Sunday, November 25, 2012

Little Drops of Water, Tiny Grains of Sand



 Earlier this week I was moved to tears by a letter from Rabbi Arik Ascherman.  He is the executive director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel.  His letter described his organization’s solidarity visits to Bir Hadaj – a Bedouin village where Israeli police had fired tear gas into the elementary school – and then to Kibbutz Revavim which has been targeted by Palestinian arsonists and cattle thieves causing great economic loss.

Arik and his colleagues have been working for years to bring about nonviolent, peacemaking conversations between Israelis and Palestinians.  He has been the target of criticism, physical abuse and occasional arrest for his efforts in behalf of nonviolent understanding and peaceful solutions between Israelis and Palestinians.

As I read his letter in the light of the escalating intensity between Israel and Gaza this week, my heart ached with the question “How much can one man do?”
On the same morning, I finished reading  “CLOUD ATLAS”  by David Mitchell.
The book ends with one of the main character’s reflections in his journal:

In an individual, selfishness uglifies the human soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
Is this the doom written in our nature?
If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable and the riches of the earth and the oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.  It is the hardest of worlds to make real.  Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by the single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson will inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.  Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the abolitionist cause….I hear my father-in-law’s response:

 “Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam.  But don’t tell me about justice!  Ride to Tennessee on an ass and convince the rednecks they are merely white-washed negroes and their negroes are black-washed whites!  Sail to the Old World, tell ‘em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s!  Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor and gray in caucuses!  You’ll be spat upon, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!  Na├»ve, dreaming Adam.  He who would do battle with the many headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain and his family must pay it along with him! And only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Across the days since I began writing this, the tensions in Israel and Gaza have escalated.  Time and again, my heart turns with gratitude to Arik and all the people like him who work to create a world they want for the next generation to inherit not a world they fear the next generation will inherit. Arik and his friends have no time to ask “what can one person do?”  They just go out and do it.  The little poem I learned as a child keeps echoing quiet notes of hope:

Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand
  Make the mighty ocean 
And the pleasant land.

As we celebrate the American day of Thanksgiving, my soul gives thanks for all who embrace their drop-like work in behalf of a better world.

Vicky Hanjian

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Holding the Heart


Is it possible to love others when one is unloving to one’s self? Is it possible to truly have compassion if one does not allow for self-compassion? Can we truly seek to change the world making it more loving, just, and nonviolent if many people do not take the time to question the relationship we have within ourselves or with ourselves? 

Each day I encounter more and more people who truly desire to be more loving toward others and who truly believe that helping is the basis of their faith and yet, the working out of these actions are done in aggression and through methods of power and control. There appears to be a gap, a large gap that is leading me to believe that without holding one’s self gently one is not able to hold others or the world gently.

But this leads to another societal problem, at least for some in the Christian faith. Taking the time to understand the inner heart. We in America are always doing, always consuming, always working toward achieving, or attaining. Its what we are told we must do in order to be the great America! We consume and in many ways, our desire to “help” is one more method of consumption. Its how we measure who we are, by what we accomplish. Even the faith tradition of which I am apart measures and promotes its success by how much we do: Are we missional enough, are we giving enough, do we have enough programs and offerings to attract the younger generation? And yet I wonder are those the right questions or are they just one more way to distract us from digging deep within and discovering the violence that lives within our hearts? If doing more and doing better is the answer, why is so much such a mess? Why are so many lives with so much so empty? Why are so many people still so uncompassionate? 

While I do not want to entirely stop “doing.” I no longer want to do without knowing who I am. I want to go deep within and discover the hidden recesses of my heart learning to hold myself gently, learning from my heart what is there, seeing myself with eyes of compassion and maybe if I do this, the manner in which I move among my world will gradually change.

I suppose what I am trying to say is until I learn to hold my own heart gently, I may struggle with how I hold the heart of another. 

