Thursday, May 26, 2016

In Defense of Public Education

Our public school district, like public schools across the U.S., is in a time of great stress. Budgets are tight, enrollments are rising, diversity is expanding, and the pressures to reduce staff and privatize jobs is unrelenting. I view public education as a sacred trust that is worth supporting and defending. Education is a ministry of the highest order. I believe that people who are interested in nonviolence must speak out in defense of public education.
Let me say upfront that there are times when privatization is in order. But there are also times when privatization is little more than a form of modern day piracy. This type of privatization transfers assets to the wealthy, and saddles the public and individuals who are least able to shoulder the burden with the costs. Pressure to privatize custodian jobs in our school district is intense and other efforts to protect certain jobs and benefits while asking others to sacrifice is ongoing. Both actions are morally offensive to me. They are designed to protect the power and privileges of some at the expense of others.

Privatization and staff reduction puts the burden of responsibility in the wrong place. The problem is not that custodians, teachers, librarians, nurses, aides and others are making too much money. In Kansas, the budget crisis was created by the state legislature and the governor when they decided to eliminate income taxes for the wealthiest 330,000 people in the state.
It is worth noting in the context of public education the word public comes from the Latin poplicus, meaning “pertaining to the people.” The word private, in contrast, comes from the Latin, privare, which gives rise to the word “deprived.” The Greek word for a strictly private person is idiotes, from which we get the word idiot, meaning a person who does stupid things—like robbing the public purse for private gain.
Although assurances are given that privatization will save millions of dollars, this is not guaranteed. I would be surprised if privatization contracts contain any clawback agreements that would reimburse the school district if the savings promised were not met. I invite you to go online and read about school districts that have privatized custodial services, sold custodial supplies and equipment, and created an employment environment that invites high turnover and low wages with few benefits. More than one school district reports they had to spend millions in un-budgeted expenses for custodial services after they voted to privatize these same services to save money. The Chicago public schools is a well-documented study in the failure of privatization.

Schools are public places where people learn self-respect, gain new skills, and learn the values of cooperation and civic virtue. They are meeting places that offer the opportunity for creative inter-generational interaction crossing lines of race, class, and religion. Without this kind of public space the fabric of society soon becomes frayed, and public trust in our institutions begins to unravel.
Fighting to save the jobs of public school custodians is about much more than saving jobs—important as it is that we do this. Fair compensation for everyone who works in our public schools is about claiming, reclaiming, and protecting a vital public space and place that makes and keeps civil society civil. The classroom is where we first learn what it means to be “one nation, indivisible.”

Rev. David Hanson

Thursday, May 19, 2016


For the last couple of weeks I've started a new morning ritual as I have a glass of juice and piece of fruit in our living room. I have to check out the buds on the orchid cactus. We've had it for as long as we've lived here. It has a special place in the sun where it extends it's arms and legs over several square feet. 

At the very beginning of the season I try to guess how many buds will appear; then how many flowers to expect. Usually there are somewhere between four and ten. This year I'm quite certain there will be six. But I'm open to surprises.

When the buds are in full flower they are a majestic red, beautiful to behold as they open to the sun. They don't all open at the exact same time so the beauty can last for several days. The sight is worth the sticky pollen they drip on the floor and the sense of loss as they gradually wither and drop.

Once we had one of those night blooming cacti that only opened once a year, overnight. If you wanted to see the flower fully open you had to catch it on the right day and in the dark. 

Blooming things, growing things, require patience. I'm doubly reminded of this fact of life as the garden is planted. The promise of an early and warm spring had me putting seeds in the ground only to have temperatures go down again. And now there's a projected frost.

We're an impatient lot! Often instead of learning about growth from the natural world and adopting those rhythms as our own, we arrogantly and greedily chart our own course, nature be damned.

Every parent knows that children have their own rhythm. Some have growth spurts while others plateau. Some are ready to dive right into school and others tend to hold back. Some are introverts and some are extroverts, and parents can push and pull to move their children in different directions but there are always some built in growth patterns that give that child their integrity. Ultimately, they will grow at their own rate.

What is true in families is also true in communities. There are some natural growth processes. As population grows, infrastructure needs to grow as well. With more children a community needs more schools and more playgrounds. To build more schools you need more land and more teachers. And so it goes.

But we are an impatient lot. So we develop all manner of systems and weapons and institutions to promote growth. Sometimes the process is in harmony with natural cycles. Sometimes the growth rate is cancerous.

Some schools can get so big they eat up their students. University class sizes can get so large they discourage teaching and learning. Industrial agriculture and CAFO's can grow so enormous that the product becomes problematic.

The news this morning is that 48 members of the European Parliament volunteered to take a urine test to see if there was glyphosate in their system. Glyphosate is the cancer linked weed killer found in Monsanto's Round Up herbicide. All 48 parliament members tested positive, with an average pesticide level 17 times higher than the drinking water norm.

We would probably find the same result or worse in the U.S. I followed a pickup truck a few weeks ago on I-29 with at least a half dozen 50 gallon barrels of Round Up in the truck bed. Was that going on crops you or I will eventually eat? Monsanto tells us their herbicides are helping us feed the world. But how? By reducing the population with increasing rates of cancer?

Or how about the boom and bust growth patterns one finds with fossil fuels. The new Dakota Access pipeline proponents promote this new white elephant with the promise of jobs and economic growth. And at what expense to water and land and climate? At what expense to the rhythms and harmony of nature? And who will pick up the pieces of a busted economy in the North Dakota Bakken as oil prices are low; or in West Virginia as coal has tanked; or in Alberta, Canada as tar sands workers have lost their homes in an apocalyptic wildfire.

Growth can be beautiful like our cactus, invigorating, inspiring. But as we read in 1972 in Limits to Growth, the earth is a finite system. Things grow, and die. If we are wise, we will observe and respect the inter-relatedness of all things, adopt regenerative agriculture and sustainable life styles and chart our growth accordingly. 

We would do well to heed the words of Shakespeare, "How poor are they who have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees." Or the Chinese Proverb, "Patience is power; with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes silk."

Carl Kline

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fear or Hope

The story of the Fall in the Bible is generally interpreted as a story of exile. To paraphrase Dante, the message is “Abandon hope all you who leave this paradise.” God, once the benevolent Creator who blessed all things and called them good, is now presented to us as the prosecutor, judge, and jury.

If God is the ultimate authority, the law giver and the enforcer, then the ultimate sin (crime) is disobedience. Adam, Eve, and their descendants for all time must pay the price for this unspeakable act of disobedience—a price that cannot be paid by any mere mortal. Enter Jesus. Jesus dies on the cross and pays the price that cannot be paid by another other. His death on the cross, and only his death, can satisfy the debt that must be paid for the unpardonable crime of disobedience. This is classic atonement theory in Christian theology.

I want to suggest to you that this theory, well-known as it is, is wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that it is unchristian to convict someone of their sin, so that you can sell them your religion. Yet this is precisely what the classic atonement theory tries to do.

Christians like the theory of atonement because it gives us the assurance that we live in a just universe. There is moral order to the cosmos. But, at the same time, we rebel against the idea that all of humanity is divided between the sinners and the saved. It seems presumptuous and more than a little self-serving that Christianity, and only Christianity, is a ticket into heaven—a free pass for believers, because someone else paid the price. 

I want to suggest the message of the story is not the image of a wrath-filled judge, but rather it is the assurance that there is more mercy in God than there is sin in us. It is a story that is clothed in hope. It is the assurance that hope is closer than you think.

We could dig deeper into the text and examine what it teaches us about the quest for power and the genesis of fear and shame, but I want to focus on chapter 3: 9-10, where there is an exchange between God and Adam. God asks Adam, “Why were you hiding?” and Adam answers, “I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” This suggests that it is fear not disobedience that transforms this earthly paradise into a no man’s land. God’s answer to Adam’s fear is not judgment but mercy. So we read in chapter 3:20, “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them.”

The admonition “fear not” is found 365 times in the Bible. Jesus says “Fear not” 125 times. It is helpful to draw a parallel between the story in Genesis chapter 3, and a story in the 8th chapter of Luke, where we read about a man living in a land filled with fear and bereft of grace. We are told that he is a man who wears no clothes, (he is naked) and who does not live in a house but lives among the tombs. He is bound in chains and fetters and the people of the village are afraid of him. His name is Legion, for many demons had entered him. You know the story, but do you remember how it ends. Chapter 8:35, the people hear that something has happened to the man, and they go out to see for themselves. When they arrive they find the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed in his right mind.”

Now it is the people’s turn to be afraid because they cannot understand what has happened to the man. Such is the seduction of the status quo, and the power of stereotypes.

And the man himself asks to go with Jesus. But Jesus commissions him to another task—“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (8:39).

The Bible is a book abounding in hope. It proclaims a message of hope which is good news to all people. But hope does not come easy. We have to penetrate the thick layers of fear that smother hope. We have to face the fierce truth about the relationship between power and privilege and fear. Privilege and power can be used to build up walls of fear and shame, or to break them down.

This week-end the Invictus Games are being held in Florida. Wounded veterans from 15 nations are participating in this Paralympics, organized by Prince Harry, himself a veteran. The inspiration for the name of the games comes from a poem by William Ernest Hanley entitled, “Invictus.” The first paragraph reads:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.

