Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love and Fear

I'm not sure about you, but I'm feeling plenty upset and uneasy these days as I read about all the spiraling gun sales in the United States. Honestly, in an area like I live in, Brookings S.D., where crime is relatively modest, why are 8 people a day applying for concealed weapons permits?

So we read the other day about a shooting in Brookings, where an argument between a young man and his girlfriend's father, escalated to the point where the guy goes to the bedroom, grabs a handgun and proceeds to threaten and shoot the other. How many arguments in my community will escalate to new levels with more handguns?

Or for heavens sake, isn't it plainly ironic that on "Gun Appreciation Day" in America, 5 people were shot at 3 different gun shows?

Or what about the young men fooling around in Pierre S.D. that left one of them dead and the shooter changed forever. How many new gun sales will mean adolescents, just fooling around, will end up in the morgue?

Or I wish some of these proponents of more guns in schools or on college campuses would have to sit with those surviving a friend's suicide, because they were depressed (more common than the common cold) and couldn't face life anymore. Then, too, a gun was handy.

Or let them explain the 15 year old in Houston who was upset with his mother so he got a gun and let it express his feelings, killing her, then three siblings, then his father, and prepared to kill many more till a friend convinced him to talk to someone at church. All of this because he was upset with his mother, feeling suicidal, and had access to an assault weapon and several other guns belonging to his father. 

The story goes, his father wouldn't let him play violent video games, but he did. How many 15 year olds get angry with their mother and disobey their father? How many kids play violent video games, without consequences for the good guys or seeing what really happens with dead people, and are unable to truly distinguish fantasy from reality? So let's all have guns and violent video games around the house?

Or let these proponents of guns for all, like befalls pastors and counselors, try comforting the bereaved or the frightened, because of a multiple killing in the community. I suppose they would comfort people by explaining how they will fight for more guns for everyone. 

God help us!

I've been thinking a lot about this rush for guns lately. Perhaps because it's high on the national agenda; perhaps because the shooting incidents are coming at us in news stories daily; perhaps because I've always believed there were alternatives to violence and the human impulses that drive it.

One of those human impulses is fear. People are afraid. So they buy guns and if they become fearful enough, of life, of others, of authority, they use them. Sometimes, instead of always associating weapons with warriors and those who are courageous, we should recognize the face of cowardice and fear. People are afraid of life and what it brings, of truly living it. People are afraid of other people. People are afraid of those who exercise authority over them and sometimes want to strike back at a boss, a supervisor, a teacher, a politician.

The increase of fear in our land coincides with a decrease in spiritual conviction and practice. Fearlessness is only possible with a grounding in confidence, trusting in a higher power and the ultimate might of right. As Gandhi claimed, "Fear of man argues want of faith in God. Only he trusts to his physical strength who has no faith or very little faith in God's omnipresence." And again, "When God is our protector and companion, why or whom  shall we fear, however fierce be the storm, however deep the darkness."

Gandhi's point of view is repeated by the first letter of John in the New Testament, "There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love." This is the same passage where the writer gives us the most simple yet comprehensive definition of God in all Scripture, "God is love."

Or we might listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who we say we honor but seldom follow. "I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.' " 

Carl Kline

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Small and Large

There was a story this morning from the Associated Press about a new storage site that can hold material from millions of CD's in a space the size of the tip of a little finger. The material can be stored in this site for centuries, as long as it is kept in a cool, dry and dark place and isn't disturbed. The researchers who discovered this storage site placed all  154 Shakespeare sonnets, a photo, a scientific paper and a 26 second sound clip from the "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King on a barely visible bit of this material.

You might think this is some new and fabulous computer chip. It isn't. It's DNA, the storage site for characteristics of all things living.

If new discoveries continue to boggle the mind with the smallness of things, it works in the other direction as well. A recent article crossed my desk where astronomers are now convinced there are billions of worlds like the earth in our galaxy, many of them circling stars like our own sun. Estimates are the Milky Way galaxy has a total of a hundred billion planets in all. 

Of course, then we have to recognize there are likely more than 170 billion observable galaxies in the universe. When you multiply the number of galaxies by the number of worlds in each galaxy the numbers become unfathomable.

How is it then that the human being is so arrogant and self righteous? In the face of such awesome realities, where the universe seems to go on forever in both large and small dimensions, how is it that we make our understandings and convictions and limited knowledge the sine qua non of existence?

I'm convinced much of our problem is ignorance, material distraction and lack of a contemplative practice.

In materialistic societies like my own, we have turned education into preparation for productivity. Instead of going to the university to find your place in the universe, students attend to find their place in the job market. Or, at least that's the way the university tries to structure itself. So you have university Presidents sitting on the boards of multinational corporations they become beholden to serve and accepting capital improvements from institutions wanting to employ their student "products."

