Wednesday, April 30, 2014

War Veterans

I keep thinking about that veteran I visited at Sacred Heart Hospital. He and his wife were on the church membership list so I stopped by his room. His wife was with him. He wasn't very talkative, waiting for the likely removal of one of his legs. He'd lost some of the other one on a previous visit. It soon became clear there were other significant health issues as well.

His wife was more talkative than he was. She related a long history of one health problem after another. All, according to her, because he was one of those soldiers the U.S. army walked into the first atomic test explosions out in Nevada, without adequate protection or preparation. I'd read about how those men had been used as guinea pigs. I hadn't ever expected to meet one.

It's an education in how our government treats soldiers to go back and look at some of those old nuclear weapons testing films  They are out there on the internet. You can watch soldiers walking through the area where a nuclear weapon has just been detonated, while some of the test vehicles, etc. are still burning. Then the government claimed ignorance about harmful health effects from radiation exposure. They pretty much do the same thing today.

I'm thinking about this for a couple of reasons. First, there's an update on the twenty first century equivalent of the Nevada nuclear test. 

It's about those naval personnel who were exposed to dangerously high levels of radioactivity on the U.S.S. Reagan, off the coast of Japan, when the tsunami and nuclear meltdown happened. The sailors have filed a new $1 billion lawsuit against Tepco, the Japanese company responsible for the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The suit says Tepco deliberately lied about the dangers and thereby exposed them to the various illnesses so many of them are now suffering. The list of plaintiffs grows monthly, with as many as 70,000 U.S. citizens affected and potential participants in the class action suit.

It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. Navy was aware of the danger when it took action to move the ship farther out to sea. Naval officials were communicating with Japanese officials about the extent of the radioactivity. Still, the Navy denies the ship suffered heavy exposure. And, the Navy can't be sued. 

The army couldn't be sued by the soldiers sent into the Nevada desert either. Just as the military never took much responsibility for the impact of agent orange on its own troops in Vietnam. Nor is it taking responsibility for what the use of depleted uranium in Iraq has done to veterans, let alone the population of that bitterly divided and much destroyed country.

The U.S.S. Reagan is a hot potato. Nobody wants it. At the moment the $4.3 billion carrier is parked in San Diego, CA. Ports in Japan, S. Korea and Guam turned it away. Critics say it is too radioactive to operate or scrap. The Navy has exposed additional personnel trying to scrub it down. Many believe it will have to be sunk, like other ships contaminated in the atomic tests in the South Pacific.

Another reason I'm thinking about veterans left in the lurch is because of the recent vote in the U.S. Senate. There was a proposal to increase benefits for the nation's 22 million veterans in health, education and job training programs. Republicans killed it with one of those "we don't have to filibuster" filibusters. There were only 56 votes in favor, a simple majority. It needed sixty.

Ironically, the nay sayers killed it because they didn't like the idea of just "talking" to Iran instead of increasing sanctions. The same folks who would deny help for those who already served in U.S. wars, are the same ones who would work to increase hostility and potential conflict with another adversary. 

A recent book by Ann Jones is called, "They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars - The Untold Story." It will likely be the anti-war book of this generation. She contends that war is a recent human invention and we happen to be the most creative inventors. Billions for more high tech weaponry, like drones, but little to nothing for the boots on the ground. 

When our representatives in Congress voted to cut food stamps, that impacted 900,00 U.S. veterans. According to CNN Money, new soldiers with a spouse and one child earn $20,000 annually and in 2013 the department of defense found that in military stores, food stamps accounted for $100 million in spending.

The latest statistics from the Veterans Administration count 22 suicides a day. Thousands of vets are homeless. Homicides committed by active duty and veteran troops rose 90 per cent between 2001 and 2007. And in the meantime, Halliburton and other war contractors are raking in the billions. By 2008 in Iraq, private contractors had taken in $138 billion in profits; with Halliburton alone snatching $39.5 billion.

If you're young and thinking about the military, maybe you should read that book by Ann Jones and talk to recent and long ago vets about their experience. Get an honest appraisal from the experts, not the pious preaching of the recruiters or the patriotic parroting of the press. If you examine the way our government has treated lots of folks in the past, you'll understand you'll be disposable property.

