Monday, September 23, 2013

If Only We'd Listened to the Indians

If Only We’d Listened to the Indians
Did you know that the democratic government of the U.S. was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy? That constitutional framers like George Washington and Ben Franklin so admired that native form of governance that they enshrined many of its principles within our country’s foundational documents?

 If you don’t believe it, check out Senate Resolution 331, from the 100th Congress in 1988: “…the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced…by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
If you’re still unconvinced, consult such books as Bruce Johansen’s Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy. They line the shelves of our libraries and bookstores. Unfortunately too few of us read them. So we end up believing that Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent to find only savage wilderness in need of civilization. Far from the truth. The Iroquois Confederacy is compelling proof. That alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and (eventually) Tuscarora nations was highly organized, vast in scope and had a longstanding tradition of participatory democracy--the oldest on earth, in fact.
So let’s congratulate the Founders for knowing a good thing when they saw it. But they should have listened more carefully to the sachems.
Last week Roberta Hill was among some native writers speaking at a conference held on the campus of a local university. Of Oneida heritage, she’s a wonderful poet and scholar, a professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And as she told it, our Founders refused the counsel of native leaders on at least three critical points:
First, the sachems advised, democracy must provide for an equitable distribution of wealth, so that the 
needs of all the people are met. Not just the needs of 
a privileged few, but of everyone.
Second, democracy must recognize that the power of men is made possible only by the power of women, the life-givers. Therefore women must be treated with respect and possess equal standing to men.
Third, democracy must help preserve the people by dealing with their collective grief. When the nation has been traumatized by war or natural disaster or other calamity, the people must mourn together--truly mourn--or their woundedness will blind them, and cause them to make poor decisions that only compound their pain.
On these three crucial points, according to Hill, the Founders weren’t listening. (Perhaps they were too busy texting.) If they had listened, perhaps our nation today wouldn’t have the worst income inequality in the developed world, and all the problems that such disparity brings. Perhaps our laws and law-making system wouldn’t overwhelmingly favor not just the wealthy, but the super-wealthy--
Perhaps our nation wouldn’t refuse to enshrine equal rights for women in the law of the land; to pay the same wage to women as to men for doing the same job; to allow women to make their own choices about their own reproductive rights; to reduce violence against women by teaching males it is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated--
Perhaps, if we knew how to grieve as a people, we wouldn’t keep inflicting harm on our military veterans, who in great numbers are homeless, without adequate health care, without gainful employment. We wouldn’t keep holding the most vulnerable among us hostage to political posturing and monied interests. We wouldn’t keep blundering blindly from one horrific war (or “conflict” or “operation”) to another. In short, if we grieved well as a people, perhaps we would be less apt to inflict grief.
Yes, our nation could have been so different. Indeed, it still can be--if we listen to the Indians.

Phyllis Cole Dai
Roberta Hill Photo Credit Mark Anthony Rollo

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Memory is a funny thing. Some fade. Some remain. And then there are some that  are planted indelibly in our brains. They'll go with us to our graves. I can see in my mind's eye now, where I was and what I was doing, when I found out about the assassinations of the sixties.

Watching the movie "The Butler" last evening brought back a host of memories. After all, many my age are children of the sixties. That  was the formative period in our lives. It was a time electric with change. It  was a time when many of us believed the life of our democracy and our country was at stake and slowly bleeding away in rights denied and Vietnam.

The movie theatre last night was almost empty. It was just my wife and I and one other person. I know "The Butler" has been in our community a while. I hope attendance was better earlier since it's a film everyone should see. It's about historical memory and I'm afraid our national memory in the U.S. is almost nil. As a country, we can hardly remember to put on our pants in the morning or zip up our fly, let alone learn from the past.

In the mid seventies I was working as Chaplain at a college in Maryland. One of the faculty members arranged for a film to be shown about the turmoil of the sixties. There was a great attendance with the auditorium almost full. My emotions were raw, watching all those events play out again on the screen in front of me. I was dismayed, as I watched the students leaving and spoke with some of them. They  were unmoved,  untouched, unaware of those momentous times.  I thought then, as I think now, our historical memory as a country is almost forgotten. 

Of course, there are movies. There are books. There are memorials. But if the past only touches us in these external ways, if there's no interior or structural change, what good are memories?

Two of my memories from the civil rights struggle occurred on a visit to Washington, D.C. Our New York City Seminary was part of a coalition of seminaries across the country working to get  the Civil Rights Act passed. We set up a twenty four hour vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial to inform visitors about the pending legislation. As students rotated in and out of the vigil and the city, they also went to visit their representatives in Congress.

