinking about the earth and earth elements. We need to reclaim an understanding of the sacredness of Creation. Take water! It's that substance that makes up about 70% of the human body. You would think we might consider it essential to the maintenance of life on the planet, and our life, and therefore treat it with respect; perhaps even consider it "sacred."

Five water articles crossed my desk in rapid succession this past week. The first was about "water wars." The national security establishment in our country is concerned about water resources and has issued a disturbing report. 47% of the world's population will be living in water stressed areas in 2030. Conflicts and environmental refugees are inevitable.

The second article was about how Wall Street and private equity firms are targeting municipal water systems. With tight budgets, some municipalities are turning to privatizing city services, with the end result of higher costs to consumers and greater control of water resources by corporations.

The third article was about the tar balls and oil coated birds turning up on Louisiana shores after Hurricane Isaac. Twelve miles of beach was closed by local authorities and fishing prohibited up to a mile offshore around Elmer's Island, south of New Orleans. It belies all those BP commercials one sees on TV about clean beaches and healthy seafood.

The fourth was about all the nuclear waste the Soviet Union dumped in the Kara Sea, some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and a K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel.

The fifth was about the millions of gallons of water used in hydraulic "fracking" operations to extract natural gas, that are so polluted by toxic substances used in the process they are simply buried underground. Hopefully, the water doesn't leak into aquifers or other clean water sources. The companies say it will remain in its grave forever, never to see the light of day or rain clouds again.

At the rate we're going, without a new perspective on the sacredness of creation, especially the water of life, we'll desperately need to look for some signs of moisture on Mars. 

But let's not agonize. Let's organize. No politician these days, or corporate CEO, or college President, or investor should be able to avoid questions about what's "sacred." Is there anything sacred? And if so, how will our decision makers implement that understanding in the everyday work they do? How can you and I integrate an understanding of the sacred?

Perhaps you and I can begin by drinking a cool glass of water, or washing our face, or watching the rain fall, and giving thanks for a life giving blessing.

Carl Kline

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Old Ironsides and Nonviolence

My heart lifted like a small boat on the swelling sea, as I looked out from the long line of traffic approaching the harbor and suddenly saw her topmasts rising in the distance. We had come with so many others to see “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, make her way to the sea to dance with wind and wave and sail free for only the second time in a hundred and thirty-one years. As a child I had loved going to visit the old war ship. I was enthralled with the sea and sailing, wooden ships with wings of canvas, “tar and timber, plank and sail,” as Maine singer/song-writer, sailor/poet Gordon Bok sings, all a metaphor for life, each of us with the dignity of a tall ship, ever seeking the “star to steer her by.” 

We made our way to the water’s edge along the sea walk at Castle Island. I could look across at Winthrop, the town where I had grown up and sailed from through high school, sailing then across the water and toward the very spot from which I now gazed through these mists of time. I felt awe-struck, filled with boyhood wonder, as I looked through the glasses and saw the old ship’s sails loosed to the breeze. Carried on the same wind that filled the distant sails, a rare sense of camaraderie fluttered among the disparate crowd gathered by the water’s edge. Binoculars were passed from one to another, strangers given a chance to take a look, impromptu history lessons and personal reminiscences freely shared. Tethered again to her tending tugs, the procession hove into the channel to head for home, the grand vessel now seeming so close. With a swing of the wheel and a nudge from the tugs, her bow was turned to face Fort Independence on Castle Island. A carefully choreographed nineteen-gun salute was fired from a forward cannon. With the roar of each charge came a roar from the crowd, a tongue of flame flashing from the muzzle of the gun. 

And then something happened within myself. How could I join with a crowd to cheer the firing of a gun? I had tried to avoid the truth that however old this was a warship, her glory and fame gained in battle and meant to inspire a nation when at war. I imagined the ship two hundred years earlier to the day in her battle with the British frigate Guerriere. It was then she acquired the moniker, “Old Ironsides.” Romance merging into naught, like the downward side of a cresting wave, I closed my eyes and squinted upon the carnage and gore, scarcely able to look, each ship’s decks flowing with blood. I imagined the terror that must have filled many a sailor’s heart, cannons blasting away, not with blank charges in salute. I wondered who the sailors were, how many on the British ship may have been “pressed” into service, drugged or beaten and carried off by a “press gang.” And of the American sailormen, how many wished they were back behind the plow, would this be the way of the nascent nation or a passing cloud, rays of sunlight upon another path soon to be revealed?

There is no escaping when the battle is at sea. And upon the land, though a road may beckon, terrified soldiers have fared no better.  It would seem absurd to imagine soldiers taking leave with their officers’ blessings before the battle begins. Yet this is exactly what happens in an amazing enumeration of battlefield deferments in the Torah portion of that, Parshat Shoftim (Deut. 1-8). Before the ensuing storm, the officers are to call out to the gathered troops, who is the one that has built a new home and not yet dedicated it…; and who has planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit…; and who has betrothed a wife and not yet consummated the marriage…? An ultimate affirmation of life, a greater purpose upon this earth than to kill and be killed, each of these soldiers is to go home, lest he die in battle/pen yamut ba’milchama, and not enjoy these gifts meant to be his. And there is one more who is called upon to go home, the one generally regarded as afraid and fainthearted/ha’yareh v’rach ha’levav. The very same words can be translated quite literally as “of reverent and tender heart.” That they are not translated in this most straightforward way underlines the cultural assumptions of translators that things must be as they always have been. The recruit who is “of reverent and tender heart” is the one who commentators say is as afraid to kill as to be killed. He is the one the officers are most anxious to remove from their midst, lest he melt the heart of his brothers/v’lo yimas et l’vav echav, awakening a spirit of compassion, of horror “before the unsheathed sword.” The tender hearted recruit encapsulates the affirmations of life in each of the preceding exemptions. If we are to build, to plant, to love, then how can we be meant to kill? These questions emerge precisely in the midst of a Torah portion filled with violence. It is in the face of violence, that we are called to challenge violence.

In physical form, a Torah scroll is organic, of the earth and of people, of wood and parchment, of letters finely crafted, a scroll of life. Organic in spirit too, the Torah is its own call to transcend the violence within itself, a challenge gently uttered from the very beginning, when God’s breath hovered upon the face of the waters. A sailing vessel upon the waters is also a symbol of transcendence, pointing to another way. Only when everyone works together, will the ship come home, steering a zigzag course at times, not fighting nature or each other, but learning to cooperate with all. Crafted by human hands and ingenuity, of wood and canvas and rigging made of twisted hemp, an old time vessel is organic, like every human being, sailors all, whether aboard the Constitution or the Guerrier. And when at sea, a symphony of elemental harmony, the way we are meant to be, to work in accord with wind and wave, voices rising in chantey song to work as one, Old Ironsides her own call to all of us to transcend the violence that has been and is within.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein