Tuesday, January 31, 2012

According to Our Worth

Last week I attended a "legislative coffee" in the town where I live. It was an opportunity for dialogue between state legislators and their constituents. Much of the discussion focused on a controversial education bill that would, among other things, introduce merit pay for 20% of the state's teachers, who generally rank among the most poorly paid teachers in the United States. When some citizens argued that all of our teachers need higher salaries than they currently receive, one of my state senators responded, "I believe in the capitalistic view that people should be paid according to their worth."

I was stunned. Surely, I thought, the man hadn't meant to say that. But no, as the fellow rambled on, it became clear that he hadn't misspoken, and I hadn't misheard. From his "capitalistic" point of view, some people are worth more than others as human beings simply because of the work they do.

If anybody else was bothered by our senator's remark, nobody let on. The conversation continued without a ripple. Maybe that's because the senator had espoused something that most Americans have come to accept as natural fact--that the value of a human being can be determined by his or her job. But that isn't a natural fact. It's an ideological belief, one that has been too long dominant in our culture; one that has wreaked incredible violence on the lives of our fellow citizens and on our society at large.

Grace Lee Boggs
Recently I heard an interview with the philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs. Even at the age of 97 years, dependent on a walker to get around, she's trying to reinvigorate poor neighborhoods in Detroit, a city that's on life-support. She's also trying hard to wake Americans up. She urges us to re-imagine "work." It's not, she reminds us, synonymous with a "job."

When work gets reduced to a job, human beings are reduced to laborers and consumers; community is reduced to a mass of individuals; concern for the common good is reduced to preoccupation with self-interest. Real work means far more than having to do whatever we must to make a living, which sometimes feels like selling our soul. We must recover a sense of the dignity and worth of work. If we do that, we'll also recover a sense of the dignity and worth of workers.

Grace Lee Boggs' insistence that we need to re-imagine "work" applies just as well to "the market" and "the economy." We need to envision new ways of helping one another survive and thrive, in community. Alternatives to the prevailing economic model are certainly out there in America, at least on a small scale. Some of them are called "solidarity economies"; others are described as "gift economies." Both types have existed in some form or another, somewhere in the world, for thousands of years. They aim to meet the needs of all members of a community instead of a select few. Instead of being rooted in a "survival of the fittest" mentality that prizes the maximization of profits for private gain, and which does not hesitate to plunder natural resources, these economies are grounded in the values of respect, cooperation, democracy and environmental sustainability.

In both these types of economies, human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Their value is not determined by their labor, but by their very existence. The economy and its various markets (including the labor market) are regarded as tools for the maintenance of the community, rather than the community being regarded as a tool for the maintenance of the economy and its markets. This is a crucial difference. The former affirms and sustains life, the latter commodifies it.

Examples of solidarity economies include community-controlled credit unions, food-buying cooperatives, and community land trusts. Gift economies, which have been especially common among indigenous peoples, focus on the welfare of the collective; they involve resource-sharing based on need. A good illustration of such a gift-based, non-commercial market is a "Really Really Free Market," held weekly or monthly in a public place. Members of the community are welcome to bring to the RRFM things they no longer want or need, and to take away things that they do. Everything is free; nothing bought, nothing sold. Such markets sometimes also offer services like hair-cutting, lawnmowing or oil changes. Food and entertainment may also be available. Every market takes on a life of its own, grown as it is in the soil of its own community. In the video below you can hear a "free marketer" reflecting on his experience in Pasadena, California, just one of dozens of cities around the United States where such markets have emerged.

If I can round up some folks to help me, I'd like to consider starting a free market in the town where I live. Maybe you could get one going where you live, too. From what I can tell, it should be fairly easy for us to do. Basically we just need to find a public space in which to hold the market, set a time to do it, and spread the word.

If we manage to get a Really Really Free Market going here in Brookings, South Dakota, I'll let you know.

Maybe I'll even send a special invitation to my state senator to come and join us, according to his worth.

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

Phyllis Cole Dai

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Truth & Spin

When I was in high school, I sang in our church choir. As a preachers kid, I was generally rebellious about church activities. But I didn't mind the choir because I liked singing, and besides, there was some camaraderie in the group that made it enjoyable. People weren't religiously "stuffy;" in fact, sometimes they were quite irreverent.

One Sunday, sitting in the choir loft, I was actually listening to my father preach. I'm not sure today what he said. I don't remember. What I do remember is that, whatever it was, in my own mind I said, 'that's the Truth!" The word had a capital T.

It wasn't an opinion or a half truth my father uttered but what I recognized at the time as an absolute Truth.

The culture I inhabit these days doesn't have much use for even the small letter truth. Instead of the healing that comes from "speaking the truth in love," we have "spin doctors," who try to heal our sicknesses with the manipulation of language, sometimes with outright lies.

We all stretch, avoid, exaggerate, hide, deny, ignore the truth . Of course, those in the public eye are the most proficient practitioners, as they are likely to be caught in deceptions most frequently. But I do it and I expect you do it as well. As children we learn quickly to tell mom and dad about the bad behavior of our siblings and our own complete innocence. We soon learn some admissions and confessions are better left unspoken. Truth becomes half truth and half truth dissolves into "spin."

Writing in Harijan in 1942, Gandhi, who understood "Truth is God," wrote: "Only Truth quenches untruth. Love quenches anger, self-suffering quenches violence. This eternal rule is a rule not for saints only, but for all. Those who observe it may be few, but they are the salt of the earth; it is they who keep the society live together, not those who sin against Light and Truth."

As he often did in life, so in death, Gandhi challenges everyone to do the hard interior work that makes Truth real in the world. Prayer, or being in touch with Truth, must be a regular and daily activity. Thought, word and deed, all three, must be pure and Truthful. The pursuit of Truth, of necessity, will involve means that are consonant with the ends desired.

In a world of "spin," our dedication to the work of nonviolence will include an adherence to Truth, as best we can discern it.

Carl Kline

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Urinary Irony

Is “irony” the right word? I watched the news reports last week and listened to the outrage of American leaders, civilian and military. The images of young soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters were pervasive for a couple of days.

The often repeated response seemed to be that “the actions of these young men was not consistent with American values.” “They are in a distinct minority.” “Their desecration of the Taliban corpses flew in the face of their military training.” As people at various levels of command, both civilian, and military, sought to explain the heinous act, targets for blame were cited. “The young men were out of control.” “They should have been better supervised by non-commissioned or commissioned officers.”

The irony of the situation struck me. Of course urinating on a dead human body is an unspeakable act. It utterly and violently denies the humanity of the enemy. It is also an act that diminishes the humanity of the person who does it. It is an embarrassment to the USA and to the military and to all the people, civilian and military, who have to work in the war zone. But what I found noticeably absent was any outrage or embarrassment about the killing of human beings in the first place. Clearly, the killing must be consistent with American and military values and clearly, it is within that value system to train those young men to kill in the first place. Watching the news and commentary and responses was another one of those “Alice–falling-down–the–rabbit–hole” kind of experiences. Outrage over the act of expending bodily fluid on the body of a dead enemy - - silence about the act of destroying the life force of another human being. My brain cannot reconcile this.

In a week when we observed the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrated his nonviolent action for social change, it seemed a sad and odd juxtaposition of news stories. King’s preaching was so clear – that violent means will never result in lasting, peaceful and nonviolent ends - - that violence begets violence. The photos that accompanied the news reports surely proved his point beyond a shadow of a doubt. The violence of war dehumanizes us all. From the highest places in the government to the chain of military command to the young members of the military who run amuck without adequate supervision to those of us who continue to pay for it - - the violence of war dehumanizes us all. The great urination is only the latest violent symptom of how disconnected we are from a collective consciousness that recognizes and values human life as sacred.

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”

Vicky Hanjian

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lighting the Way Home

On the shortest day of the year, darkness then descending into the longest night, there is an annual gathering in a church near the Boston Common to remember and to mourn. It is an interfaith memorial service for homeless people who have died in Massachusetts during the past year. Always held on December 21st, words on the cover of the program underscore the symbolic power of the date, “The longest night of the year…, The longest night to be un-housed!”

I have participated in this community of mourners for several years. The immediate mourners, the family of the deceased, are the homeless themselves, gathered in the pews. I have often felt embarrassed here, to be welcomed into this community of the living and the dead. It is not only an embarrassment for what I have, seen in the immediate disparity, for instance, simply in the clothes I wear. I am humbled and embarrassed, rather, for what they have and give to me. There is a deep bond and sense of community among them, a gift freely shared, as powerful as any connection among people I have seen. Unlike in past years, sitting among the mourners this year, amidst the members of this holy congregation, my own tears came in a way they hadn’t in other years.

Among them, I could see their faces now, the intensity of their gaze as they listened to one of their own speak. My eyes kept returning to a man across the aisle from me, his appearance, I’m sure, belying his age. His face was striking, soft and hard at the same time, furrowed lines in weathered skin, graying hair to his shoulders, a bushy beard also streaked with gray, a beard both handsome and scruffy. I watched him as a child began to sing with a voice so haunting, accompanied by his father on piano, a bond so strong. The man across the aisle leaned forward, with shoulders hunched, and began to sob. I turned away as my own eyes welled, so as not to intrude. Later, I learned that his wife had died a year ago, the two of them having lived together on the streets for so long.

I confess that I hadn’t thought before about couples living their married lives upon the streets, without a home, without a bed in which to make love. This was a street poet’s loving lament, tender and biting, the voice of a woman as she looked up toward her husband while reading from her poem, “I Love Being Homeless.” Of a young couple caught in the street’s inexorable grip, with voice choking, Mike, an organizer of the service, told of the couple’s death together only two weeks before. These people his congregation, his holy work among them, in tears he added that fortunately their baby was not with them at the time.

All along the lower edge of the u-shaped balcony that surrounds the simple church, and along the floor at the base of the walls, there are cardboard tombstones, each with a first name and a last initial, unless it is for John or Jane Doe, the homeless and unknown. A man came up to speak, “people call me Shaggy, but my real name is David.” He looked around at all the tombstones and said, “All these people who passed away, a lot of them are my friends.” The names that were upon each cardboard “stone,” so many of David’s friends, were read individually as a candle was lit for each one. By the end, there was an undulating field of light at the front of the sanctuary, the light of so many souls flickering. I too was given a piece of paper with names to read. I felt a special bond with those names, and with the people who were called by them. I kept looking up at the cardboard markers to see if I could find them, Juarez S., Robert C., Gerald F., John N., Lorraine S., Richard S., Leonard M., Jeffery O., James W., the names by which each was welcomed into this world and by which they now were remembered.

God’s candle is the human soul, ner Hashem nishmat adam, and so for each of these, God’s light diminished now in this world, however many candles we would light. Coming during the week of Chanukkah, a time for raising up light, the Torah portion was Parashat Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17). Concerned primarily with the unfolding story in all of its drama of Yosef and his brothers, the portion begins with reference to the final two years of Yosef’s imprisonment: vay’hi miketz shna’tayim yamim/it came to pass at the end of two full years. Looking to the book of Job, the rabbis make a startling connection with this verse that would seem to be but an introduction. Chapter 28 of Job begins with a description of miners going down into the earth, bringing light to guide them in the midst of deep darkness. Speaking of each miner, the text says, keytz sam la’choshech/each one puts an end to darkness. Playing on the words keytz and miketz, both referring to an end in the passing of time, the verse from Job comes to speak to each one of us with its powerful reminder, each one puts an end to darkness.

It is not enough to reach out to the homeless only to mourn. On these long winter nights, it is for each of us to help put an end to darkness, together lighting the way home. From the same church where the memorial service is held, Mike leads people out to find the hidden homeless, those who don’t go to shelters and are wary of contact, bringing socks and hats and gloves to them, hoping their names won’t be upon those cardboard markers next year. Until we bring a more just and equitable society, we need to go out into the night with Mike and bring warmth and caring to those who could freeze to death in the meantime.

Painfully aware that it is not enough to mourn, neither is it enough to meet the immediate needs of the currently un-housed. If we would see the time when everyone has a place to live, it means challenging and changing the nature of a society in which so many are left out in the cold to varying degrees. During the memorial service, a sign was referred to that had been on the medical tent at Occupy Boston, “Let the raid begin, we want to go home….” Giving ironic voice to those in the tent encampment who had nowhere else to go, that sign was also a reminder of how far we have to go until we all come home.

