Saturday, May 26, 2012


"Whenever there is distress which one cannot remove,
one must fast and pray."
(Mahatma Gandhi, Young India: Sept. 25, 1924)

As a friend and I were talking recently, we imagined a map of the planet with all of those places destroyed (like the area around Chernobyl or the oil polluted lands left in Ecuador by Chevron), and all of those places damaged (like the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill or the lands and waters damaged from the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima), and all of the planet threatened by exploitation and plunder (like the tar sands oil fields in Canada and the Keystone XL pipeline planned through our state of South Dakota). We recognized in a new way how the earth is being ravaged and all life is increasingly in jeopardy.

The engines of this destruction are many and powerful, including our own participation in a culture of materialism and waste. Many see this destruction and the forces arrayed to perpetuate it and resign themselves in despair and silence.

But we need not be silent, nor need we despair. We can engage in an age old practice used by every religious tradition in times of spiritual need, the fast. It is a discipline for purifying the self and calling the society to its best behavior, in order to avert the harsh judgment of God (known to us in our time as the reality of climate change and the poisoning of earth elements like air, water and soil). Fasting is a practice a few South Dakota Native activists engaged in recently, in opposition to the XL pipeline and in kinship with a suffering earth. We can follow in their footsteps.

Some of us in Brookings, South Dakota, are calling for a "Fast for the Earth," beginning August 1, 2012. Most spiritual traditions recognize the role fasting can play in increasing human insight into our relationships with each other and the world around us.

For Jews, one might consider how Moses fasted twice, for 40 days, that the Hebrew people might be able to understand and follow the way of Yahweh. Or how both Joel and Jonah called for fasting in order to avert the judgment of God.

For Christians, there are indications in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament that fasting was an accepted practice for strengthening one's spirit and commitment to spiritual values. Jesus, like Moses, also fasted for 40 days and resisted the principalities and powers with all of their temptations.

For Muslims, this "Fast for the Earth" will be occurring during the month of Ramadan. In Islam, all of the faithful fast from sunup to sundown. It's not only a physical discipline but a mental and spiritual one as well.

For Buddhists, one might consider the teaching of the Buddha to avoid eating after the noon meal for health and well being. One is prepared by fasting to exercise self control and increase compassion.

For Hindus there is a long history of fasting on special holy days; and often weekly on one day of the week.

Perhaps the person who is most able to speak a word about fasting to our contemporary personal and social concerns and condition is Mahatma Gandhi. He was able to incorporate fasting into his life in such a way that it communicated both interior and exterior change and growth. Listen to some of his thoughts on the subject.

"No matter from what motive you are fasting, during this precious time think of your Maker, and of your relation to Him and His other creation, and you will make discoveries you may not have even dreamed of." (Young India: Dec.17, 1925)

"There is nothing so powerful as fasting and prayer that would give us the requisite discipline, spirit of self-sacrifice, humility and resoluteness of will without which there can be no progress." (Young India: March 31, 1920)

"If a Satyagrahi once undertakes a fast from conviction, he must stick to his resolve whether there is a chance of his action bearing fruit or not. He who fasts in the expectation of fruit generally fails. And even if he does not seemingly fail, loses all the inner joy which a true fast holds. (Harijan: May 21, 1938)

Coupled with a prayerful concern for the healing of the earth, fasting can strengthen us to resist the principalities and powers that close our eyes, seal our lips and harden our hearts to the devastation going on around us. Join the "Fast for the Earth" for as long as you are able, as often as you are able.

Carl Kline

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Listen to Children

A few days ago, I sat and listened while my 12 year old granddaughter, Ellie, read to me from a project she was working on for her Language Arts class. She is studying about the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. The assignment was to take on the persona of one of the figures in the Greek pantheon and to write a campaign speech as a candidate for election to the position of “top god” vacated by Zeus’s demise.

I listened with pride and amusement as she used both her research material and her sense of humor and her sweet intelligence to construct her campaign speech. But it wasn’t until a day or two later that I really heard what she had to say.

Her paper began, “Hello, my name is Asclepius, son of Apollo and Coronis – the Godlike healer of mortal illness.” Her campaign platform was built on her ability to heal. She wrote “I am very intelligent, and with times like these, brains like these will come in handy. I am also generous. I don’t use my powers for only myself and the people I am fond of. Anyone can access me at the Asclepion in Athens. People go there if they are sick so that I can heal them or give advice. I am also very responsible. My people will always be able to rely on me to heal the weak and diseased.”

I wondered if, given a choice, the collective human consciousness might embrace “the gods” of healing and reconciliation and intelligence and generosity and accessibility and responsibility when it comes to generating and choosing leadership. I wondered if we might be willing to forgo the gods of wealth and power, of weaponry and war, if our consciousness could make the leap from the power to oppress to the power to heal.

Given the choice of gods to engage for her project, Ellie made the leap. Rather than choosing the potentially destructive power of an Aries or a Cyclops or a Medusa, she chose the power of Asclepius to heal, to responsibly attend to the needs of the people with integrity and generosity. Her campaign promises were to alleviate chaos, to create vaccines to prevent illness, to teach children her knowledge of medicine so that their knowledge, in turn, would grow and have an impact on the planet.

Our children carry within them visions of wholeness and healing. They carry the same dreams we adults carry – albeit ours are in a somewhat weakened and tarnished condition. They are here to remind us of what the human endeavor might create.

After reading Ellie’s paper, I began to wonder what the world would look like if our educational curricula routinely offered our children required courses in mediation and conflict resolution, if we taught philosophies of healing and forgiveness alongside our constant history of conflict and destruction.

Ever since my grandchildren have lived near me, I have had a bumper sticker affixed to my mirror that reads “Listen To Children”
a reminder that they are often closer to holy wisdom in the service of life than the rest of us are. We need to listen to children because the children are over-hearing us. Perhaps by listening to them more carefully, we might all grow up together.

(Credits: “Asclepius” by Ellie Hanjian, for her 7th Grade Language Arts assignment)

Vicky Hanjian

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reaching Out & Drawing Near

A time of much reflection, feeling the depth of human connection, the sting of separation more sharply, hope and worry for our little one, the nature of the world and of people in relation to each other, so many thoughts turning in every moment of pause during our visit to Los Angeles to welcome our new grandson. Mieke and I stayed in a small, very simple European style pension, seemingly out of place in LA. A reasonable walk to our kids and to a nearby synagogue, it was not the mezuzah on the front door or the included kosher breakfast that had initially drawn us. There came to be the pleasantness, the warmth of something familiar, though, as we sat each morning over an Israeli style breakfast of chopped tomato and cucumber with cottage cheese and hardboiled eggs. On the morning of our last day, we came wistfully into the dining room, sitting down in a corner by a window that looked out onto a narrow courtyard. Only a few feet away through the closed window there was a glass-topped table with a green umbrella spread over it, outdoor furniture speaking of warmer weather than the unseasonable cool and gray of a May morning in southern California.

A teaching of connection played out before us, or in the distance bridged, perhaps it was for us. Sitting at the far side of the glass-topped table, so that he was facing us, was a traditionally garbed Chassidic Jew wearing a black silk caftan and a black, wide-brimmed hat. His face was framed by a long, bushy red beard, and rope-like side-curls. His eyes danced from behind the lenses of large wire rim glasses. Sitting nearest to the window with his back toward us, was a man of unkempt brown hair. He was bare headed and held a cigarette between his fingers, raising it occasionally to his mouth, a puff of smoke rising to the dome of the umbrella. It was clear that he was a secular Israeli, both from his manner and from the occasionally audible words of Hebrew spoken between the two men. On the glass-topped table there was a cell phone, a small brief case, a blue package of Bugle cigarette tobacco, and a sefer kodesh, a holy book. As it faced me, I could just make out the name of the book on its spine, Sefer B’nei Yosef/the Book of the Children of Yosef

It was an animated conversation, either man alternately raising his arms, holding them up wide, expansive, to make a point. Each was clearly of expansive heart, embracing the other from his own place and way of being. A word floated through the glass from time to time, feather-like, alighting on the table where we sat on the inside, though it came to seem that it was really we who were on the outside. From the Chassid I heard such words as, doresh/seek and makor/source. From my Bar Mitzvah chanting so long ago, the question came to me as asked by the prophet Micah, mah HaShem doresh mimcha/what does God seek of you? I thought of Torah and of God as makor mayim Chayim/the Source of Living Waters. From the other man I could hear an entire question: mah ha’olam ha’ba/what is the world that is coming? Alas, I could not hear the answer.

Opening the book, the Chassid pointed with his finger, unconcerned that the other was bare headed. He brought to mind and gave substance to one of my favorite Chassidic teachings, a sermon of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sadilikov was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, and an uncle of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. It is a teaching of great warmth concerning the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe, of whom the title of the book on the table clearly referred. When Joseph brings the two boys to receive his father’s blessing as he lies on his deathbed, Jacob does not recognize his grandchildren. Having been raised far from Jewish life, they appeared to him as Egyptian royalty. As the poignant story unfolds in the Torah, Jacob asks, mi eleh/who are these? Realizing they are his own, however distant, Jacob drew them near and kissed them and hugged them. On these words, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim says, v’zivug rucha b’rucha/he joined with them spirit to spirit. Through the title of the book on the table and the sharing witnessed beyond the glass, I thought too of Rebbe Nachman’s teaching that grew out of his own respectful encounters with free thinkers and non-believers, every way of wisdom that is in the world has its own special song and tune/yesh la zemer v’nigun m’yuchad

I thought then of how it all came together and illustrated the best understanding of a very familiar verse in this week’s Torah portion, a double portion, Parashat Acharei Mot-K’doshim. Culminating a lengthy series of teachings that bear on human relationships are the words, v’ahavta l’rey’ahca kamocha/and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19-18). Remarkably, the beauty of these words is easily abused, understood narrowly by some teachers and commentators. The great Maimonides understood love of neighbor so narrowly as to refer only to another observant Jew. Presumably for its expansive nature, Rabbi Akiva called this verse the great principle of the Torah. Concerned for the possibility of a narrow understanding of neighbor, Ben Azzai countered that a greater principle of Torah is found in the seemingly obscure verse in Genesis (5:1), zeh sefer toldot adam/this is the book of the generations of Adam. Clearly a reference to all humanity, this verse cannot be misunderstood. 

In the scene that unfolded before us, and so clearly for us, beyond the glass so near, it was a Chassidic tale in real time. In the embrace of two Jews so different from each other, the best understanding of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. And if we can learn to love each other beginning with those nearest to us, however far, so too the teaching of Ben Azzai, we shall write the book of the generations of Adam, the story of all humanity. Approaching the hour of separation from the new little one in our lives, it was a gift that came to soothe our souls that morning. It was a teaching of wholeness, of reaching out beyond whatever the distance might be, of time and space and ways of being in the world, reaching out and drawing near, to kiss and embrace.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is Democracy for Sale?

I have been invited to participate in a panel designed to examine the above question. I am looking forward to the discussion. The following is a draft of what I intend to say in the 10 minutes allotted to me.

The Koch Brothers
David C. Korten writes on the first page of The Post-Corporate World (co-published by Kumarian Press, Inc. and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1999), “under capitalism democracy is for sale to the highest bidder.” Many, if not most of us, would agree. Billionaires and large corporations spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections at every level and they send armies of lobbyists to state houses and to Washington to “assist” in writing legislation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come under heavy criticism recently for what many consider nefarious political dealings. But the Koch brothers, who present themselves to the public as proponents of democracy, have said they will stand with the heretofore relatively secretive ALEC. Members of my state legislature who are identified as members of ALEC have likewise refused to publicly disassociate themselves from ALEC when asked to do so. Instead they seem to be asking, “What’s the problem?”

While there are many ways that a person could reply to that question, let me offer two. First, I think that the legal status of corporate personhood—which is a cornerstone of personal and corporate wealth and power—is dubious. In the case of Munn v. Illinois (1877), the U. S. Supreme Court said in effect that a private company making money from the public is subject to public regulation. Nine years later, in the case of Southern Pacific Railroad v. Santa Clara County (1886), the Court reversed itself and said that corporations are persons entitled to all the rights, privileges and protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Thom Hartmann reports in Unequal Protection: the Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (Rodale, 2002) that before the trial began, the Chief Justice simply informed the attorneys that in the opinion of the Court corporations are persons. The remark was written into the official Court record and the deed was done. Corporations became persons by judicial fiat. The personhood of corporations rests on a weak foundation, even though it is supported by more than a century of case law. Today there is a movement to amend the Constitution and declare definitively that corporations are not human beings entitled to the same rights, privileges and legal protects of mortals. This will be a long and hard fought battle, which, if won, will do little to stem the flood of money poured into politics by billionaires. Still I think it’s a fight worth having and a victory worth winning.

Second, I think we're not taking responsibility to exercise our rights as citizens of a democracy. To take responsibility, there are at least four steps that we can take today that will change our conversation about the future of democracy in the United States.

To begin, we must stop blaming unions and start supporting them. I do not pretend that unions are without fault. But I do contend that we will not preserve democracy without strong unions. Unions have been at the forefront of the struggle against rising corporate and unchecked personal financial power for 150 years. President Obama’s “favorite theologian” Reinhold Niebuhr, a founder of the school of political realism, said democracy depends on strong unions that can balance the power of strong corporations. On this score I fully agree with him.

Next, we must create new ways to frame the conversation about wealth and poverty. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has offered the constructive proposal that we establish a “Greed Line” to balance the “Poverty Line.” The Greed Line is created by a matrix of income derived from non-wage sources, property holdings, and a cluster of other factors. The WCC also published Alternative Globalization Addressing Peoples and Earth (2006). It is a valuable study guide that raises many critical issues in readily understandable ways. Reframing the conversation is absolutely necessary if we are to preserve democracy.