If you really want to discover your place in the universe, overcome your ignorance and avoid all the material distractions of the day, you may have to seek it outside the bounds of traditional institutions, including the church.

So many Christian churches these days preach the "prosperity gospel." You know, God wants you to be rich, to have what you need and want. So don't be afraid to go after it. Seldom do people find time for meditation and contemplation as church becomes another thing to do, another distraction on the road to personal well being and personal progress. Seldom are we encouraged to stand in awe at the magnificence of the creation, the amazing harmony, and to discern our place in it.

Gandhi said, "It has been well said that the universe is compressed in the atom. There is not one law for the atom and another for the universe." And again, "As with the self, so with the universe. It is not possible to scan the universe, as it is to scan the self. Know the self and you know the universe."

Carl Kline

Saturday, January 19, 2013


I am currently teaching an Introduction to Ethics class. It is quite interesting to engage with the students seeking to pull from them their ideas, values, understandings while hoping they assimilate the technical language of ethical theories.

I have in this class a young man full of life and ideologies. He is a passionate wonderful young man and if he and I were to fill out a conservative to liberal line graph, we would find ourselves at opposite ends.

In class recently this young man says, “Our society is going in the wrong direction. We have become permissive and allow people to do bad things.” Guess what? I AGREE!
But how he and I analyze this statement, or how we identify the “why” of this statement will greatly differ.

He bases his opinion on granting gay rights, reproductive choice and a lack of “God” in our schools, which is much different than why I say our society is going in the wrong direction. I say it based on the devaluation of women, the poor, the “other.” I say it based on the power systems that are corrupt and exist in schools, businesses, and churches. I say it based on the exploitation of people, relationships and things that are holy and sacred.

How do we find a way to meet with such different ideas of what makes our society broken? How do we find a way to come to the table as one humanity seeking a common goal of living in peace?

Kristi McLaughlin

Saturday, January 12, 2013


While purging my library of books that I have read and will not read again, I came across a small volume by Paul Woodruff titled “Reverence”.  I scanned again some of the underlining I had done when I first read it in 2003.   In the light of the recent slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Connecticut, Woodruff’s words ring with astounding clarity: We have the word “reverence” in our language, but we scarcely know how to use it. Right now it has no place in secular discussions of ethics or political theory.

A little farther along I read: Simply put, reverence is a virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods…..To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like a god – this is the opposite of reverence.

As I read the newspapers and follow the conversations and rhetoric about a proposed ban on assault weapons, Woodruff’s words on reverence interweave with the strangely confusing “logic” of arguments in favor of armed police and personnel in our schools, in favor of the right of Americans to be armed to the teeth if they so choose.   I ponder the disconnect.   Albert Schweitzer’s notion of “reverence for life” swims in front of my eyes.   I read a little farther in this small volume that almost made my “discard” pile: Ancient Greeks thought that tyranny was the height of irreverence, and they gave the famous name of hubris to the crimes of tyrants. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself.  As a result, an irreverent soul is unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself - - ordinary people, prisoners, children….Any of us is better for remembering that there is someone, or Someone to whom we are children;  in this frame of mind we are more likely to treat all children with respect.  And vice versa: if you cannot bring yourself to respect children, you are probably deficient in the ability to feel that anyone or anything is higher than you.

Just yesterday, the Boston Globe reported the removal of violent video games from several rest areas on a Massachusetts highway in response to a parent’s protest when he saw a young child playing a video game where the child was virtually aiming an automatic weapon at someone else.  Reverence – respect for children – somehow they get lost in the battle between the right to bear arms and the right of a child to live a life of hospitality and compassion.  One parent’s respect and reverence for the life of his child led to a nonviolent action that got results.

Woodruff’s words again: Reverence has more to do with politics than religion.  We can easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war or violence.  But power without reverence – that is a catastrophe for all concerned.  Power without reverence is aflame with arrogance…politics without reverence is blind to the general good and deaf to advice from people who are powerless.

As I listen to the many and complex arguments and opinions regarding the reshaping of our gun control laws and as I read the statistics about the number of lives lost in America each year to gun violence, I wonder if, as a culture, we are on the slippery slope to our loss of reverence for life.  Power without reverence seems to have the edge in the deliberations over gun control and an assault weapons ban. Collectively, we seem incapable of protesting as effectively as that one father did in the service of his respect and reverence for his child’s life and wellbeing.  

Curiously, I sat in services this morning and realized that I am seeing more parents are accompanying their children to shul, including them in the Torah discussions, exposing them to other adults who respect them and engage them in thoughtful dialogue around serious questions.  My inward heart rejoices in this homely sign of hope.  Perhaps this is our nonviolent protest against the absence of reverence –that we work more carefully to surround our children with esteem, and wisdom and respect – that we consider with them what a life of reverence and moral rigor might look like.  Sooner or later, these children will emerge on the national scene of politics with their sense of respect and reverence for human life intact - - and they will make a difference.  

Meanwhile, our local paper announces that budget restrictions will not permit the cost of having an armed police officer in our local high school and the discussions continue about whether weapons make us feel safer.  As Joe Biden says, there simply has to be a place of common ground where we can all meet to create a safer world for our children.  Perhaps the way there is through the examination of the role that reverence plays in all our decision making.

Vicky Hanjian

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Good Guys and Bad Guys: The Grim World of the NRA

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." So says Wayne LaPierre, chief executive and spokesperson for the National Rifle Association (NRA), in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. 

Honestly, seeing him on national television and hearing him voice that infantile cops and robbers mentality and utterly repugnant statement took my breath away. His philosophy of life places all of us in the jungle, prepared to kill or be killed; survival not just of the fittest but the best armed. Really, have we come to that as a country?

I've already seen far too much of that mentality and it's consequences. It's happening daily, after Sandy Hook. How about the guy in New York state who shot and killed the two firemen on Christmas eve after he set his house on fire with his sister in it. He used the same weapon as at Sandy Hook, one he got a friend to buy for him, since as an ex con who killed his grandmother with a hammer years earlier, he couldn't own guns. He had three guns at the scene. 

Or how about the 11 year old in Utah who took a .22 pistol to school at the insistence of his parents, to "protect himself" after Sandy Hook. His teacher found out about it after he pointed it at the head of a girl at recess and told her he was going to kill her.

Or how about the Alabama guy who didn't think his wife was receiving proper care at a hospital so he brought his gun at four in the morning and wounded three before he was killed in a shootout with police. Or how about the urban killing fields like in Chicago, so often ignored by the media, where gun violence is an everyday occurrence. Gun murders, some of them multiple since December 14, are in the hundreds. 

Having just returned from two weeks of driving on Massachusetts highways, I can't imagine a gun in every car. Not knowing my way on occasion, I likely would be dead now. And South Dakotans in my town probably didn't hear about the school buses in Haverhill, MA. Somebody was shooting them with pellet guns, shattering bus windows and frightening children inside. One window shattered next to the head of a child. So, Wayne, should we give every child on the bus a gun to shoot back, or must every school bus carry an armed "good guy?"

Sorry Wayne, I'll opt for a different vision of the society I'd like to inhabit. 

I'm sure LaPierre believes what he said. But he's certainly paid well to say it. The latest compensation figure I found for him was $845,469. It wasn't quite as much as what the Executive Director of General Operations of the NRA, Kayne Robinson earned, at $1,027,217. And when you check the compensation figures for many of the top executives, they fall in that $400,000 plus income bracket.

Looking at those figures, I began to have a little different perception of the NRA. I'd always seen it as an organization of mostly guys who like to hunt. I'm not a hunter myself but know many who I respect. They are hunters, not killers. Some use bows. Many use shotguns. They walk the fields for pheasants or they stalk deer. They don't want or need assault weapons. They make up some of the membership of the 4 million in the NRA, perhaps the great majority, I don't know. But if so, their voices are not the ones being heard in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures around the country through the likes of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and through the Corporate Partners and Funders of the NRA. 74% of those corporate funders are arms manufacturers. It's their voice being heard in political circles.

In the four counties around Newtown, Connecticut where the massacre of the innocents took place, there are more than 400 gun dealers. There are more gun dealers in the U.S. than there are MacDonald's restaurants and Supermarkets. In the same Newtown where Sandy Hook elementary is located, is the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. They've spent $1.7 million lobbying on gun legislation since 1998 and spent three quarters of a million on elections since 1990. They're one of several organizations, besides the NRA, overwhelming the political potency of organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Just the NRA alone spent 73 times more than the Brady Campaign on lobbying the 112th. Congress.

So, once again, we're talking about big money behind big organizations influencing big government. Sandy Hook will likely fade into the distance just like Aurora and Tucson and Virginia Tech and Columbine and all those other multiple killings we would like to forget. And the NRA will continue to press for more and more potent weapons in the hands of more and more "good guys."

At the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, LaPierre told a cheering crowd "the guys with the guns make the rules." It's not intelligence or knowledge or creativity or morality or character, or God forbid, love of neighbor, that's the basis for rule making. No, for Wayne, it's guns.

Unless more of us who have another vision we want for our children and grandchildren find our voices and act on that vision, the U.S. will remain in the hands of the likes of Wayne, a veritable killing field. 

If we only will, we can renew our commitment to mental health care for those who need it. We can teach creative conflict resolution in our schools and work places. We can pass some sensible legislation that keeps assault weapons off the streets. And most of all, we can reclaim a fundamental assumption implicit in our nation, that we're all in this together. It's not a dog eat dog, good guys and bad guys world; it's one of mutual aid and love of neighbor. That's our heritage and our mandate for the future.

Carl Kline

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Massacre of the Innocents

In 1964 an Italian director made a black and white film called "The Gospel According to Matthew." The director used all amateur actors and no script except for actual words from Matthew's gospel. There are two scenes from the movie burnt into my memory.

The first is the opening scene, where we see a silent Joseph, looking quizzical. Gradually, the camera begins to include a pregnant Mary and we understand Joseph's look.

The second scene I can't forget is the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hearing from the wise men from the East that a king has been born, fearing a threat to his throne, sends his soldiers to kill all the new borns. The depiction in the film is graphic, even  though much is left to the imagination. 

I'm thinking about the slaughter of the innocents, not just in the time of Jesus. I'm recalling how something similar happened with the birth of Moses. Only the quick thinking of some midwives, a mother and sister, and the compassion of Pharaoh's daughter, allowed Moses to live to adulthood.

December 28 this past year was the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It's a day when Christians remember the sacrifice of children on the altars of the powerful. This December 28 there were some new innocents to remember. Children at Sandy Hook elementary school have also been sacrificed on the altars of the fearful and powerful.

Marian Wright Edelman, in a written response to the Newtown massacre, cites the most recent statistics; 2,694 children and teens were killed by gunfire in 2010. 1,773 were homicides and 67 were elementary school children. Since 1979, when gun deaths were first collected by age, 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence. 

Edelman writes, we lost 53,402 American lives in World War 1; 47,434 in Vietnam; 33,739 in Korea. She asks, "Where is our anti-war movement to protect children from pervasive gun violence here at home?" She concludes, "This slaughter of innocents happens because we protect guns before children and other human beings."

Columbine still sends a chill up my spine. When it happened, I was unable to function for three days. My daughter was teaching in Colorado at the time so that helped bring it close to home. But I'd also been doing trainings in the regions schools in Violence Prevention, Creative Response to Conflict, and Peer Mediation. I knew these events didn't need to happen. Schools could actively engage in prevention and if all else failed, preparation.

But here we are in the second decade of the 21st. century faced with similar circumstances to the times of Moses and Jesus. The rulers are afraid. Ours are not named Pharaoh or Herod. They have other names. They serve other powerful interests. They produce weapons of war for the domestic market. They produce simulation games meant to train warriors for everyone's children. They cut funding for the care of the mentally ill. They drain education budgets dry so troubled children go begging. They sell security systems and swat team paraphernalia and military hardware for police and first responders. They perpetuate a climate of violence and fear that gets embedded in the culture and in a world wide military presence with all manner of lethality. And they profit from war big time, right here at home. They are executioners of the innocents.

Marian Edelman has a few sensible beginning suggestions in light of Newtown to protect the innocent: (1) End the gun show loophole that allows private dealers to sell guns without a license and avoid required background checks; (2) Reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004; (3) Require consumer safety standards for all guns.

Eventually we have to come to terms with the corporations and political policies that are shaping our economy, our attitudes, our habits, our politics, our culture and our children.

I'm worried that there's little available room in America at Christmas anymore for pregnant women and children of promise. I'm worried that there are too many powerful and fearful people in the country, who only feel safe with a gun in their hand and weapons profits in their pocket. I'm worried that travelers and the homeless will be seen as outsiders as others are behind closed doors with automatic weapons. I just doubt there will be any room in the inn.

Still, I'm hoping that some one will hear or heed Joyce Kilmer's poem; the one my father read every Christmas eve in church, and once, even let me read.

There was a gentle hostler
(And blessed be his name!)
He opened up the stable
The night Our Lady came.
Our Lady and St. Joseph,
He gave them food and bed,
And Jesus Christ has given him
A glory round his head.
So let the gate swing open
However poor the yard,
Lest weary People visit you
And find their Passage barred.
Unlatch the door at midnight
And let your lantern's glow
Shine out to guide the traveler's feet
To you across the snow.

There was a courteous hostler
(He is in Heaven to-night)
He held Our Lady's bridle
And helped her to alight.
He spread clean straw before her
Whereon she might lie down,
And Jesus Christ has given him
An everlasting crown.
Unlock the door this evening
And let your gate swing wide,
Let all who ask for shelter
Come speedily inside.
What if your yard be narrow?
What if your house be small?
There is a Guest a coming
Will glorify it all.

There was a joyous hostler
Who knelt on Christmas morn
Beside the radiant manger
Wherein his Lord was born.
His heart was full of laughter,
His soul was full of bliss
When Jesus, on His Mother's lap,
Gave him His hand to kiss.
Unbar your heart this evening
And keep no stranger out,
Take from your soul's great portal
The barrier of doubt.
To humble folk and weary
Give hearty welcoming,
Your breast shall be to-morrow
The cradle of a King.

Carl Kline