Carl Kline

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wild Things

There was a film on public TV the other evening about a man and his mule deer "family." Now it's not uncommon for dogs and cats to become part of the family, or other domesticated animals like cows or sheep, or even fish or parrots. But these weren't domesticated mule deer. They were in their natural element and the man in the film went to them. 

It took two and a half years of Joe Hutto quietly and unobtrusively observing the deer in their environment, before one of the females, the leader of the small herd, made her way to him and initiated first contact.

In the film, Hutto presents and narrates his story of bonding with the deer. Taking place in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, near his ranch, the relationship with the herd develops over the space of seven years. He knows the names of all the deer in the herd and they respond to his naming when he calls them. He grieves when they fall prey to illness or predators or hunters. He celebrates the birth of each new generation. He models a way of being with other creatures that reminds one of indigenous ways and resonates with the duty in Genesis to name and care for the creatures.

I was moved by Joe's story. It reminded me of the caretaker of the bison herd on the Cheyenne River Reservation. When a group of us met with him, he spoke about sitting and watching the herd. He observed family interactions. He became knowledgeable about characteristics of individual animals and gave them names. He observed the dynamics between males and females and the dynamics of power and leadership. He spent hours watching and listening, just observing. He knew the herd.

I was moved enough by Hutto's story that I've tried to be more observant today. There were several minutes spent at the kitchen window watching the mourning doves warm their wings and bodies after a cold and snowy night. And like a year ago, I observed a territorial robin. Maybe it's the same one from last year, fat and not able to eat all the raisins we'd put out, but unwilling to share them with any other. This morning the fat one kept another robin from approaching the feeder.

Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller are part of a tiny house movement. They have constructed their house in Colorado. Using recycled materials from thrift stores and junkyards and supplies from IKEA and hardware stores, they recently hosted a tour of the 127 foot space. I think they have a hankering for the wild things.

They are part of a growing number of young people who want to live as much as possible off the grid, in God's creation, not man's. How can you get to know mule deer or birds if there aren't any where you live? And how much time do we have left to know any wild creatures, given the exponential nature of species extinction as humans take up more and more of our global space? And how much poorer are we with each new disappearance?

I've come to appreciate the thinking of Saint Bonaventure on the nature of the creatures. A Franciscan, he followed in the footsteps of his namesake Saint Francis. He appreciated the other than human creatures. For him, creatures were the "footprints" of God. And for Bonaventure, we needed each and every one of them in order to recognize the glory and grandeur of God. The loss of any species diminished God's glory. The good saint may have been one of the earliest environmentalists, motivated by a spiritual grounding, as are many environmentalists today.

On my first trip to India I learned something new about personal space. Going from Aberdeen, SD, after college, to Seminary in New York City, was one kind of transition. You could have put all of Aberdeen in Grant Houses, just down Broadway from where we lived. But getting off the plane in Mumbai, India and trying to get through customs, I had my first experience of not knowing where my body ended and another body began. That rather mystical and intensely physical experience occurred a second time on a train leaving a Mumbai station. When you live in a country with one fifth of the world's population, your sense of personal space is reduced, of necessity.

Unfortunately, as a larger human community, we are encroaching unceasingly on the space needs of all of the wild things. Witness the belligerence of Cliven Bundy, the rancher in Nevada, USA, who believes he has a right to graze his cattle wherever he pleases, endangered species and the public interest be damned. And as humans continue to populate the planet and exploit it's resources, land and soil, water and ancient mineral deposits, there is less and less space for the wild things. And something fundamentally human and intimately religious is lost. 

Psalm 24 reads, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." You don't have to be religious or Native American or a reader of Scripture to recognize that we don't own, and can't own, what's wild and free. Like Joe Hutto, we can watch the wild things and treat them like family. But ultimately, they have their own place in a world that should be, large enough for all. As humans, maybe we need to construct tiny houses, limit our rapacious desire for "more" and observe the glory that's still around us.

Carl Kline
Photos & Story from Public Broadcasting System

Friday, April 18, 2014

Healing Music

A recent Tenors concert at the Performing Arts Center here in Brookings was awesome. Aside from the fact that you had four of the most powerful and musically intelligent singers on the planet, these men were also personable and eminently able to interact with the audience. It was one of those times in my life where I wished I could do that outrageous whistle thing through the teeth. I wanted to respond in the most appreciative way possible, and I'm convinced the rest of the full house felt the same way. 

One of the tenors spoke about the healing power of music. I was personally aware of how their music had been healing for me during a time of pain and surgery. Talking with a friend the other day, he also reinforced the idea music heals, from his own life and the lives of others he knew. The music at the concert was certainly healing and uplifting. It also reminded me of the healing music of Jack Leroy Tueller, from Bountiful, Utah.  

A World War II veteran, Jack tells the story of how one night shortly after D-Day and after witnessing the killing of innocent civilians, he decided to play his trumpet as a way to relieve stress. He was warned not to play as a sniper was still nearby. He played anyway, a German love song. In the morning, the 19 year old sniper surrendered, asking, "who played that trumpet last night." The young man confessed he couldn't fire anymore after being soothed by that familiar love song.

Most of us have heard that other story out of World War II, where on Christmas eve someone began singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem," only to hear it echoed across the enemy lines. Those who had been intent on killing each other ended up meeting and befriending each other through music, if only for a few hours, in honor of the Prince of Peace.

The Tenors concert left me feeling good through the next day, Saturday. Then on Sunday, I heard the program "On Being" on public radio with Krista Tippett interviewing Bobbie McFerrin. Talk about an astute musician with talent, wit and personality. McFerrin must be one of the most original musical talents on the planet. If you aren't sure about that, or aren't familiar with him, check out "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and the "23rd. Psalm" on You Tube or observe his ability to involve the audience at the "World Science Festival" clip or the "Sing: Day of Song" (amazing improvisation) you can also find there.

But more than anything I wanted to mention what McFerrin said about music in the interview. McFerrin mentioned that the best reaction to his music he had ever received was after a concert. When he engaged the audience in questions and responses, a woman stood up and said with great feeling,"you make me feel soooo good." That's why he does what he does. According to McFerrin, "I want them to have feelings of joy from the depths of their being."

At least three other comments from the interview struck me as insightful, to the point where I had to write them down. McFerrin said, "the best way to deal with temptation is to sing." So instead of reaching for whatever fuels our addictions, we reach for the low and high notes of our musical scale. 

A second idea he shared was that "we are embodied memories of our ancestors." I'd heard something similar in a book by Nikos Kanzanzakis, the great Greek author of "Zorba the Greek" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." In his book "Saviors of God," Kazantzakis suggests our forebears, far back into the ages long ago, continue to influence us, especially in our striving and climbing, ever higher and higher into the future. We carry the ancestors with us.

The third idea was that "the breath is the way of uniting mind, body and spirit." For one raised with a Biblical understanding, this confirms the profound nature and possibility of singing. If as the book of Genesis says, God enlivens the human person  with the "breath of life," when we use that spiritual gift to produce a replica of the harmony of creation and the breath of the Creator, especially with others, something mystical and magical happens. And those of us on the listening end are filled with a new spirit and an abundance of joy.

Listening to a speaker in India once, we were sitting on a hard concrete floor. With little sleep the night before, I was feeling drowsy and having trouble listening. All of a sudden the speaker spontaneously broke into song. She had a powerful voice and in that space the sound bounced off the walls and vibrated inside the body. It took my breath away! And gradually, I realized the song fit the spoken text. It was just being communicated in a medium that woke us all up and opened our ears for inspiration.

Perhaps you too, feel as I do, like Wordsworth, that "The World Is Too Much With Us: Late And Soon." I'm  able to understand why so many young people have wires running into their ears. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" Maybe, because it unites mind, body and spirit, music can help save us. Maybe it can be our Triton blowing his wreathed horn.

Carl Kline

Friday, April 11, 2014

Late Thoughts on the Keystone Pipeline

I have been trying—now and then—to follow the “to be or not to be” debate on the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. And I have had occasional conversations with people who present themselves to me as being well-versed and knowledgeable about the ins and outs, pros and cons, of this project. I have felt overwhelmed most of the time. I am dismayed by the actions of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who seem to present a united front supporting the project. The President said he would make a decision in 2013. Now it is 2014. Is he really undecided, or just unwilling to make a decision, or has he made up his mind and just stalling?

