Friday, March 25, 2016

The Other

One of the reasons people sometimes have trouble understanding racism, is they have never been in a situation where they were in the minority. It can be frightening, sometimes terrifying. Because you never know if those of the other race might harbor hate or violence toward you. And whether you are able to consciously admit it, you know deep down that in your racial group, where you are in the majority, justice for the "other" may well be lacking.

One of the reasons people sometimes have trouble understanding other religions, is because they have never been open enough to encounter them. They are frightened by what they have heard and the stereotypes that are abroad. They are afraid people from another tradition will hate them or persecute them or try to convert them. And deep down, they know that their tradition has been capable of all those things. So they prefer being in their own bubble of religious truth, in an exclusive club, isolated from difference, unable to even engage and assess the truth of the "other."

One of the reasons people sometimes have difficulty understanding the movement for LGBT rights, is they have never met anyone of a different sexual orientation. They are afraid, even terrified, given the lack of information and misinformation that they receive. They might prefer that the "other" stay in the closet and not upset their worldview. Closets hide all kinds of things and for those fearful of difference, they would bury sexual orientation in the most remote corner.

One of the reasons people sometimes want to keep out refugees, is because they have never been one. They have always lived in a place where they had work and food, and shelter and schools and hospitals, and there were no bombs going off constantly in their neighborhood. Refugees are people with significant needs and they may require those with much, to give something up. This can be frightening, even terrifying to many. They think refugees could be so traumatized by poverty and war they might resort to theft or violence. And deep down, they know that their own government is in the habit of creating refugees and any coming to their land might harbor it against them. Refugees are the "others," dying in waters and on beaches someplace else. So let "others" deal with it.

One of the reasons people sometimes have difficulty with those with disabilities, is because they are sheltered from contact. If you work in a care center, teach special education, volunteer with a community organization, or even befriend a neighbor, you learn quickly how your new relationships bring you great satisfaction and inspiration. As one observes those who are overcoming major physical or mental difficulties, one must be challenged to overcome the minor ones in one's own life. One begins to recognize the "other" is also oneself.

One of the reasons people sometimes have difficulty accepting other nations or peoples, is because of history. It's difficult to face horrific events from the past. It can be frightening, even terrifying. Often people would rather repress those events and forget about them. Or those events are relived, day in and day out, keeping the anger and hate alive, with the hope of eventual vengeance or what some might loosely call "justice." Forgiveness for the "other" is not an option.

In our U.S. society, children learn exclusion early. Ask them. They can tell you who is the "other" in their classroom. It's the child who is avoided, alone on the playground. It could be a situation of race, religion, orientation (or being accused of being gay), disability, or nationality. Maybe the child's first language is not English and they "speak funny." Maybe they are from a homeless family and they "dress funny."

But if children learn there is an "other," it's usually because they are taught it by their elders. It's not in their genes. They weren't born that way. Certainly they recognize difference, but they don't categorize it as something to fear, or worse, hate. Usually difference in the young is a reason for curiosity and investigation, not alienation and exclusion.

It would be helpful if adults could be curious again. It would be helpful if adults could admit that they don't have all the answers nor do they always know what's right. If only adults could push a button and look at the world again with the eyes of innocence, an innate curiosity and a disposition to exhibit love over fear.

Perhaps, perhaps then, we could begin to recognize that the "other" is more similar to us than different. That the "other" is simply a human being with different features and experiences and backgrounds and commitments than ours. Perhaps then, the human family would have a chance to be a family.

Carl Kline

Friday, March 18, 2016

Social Salvation

One of the problems with western Christianity in our time is the focus on individual salvation. The claim is, all you have to do is believe (even, especially, the unbelievable) in the name of Jesus Christ and you are assured of salvation.

So people raised in families and church communities with this religious focus have little if any conception of the idea of "social salvation". And for those who take the Bible seriously as their authority, the major thrust of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament is missed or dismissed.

The Hebrew Scriptures are all about social salvation. Abraham was to be the father of a great "nation"! So Ishmael and Isaac are both important family members and make their contribution to the future but it's all about the beginning of a "people".

Then when you read the story of the Exodus, nobody is left behind. It wasn't like Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., where the old, infirm, poor and minorities were left to the fate of the flood waters. Before the Passover, people fed and took care of the widow and the neighbor. They shared the blood of the lamb. And they all crossed through the waters together. It's a story of social salvation!

When you get to the Hebrew prophets, they bring God's judgment on those who are basically self-concerned, with no interest in the well being of the other. The unjust and self-righteous sit around drinking wine while "selling the innocent for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes. They grind the heads of the poor into the earth and thrust the humble out of their way." When the prophet Amos communicates this message from God, the judgment is that the unjust and self-assured will be carried away on fish hooks and end up on a dunghill.

Even today, Judaism is about a "people" in a special relationship with their God. And that conception gets played out again and again in the nation of Israel.

When you come to the New Testament, the major story of Jesus and the development of the Christian community, once again it's mainly a story of social salvation.

The major teaching material from Jesus is found in the Gospel of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount. If one reads the Beatitudes they are all about the individual in relationship. How else can you read "how blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness"? Or what about the blessedness of the peacemakers? (I wish our "Christian" politicians would read those words about peacemaking again).

And most people read the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, never hearing the similar material as it reads in Luke. The reason is likely because Luke also includes the woes, against those who are rich, well fed, laughing and enjoying social status; while others are poor, hungry, grieving and hated. No wonder  the reading in Matthew is preferred over Luke in most U.S. churches. Most of us in the U.S. are rich and well fed compared to the rest of the world. Where individual salvation is stressed and social salvation is ignored, so is one's responsibility to those less fortunate.

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount continues the same theme. Jesus is talking about what this new way of being is like. It's called the Kingdom of God. It's not some individual fiefdom or some princely parliament or even some exclusive religious cult. It's a new and loving kind of human community where as the book of Acts says, they held everything in common and met the needs of each and everyone. It's about social salvation!

There are people among those who call themselves Christians, who are bent on exclusion and division. They are like the Jews hating the Samaritans, or the New Testament circumcised rejecting the Gentiles. They would make their path to the faith the one and only way. They would justify hate and violence against those choosing a different path to divinity. They would spread fear of difference and misuse scripture to justify racial and sexual prejudice. They would use religious and value laden excuses for pervasive and perpetual warfare that serves self-interest and leaves millions refugees and destitute in their own homelands.

An emphasis on individual salvation is the value root that excuses western culture for economic, political and military exploitation. It's a religious Darwinian idea of "survival of the fittest". "I believe! I prosper! I'm blessed! And the common good be damned!"

Christianity requires a love of neighbor. Democracy, especially economic democracy, insists on social salvation.

The Hebrew people had it right! So did Jesus! So have the saints and wise ones over the generations. Either we get there together or we won't get there at all. The Kingdom of God is here, now, if only we open our eyes and join it.

Carl Kline

Friday, March 11, 2016

Undivided: Rejecting the Rhetoric of Otherness

It was a park in the New Jersey neighborhood where he had grown up, an American Muslim of Egyptian parents. He had always felt safe, at home in the neighborhood. On that day, he and his wife were walking in the park, as any number of other couples, she, though, wearing a hijab. Suddenly he noticed a man ahead of them, a white man, stop and turn to reach into a fanny pack he was wearing. Instinctively, and yet without personal cause, a young Muslim touched by unspoken fear, in one motion of his arm he pushed his wife behind him. She was startled, questioning her husband with more than a touch of reproach and annoyance. They both looked ahead and saw the man whose presence had inspired fear drawing a Kleenex from his pack.

Now an imam in Boston, a humble sharing of his own inner struggle followed the telling of that incident in the park. However understandable on one hand, he shared his own distress with how he had responded to stereotype and fear of the “other.” That was the focus last night at the second in the series of GBIO (Greater Boston Interfaith Organization) gatherings in the “Conversation Series – Undivided: Rejecting the Rhetoric of Otherness.” We then gathered in small groups, urged to open up in sharing our own experiences of feeling “othered,” but even more importantly, to reflect on times when we have been the cause, whether in reality or through projection, of marginalizing and rejecting someone else as “other.”

