Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Family Values

I'm never quite sure what people mean when they speak of "Biblical family values." It makes me wonder if they read the Bible. It makes me wonder if they're talking about how Abraham exploited his slave Hagar, or how Lot's daughters slept with their father, or how David lusted after Bathsheba and saw to it her husband died in war. 

Phyllis Trible has written a book called Texts of Terror. In it she writes about four women and their stories in the Hebrew Scriptures: Hagar, Tamar, Jephthah's Daughter and the Levite's concubine. The latter two don't even have names in the Bible. They were considered property and remain nameless. If you have the stomach for it, read their stories in Scripture. Whatever they tell us about the human condition and our relationship with God and each other,  they certainly don't suggest family values we are meant to emulate.

Then there's the New Testament. If you take Jesus and Paul at their word, it's better not to get married and have families. Neither one of them did, speculation about Jesus and Mary of Magdala aside. And if you look carefully for passages that say much about marriage, you'll look in vain. There's not really much advice about marriage when Jesus changes water into wine, although given the money people spend on marriages these days, that would surely help the bottom line.

Some family values folks still like to use the admonition in Ephesians, that wives should submit to their husbands just as children must obey their parents and slaves must obey their masters. Rachel Held Evans spent a year trying to live out some of these Biblical injunctions. In her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she describes her experiment in taking the Bible literally. Her subtext reads, "How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master.'" It's a serious book from someone who is a serious practitioner of the faith and a serious student of the Scriptures. And it certainly raises serious questions about some of the things still held up as family values.

The fact is, the American family has been and still is, changing dramatically. And whether we like it or not, family values are changing as well. We would do well to recognize that Scripture gives us a picture of all manner of families and the values they demonstrate. It's our task to draw from them acceptable behavior that is rooted in love, of God, neighbor and self. Like many of the characters in Scripture, we will make mistakes. But the Biblical stories should be a help to us in our stories.

A recent article in the AARP magazine (yes, I'm over 55) was called "The New American Family." It highlights interviews with six different families, representative of family life emerging in the U.S. The first family is a single mom, who adopted when she was financially and emotionally stable, had a second child through a sperm donor, and then married a divorced father of five. Talk about blended! 

You may be surprised, as I was, about the growing number of single moms. According to the article, the percentage of births to unmarried women has grown from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2012. This as the number of adults who are married has fallen from 72% in 1960 to 51% in 2012. Households consisting of a married couple and their children has fallen from 40% in 1970 to 19% in 2013.

Then there is the new multi generational family. There are now some five million households in the U.S. that include three or more generations living under one roof. Apparently, according to MN public radio, there are more young people in MN building smaller cottages, or separate living space on their property, for grandparents.

Interracial marriage was banned in some states until 1967. Today more than eight per cent of all families in the country are interracial in nature. The same is increasingly true of inter faith families. Rather than racial and religious differences acting as deterrents to marriage and stable family life, many now see bridging those differences as a way of enhancing and expressing family values.

We are seeing more same sex marriages and families. It seems ironic that those who most want to get married these days are the ones who meet all kinds of legal and cultural barriers. There are some, evangelical Christians even, who believe same sex couples may be the path to saving the institution of marriage.

The AARP magazine article also focuses on a mother and her autistic son (a family) and a boomerang family, where children return home. In 2010, 51% of men aged 18 to 24 lived with their parents, 47% of women.

Family life is changing. There are still such things as family values. But translating values from one culture and time period to another deserves our careful attention and reflection. We need to seek the deeper expressions of the human heart and spirit and apply them to the new realities. These deeper expressions can be found in Scripture, if we dig below the surface. The same can be said for present day family values. They are there. Let's get past the facade and look at what's really going on behind closed doors.

Carl Kline

Monday, July 21, 2014

Independence Day

Talking with some friends about places in Michigan, I was reminded of driving across the state once from Ludington on the West and exiting into Canada at Port Huron. For folks driving East and wanting to avoid Chicago and environs, the ferry across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin is a terrific alternative. It's a bit pricey, but not bad when you consider the gas you save and the headaches you forego. What better way to break up a long journey than with a boat trip, vehicle and all. Besides, coming into port at Ludington, you find a quaint beach town with a charm of it's own.

But this isn't meant to be a travelogue. I'm mainly interested in the town of Port Huron, especially as the U.S. celebrated Independence Day this month. Port Huron was the setting for some young people in June of 1962, dissatisfied with the way our country was failing it's ideals, especially in treating all people equally and in the growing and seemingly inevitable slide toward nuclear war.