Kristi McLaughlin

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

With No Big Yellow School Buses to Take Us



It was an amazing moment, as I sat there on a Friday afternoon with a group of kindergarten students on the floor of their classroom. I was the school rabbi at a Jewish day school and would visit different classes and grades to help prepare for Shabbos. On that afternoon, the big yellow school buses had already arrived out front and their roofs were just visible above the bottom edge of the windows if you looked up from where we sat on the floor. The kids knew the buses were there and the excitement that comes with week’s end was palpable. Gathered in a circle, we were singing an old favorite of kids’ Shabbat songs, “Bim Bam.” I was happily singing the familiar words of refrain along with the kids, “Shabbat shalom, hey! Shabbat shalom, hey! Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat shalom, hey!” I thought I was singing with the kids, certainly assuming that I knew the words, but suddenly something sounded different in their voices so I stopped singing in order to listen. For the refrain, the kids were singing, “We’re going home, hey! We’re going home, hey! We’re going, going, going home, hey!” The teacher was mortified, but with a big smile I motioned to her not to worry, to let them keep singing. Though the kids had no idea, at least consciously, of the profound meaning in the words they were singing, I was absolutely giddy with what I was hearing. The kids were expressing the essence of Shabbos, going home, coming back to the place where all is renewed, the place to which we return depleted and from which we go out into the world refreshed, the place of our deepest, oldest memories that we carry with us, the best of which helps us shape the future to be as it was in the beginning.

It is a beautiful moment in the Jewish year when we come home to the Torah portion of B’reishit, the first Torah portion in a new year’s cycle of reading, the portion of Genesis. B’reishit/In the beginning of…, its literal meaning an invitation to question, to ask, “in the beginning of what…?” “In the beginning of…,” and all life flows from there, the beginning of all that will ever be, an invitation to enter into the house of learning, of seeking, to enter the world and to be within and of it. We are invited to enter, to wonder and to ask, to imagine, to be filled with the wonder of children at home, safe to grow and become. The first letter of the Torah is the Hebrew letter bet of B’reishit. The letters that form the word that spells the letter bet are the same letters in the same order as in the word for house, bayit. We journey through the year, through the Torah, and now we’re going home, it’s almost Shabbos.

The Shabbat of B’reishit, we return to the beginning of Torah and time and read from the portion of B’reishit, Genesis, language that evokes wonder and awe, as though watching a world in its birthing, the petals of a flower unfolding. I am always amazed to have arrived here, on the cresting wave of festivals and celebration, holiness in time overflowing, actually at the beginning, reading of creation. Before even crossing the threshold and entering the bayit, the house, the letter beyt that tells of returning home, I feel a touch of sadness. It will be such a short visit. The Sabbath of B’reishit is only one Shabbos, and then we go on and take up the journey again. I am soothed, though, set at ease by a rabbinic teaching. The rabbis come to refer to every Shabbat as Shabbat B’reishit! It is a beautiful thought, startling at first, but then we realize it makes complete sense. Every week we come home to Shabbos. Every Shabbos awakens within us a memory of the beginning, of when the world came to be. That is what we acknowledge when we raise the Kiddush cup to bless the wine every Friday evening at the start of Shabbos, raising our voices in a song of praise for all of creation.

Every Shabbos is a reflection of that very first Shabbos, Shabbat B’reishit, through which God stepped back into the Sabbath and saw the beauty of all that had come to be. That is the paradigm for us, a model for our own stepping back as the Holy One did, a time to see the beauty of all that is and might yet be. Joining us each week to that very first Shabbos are the opening lines of Kiddush, the blessing over wine, that are drawn from the verses that immediately follow the unfolding narrative of creation, the heavens and the earth were completed and all of their “array” (Fox translation). We are joined to the beginning, but also to the future. The rabbis make a remarkable play on the Hebrew word vay’chulu/and they were completed. With a very simple grammatical shift, we have vay’chalu/and they completed. The “they” is us! Rather than a passive reference to all that had been created, the verse now comes to boldly include us as God’s partners in creation. These verses are part of the Sabbath evening prayers as well as of the blessing over wine, and of their saying we find in the Talmud, Rav Hamnuna said, “everyone who prays on Shabbos evening and says vay’chulu is considered by Torah as though having become a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the work of creation, as it says, ‘vay’chulu.’ Do not read vay’chulu/and they were completed, rather vay’chalu/and they completed.”


The saying of these holy words affirms our role as God’s partners and reminds us that every Shabbos is Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath of Creation. To fulfill the sacred responsibility of that partnership, the saying of words is not enough. It requires deeds. And it requires dedication to live in accord with such a noble calling. As every week’s Sabbath is Shabbat B’reishit, we return home to the vision of wholeness that was at the beginning. Our task is to fulfill that vision, to bring the day that is all Shabbos, Yom She’kulo Shabbos, when Shabbat shalom, compete Sabbath peace, will fill the whole world. Engaging in strife and violence, people lost the way home so soon after leaving the house that was in the beginning, in B’reishit. As God’s partners in creation, it is for us to remember the way home and create the world as it was meant to be. With no big yellow school buses waiting to take us, it depends on all of us. Inspired by the wisdom of children, changing words, changing the world, we can joyfully sing out together, “We’re going home, hey!” 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Secret of Nonviolence


It always amazes me how peacemaking operations are the best kept secret on the planet. Who knows about the work of Peace Brigades International, doing nonviolent accompaniment work around the globe since 1981? How many people are aware of the work of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, building an army of unarmed volunteers able to be dispatched to trouble spots anywhere, serving these days in Sudan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Caucasus? Or how often do you read in the news about Christian Peacemakers, or Witness for Peace? And it seems like the only time United Nations Peacemakers are in the news is when one of them gets killed driving a red cross truck or transporting food to starving refugees.

One of the reasons we continue to go down the path of war and violence is because people don't know about, nor trust, that there's an alternative. The history and contemporary examples of nonviolent social change are there. But like so much of history that doesn't fit with the cultural paradigms of the day, that history is ignored or deliberately trashed, never to see the light of day.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall have put together a book called "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict." There are so many nonviolent campaigns in the twentieth century one can gain insight and wisdom from, it's hard to choose the most significant. But surely Gandhi's independence struggle in India ranks among the most astute in theory and the most successful in application. But who recognizes and applies today the successes of nonviolent struggles in India, in South Africa against apartheid, in Chile under the dictator Pinochet, in Poland with the Solidarity movement, in our own South during  the civil rights era, in Denmark resisting the Nazis, in the Philippines deposing Marcos, or in Serbia, democratically getting rid of the "Butcher of the Balkans?" Who mentions these successful experiments in social change in recent history?

The first Peace Brigades International project began in the early 80's in response to a request from the Mutual Support Group for Families of the Disappeared (GAM) in Guatemala. This was a period of intense government terror and repression in Guatemala, with husbands and sons disappearing and mothers of the disappeared suffering assassination and death threats, especially as they worked publicly for human rights. GAM requested help from PBI, and the first peace brigades team was quickly formed and went to Guatemala. There they began to accompany the human rights workers in GAM and their families wherever they went. Since the internationals made themselves known as such, it gave the Guatemalans some additional space in which to do their work for human rights and their missing loved ones. 

There was some political risk for the Guatemalan government in killing a foreigner, more so than killing Guatemalans, who were being killed with impunity. At the same time, PBI formed an emergency  response network of concerned internationals, so on a moments notice hundreds of telegrams could be sent to appropriate offices in  the Guatemalan government and military. Some messages might be from Senators or Congresspersons, Parliamentarians or other government officials.

After the accompaniment began, no GAM leader was killed and GAM credited their survival to the accompaniment they  received from international volunteers. Over the next 15 years PBI accompanied hundreds of individual Guatemalans and organizations, sending over a thousand volunteers and developing support groups in fifteen countries. After the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, an evaluation in 1989 determined the project could be concluded. By that time, PBI projects had begun to develop in several other countries.

Since its beginnings, PBI has been active, at the invitation of in-country nonviolent organizations, in El Salvador, Haiti, North America, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Colombia, the Balkans, Nepal, and Mexico. With thirty years in the field, with an intense preparation and training program and thousands of returned volunteers from many different countries and cultures, PBI has a wealth of insight and wisdom in the dynamics of nonviolent intervention in conflict situations. The same is true of all their sister organizations.

One has to ask why this experience of nonviolent change is so secret? Why isn't the knowledge gained by this kind of field experience, gained at great risk in situations of war and terror, not included in the process of governmental decision making? Why are these organizations doing the work of peace making, so hidden from public view? Why is violence and war constantly made attractive to youth, when it takes far more courage and strength of character to face the violence in conflict unarmed, with only your training in nonviolence and your wits to protect you?

Gandhi claimed he would rather be violent than cowardly. For him the nonviolent warrior had to be fearless, always ready to sacrifice one's life in the cause of a lasting peace. For him the most courageous challenge was turning the enemy into a friend, something he was able to successfully accomplish with the British empire. He understood an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth made the whole world blind and toothless. It was the innate capacity of human beings to rise above the level of the beast that distinguished them from the law of the jungle.