As we shared around the table, it was much easier at first to tell of those times when we had felt as other, much easier to feel sympathy for ourselves amidst the hurt. Then we began to talk about the pain and confusion that comes of treating someone else as other. An African man spoke of growing up Christian in the Congo and then in Gabon. He spoke of fights between Christians and Muslims and of his efforts to challenge the prevailing views. So far away now in Boston, but all the same tensions, the same divides among people, regardless of whom the “other” is. He knew something was wrong, that he needed to act and to confront a haunting from the past, when his daughter came home from school and asked if Muslims are bad.

A Muslim man of an Indian family spoke of a road trip that he took with his parents through the American south. Having parked their car by a trailer park along the Gulf Coast, his mother was filled with curiosity for the way people lived. A dark-skinned Indian Muslim woman less than five feet tall, she announced that she was going to go and knock on the door of a nearby mobile home, that she just had to see what it was like inside. Her son pleaded with her not to go, remonstrating that these are white people in the south, underscoring the obvious danger. His protests to no avail, he watched his mother knock on the door, begin to explain, and then to enter. Soon she came back to the door and waved for son and father to come. A gift born of faith and courage, all were invited in to share in a fish dinner and the telling of disparate stories spun of one human cloth.

A young Jewish woman told of her discomfort with a man in her synagogue community who suffered from mental illness, who spoke so slowly and didn’t always make sense. She tried to keep some distance, not wanting to engage beyond pleasantries. She struggled with her feelings, with why she had treated him as “other.” Approaching Yom Kippur this year, she reached out and paused during that holy season of turning to really listen to him. She learned of his caring for others, of his fear of being rejected and left alone. In a quiet voice, she told of how grateful she is that she had transcended her own fear and reached out, for only the day before that man she had initially marked as “other” had died.

An African American Muslim woman spoke of her fear, and of her shame in feeling such fear, for people that look like her. The pain in her face was palpable as she described telling her daughter what to do if there is a shooting, to get down, to turn, to run; what to do if she sees someone stop in the street. Yes, perhaps someone could just be reaching for a Kleenex, but it could be a gun.

Moved by her brave sharing of fear for people like herself, of her own people, I spoke of feeling as other among my own people. I spoke of tensions in the Jewish community, of those who disagree even with such gatherings as we were so lovingly engaged in that evening. And in the process of feeling as other, of feeling maligned by other Jews, I realized how I had come to see them as “other,” even those of my own people as “other” in my consciousness, for how could I integrate their narrowness and disdain? I spoke of having tried to meet and carry on a dialogue once with such a fellow Jew. In the end it had come to naught, but now I tried to let that effort remind me of an intrinsic connection, however strained and twisted. Though my “other” had broken off the effort, I realized at the table and shared of my hope that I had to hold this one too with love, our differences not to be mediated by hostility.

In the weekly Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, we encounter the first two expressions of exhortation that occur thirty-six times in the Torah, the plea to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. That awareness is to be the source of our reaching out to others with understanding and love. We are told first, you shall not grieve a stranger who has come over to you, nor shall you oppress, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt/ki gerim he’yitem b’eretz mitzrayim (Ex. 22:20). And then we are told, and you shall not oppress a stranger – for you know the soul of the stranger/v’atem y’da’tem et nefesh ha’ger/because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9). Rabbenu Bachya (13th-14th century Spain) teaches, one does not need to ask whether the stranger is of one’s own people or not. He then goes on to instruct, it is for a person to awaken and expand their soul in the way of compassion so that one will be compassionate toward all creatures/she’yi’hi’yeh m’rachem al ha’bri’yot. Across time and space, of knowing the soul of the stranger, the Sabba of Slobodka, Rabbi Nosson Finkel (19th-20th century Poland) taught, one is obligated to feel and to participate in the joy and sorrow of another.

And so we did at the table last night, feeling each other’s joys and sorrows, moved by each one’s sharing. We are all of the same soul and so we are joined in the essence of our humanity, each one animated by the breath of God and formed in God’s image. In the end there is no “other,” our otherness simply as difference, itself a sacred source of connection. Of fear that shakes us and makes us ask why, as for the simple act of a stranger reaching for a Kleenex in a park, may fear be sneezed away, that we come to see each other as strangers no more.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, March 4, 2016


Last year the Prairie Repertory Theatre Company at South Dakota State University did the musical "Sound Of Music." It was well done and great fun. In my mind's eye I still see that record cover with Julie Andrews on the front and the flowery meadow in the Alps behind her. It's familiar music. Who could forget "Do, Re, Me," "The Hills Are Alive," and all the other Rogers and Hammerstein hits.

But there was one line in the SDSU play I didn't remember from previous encounters. The Abbess from the monastery and Maria were sitting together and the Abbess asked Maria why she was there at the monastery. Maria gave what sounded like a catechetical response. I'm perhaps paraphrasing here as I'm not certain of the exact text but Maria's response was like, "To discern the will of God for my life … and to do it."

Perhaps I'd heard that line before. Perhaps that idea had been communicated in my presence in various ways on many occasions. But for some reason I heard it then, during the play, as if for the first time.

This morning I was looking at video recently released of the Milky Way Galaxy. The video came from the APEX telescope in Chile. The Milky Way is the galaxy we inhabit, with an estimated 100-400 billion stars, although according to Wikipedia it might be as high as a trillion. There are probably 100 billion planets in our galaxy. And it's now estimated that there are as many as 200 billion galaxies in the universe.

Nobody knows of course. And when you begin to get into numbers like that, what difference does one little person or one little planet or one little solar system make?

I encourage my students to look up pictures from the Hubble telescope on the internet while we are studying the creation story in the book of Genesis. If God is the Creator of all that universe out there, not just the earth and it's inhabitants, of those billions of stars in the sky, then our usual notions of God are way too small and limited. We need to ponder more seriously and act more intelligently about our place in the vastness of creation.
And when Christians talk about going to heaven, exactly where are they heading? Is it in the earth's solar system, or our Galaxy; perhaps at the very center of our Galaxy at what is thought to be a super massive black hole?

Dealing with such questions used to be the role of the University. The University was the place where you went to learn about your place in the universe. Philosophy and theology, biology and astrology, those were disciplines that woke one up to the wonders of creation. Our existence in the known universe was the subject matter.

As our understanding of what's out there has grown exponentially, our sense of our place in it all has continued to shrink. Now the University is the place where you learn your role in the job market. The will of God for our lives and our place in the universe are relegated to monastics and astronomers. Let them do the discerning and discovering. Let us make a living and maybe at some point with the right education and practical experience, even make a killing.

In Buddhism, the path to right living and the avoidance of suffering and pain is articulated in the eightfold path. As well as associating with the right people and engaging in right speech, the Buddhist eight fold path includes the idea of right livelihood. In other words, what you do in your work life should be constructive not destructive. One should be promoting life not destroying it. So if you are an engineer, perhaps you should build bridges, not nuclear weapons.

It's quite similar to the Christian idea of vocation. The word comes from the Latin vocatio meaning a "call" or "summons" (discerning the will of God for my life). A vocation was an occupation (that occupied your time and energy) that was particularly suited to your God-given gifts and talents. The trick was to identify what you were most equipped to do for the common good and then to do it. That was a vocation!

Pope Francis gave a homily on the theme a few weeks ago. He encouraged those present to pray "to know God's will for me and my life, concerning a decision that I must take; the way in which we handle things."  He encouraged people to "first pray to know God’s will, then to pray for the desire to do it, and finally when we have these things, we pray for the third time, to follow it. To carry out that will, which is not my own, … is not easy.”
He may have been using a text from the book of Romans: "Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing and perfect will of God.

As we face the future and the challenges it holds, one could hope and pray for a new reclaiming of an old concept. Are we made for something more?

Carl Kline