It's been more than fifty years since the Port Huron Statement. Adopted at the founding convention of Students for a Democratic Society, it helped set a tone for a revolutionary movement that set out to change the country. When I went back and read that statement, it was as if it could have been written yesterday for the situation we face today. Although there have been some changes in the last fifty years racially, there are still many who are more "equal" than others. And although some of the nuclear weapons have been shelved and cold war tensions alleviated, the nuclear threat is always one terror cell or accident away. The challenges and call to values articulated in the Port Huron Statement are still the challenges and call to values so real for our time.

Consider some of the challenges the Statement identified (recognizing that in 1962 there wasn't much gender inclusive language).

"While two thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth's physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, it's goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, it's democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than 'of, by, and for the people.'"

Consider some of the values! "We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love. … Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity. … The goal of society should be human independence … This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism - the object is not to have one's own way as much as it is to have a way that is one's own."

And again, "In social change or interchange, we find violence to be abhorrent because it requires generally the transformation of the target, be it a human being or a community of people, into a depersonalized object of hate. It is imperative that the means of violence be abolished and the institutions - local, national, international - that encourage non-violence as a condition of conflict be developed."

And, "the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation."

Since these were students gathering in Port Huron, some of their greatest dissatisfaction lay with their educational institutions. For them, controversy that belonged in the halls of the academy was sacrificed for the sake of public relations; skills and services and silence were purchased by outside funders; curriculum changes seldom kept pace with the challenges of life outside the ivory tower; and of course, passion was considered the enemy of reason and un-scholastic.

These higher education problems are all too common today. They continue. Probably they've gotten worse, as public funding disappears, tenure is no longer a protection against dismissal, student debt has gone through the roof and coaches get CEO salaries.

The Port Huron Statement is good reading for any Independence Day, 1962 or 2014. It ought to be read alongside the Constitution. There are some ideas, especially among the amendments, that we might review and renew, if we truly want to call ourselves a democracy. Parades are OK, and fireworks, but we need to be rooted in some principles and values. SDS called us to them earlier. We need to be called again.

Carl Kline

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Child War Refugees

“Don’t put your children on trains and send them to America.”
--President Barak Obama, June 26,2014

President Obama has called the huge number of children crossing the southern border of the United States a “humanitarian crisis.” The president’s message to the families of these children, who are coming from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, is both simple and direct, “Don’t send your children.” Rather than simply telling the parents not to send their children, perhaps we should ask why the children are coming.

According to a report in Time magazine (June 30, 2014) 66% of the children from El Salvador, 44% of the children from Honduras and 20% of the children from Guatemala cited violence as the reason for leaving home. More dramatically, The World Post (04/10/2014) reports that in 2012 Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world: 90.4 per 100,000. Rounding out the top five countries that year were: Venezuela (53.7/100,000); Belize (44.7/100,000); El Salvador (41.2/100,000); and, Guatemala (39.9/100,000). Colombia ranked 10th (30.8/100,000). Besides coming to the U.S., children are fleeing to Nicaragua, Mexico and Belize. These countries have seen a sevenfold increase in their refugee population from 2008 to 2013.

The number of children coming to the U.S. began to increase after 2009, when 3,304 unaccompanied children were detained at the U.S. border. The most recent report shows over 40,000 children have come to the U.S. so far in 2014. The number is expected to be between 80,000 and 90,000 by the end of this year. Perhaps as many as 140,000 children will come in 2015.

We act surprised to see these children, but should we be?

Is it just a coincidence that 2104 marks the five year anniversary of a military coup in Honduras that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mel Zelaya? Romeo Vasquez, a graduate of the School of the Americas, which is housed in Fort Benning Georgia and is now called “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” and a company of soldiers under his command invaded the home of President Zelaya, abducted him, put him on an airplane and flew him out of the country to Costa Rica. School of Americas Watch (SOAW), an organization that for the last 30 years has been monitoring the School of the Americas and calling for its closure, reports that after the coup d’etat an ultra-right party with U.S. backing took control of the government.

For the last five years the government of Honduras has been on a campaign to militarize the judiciary and the country. A few “highlights” from 2014 are truth-telling and revealing. On April 9, 2014, Carlos Mejia Orellana, a human rights activists was murdered. On May 3, 2014, Rigoberta Lopez, an environmental and anti-mining activist was tortured and killed. A special unit of the National Police known as COBRAS attacked members of the LIBRE (the Liberty and Refoundation Party) on May 13, 2014. Mel Zelaya was among those who were assaulted. On May 16, 2014, Delmar Anibal Duarte, the Mayor of Iriona, Colon was assassinated.