Since I still had my residence in South Dakota, I went to visit my Senator Karl Mundt. He graciously welcomed me into his office and I proceeded to tell him who I was, why I was there and that I hoped he would vote for the civil rights legislation. He proceeded to tell me how his wife had been robbed recently in D.C. by a Negro. Not knowing what the connection was between the robbery and the legislation (although I could guess) my response was not as generous as his welcome and the conversation disintegrated into a quick good bye.

The other memory of that D.C. trip that sticks in my mind is of a boy scout troop from Georgia. There were several scouts, maybe twenty in all, with a couple leaders, visiting the Lincoln Memorial. The boys saw our seminarians table and sign  and were curious.  Several started our way to talk with us. Catching sight of what we were doing from our sign their mentors quickly called them back, rounded them up, gave them a quick lecture about staying together and headed into the Lincoln Memorial; to see the one who represented freedom, from the past.

There's a Vietnam veteran I count among my friends. He was in the Marines and doing some of the up front and personal combat in that Asian nation. He told me once how he remembers the trip out of Vietnam. He was looking out the window of the airplane at the jungles below saying to himself, "never again." He may have been speaking for himself, but my sense was he was speaking even more for his country. Because the context for our conversation was our attack on Iraq and his great grief over that unnecessary war. His memory as an individual was front and center. Our memory as a country was blunted, especially by leaders who had no memory of war, up close and personal. 

"The Butler" jogged my memory. It reminded me that freedom is not free. Sometimes we have to struggle for it right here at home. And here we are, at another crossroads. Our rights are being denied again and again, day after day. We're all losing (some more than others, so far) our right to privacy; to reasonable cause for search and seizure; to freedom of assembly; to freedom of the press; to the right of transparency and information necessary for an educated citizenry; to the right for a fair and speedy trial; even to the right to vote.

And here we go again, threatening to continue bleeding the country to death. Let's scream bloody murder so we don't add one more war to our score card. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan are fading memories, even though the killing continues. Now Syria comes front and center. Where next?

Carl Kline

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For the Man I Should Have Spoken with, "It Is Possible"

A rather disheveled man, perhaps homeless, clearly disturbed, paced back and forth behind us toward the end of our Thursday morning Torah learning at a local coffee shop. He kept saying over and over again in his gruff but pained voice, “it isn’t possible, it isn’t possible.” There was something that seemed threatening at first, but that was probably a reflection of my own discomfort. It has continued to trouble me that I didn’t get up as we finished and go over to him; that I hadn’t reached out to a struggling human being. I would like to have asked him, I should have asked him, what isn’t possible? At first, I heard his words more philosophically, as a challenge to what we had been speaking about at our learning table, of human striving toward wholeness. Was he telling us it isn’t possible? Perhaps that is why I could not approach him, dared not approach him. Shifting perspective from my own to what I imagined his might be, I wondered if perhaps it was something of further disintegration in his own life, an expression of disbelief. How could things get any worse? It isn’t possible! Pained at first for his sake that I hadn’t spoken with the man, I realized later that it was also for my sake, that his presence was a gift to me, helping me to think in ways I had not been aware of earlier.

The man had come as a messenger it seemed, to challenge us, lest we feel too comfortable with our own understanding of the text before us and within us, of Torah and of life, and with our own striving toward wholeness. We need to struggle, what if it isn’t possible? I was duly challenged, even as I am challenged by a comment made by Rashi on words we had wrestled with, that we should accept all that comes upon us in wholeness and purity. I struggle with such theology as I look at so much unspeakable human suffering, but how, how to accept horror and misfortune? It isn’t possible I want to say, even as I wrestle with the challenge. The saying of “nay,” now becomes a sacred response to all that demeans life, even as we accept the continued goodness of life in spite of all that comes upon us. In the end, I came to see in the man’s words and their challenge a certain affirmation of the wholeness we sought, and out of his own apparent brokenness a wholeness even within himself and in the message he offered, whether knowingly or not.

At the outset of the week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim/Judges (Deut. 16:18-21:9), we are told to appoint judges and officers in all of our gates. Written in the singular, Chassidic teaching immediately spiritualizes and personalizes the commandment. Each one of us is to place a judge within our own heart, to be self-directing and self-disciplined, knowing and doing what is right without external coercion or fear of consequence. At the end of the portion, we encounter the harshness of war with the Canaanites. Again, Chassidic tradition immediately spiritualizes and personalizes the text. It comes to be understood as a battle with our own evil inclination, the yetzer horah. Understood in this way, the beginning and the end of the portion are themselves teachings on wholeness. Coming as a link between beginning and end, both literally and figuratively, is the verse that had been the primary focus of our learning that morning, tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha/be whole [hearted} with God, your God