I know that $7 billion is a ton of money, and jobs are jobs. As an affiliate member of my local labor federation I am pledged to support unions, and unions support the pipeline because it means jobs. And I do support unions because union members have more job security, better wages and over the long haul unions have made this a much better country.

The corporate elite support the pipeline because it means money in their coffers. And, I say this only somewhat cynically, politicians support it because they know that corporate leaders and lobbyists vote with dollars, and they have the power to influence others. The economic and political cards seem to be in their favor.

On the other side many residents, farmers and just plain folk oppose it; as do environmental organizations and activists. It’s a lot of people numerically and they are not without resources, but it feels like a battle of David and Goliath, especially these days when you throw in all the talk about the need for “energy independence.” Although from what I’ve read it seems like the stuff that could flow through the pipeline will be sent overseas. It is not for domestic use.

One plus to come out of the debate is that we are all being educated about the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer—that giant underground lake that supports life in what was once called “the great American desert.”

To my chagrin I am coming late to this table of discussion. I have been moved to write not because I have been persuaded by experts who argue pro and con, for and against, the pipeline. I have finally been moved and persuaded by Native American relatives like Faith Spotted Eagle, an elder in the Yankton Sioux Tribe, who was quoted in a Washington Post article that appeared in the March 1, 2014 edition and was posted online. The article was written by Rob Hotkainen. I have never met Faith Spotted Eagle and as far I know we have no familial ties. My sense is that she and other Native peoples who oppose the pipeline are speaking out of a spirituality of respect for the earth and all living things. I am learning from Native peoples that we need to experience ourselves as part of creation, rather than as separate from it.

We worry without end about the threat of terrorist violence, but seem to pay no heed to ecological violence at our doorstep and the threat it presents. We are consuming the house we live in. Something like six percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, and we consume close to 60 percent of the entire world’s wealth, and we want to have energy independence. What kind of madness is this? The ancients called it “greed.”  It’s time to talk about sin of greed in our churches. It seems like that would be a fitting sermon in the season of Lent.

Rev. David Hansen

Sunday, April 6, 2014

To Walk Humbly

The flyer announcing a program I participated in this week made me chuckle. It was an interfaith dialogue at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Franciscan center downtown. The flyer has at the top a picture of an imam, a rabbi, and a priest. The rabbi is me, the imam is Imam Talal Eid, with whom I have often participated in such discussions, and the priest is Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Unfortunately, Fr. Bergoglio is the only one who didn’t make it, because as Pope Francis he is quite busy. I love the picture, though, in its joining the three of us. We were in fact all part of the program, which was called, “Pope Francis – A Muslim and Jewish Perspective.”

In the context of interfaith dialogue, prior to the formal program, people gathered with each other at tables for informal discussion and sharing. I sat with a man who expressed concern that interfaith dialogue doesn’t allow us to see each other in context, as who we really are. He felt that the integrity of each faith is lost. Not able to know the other in the innermost way of their being, this man questioned whether interfaith dialogue was meaningful at all and whether we should engage in it.

