Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Inner Life of Nonviolence

Clark Hanjian, coordinator of the Satyagraha Institute in August of 2015, was also the leader of an "Inner Life" session each day during the two week event. 

He has compiled those materials in a package available to all. We present the site where they are available to you, hoping that you might find in them a deeper path to your own way of living nonviolence.

Carl Kline

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Recently I took a trip abroad to a place I’d never imagined I’d be visiting – Cuba. I had the opportunity to travel there for an American Foreign Policy course my school was offering. I went into the experience not really knowing what to expect other than cars from the 1950s that my dad insisted I take tons of pictures of. What I gained from the experience was more than I ever imagined. Being immersed in a completely different culture and way of life for 10 days can really have an effect on someone. 

The first thing that surprised me about Cuba was the history. I’ve taken courses in Latin American politics and learned about Cuba’s extensive history, but being there and seeing it first hand was something I never expected. Walking through Old Havana, you could see old forts that looked more like castles, military camps, and architecture that resembled what you’d find in Italy, Spain, or France. It was not just run-down shacks that most Americans        envision. It was so much more than that.

One of the most amazing aspects of Cuba was the vibrancy of the culture. It was apparent within the first couple of days that the Cuban people valued the arts much more than we do in the U.S.. There were beautiful paintings and murals everywhere, art galleries around every corner, and schools dedicated to art, music, dance, and theatre throughout Cuba. The elementary school we visited had the artwork of the students on display throughout the room, and our group consensus was that these fourth grade and fifth grade students were better artists than most of us. It was apparent that they did not have to drill their students with the information to pass standardized tests like we do here in the U.S. Children were exposed to all aspects of learning, from art and music to science and gardening. Learning first hand was a major component of the Cuban school system.

My biggest takeaway from my time in Cuba, and something I think all Americans could learn from, is the desire of the Cuban people to follow their dreams. When we met with a doctor to discuss the medical system there, one of our group members asked if they were lacking medical professionals because so much more money could be made in industries like tourism. She almost seemed as if she hadn’t ever thought about it, and explained that if that’s the case, they weren’t meant to be doctors, saying she was born to be a doctor. She went into the profession because she wanted to help people, not because of the pay, and that was truly beautiful.

People chose a profession that they were passionate about, and you could see the effects of that. The culture was vibrant because Cuba is filled with artists, musicians, and dancers. The people weren’t just worried about finding a career where they make the most money, and although they may not have had as much materially, they seemed so much happier. We need to take a lesson from our Cuban neighbors, slow down, and do what makes us happy. Once we stop living for money, we will truly live. 

Kathryn Meggan Ust

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jesus & Guns

There are far too many people who read Scripture without any context. I'm grateful to Walter Wink, a New Testament scholar who opened my eyes to the context of "turn the other cheek."

According to Wink, in the time of Jesus it was alright to backhand your slave, your wife, your child, your inferior; to put them "back in their place." Since the right hand was the only hand you used for human interaction (the left was reserved for wiping one's bottom, still a custom among the poor in many places), you would backhand your inferior on the right cheek, the only cheek where backhanding would work. According to the laws of the day, this was allowable.

When Jesus says to the slave or wife, "turn the other cheek," he's not saying be a doormat for Jesus. The abuser can't backhand on the left cheek. The only option is a fist to the face. According to the laws of the day, that was not allowable! That was assault, even in the patriarchal society of that time.

Jesus is saying to the abused person, be fearless. Stand your ground in dignity as a child of God. Make your abuser recognize you as their equal and if they are going to unlawfully hit you, they will strike you as an equal. 

The other two scenarios that follow in the Gospel of Matthew, in context, counsel the same moral jiu jitsu, putting the burden of being in the wrong on the abuser. 

Most Bible translations also have Jesus saying "resist not evil." Wink contends this is a mistranslation, likely from the time of King James, when the King had a personal investment in having his subjects believe evil shouldn't be resisted. Wink claims the sentence should be translated "resist not evil in the usual way." 

And the usual way of resisting evil, then, as now, was violence. 

I'm not a Greek scholar. But thinking about it, I can't understand how Jesus would tell us not to resist evil. Isn't that what his whole life was about, resisting evil? Whether it was the work of demons, the oppressive laws and actions of the religious and political elites or the money changers in the temple, he resisted evil to the point of crucifixion.

Nowhere in the Gospels can I find Jesus suggesting we use violence or get weapons, even for self defense. But unfortunately, I still recall the church that wanted to start a men's group. In order to assure a good attendance they raffled off several free guns. And recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. counseled all the students at the "Christian" Liberty University, to buy guns and carry them, as he does; ostensibly, to take out any Muslims that might come their way. 

Let's face it. People with guns kill people. People with guns get angry, get fearful, get threatened, get drunk, get stupid. People with guns have an easy response to threat, especially a gun that's concealed and carried. Even if Jesus is in the heart, the gun is quickly in the hand.

This past month it wasn't just a massacre in California, following on a similar bloodletting in Colorado. There was also the guy in Texas who didn't like his neighbor parking in front of his house. When he told him to move the car and was denied, he shot his neighbor in the head. 

Didn't Jesus say, love your neighbor?

Or how about the waitress in the Mississippi Waffle House. She told a customer he couldn't smoke in the restaurant, they argued, and he pulled a gun from his waistband and with one shot to the head killed her. All over a cigarette.

People with guns are dangerous. It's not a backhand today. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser, if the abuser owns a firearm. And firearms are used more than any other vehicle in suicide. We have even coined the phrase in this country "suicide by cop." Is it any wonder, with guns in every home and on every street corner, that we have a climate of fear and terror permeating the very fabric of the culture. We only seem to know how to escalate, not de-escalate conflict.

And in the midst of it all, people like tough talking Donald Trump, encourage the "roughing up" of contrary voices, the beating of the homeless as some of his followers get "a little carried away," and as of late, celebrating "how his poll numbers go up" with every new massacre. My God, what have we become?

In the Senate on December 3, our two Senators in South Dakota both voted against:  (1) permitting the Attorney General to deny the transfer of firearms or the issuance of firearms and explosives licenses to known or suspected dangerous terrorists; (2) ensuring that all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a firearm are listed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and providing a responsible and consistent background check process; and (3) improving mental health and substance use prevention and treatment.

Both Senators should be retired as quickly as possible, after apologizing to all the family members of the gun dead on their watch. We need believers in Jesus, not the gun lobby, in Congress.

Carl Kline

Friday, December 11, 2015

If We Build It ...

For nearly three years now I have been watching the process of the building of a new drawbridge across the opening of Lagoon Pond.  It is an important stretch of road engineering as the bridge connects two of the main down-island towns and provides the most direct access to the island hospital for many residents.  The drawbridge also provides emergency access to a safe harbor for many boats when severe weather threatens.

The old bridge was built some 80 years ago, give or take a year or two.  A few years ago the drawbridge began to get stuck in the raised position when the weather interfered with the smooth operating of the lift mechanism.  This invariably happened in the heat of the summer when the bridge traffic was at its height, resulting in long lines of cars on either side of the bridge and great uncertainty about when the bridge would again become functional.

About five years ago, a temporary bridge was constructed alongside the old one and subsequently the original drawbridge was dismantled to make way for a permanent new bridge.

Almost daily trips into town over the temporary bridge provided a close up experience of the complexity of bridge building.  Long before anything appeared at the traffic level of the bridge, months of nearly invisible work took place as piles were driven deep into the sand beneath the water’s surface at the mouth of the lagoon.  Tons of steel reinforced concrete formed a massive foundation.  The hidden infrastructure took months to be completed before any of the more visible structure of the bridge could begin.  Gradually, the form of what would be our beautiful new bridge began to be visible and the work moved more quickly.  Just a week ago, after much anticipation and waiting, the first cars drove across the new bridge and the connection between the two towns was made secure for another few generations.

The process of bridge building became a visible metaphor for the process of building lasting relationships between individuals and communities and nations.  Much of the building was taking place as the US Secretary of State was in the Middle East attempting to broker a complex and peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  So much of the work was invisible – done out of sight.  

Indeed probably the most important part of the bridge will never be seen or appreciated by the thousands of drivers and bikers and walkers who will traverse its span in the coming years.  Very few people will be privy to all the secrets of engineering and construction that undergird the safe passage we will enjoy.  All that we will know is that we now have a much safer and much more dependable drawbridge that allows easy passage from one part of the island to another.

Such is the nature of diplomacy and statesmanship.  It is often a slow and subtle process, hidden from the view of the many.  We only know it is working because our lives are made a bit safer.  Much like bridge building, it is a slow and laborious process.  Waiting for the bridge to be finished often required a good bit of patience on the part of island residents when the road was closed down to one lane to permit work to continue, but the collective vision of a better bridge kept us from becoming too frayed at the edges during the process.

As our spirits are shattered over and over again by ever increasing occurrences of terrorist attacks and gun violence there is great temptation to consider violent and vengeful response - - something quick that will make a satisfying hit against the enemy - - an exercise of military power that will make a definitive statement.   The slow work of building invisible infrastructures that will create viable connections between human beings who distrust and hate each other is not very dramatic and it takes a long time for the results to become visible and effective.   But bridges can be built - - the practice of nonviolence builds the patience required - - - and therein lies hope.

Vicky Hanjian
Photos: Wikipedia, Vineyard Gazette

Saturday, December 5, 2015

I Have Seen Your Face as Seeing the Face of God

I share two recent experiences, each having challenged me to consider the nature of our engaging with others who are different than us, whether in ways great or small. Just before the Sabbath last week, I received a note from the Chassidic Talner community announcing an “emergency” Malaveh Malka. A Melaveh Malka, which means, “accompanying the queen,” is a gathering of learning, song, and food on Saturday evening following the Sabbath meant to help carry the spirit of Shabbat into the week. The small Talner synagogue had closed a few years ago. A Chassidic group that traces its line to Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (eighteen century), it is now a loosely organized community, remarkably open and accepting in its welcome to all. I had spent some six months praying with them prior to starting my own small synagogue, imbibing their spirit of learning, prayer, joy, and warmth. I was fascinated by the idea of an “emergency” Melaveh Malka, the invitation emphasizing the need to come together to sing and learn, most importantly just to be together in a time of such heartache. It was just following the murder of Ezra Schwartz, an eighteen year old from the Boston area spending the year in Israel, whom I realized many at the gathering would have known, and just after the Paris attacks, and so much else that we had enumerated in our own synagogue that morning. 

As much as I was drawn to attend, I hesitated, knowing that for all that joins me with that community, there would be very different assumptions and views of the world and of others underlying our presence at the table together. I decided to go, finding wholeness and affirmation in the presence of people I care for and in whose spirit I delight, whatever the differences between us may be. There were moments in which I felt discomfort and moments in which I felt comforted. I was asked to share a few words of teaching. Hesitant at first, I accepted the honor and was deeply moved by the response, underscoring in my own teaching that which every heart feels, that which is universal and beyond social or political views. We all know of heartache, however much our ways of responding to and expressing pain, and hearing the ache in another’s heart, may vary.

A few days prior to the Talner gathering, the very day on which Ezra was murdered, I had attended an inspiring interfaith gathering at Hebrew College, a local school of general Jewish and rabbinical studies. As part of the opening gathering, words of introduction were spoken that drew on the Torah portion called Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43). Jacob is making his way back to Canaan after twenty years, having fled his brother Esau’s anger and his threat to kill him for stealing the blessing and birthright of the firstborn. Word comes that Esau is approaching with four hundred armed men. With an elaborate plan in place to placate Esau, successive rows of mothers and children, herds and flocks were to precede Jacob in the hope of softening Esau’s heart. Suddenly Jacob went ahead, putting aside the elaborate plan in favor of direct and spontaneous encounter. We are told that Esau reciprocated, that he ran to meet him and embraced him, fell upon his neck and kissed him; and they wept (Gen. 33:4)

A short time later comes the verse that was offered by way of introduction to the interfaith gathering. Jacob has asked Esau to accept his gifts, which Esau declines, saying, I have plenty my brother. Jacob then says, “I have seen your face as seeing the face of God (Gen. 33:10). Expressing the purpose of the day’s gathering and of interfaith dialogue in general, the hope was offered that we strive to see the face of God in the other, especially in those who are different than us, those for whom we may feel unfamiliarity, and even some distrust. 

It is a beautiful thought and one that I hold to. Much of the commentary to that verse, however, is not so hopeful or open, reflecting some of the Jewish people’s struggle through time to find its place among the nations, the struggle that comes of being a minority, that comes in response to persecution. However real these dynamics are, the great challenge is to understand them and not be stunted by them. A classic rabbinic commentary sees Jacob’s words as flattery for the sake of survival, suggesting that amidst the realities of this world it is allowed to flatter the wicked. Sadly, this reflects an inability to hear Esau’s tears or see the possibility of change or openings toward new possibility. Offering a different view, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) writes: A kiss can be false but not tears that flow at such moments…. It is only when the strong, as here Esau, fall round the necks of the weak and cast the sword of violence far away, only then does it show that right and humaneness have made a conquest

Whether in relation to those of one’s own people whose particular Jewish, Christian, or Muslim choices may be different than our own, or in relation to others of a different path to God and life entirely, our challenge is to see the face of God in the other, to receive their tears, and to seek a way forward together. When invitation is offered to sit and share, to gather and learn, a connection is made that waits to be affirmed. It is up to us to respond. It is in the Torah’s own words, without need for commentary, that we learn the way of response from Jacob, words to be spoken with sincerity of heart to all whom we encounter on the way, “I have seen your face as seeing the face of God.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein
Picture by Peter Paul Rubens - The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624