Prefacing my own words of prayer with the hope that our mourning would be a call to action, I offered an adaptation of the Jewish memorial prayer, El Molei Rachamim, chanting first in Hebrew, then reading in English (see below). As it is the miners in the Book of Job, not God, who bring light into the depths of darkness, only we can transform our words of prayer into action and bring the light of a new day, when none shall die for want of such basic human rights as food, clothing, shelter, and health care. When that time comes, we shall again gather on the shortest day of the year, unafraid of the longest night, and celebrate the holy community of the once un-housed.

Memorial Prayer for the Homeless

O God, exalted and full of compassion, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and pure, to the souls of all those whom we remember today, who have gone to their eternal home. Welcome them home, please, with open arms. Show to them the love and acceptance denied to them in life. Knowing that You have given us the resources, help us to create a just society in which everyone has a place to call home. In Your embrace of their souls, please show to them the meaning their lives held for You. Be a mirror, God, in which they may see Your image in their eternal selves. Please forgive us for not seeing Your image in them, and help us to open our eyes to the holiness of every single life. Master of mercy, we beseech You, remember all the worthy and righteous deeds that they performed in the land of the living, deeds of infinite meaning in Your eyes, however small, whether for family and friends, whether on the streets or in shelters, for each other and for others. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life. You are their portion. May they rest in peace. Let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 6, 2012

My New Year's Wish

Well, it's officially 2012. I just wrote the date on my first check of the new year. Doing that took some effort, as it does every January. It's an artificial exercise, turning one year into the next at the command of a calendar, but we make the change without complaint, don't we, and sometimes even with celebration, because by now it's customary around the world to do so. It's as if the Gregorian calendar were natural law rather than the product of a sixteenth-century pope.

The Gregorian calendar is a man-made construct, and harmless enough. In some ways, obviously, it's even helpful. But some constructs--especially ideological ones--are downright fictions in which we regularly participate without much thought, sometimes with grave consequences. This was made clear to me once again over this past holiday season, as I visited with my friends and relatives. As we discussed the many challenges our society now faces, a number of my dear ones stated emphatically why they could not or would not participate in any movement for social change. Their comments fell along four general lines of reasoning:

Reason one: "I'm only one person. I have no power. There's nothing I can do to change things."

Reason two: "The way things are is the the way things have always been and always will be. It does no good to try to change them."

Reason three: "The way things are in the nation at large has nothing to do with me and my life."

Reason four: "If we change the way we're doing things in this country--if we do what's good and right when nobody else in the world is doing the same--other countries will soon surpass us. We'll no longer be number one."

To me, these reasons for disengagement are serious ideological fictions. Behind them lurk despair rather than hope; estrangement rather than interdependence; fear rather than fellow-feeling. Certain powerful forces within our society would prefer to have us regard these fictions as self-evident facts, "givens" to be assumed, just like the Gregorian calendar. Indeed, those powerful forces routinely count on, and daily benefit from, our doing exactly that, even as we and our neighbors--not to mention generations to come--pay an excruciating price for yielding to them more authority than they are due.

I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to pay that price any longer. Not without raising my voice. Not without putting up resistance.

I know full well how tempting such ideological fictions can be, and how seductive can be the voices that espouse them from seats of power and corporate boardrooms, over the airwaves and even from pulpits. I try not to judge my loved ones for choosing to live by them. At the same time, however, I resolve to work shoulder to shoulder with those who would expose these fictions for what they are by proving that another kind of world is possible. I believe in that world, don't you? If our eyes are open, we see signs of it every day.

This year, I'm going to make a New Year's wish: That all of us might take more seriously our place in the scheme of things, and understand more fully the need for change, and own more unreservedly our own capacity for helping to create a more nonviolent society. Let us do so without complaint, and even with celebration, until that far day when the work of loving the world becomes customary--not because someone has commanded us to love, but because it is in our very nature.

Happy new year! Feliz año nuevo! Kul 'am wa antum bikhair! Shanah tovah! Xin nian yu kuai! Bonne année! Ein gutes neues Jahr! Maligayang bagong taon!