We see the capacity human beings have for making friends, for loving those who are different, for respecting the beliefs of others, for engaging in constructive dialogue; we see this capacity everyday. Violent conflict and killing is an aberration from the normal kinds of human interaction. Why does our better nature, the foundation of a civilized society, get so little attention, and violence is made to seem the name of the game?

Carl Kline

Friday, November 2, 2012

Terrorists in Our Midst



A west river South Dakota rancher friend called this morning. Sometimes he calls early, usually between 6 and 7 AM, my time. Fortunately this morning, it was later, as I was savoring my sleep. I still recall the Easter morning he called about 6 AM, just to let me know the meadowlarks were back. 

He's usually full of information about the world around him. He notices birds and bush, cattle and grasses, wind and weeds, weather and water. And almost every time he calls, there's something disturbing him he needs to unload on someone, namely me.

This morning he was upset about the devastation along the East Coast of the U.S. from Hurricane Sandy. He still has that Catholic ethic inbred in him, where he cares about what happens to other people, even though they may live thousands of miles away. He can still feel another's pain. As an example, this morning he also told me about having a neighbor over for a little whiskey and conversation the other evening. He tries to spend time with him at least once a week since the guy's wife died last year after a long struggle with cancer and the guy has Parkinson's. 

But the issue that caught my attention the most was his comment about his prairie land. It's parched and cracked. He tried to recall how long ago it was they got a few tenths of an inch of rain. And then he quickly went on to say only one of their water holes had water in it and they had to pasture cattle out several miles away where a creek was still running and there was grass to eat. 

Guess what? Extreme weather is not just happening in Bangladesh or Pakistan or Haiti. It's obviously happening right here now in the U.S.of A. 

North America had the warmest summer ever and July broke all records. We experienced enormous forest fires. For the first time in recorded history all the Arctic sea ice disappeared and the warmest temperatures ever measured on a Greenland glacier went into the record book. Most are aware of the extended draught in Texas but how many are concerned about the expected extension of our own draught in South Dakota? 

As Governor Cuomo of New York State said after Hurricane Sandy, “I said kiddingly the other day, ‘We have a 100-year flood every two years now.’ These situations never happened or if they happened, they were never going to happen again. … I think at this point it’s undeniable that we have a higher frequency of these extreme weather situations, and
we’re going to have to deal with it.”

God isn't at work in the extreme weather events we see around us. Human beings are! And there are some weather terrorists in our midst that need to be identified and brought to justice. We have watched these terrorists as they have deluged the atmosphere with carbon. We have watched while they helped acidify the oceans and pollute our rivers and streams. We have watched as they removed mountain tops and left toxic residue for local residents. We have watched as they take private land from unwilling property owners for their pipelines and profit. We have watched as they paid climate change deniers and purchased anti-environment politicians. We have watched as they've knowingly changed the earth's climate, with no intention of stopping. We have watched as they purchased our democracy (Chevron just gave $2.5. million to a GOP Super Pac, the largest single corporate donation to a political campaign in history). Is it any wonder climate change wasn't on the electoral debate agendas?

The arrogance of these terrorists is as extreme as the weather. They are willing to risk making the planet unlivable rather than back off their exploitation of fossil fuels, like the Canadian tar sands and the Bakken boom. They say, "we will adapt." Tell that to those on the New Jersey shore or the relatives of the dead. We need to make these terrorists focus their money and energy on renewables, instead of the engines of destruction. 

I agree with Bill McKibben of 350.org (his article in Rolling Stone on the math of global warming is a "must" read). Let's stop naming the hurricanes after people and name them after the perpetrators of extreme weather. How about Hurricane Chevron, or Hurricane Exxon. And how about stopping investing in these sowers of terror! Who are these people who are consciously willing to make money off the destruction of the planet? They need to get a life!!

Climate change did not "cause" Hurricane Sandy. But global warming certainly helped. The ocean along the East coast of the U.S. is five degrees warmer than it was in 1970 and the water in New York Harbor is a foot higher. That makes a difference! And if folks in the teeth of this storm found it frightening, God help us all as we continue like lemmings down the path of fossil fuels, fueling the planet for far worse weather to come. The path we continue on doesn't hold much hope for our grandchildren. It will be hard for them to adapt, especially hard for the billions alive now of modest means. And if the 1% think their money will save them, they should think again. As Dr. King said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Carl Kline