I shared the man’s question as I began to speak in the formal part of the program. I then explained that through engagement with others and by learning about them, I learn more about myself. I set as a framework for reflecting on Pope Francis a verse from the prophet Micah (6:8) that since my chanting of it at my Bar Mitzvah has remained a guiding star in my life, Higid l’cha adam u’mah Hashem doresh mimcha/It has been told to you O mortal what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. As I have often shared, when I spoke at my Bar Mitzvah about what I had chanted, my mother asked me to make a slight addition, “to walk humbly with God and with people.” 
Acknowledging that my mother would have liked Pope Francis, I shared my own impressions and what I draw from him -- excitement, inspiration, and appreciation. I appreciate the mirror that he holds up for all of us, reminding us to look deeply at the relationship of our behavior to the beliefs we profess. In whatever ways our challenges are different, I also identify with the process of wrestling with the nature of change in a religious community that reveres tradition, a community in which the past lives in the present as we look to the future. 
If we use Micah as the lens, all facets of life come into focus. In his manner, the Pope asks me to look at my own sources and to consider a Jewish response to what I see in the world around me and within myself. His concern for the poor and the downtrodden reprsesents a bridge between the personal and the political. His personal humility is symbolic, representing what should be, underscoring that opulence in the midst of so much poverty is wrong. He makes me think of a story from the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud as compared to the Bavli, the more expansive Babyonian Talmud: 
Rabbi Chamah bar Chanina and Rabbi Hoshayah Rabbah, the Great, were walking among the (magnificent) synagogues of Lud. Rabbi Chamah bar Chanina said to Rabbi Hoshayah (seemingly with pride), "how much money did my ancestors sink here?" Rabbi Hoshayah said to him, "How many souls did your ancestors sink here?"
Walking humbly with God and with people, the Pope makes us think of how Moses is described as anav mikol adam/the humblest of people. Living and modeling values, he washes the feet of the poor and despised, kissing God’s image in a disfigured face. Living and modeling values, it is the day-to-day details that he challenges each of us to think about in the context of our own lives. It is about where and how Pope Francis has chosen to live; humble quarters, an ordinary car rather than the Papal limousine, paying his own bill for the room in which he stayed during the conclave that elected him as pope, appointing Cardinals from poor countries. In regard to gay people, the Pope said “who am I to judge?” The rabbis taught that we are to judge another according to kaf z’chut/the scale of merit. Not to judge another is only a beginning. The key is in how we act and stand in the other’s presence.

During the question and discussion period following the formal presentations, I was reminded of my earlier conversation as to whether interfaith dialogue is worth it, whether we can really know the other in their innermost being. A man began to challenge Imam Talal, going on and on asking about violence in Islam, about terrorists and about wife-beating. Imam Talal remained far calmer than I was feeling and he responded with nobility and compassion. I was probably less measured in my response, warning against the danger of assuming to know the inner struggles and challenges with which we all wrestle within our own traditions. From within, we meet the challenges of our own faith and people with love as we draw from deep roots. From within our own traditions we are part of a larger context in which beauty and emotional attachment nurtured throughout our lives cushion those elements of our own people and teachings that pains us.

In the week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1-11:47), we find the very middle of the Torah, the silent space between two words, darosh|| darash/seek||surely seek. That is the challenge for all people of faith, to seek deeply in the innermost places of who we are. It is true that we cannot enter that place of such depth in another’s soul, but in our engagement with each other we are touched by intimations of who they really are. And that is a gift that can only enrich us all. 

I am grateful to have spent an evening this week with an imam and a priest. Even if the priest could not make it, he was with us in spirit and his spirit touched me. Pope Francis has reminded me of just why the words I chanted at my Bar Mitzvah are so important to me. As my mother would have reminded the prophet Micah himself, so she would also have cautioned the Pope, and I believe he would have smiled, acknowledging that to walk humbly with people is to walk humbly with God.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Civil Rights & Wrongs: Thoughts on Religious Freedom

The current debate about the need to protect “religious freedom” reminds me in some ways of another debate that took place in this country in 1883, the year that the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land and water, theaters, and other places of public amusement. . . .” was unconstitutional. In explaining its decision the majority of the Court found that private acts of discrimination were simply private acts that the federal government was powerless to correct.

In the wake of the 1883 decision “indignation meetings” were held across the country in protest of the Court’s ruling; a ruling that paved the way for almost a century of racial segregation. The 1883 decision was not overturned by Congress until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The religious liberty act, so-called, professes to protect acts of discrimination because they are private acts of conscience that the government is powerless to correct. Let us assume for a moment that state legislatures and the courts want to return to 1883, and reverse the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the basic principles of a good law is that it can be enforced. How will we protect the religious freedom of those who want to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender persons? Obviously since the color of the offenders skin will not serve as an identity badge, we will need something else. We will have to enact legislation that will allow us to identify the people we want to discriminate against. Perhaps we could require them to wear a pink triangle?

I submit that this is a road we do not want to travel. It is time to call this type of legislation what it is: discrimination masking as religious freedom.

Reverend David Hansen