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

Deep peace,
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Sunday, January 1, 2012

To Do What is Right and Just

Strangely, or perhaps not, I find two recollections coming to me with this year’s reading of the Torah portion Vayera, a portion so filled with moral struggle and challenge, memories that I don’t recall ever before rising from the mists of time and thought in relation to this Torah portion. They are memories of interactions that occurred in the early years of my rabbinate, at board meetings of my first two congregations, coming to me now in relation to each other for the first time. The first incident took place in my first congregation, at the first board meeting following the death of the rabbi emeritus, who had served the congregation for thirty-five years. It had been an overwhelming experience to officiate at his funeral, the entire community joined with each other as mourners. The primary item on the agenda for that board meeting so soon after the funeral was whether to continue to pay the rabbi’s pension to his widow. I was aghast that this was even a question. The rabbi had never belonged to a rabbinic organization, all of his support along the way and for the future coming through the congregation. At the end of a very painful meeting, the vote was taken. The decision was not to continue making payments to the rabbi’s widow. I am finding that tears still come to my eyes as I recall that moment. I had never felt so angry and ashamed of a community that I was part of, let alone the leader of. With all of the authority that I could muster as a young rabbi, I rose to my feet, my hands trembling on the edge of the table, and with a voice devoid of warmth, I slowly articulated each word, “this is a shandeh!” The Yiddish word for “disgrace” hovered in the air.

The second incident coming to me now in relation to Torah portion Vayera occurred a few years later, now in my second congregation. My active involvement in a campaign to ban American nuclear submarines from training in Canadian waters had become cause for displeasure and discomfort among some in the congregation. At a particular board meeting we discussed the matter. Living on the coast along whose shores the subs passed, I spoke of the dangers posed directly to us, and through training for their use of the danger posed to the entire world by nuclear weapons. I offered words of Torah, passionately explaining the rabbinic understanding of the commandment to seek peace and pursue it, “seek it in your own place and pursue it in another.” Thinking he had found the answer, one member of the board suggested that I speak to the “universality of peace,” and not about specific issues. Saddened and discouraged, I said nothing more.

Each of these incidents is about values lived in the breach. Each case represents a knowing of what is right, of the ultimate value that is at play, and of not doing it or giving it heed. I have no question that each board member who voted to cut off the rabbi’s pension payments to his widow knew that it was wrong. While one may differ in regard to the politics of the second incident, I also believe that the board member who suggested speaking to the “universality of peace,” knew the emptiness of such an approach. Living in the moment in accord with ultimate values is how we fill life with meaning.

The Torah portion Vayera is filled with teaching and drama. With this year’s reading, I have come to see that one of it’s teachings is of the dissonance that inheres in the breach between knowing what is right and doing what is right. At the outset of the portion, we learn of two commandments, the visiting of the sick and the welcoming of guests, each meant to be an expression of kindness. Three strangers appear to Abraham, messengers of God, angels representing the Holy One. As God speaks directly then to Abraham, convalescing following his circumcision, Abraham has the chutzpah to in effect tell God to please wait while he looks to the needs of his guests. From this, the rabbis teach that it is “greater to welcome guests than to receive the presence of the Sh’china,” underscoring that human needs take precedence, or that serving people is indeed to serve God. The Slonimer Rebbe here cites the words of Psalm 89, olam chesed yibaneh/the world is built on kindness, to which he adds, the essence of the world’s creation is the attribute of love…, the entire sequence of the creation of the world and its sustenance as it continues through the generations is through the attribute of love. Abraham comes to be associated in Jewish tradition with loving-kindness.

How painful then to see the failure even of our father Abraham, his disconnect between knowing and doing what is right, of values lived in the breach. From his sublime expressions of kindness at the outset of the portion we are stunned at what appear to be such lapses in events that follow. Where is the kindness we wonder as Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister to Avimelech, king of Gerar, into whose harem she is taken. Where is the kindness when Hagar and Yishma’el are sent out into the desert? And where is the kindness when Isaac is bound upon the altar? If these represent breaches, it is in his argument on behalf of the innocent who may reside among the evil ones of Sodom and G’morrah that Abraham rises to the ideals he represents. Knowing that he too can fail, as so often do we his descendents, there is even greater power when both he and we respond to God’s greatest hope.

Prior to the destruction of the two cities, most pointedly due to the violence shown to strangers, the welcoming of guests made a capital crime, God determines to tell Abraham of the destruction to come, in order that he shall command his children and his household after him that they shall keep the way of God, to do justice and righteousness/la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat. We are those children, called to keep the way of God, not to live values in the breach, but in all ways and moments of life to do what is right and just.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein