Sunday, October 28, 2012

Knotty Problems

In a recent fit of domesticity, I decided to take up knitting again after many ill- fated attempts and unfinished projects.  I wasn’t far into the process when I managed to get the yarn amazingly snarled as I tried to turn a neatly wrapped skein into a useable ball for knitting.  The skein was the kind where the yarn pulls out from the center.  As I pulled and pulled to make my knitting ball, I kept getting complex knots and snarls.  (The knitters out there will recognize that I am ever an inept beginner!!)

I was bemoaning a particularly nasty snarl to a friend - - begrudging the time it was taking me to straighten it out so I could begin knitting.  Ever helpful, she laughed and said, “you have what I would call a Gordian Knot!”   I confess I had to look it up to see exactly what she was referring to: 1) Gordian Knot – a knot supposed to have been tied by Gordius, a legendary king of Phrygia, and declared by an oracle to be capable of being undone only by the man who should rule Asia.  Alexander the Great cut the knot in two with a sword. 2) Any difficulty that can only be solved by drastic measures.

As I was about to get the scissors to cut out the knot so I could proceed with getting the yarn wound into a ball, my friend said “What you need is a “fid”.

OK.  So two new bits of learning in one afternoon.  “And exactly what is a fid?”

It turns out that a fid is a nautical tool - a large tapering pin used for opening up the strands of a rope when splicing it.  The tapered end can also be used to loosen a knot in a rope in order to help untangle it.  A few days later, while sorting some inherited odds and ends from a long deceased great aunt (who tried patiently to teach me to knit when I was a child) I found a knitting equivalent of a fid - - a small ivory implement, tapered at one end, that I could slip easily and effortlessly into the most intractable snarl and begin to loosen it.  

Alexander did the expedient.  He slashed the knot and won the prize of empire. He cut the Gordian knot.  In my mind’s eye I see all the loose, severed ends of connection in the strands that formed that knot.  The integrity of the knot itself was destroyed and the remaining strands were made useless.

I was not willing to sacrifice that much yarn in the service of a speedy fix.  The fid seemed a more fitting solution.  As I pondered the images of knots and fids, the “fid” suddenly became a reasonable metaphor for nonviolent problem solving.  I wondered about our ability to become human “fids” – who can enter intractable issues from the perspective of inserting calm wisdom and compassionate understanding into heated and snarled interactions in the service of nonviolent resolution.  

It takes longer and requires more patience to be a fid than it does to attack a snarled knot with scissors or sword, but in the end, when the fid has been the instrument of the unsnarling, we might end up with a really useful and whole rope or skein of yarn rather than a lot of useless frayed ends that serve no lasting purpose at the end of the day.

As I have observed and listened to the heated political discourse leading up to the presidential elections, I keep looking at the issues and the candidates and I keep watching and hoping for the “fid”.

Vicky Hanjian

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making a Living and Making a Killing

It's difficult these days for lots of people to make a living. It's worse today than it was for us baby boomers. My generation was told to expect a future filled with leisure time. With all the advances in technology and the growth of the economy, we were led to believe people would work less than forty hours a week. Many of us would share jobs. Husband and wife would share parenting. We anticipated machines doing mundane things people used to do. We envisioned ourselves enjoying three day week-ends, every week-end; at the beach, in the mountains, practicing leisure. Go back to those issues of Newsweek and Time in the fifties and sixties and read again what we were promised.

It hasn't happened! Now both husband and wife work full time jobs. If there are children, their lives are a constant series of programmed events to prepare them to be productive and competitive in the future. Parents spend any free time in the car, delivering their charges to this sporting event and that club meeting. Family dinner time has disappeared to the fast food industry. And if one is successful in gathering everyone together at one time,  in one place, to do something together as a family, someone usually disengages or wants to disengage into a virtual world. Would-be citizens find little time to think, let  alone be current with the significant social and political challenges of the day. It's as if some invisible hand has structured an economic and political framework to keep us so busy we will remain ignorant and apathetic. This is what I call the American Dream, turned nightmare.

In response to this nightmare, many turn from making a living to attempting making a killing. The growth in state run lotteries continues unabated. Iowa has recently initiated an effort to steal state casino revenue from out of South Dakota. There were those who wanted to build a casino right across the state line to compete. Others prefer to play the stock market. Still others wait for big oil or big boxes or big developers or big government to purchase their property so they can retire in comfort to a world of leisure. Physical labor has been replaced by the gym, except for the few, usually the immigrant or undocumented.

Why are the gambling ventures so successful? Because everyone would like to make a killing, especially those who find it more and more difficult to make a meaningful living. Who wouldn't like to join the "Rich and the Famous," with their millions of dollars in mansions and private jets? Who wouldn't like to be part of that one percent of the population who own as much wealth in this country as the lower ninety percent? Those folks are making a killing! They don't have to make a living!

The problem with making a killing is it does just that. Someone suffers the consequences. Oil barons get rich while the poor in Ecuador get an environmental disaster. Or consider the fishermen laid low in the Gulf, with diminished opportunity and new found illness, the result of a bloated bottom line at BP. Banks get rich on packaged mortgages and thousands lose  their homes. Or how about the people losing self respect, marriages and savings accounts to the "gaming" industry?

That's not to say that one can't be wealthy and be making a living. Making a living is expansive. It's not just working so your family can have the basics. Making a living recognizes the finite nature of the universe and of oneself. It's about moving beyond the walls of home and increasing the living-ness of one's community and beyond. Making a living is about life, not killing. It's about building the bonds that unite people in common endeavors rather than separate them into warring classes.

In the U.S., I worry we are on the verge of class warfare. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown exponentially. The statistics have become extreme. There are serious racial and ethnic dimensions to the crisis. The gap between family incomes of whites and African Americans has almost doubled. The focus among decision makers continues to be on growth and further accumulation for the "haves," rather than on sustainability for the "have nots." We live in a culture where our attention is focused on the wealthiest while ignoring the poorest, a costly choice for all of us in the long run. 

As a people, if we are to avoid the consequences of making a killing, we will need to return to the collective value of making a living. It's a choice we are already faced with daily, in so many ways. The heritage of humanity, that promises a future for our children and grandchildren, is not the survival of the fittest but the cooperation of the commons.

Carl Kline

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Have the Adults Left the Room?

The Reverend Anton Jacobs, a good friend, recently wrote an article which he titled, “Tis the Season to be Outspoken.” In the article he wonders if perhaps we in the U.S. are not suffering from what he calls “cultural pollution.” He asks, “Have we so filled the air and our minds with lethal doses of vitriol that we have lost the capacity to think critically?” To paraphrase a prominent politician who has contributed his share to the verbal smog, “Have the adults left the room?” We seem to have reduced everything to a sports metaphor and made it all a game of winning and losing. Success is measured by ratings, opinion polls and money.

In this hectic U.S. political season words become missiles flying fast and furious with little regard for their accuracy and even less concern for so-called collateral damage. One vituperative barrage simply invites another as people compete for airtime, media attention and money. The exchange escalates as political candidates and their surrogates search for new and more compelling ways to sharpen their attacks and raise record amounts of money. The money does not “buy” votes. There is no quid pro quo. When politicians claim that their votes are not for sale, I believe them. They are voting their conscience. But that does not mean that money does not buy access and influence. It does. Politicians know what their major donors think about issues and they are sensitive to donor concerns when it comes to writing legislation. When it is time to cast their vote the politician votes his or her conscience, which has been formed and informed by what other people who know the issues and who are well- known say about it.

While I was thinking about the power of money in politics I found myself reflecting on a question that Chris Hayes posed on his Sunday morning television program, “Up with Chris Hayes.” On October 14, 2012, Hayes asked, “If money is speech when does free speech become coercive speech, and how can we tell the difference between them?” That is an important question, which he elaborated on with a series of follow up questions. Suppose the boss tells the people who work for him which candidate he favors in the upcoming election and he encourages them to vote the same way? Is that free speech? Suppose he tells them that their future employment hangs on the outcome of the election? Has he crossed the line? Suppose he tells them that they must put their personal feelings aside and take the day off, without pay, and pose in a campaign commercial for the candidate he is supporting? The workers are told that attendance is mandatory and it will be taken. Is this free speech?

All of these hypothetical situations actually happened and Hayes documented each of them. The last scenario referenced a Mitt Romney commercial that featured blue collar union members who were obligated to pose for the picture with the candidate. Romney did not object. In fact he is smiling in the commercial. Which leads me back to the beginning, “Have we lost our ability to think critically?” Have the adults left the room?

When the cultural is so polluted by money and its coercive power what are we to do? My suggestion is that it is time to open the windows and doors and invite the adults back into the room. The Church Fathers (sorry, but the major writers whose work has come to us from this period were men) knew how to think critically and speak prophetically. From the second to the fourth centuries they wrestled with the problem of private wealth and its coercive power in the public square. They did not object to private wealth or condemn it. But they did insist that those who had such wealth bore a special responsibility; they had a moral and civic obligation to respect the human dignity and value the equal worth of others. More than privilege, wealth meant public responsibility and public accountability. These great scholars developed what one contemporary writer calls “a theistic ethic of ownership.” Ambrose, who became Bishop of Milan around 370 C.E., exemplified this ethic when he wrote, “Just as idolatry endeavors to deprive the one God of his glory, so also avarice extends itself into the things of God, so that, were it possible, it would lay claim to his creatures as exclusively its own—the creatures that he has made common to all.” (Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, Orbis Books, 1983, 78). 

With the passage of time the theistic ethic of ownership proclaimed by Bishop Ambrose and other spiritual guides of the Patristic Period was either forgotten or it became what Avila calls “an uncrucifiable generality.” In today’s culture of winners and losers it is one of the church’s best kept secrets; but it need not remain so.

David Hansen

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflctions on a Visit of Father Roy Bourgeois'

We all need people who give us inspiration. We need people that we regard as spiritual pioneers or exemplary figures and to whom we can look now and again for signs of hope. For me Father Roy Bourgeois is one of these people. 

Over the years I have admired him for his strong stand against the School of the Americas (SOA), which is also known as the School of the Assassins and which the U.S. government euphemistically renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operations. For the past twenty-two years Fr. Roy has witnessed against this school’s betrayal of our nation’s ideals and core values. Thousands of people join him every November and stand at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, where the SOA is housed. They engage in study, sing songs, share prayers, walk in a funeral procession carrying coffins representing those who have been murdered, and some get arrested. They publically call out the names of the children, women and men in Latin America who have been slain by graduates of this school, and as each name is spoken the people answer “presente.” And they demand that the school be closed.

On November 16-18, 2012, the School of Americas Watch (SOAW) and its friends will be there again singing, praying and carrying crosses and coffins as they recite the names of people who have been killed by SOA graduates.

When I learned that the Wichita Peace and Justice Center was sponsoring Fr. Roy’s visit to our community I started anticipating this chance to meet him. He was here for three days in September to talk with college students, peace activists and the editorial board of our local newspaper. He attended a reception held at a Mennonite Church and he gave a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Church, which is where I heard him. His story is well known, but it is worth retelling and updating. 

Father Roy became involved in issues surrounding U.S. policy in El Salvador in 1980 after four U.S. churchwomen were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers, at least two of whom were SOA graduates. Two of the women were his friends. Ten years later he founded the School of the Americas Watch. What we know about the SOA is largely due to Fr. Roy, the work of SOAW, SOAW teams in Latin America, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Every year the school trains 1,200 soldiers, high ranking military officers and political leaders from Latin American countries. Students are schooled in counter-insurgency, interrogation, extradition, torture, extra-judicial killing, murder and repression. SOA graduates are responsible for thousands of deaths in their own countries. They conduct their acts of terror and murder in our name. We the people spend $30 million annually to support this school. We pay all of the expenses of students who attend it.  School officials deny culpability for the deeds of school alumni and contend that “No school should be held accountable for the actions of its graduates.” 