SOAW reports that School of Americas graduates are working in concert with the U.S. corporate interests, and with the knowledge of the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, a career diplomat with extensive service in the Americas.  Ambassador Kubiske supported the formation of a military unit, COBRAS, and a police-military unit, TIGERS and their training by U.S. Special Forces and the Colombian Jungle School in mountain operations, intelligence and rural operations. The importance of this type of cooperation has been underscored by Hondran Defense Minister Marlon Pascua and the U.S. Southern Command. The Honduran government also maintains working agreements with the governments of Colombia, Guatemala and El Salvador.

On March 29, 2014, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez inaugurated a program called “Guardians of the Fatherland,” which works with children and youth between the ages of 5 and 23. Each year 10,000 new recruits are brought to military facilities for formation in morals and values and training for leadership in other government programs.

Given this history it is important to name things correctly and accurately. The crisis on our southern border is not a “humanitarian crisis.” It is a refugee crisis. And telling parents not to send their children is not the answer. The children are coming because of what is happening in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They are coming because death squads trained by the School of the Americas and supported by U.S. diplomatic and military policy are turning their country into a war zone. The so-called “War on Drugs,” which is often given as the reason for this militarization and repression, is a failed policy that is creating failed states.

The children are refugees. They are the first wave of a peace brigade. They have come to tell us that it is time to close the School of Americas. It is time to end this insane war.

David Hansen

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Right Speech

Torah discussions at the synagogue we attend are always animated and interesting. The congregation is diverse in its beliefs and in its political sympathies. Being the only synagogue on the island means that this is where Jews of all stripes gather to pray and study together - - and more than a few non-Jews like myself find a home there as well.

Inevitably, the study on this particular Shabbat took us to reflecting on the recent deaths of 3 young Israelis and 1 young Palestinian.  And just as inevitably, strongly held opinions and emotions were expressed about the very complex issues and dangers, sufferings and sorrows, guilt and responsibility. It was an uncomfortable morning - - but it is the nature of this diverse community to be able to sit in the same room and vehemently disagree about issues, to continue on with the Torah service to its conclusion and then to sit at table and eat a meal together - - often continuing the discussion that began in the sanctuary.  Speaking to and with each other, even and especially when we disagree, is a critical element that holds the life of the community together and we often know holiness in the midst of us.

Just last week, we read together the portion of Torah in which Miriam, the sister of Moses, has died.  In the tradition, Miriam was perceived as the reason why the Israelites always had a source of water with them as they traveled – a rock from which water flowed, often referred to as Miriam’s Well.  With Miriam’s death, that source of water dried up and the people were thirsty and rebellious.

To help Moses counter the rebellion, Hashem directs Moses and his brother Aaron: speak to the rock before their eyes….(Numbers 20:8). However, Moses uses a rod and strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it – and the water flows.
In one rabbinic understanding, the phrase “before their eyes” means that the people (Israel) were to witness an act of speechThat is why both Moses and Aaron are commanded; speak is in the plural form. The sages refer to this in the teaching that whenever two are engaged in Torah, the shekhinah is present between them.  Here, the whole intent was to invoke the Shekhinah’s presence – the immanent presence of the Holy One in the midst of the people - through the command to speak.

Most of the miraculous works that Moses did in his journeys with Israel were done through the medium of speech.  According to the Jewish mystical tradition in the  Zohar,  Moses, through speech, represents  awareness.  The sages argue that speech alone would have brought water out of the rock, but, in anger, Moses struck the rock twice instead and by hitting the rock, he brought about forgetfulness – a fall from speech to action -  with the implied loss of the presence of the Shekhinah.  In the mystical teachings, action represents a kind of forgetfulness. Moses became angry, replaced speech with action, and struck the rock.  The sages further comment that “whoever is angry, the Shekhinah disappears from him.”

I have been rumbling around with these teachings and commentaries ever since I read them a couple of weeks ago, as the world of action moves inexorably in the direction of great damage and suffering.While there may be many diplomatic endeavors involving speech going on just out of the public eye, it appears that as human beings we are increasingly exercising action, born of fear and anger, that represents a forgetfulness of our own humanity.  

As a human community, we live always at the interface between speech and action.  When we are able to speak with one another, stay in the same room in the face of disagreement, respect one another’s position, the possibility of entertaining the Holy is there.  Often, adequate and sufficient speaking with one another leads to creative action for the benefit of all.  In that kind of action the awareness or consciousness of the Holy is not forgotten but realized.  Action that arises out of fear and anger leaves us bereft of the Presence of Holiness in our midst.

The notion of speech between human beings in the service of wholeness and reconciliation lends a world of meaning to the phrase I so often hear coming from parents to their young children when frustration grows and fights are about to break out: “Use your words! Use your words!”

In the Buddhist tradition of the Eightfold Path that flows out of the 4 Noble Truths, Right Speech - - speech that is clear, truthful, uplifting and not harmful - - comes just before Right Action, an ethical foundation for life based on the principle of non-exploitation of oneself or others.  

The sequence seems to reinforce the notion that with the discipline of careful speech may come the ability to act with care –and perhaps even to become aware of what is holy in our midst.  The possibility that one may flow from the other offers hope - - if we can only keep speaking to one another. 
 Rabbi Art Green in Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s able Vol.2 , Jewish Lights Publishing  Woodstock, VT. citing Tsemah Ha-Shem Li-Levi p.43

Vicky Hanjian

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Immigrant Crisis at U.S. Border

The ‘free-trade’ agreements, NAFTA and CAFTA have caused more inequality, devastated the local agricultural economies in Mexico and Central America, and pushed their agricultural workers into poverty –causing them to flee to the U.S. border. 
The agreements have given the U.S. maximum access to Latin American resources and markets, while the U.S. has conceded very little to them. U.S. corporations have profited on their investments in the energy, financial, textile, manufacturing and agricultural sectors in Latin America, but Mexican firms – in particular - have been blocked in their efforts to access those same U.S. sectors. The trade agreements ended most of its agricultural subsidies and manufacturing tariffs in Mexico and other countries, but the U.S. was allowed to keep its subsidies intact.  
Before NAFTA, almost 75% of all agricultural production in Mexico was from communal farming areas called ejidos. The ejidos encompassed 29,000 communities and three million producers. This cultivated land was not titled to anyone. In fact, the Mexican constitution recognized ejidos as a social, cultural, and economic pact among community members for the use and cultivation of communal land, indefinitely. The land could not be bought and sold, but it was divided into separate family holdings that could be handed down to heirs.
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari eliminated the constitutional right to ejidos in 1991 in preparation for NAFTA. Existing ejidos were not dissolved, but the change in the law allowed community members to title, buy and sell their parcels. The change also ended the government subsidies that helped the ejidos through lean times.
After NAFTA, many farmers were given title to their parcels of land; however they could not compete with the subsidized products like corn and grains from the U.S.  NAFTA ended all government subsidies in Mexico for beans and corn, but it did not prohibit subsidies for U.S. farmers. In fact, U.S. subsidized corn was exported to Mexico at 19% below the cost of production.
The flood of cheap U.S. corn, in particular, was devastating to the Mexican economy and social fabric. Not only is corn a healthy food staple for the poor, the crop supported 40% of all Mexicans working in agriculture – about three million farmers. NAFTA effectively drove 1.3 million Mexican farmers out of business. The monthly income of a self-employed farmer dropped over 80% in the first ten years of NAFTA.  
You would think that a Mexican farmer with a title to a parcel of land would be economically empowering.  That would be true, if the farmer had enough other assets, like farm equipment, to start-up and make it on his or her own. Many small farmers did not have enough assets to satisfy a lender for a farm equipment loan. Also, it is difficult to negotiate a good selling price for a small amount of corn or other crop. The greater economic buying and selling power of a collective group of farmers was what sustained many agricultural communities before NAFTA.    
The carefully crafted NAFTA treaty allowed the free-flow of capital, goods and services from the U.S. to flood Mexico, but it did not allow the flow of labor across the border.  What happens when NAFTA and CAFTA dissolve a market that collective farming communities have depended on for generations?  You create a large displaced group with few options. They flee to wherever they can find a job using their limited skills, so they can feed themselves and their families.  
The United States is reaping the harvest of the seeds sown by NAFTA, and now CAFTA. The bitter fruit of undocumented, economic refugees – and now their CHILDREN - have flooded the southern border. Meanwhile, the profits of Big-Ag and multinational corporations have never been higher.  The Dow Industrial Average just hit 17,000 points.
Rather than talk about the politics that target the symptoms (blaming undocumented immigrants), we should be focusing on the root causes of the immigrant crisis. NAFTA and CAFTA have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups in Latin America, the failed ‘war on drugs’ has enflamed the narco-violence and political corruption in the countries to our South, and the sum of the two has multiplied the refugees with little choice but to immigrate to the U.S. 
Do we want to stop the immigrant crisis?  Let’s start by renegotiating ‘free trade’ agreements, lessening U.S. farm bill subsidies to a more reasonable level, and diverting the money already being spent on military aid/arms, to funding infrastructure (construction) and other development that creates jobs. In short, turn arms into ploughshares!
Michael Aumack
Guest Blogger