Our simple verse is the fulcrum on which the portion Shoftim turns, raising us up with its challenge, individually and then collectively, toward greater wholeness. Tamim, or in the singular, tam, means whole, pure, innocent, simple and is often paired with yashar/just. Noah, survivor of the Flood who stood above the violence of his time, is referred to as ish tzadik tamim/a righteous and upright man. Abraham, setting out on a great journey toward wholeness, to be found in the image of God’s Oneness, is told to walk with God and be wholehearted, tamim tihiyeh. Jacob is called an ish tam/a simple man, one who dwells in tents; metaphor for a place of learning, a place where the book is, and the sword is not. The simple child among the four children of the Passover Haggadah is the tam, not necessarily to be understood as less intellectually capable, but as pure and innocent, easily scarred by so much violence and strife in the world. We need to bring out the tam within ourselves, allowing ourselves to feel all the pain around us as the first step toward healing. Our verse, urging us to be whole, tamim tihiyeh, comes in a context of verses before and after warning us against consulting omens, soothsayers, and false prophets, not to succumb to fear of the unknown and thereby seek to know what the future will bring. Rather than seek out the future, we strive to create a path to the future that is paved with ways of being and acting in the world that are most likely to bring our greatest hopes to fruition. We know the future in potential to the degree that we help to create it. Through our striving, we deepen the wellsprings of our own faith, that we might have the inner strength from which to draw in facing the exigencies of life all along the way.

Wholeness is not about perfection, it is about the integration of all facets of our lives, weaving together all of our imperfections along with our triumphs, together forming the beautiful tapestry whose threads reflect the reality of who we are. At times it is more difficult to see that wholeness, the imperfections seeming to stand out so starkly, distracting us from the whole picture. So it was that morning, distracted by brokenness, I could not see the wholeness of the man who paced before us and spoke the words, “it’s not possible.” Challenged to see his humanity as part of our own, we come to a new place of wholeness. It is possible.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The "Red Line"

AP photo, provided by the LocalCommittee of Arbeen
This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man helping a woman as she mourns over the dead bodies of children after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.

The situation in Syria is deeply distressing. Nobody wants to see nearly 1,500 civilians lying dead, 400 children among them, the victims of chemical weapons. But anybody can see that a U.S. retaliatory strike against the Assad regime for apparently gassing its own citizens may well solve nothing, complicate much, and doom many in the Middle East, if not beyond.

We Americans have been told that with the use of chemical weapons “the red line has been crossed.” So now we must act. With force. Even if we must act alone.

Let’s talk a bit about this “red line,” shall we? Prohibitions against chemical warfare, such as the Geneva Protocol signed in 1925, grew largely out of the world’s revulsion at seeing a million people die of gassing during World War I. A million deadhorrific. But wasn’t the 28 million dead due to conventional weapons in that war exceedingly more horrific? Both conventional weapons and chemical weapons are “weapons of mass destruction.”

So perhaps the red line concerns not the quantity of the dead, but the quality of their dying. Sarin gas, for instancewithin minutes its victims convulse and seize, struggle to breathe, vomit, lose control of their bowels…. Terrible. But is dying by gas really worse than dying from a bullet in the gut, or a traumatic brain injury, or radiation poisoning? Is there really a good way, as opposed to a bad way, to suffer and die in a war? Ask those living and dying in war zones to split such hairs.

Perhaps then the red line concerns the identity of the victims. The conventions of modern warfare justly prohibit the targeting of civilians. Those who were gassed in Syria were apparently innocents, not soldiers or rebelstheir murder was criminal, barbaric. But most of the 100,000 Syrians killed by conventional weapons in that bloody civil war have also been innocents. Their slaughter is just as heinous. In modern warfare the distinction between combatant and civilian seems to matter little, if at all.

This red line is proving troublesome, isn’t it? Its significance is hard to analyze. But its cryptic quality may itself be a clue to its nature. It may be that crossing this red line is “taboo” because it leads us into the mysterious realm of our most primal fears. As a species we typically dread falling victim to the unknown, the unseen, the uncontrollable, the unstoppable. We fear being at the mercy of blood-thirsty gods who suddenly (and invisibly) come among us, indiscriminately killing, like poison gas. The red line exists to keep us a safe distance from them. When that line is transgressed, no words can save us, or express our terror.

President Obama called the use of chemical weapons “an assault on our human dignity.” I would submit that all warfare, even when undertaken in self-defense, is such an assault. There is no warfare that is not terrible. Every war, every act of violence, is a crossing of the red line into the realm of our worst fears. Ask those suffering in Syria if it is not so.
Therefore the question of whether the U.S. will retaliate militarily against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons must be debated with utmost seriousness. And the possibility of not retaliating must be a very real option on the table.

To not retaliate, to not attack, doesn’t mean to do nothing in the face of evil. It means to do better than what’s been done. We’re capable of “better.”

Let’s not make the red line run redder still, with even more blood.

Phyllis Cole-Dai