Enlightened Latin American leaders are not so facile with the facts. They are distancing themselves from the SOA. Since 2006, the following six nations have withdrawn from SOA and no longer send military or police personnel to it: Uruguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and, most recently, Venezuela. It is reasonable to think that each government made this decision in spite of pressure from the U.S. government urging them to continue to support the school. 

In the U.S. Congress a bill to abolish SOA was introduced in the House Armed Services Committee in 2005. It had 135 co-sponsors. Two years later, in 2007, Representative James McGovern (MA) introduced another bill to defund the school. That bill failed by six votes. In September of this year Fr. Roy and a SOAW delegation met with a top White House official to discuss the future of SOA. One can hope that the discussion will strengthen the drive to close the school.

A delegation from our community will be going to Fort Benning this November 16-18. Because of commitments that I have made it is unlikely that I will be able to make the trip this year. If I do not go, I will work with others in the community to sponsor a local event to coincide with the SOAW witness in Georgia. I would like to encourage you to do the same.

David Hansen

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shock Absorbers

At about noon on the day following Yom Kippur I received a phone call from my former boss, the executive director of our local Hospice.   “May I pull you out of retirement for an emergency?”  A young child, an 18 month old little girl, had been brought into the emergency room. She had been found dead, lying on the living room floor of her home as her father slept in an upstairs bedroom.

When I received the call, about 30 family members and friends had already gathered at the hospital to support the two estranged young parents, various step-siblings, grand-parents and great-grandparents.  Shock, confusion, fear and disbelief filled the ER.  The hospital staff responded as compassionately and efficiently as they were able to do under the circumstances -  - the head nurse, nose red and eyes swollen from crying, the nurse manager – wide-eyed and stoic – responsible for holding her staff together, the child’s pediatrician – helpless in the face of this sudden death – all in shock while trying to do their jobs.  There were several young policemen, charged with investigating  the cause of death - - one of them having to leave until he could get control of his emotions – all of them, fathers of young children; and there was the on-call chaplain, visibly shaken, recognizing that nothing in all his years of training prepared him for what was happening.

We, a hastily gathered hospice response team of three, made our way to the ER. We wondered among ourselves “what on earth will we be able to do in the face of this overwhelming tragedy?”

As the early afternoon unfolded, the best we could do was to be present to the community of family members, hospital staff, police, - and to each other.  Within minutes of the ambulance’s arrival at the hospital, the word had spread.  There were few details –but the emotional shock colored every face. It was visible in the way normally effervescent energy became subdued wherever I turned.  When in the presence of the enormity of the death of a young child, there are no words.  Only listening will suffice and, perhaps, the willingness to absorb some of the shock of those most immediately affected.

For an hour or so, we wove our way among the gathered family and friends in that heavily descended cloud of grief – having to be acutely conscious that no words of comfort could be heard.  Truly, all our collective training could not prepare us for that time in that emergency room.  So – we embraced, we cried, we listened – and in the process, we absorbed some of the shock in order to help others to bear it.

In time, as the first wave of reality set in, the family gradually dispersed to their various homes and we returned to the hospice office to ask ourselves “What just happened here?”

I kept pondering that question in the light of living nonviolence as I watched how the community came together to support one another, to reserve judgment about the circumstances of the child’s death, to offer presence when there was simply not much else to offer.  

I wondered if there were lessons to be learned for life in the world beyond our watery boundaries on this island.  My mind went to how the world community responds – or fails to respond to the tragedies of war and natural disaster – to the awe-full loss of human life, to the destruction of whole communities, of those  fragile networks of connection that seem to sustain human beings through the worst.  So often, the knee-jerk reaction is to place blame, hunt out and name perpetrators, find an appropriate target for rage and guilt – all in the name of justice.  That could easily have happened in the Emergency Room.  But the constraints of community prevailed for a moment as the universally binding event of grief held all of us in its unrelenting grasp.  

As I thought more about this, I realized that in the face of tragedy, there is a role for those of us who may be one step removed from the most deeply personal involvement, as our hospice team was.  And that may be the role of the “shock-absorber.”

Are there enough of us in this world to hold steady? To absorb the continual assaults on our humanity that come with ugly affronts to one another’s religion, with embassy attacks and with death at the hands of supposed allies and with the apparent confusion that reigns in high places while blame and guilt are assigned and justice is pursued?

Even as I ask the question, I am reminded of the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. It holds forth the possibility that, indeed, we may be able to absorb the ongoing shock, hold it without violence in our own hearts in compassion and thereby transmute it into something that may begin to change the world.

Vicky Hanjian

Monday, October 1, 2012

Drawing Lines

Today I sit and reminisce as I listen to the breeze outside; I imagine being home on the gulf sitting on the beach somewhere.  I would dig my toes into the sand and root myself there as the ocean mists upon my face creating a dewy glow and the gentle sea breezes brush my hair.  It’s renewal at its best; sitting there I become one with the earth and sea and the feelings that draw upon my heart bring tears to my eyes.  It’s here that the Creator speaks to me.  There are no words exchanged; only understanding.  “Feel Me”, she whispers as the earth pulses life beneath me.  “Hear Me “he cries as the wind carries songs to my ears.  So I do and I hush my mind, and allow my heart to receive.

I begin to understand that I am drawing lines in the sand.  These lines begin to define me.  These lines tell me who I am supposed to be and how I am supposed to act.  I begin to fear the lines and I start to doubt myself.  I believe that if I cross one of these lines that I will face failure.  Around me are others drawing lines as well, they are drawing lines around themselves and I have allowed them to also draw lines around me.  The wind whispers for me to look around and it becomes so painfully clear that I have drawn so many lines and allowed so many lines to be drawn around me, that I have imprisoned myself and my heart.

Thankfully the winds have brought forth the current, and the waters run up beside me, around me, beneath me and slowly with each wave, erase the lines around me.  I realize that I am free, and I begin to dance upon the wet sand.  Those around me scurry to draw their lines.  They rush, fight, fret and worry because they fear that they cannot exist outside those lines.  They glare at me, some with anger, and others with fear for me.  They try to warn me to stop for now my lines have disappeared and I do nothing to replace them.  I laugh for my heart is so light, I cannot imagine turning back to drawing those crazy lines and now that I have opened my heart to receive a deeper understanding, I cannot back track.  So I move forward, singing and dancing along the way; leaving behind only my footprints and hope that others may find liberation as well and realize they are only bound by the lines because it is they who continue to draw them.

And so it goes in the lives of those who chose a forceful life path.  They are so consumed by the lines they have drawn in the sand that they fail to realize there is existence beyond those small boxes they have created.  Inside these boxes are their preconceived notions of how the world should operate and how mankind “should” live.  These lines condemn their vision to a meager reality and confine them to their own personal agendas.  Once someone distorts their lines they do not have the capacity to react in a calm emotional manner and so their reaction is frequently outrage and anger, oftentimes followed by physical altercation. 

Our society has actually fostered this type of mentality.  If someone does not conform to what we believe we offer them forceful hands, helping them draw lines according to our vision.  Yet we have also witnessed peaceful liberators stand up and offer a way to exist outside these lines without the need for violence and outrage.  

I believe Dr. Martin Luther King said it best when he stated “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  Although he was killed by someone who had fear of blurred lines, our nation began to slowly change due to the tide of free men. This brings forth hope that it can be done and the change should begin within us and within our household.  We can continue to wipe away these lines through the tide of love and tolerance until the central belief of society is no longer focused on the conformity of all people but based on a mutual respect for humanity and all its differences.  It is time for liberation because in truth, the lines are merely an illusion anyway.  

April RedWing
Guest Blogger