Another thing we can do is show greater respect for the rights of indigenous people, among others. The United Nations Commission on Human Development is doing important work on human rights. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is a somewhat controversial document because it does not accurately and fully embody the views of native people. But it does remind us that indigenous people have rights, and if we are serious about preserving democracy, the voice of American Indians must become a welcome and respected part of the conversation. As I write this, the morning news carried a story about the vast amount of alcohol the Anhauser-Busch Company is selling to members of the Pine Ridge Reservation without regard for the prohibition passed by the tribal council. As a result, one-fourth of the babies born on the Reservation will have fetal-alcohol syndrome. The level of alcohol-induced death and violence on the Reservation will not decrease as long as corporate profits are valued more than people’s lives and well-being. 

Finally, we must change the way we think about the economy. Economist Amartya Sen argues in On Ethics and Economics (Blackwell, 1987) that a market economy separates ethics and economics to the detriment of both. In a later book, Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up (The New Press, 2010), coauthored by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, the authors propose a value-based way to measure the performance of the economy. The true measure of the health of the economy is not only the bottom line; it must also be the welfare of the people and the health of the environment.

Is democracy for sale? Today we must conclude that to a great extent it is, but it need not remain so. The human, social and environmental cost is simply too high. 

Rev. David Hansen, Ph. D.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I Beg to Differ

Note: This is a "letter to the editor" that I submitted this week to two South Dakota newspapers following a "United for Women" March and Rally, held last Saturday here in Brookings, the small city in South Dakota where I reside. The letter was my public response to recent comments made by our state's lone representative to the U.S. House of Representatives, Kristi Noem. Though prompted by events in South Dakota, it may be equally germane within your own community, well beyond this isolated town in the upper plains.

On Wednesday, April 25, South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem called concerns for women’s rights a “sideshow” and chastised her constituents for “wasting” their time in standing up for them (Sioux Falls Argus Leader). This was only two days after I had sent her office a news release about Brookings’ upcoming “United for Women” march and rally, held this past Saturday. Part of a national day of rallies for women’s rights, our Brookings event focused on the right to (1) accessible and affordable health care, including contraceptive and reproductive services; (2) to equal pay; and (3) to freedom from violence, in public and in the home.

Perhaps the timing of our good Representative’s remarks, coming as they did on the heels of our rally announcement, was simply coincidence. Nevertheless, as only one of her constituents who turned out for the Brookings rally on a dreary day with fire in my belly, I respectfully disagree with her notion that our concerns are but a “sideshow.” Women in America are seeing a major erosion of their rights. To offer just a few examples:

Due to new state laws passed in record numbers around the country, many of us will be experiencing major limits on our contraceptive and reproductive choices. In some states we will even have to ask our employers to cover our birth-control pills (men, meanwhile, will not have to ask their employers for Viagra coverage).

Women with low incomes are now in danger of losing vital health services funded through the Title X Family Planning Program, which some politicians are threatening to eliminate. Title X does not fund abortions. It does fund gynecological exams, contraceptive services, pre- and post-natal care, screening for breast and cervical cancers, and much, much more. All of these services will be gone if certain politicians have their way.

Women are at risk of not having the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized by Congress—this, despite the fact that the law has been incredibly successful, helping to reduce the rate of non-fatal domestic violence against women by 63% since its passage in 1994.

Women are paid much less than our male coworkers for doing the same jobs. And now we’re seeing rollbacks in “equal pay” gains that had been made in some states—for instance, Governor Walker recently repealed Wisconsin’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, saying it “clogs the courts” with lawsuits.

In addition to experiencing such erosion of their rights, women in the middle and lower classes will suffer, as will their families, if we allow Congress to pass more unfair austerity measures. Such measures decrease government spending for social programs, education, roads and bridges, and other essentials that a vibrant society needs, while at the same time we continue to pour money into endless wars and to reduce the amount of taxes upon the wealthiest among us. Our nation’s burdens are gradually being shifted to our most vulnerable citizens. I believe that those burdens should be fairly distributed among us all, according to our ability to shoulder them.

I would point out to my sister Kristi that according to various studies, South Dakota currently ranks (with #1 being the “best” among the states):

#7 in the size of the pay gap between women and men
#29 in the rate of teen births
#30 in basic health care for women
#39 in overall quality of life for women
#42 in the rate of women murdered by men
#44 in efforts to help women avoid unintended pregnancy
#45 in the number of women serving in political office
#50 in the percent of businesses run by women

…shall I go on? Obviously we have some significant work to do in this state in support of half its citizens.

What benefits women ends up benefiting us all. That has been proven over and over again, in this country and around the globe. Am I wasting my time standing up for women’s rights here in South Dakota? No. I’m investing it. For the sake of my family, my community, my state, my nation, my world. And I’m far from alone in making that investment.

What you call a sideshow, my dear Kristi, is one of the main events. You’ve got a ticket, and there will always be room for you in the tent. Come on in!

Phyllis Cole-Dai