Reading about the Invictus Games I was reminded of a Native American conference I attended some years ago. It was an academic event and people were presenting papers and sharing research, when this Native American dressed in Army fatigues asked if he could speak. He was not scheduled to speak and nobody knew why he wanted to speak or what he was going to say, but being the kind of event that it was, he was given the podium. Standing before us, he said that he wanted to tell us that just that morning he had sent his son off to fight in Afghanistan, and his heart was hurting. He described the elaborate ceremony his tribe held for his son as they prepared to send him into battle, and he talked about the preparations that were being made for his return. It was a very powerful statement.

I want to conclude with another powerful statement—two actually, from Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman opens the book with a statement and a question. He says, “The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial.” He continues, “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, or national origin? Is this impotence due to a betrayal of the genius of religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?”

Thurman examines various aspects of these questions in the subsequent chapters. In the last chapter he writes, “Once isolation from one’s fellows has been achieved, one is at the mercy of doubts, fears, and confusion.” Once the status or identity of someone as the “Other” is fixed and frozen, Thurman says, “contacts are merely truces between enemies—a kind of armistice for the purposes of economic security.”

To overcome fear, isolation, hostile separation and destructive suspicion the Bible would have us believe that we must clothed in our right mind, clothed in the dignity and mercy of God. But here’s the thing. We cannot clothe ourselves. Only through our respectful encounter with others can we learn to wear these garments of grace.

Rev. David Hanson

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Respect Existence or Expect Resistance

There we were on a recent morning, a few rabbis and a few labor organizers standing in front of the Walk Hill Dunkin Donuts in Jamaica Plain. I found it ironic, since I often go to Dunkin, not for me, but for my dad, for whom the coffee and a glazed doughnut are as sustaining as manna from Heaven. My greatest worry was that things wouldn’t go well and there might come to be a boycott of Dunkin Donuts. All did go well and it was a moment of encountering the gentle teaching of one woman who works at that Dunkin Donuts.

As you may be aware, there were nation wide one-day strikes yesterday by fast food workers and others as part of the campaign for a $15.00 minimum wage, the “Fight for $15.” It is important to note that yesterday also marked the beginning of a strike by Verizon workers against an effort by the company to cut wages and benefits, particularly the retirement benefits of older workers. And so we waited in front of Dunkin Donuts, waiting for a worker who had stayed away from work yesterday to be part of the strike, to raise her voice for the sake of all who struggle to make ends meet while often working several jobs, all balanced with the same family and life responsibilities that we all know. We were there as part of a “walk back” taking place at many fast food locations, there to walk back into work with each worker to insure that there was no retribution for having taken part in the strike.

The woman we had the honor to accompany arrived with a labor organizer who was also there to insure all would be well. On the back of the labor organizer’s black leather jacket was a saying that seemed to say it all, “respect existence or expect resistance….” It is a powerful statement, so simple in its expression of a basic truth, the equal presence of every person upon this earth and in society, and the responsibility of each one to stand up for the other. We had come to stand up for one person whose existence we feared might not be respected. We had come to accompany her out of concern, but it soon became clear that it was a gift to us to be in her presence, that she was our guide and accompanying her became an opportunity to learn from her.

At first she was startled, embarrassed with the attention and care for her. She laughed and said she had been interviewed four times during the strike, that she had been in the newspaper and on the radio, and that she had never been interviewed before. She also had never been on strike before. She had also never had a raise in fifteen years of working at the same Dunkin Donuts. And that’s why she finally went out on strike. It was clear how good she felt, how good it felt to realize her own strength, to respect her own existence, and to know she was not alone. I was deeply touched by her humility and by the freshness of her own awareness of strength, the strength to do something she had never done, the strength to risk losing her job and accepting the turmoil of turning her life upside down.

That is why we were there, to help insure that she would not face such risk. After talking and sharing a bit about ourselves there in the parking lot, we all walked in together. It was a beautiful moment, as we heard that the manager was out sick. We asked the acting manager if everything was okay, that there would be no problem for our friend’s return to work. “No, she said, “everything’s cool.” They were such beautiful words, all of us feeling relief. The woman whom we had encircled laughed, hugs all around. As she thanked us before getting to work, we thanked her for her strength and for what she had taught us in her simple witness. I realized that this is the teaching of someone learning to respect her own existence, a teaching that is for all of us, always needing to be relearned and refreshed.

Respect for one’s own existence and realizing that we each have something unique to teach weaves as a thread throughout this week’s Torah portion, Parashat M’tzora (Lev. 14:1-15:33) and throughout much of the book of Vayikra. The word m’tzora is generally translated as “leper,” though it is more helpful to understand it simply as one who is afflicted, whether of body or soul, someone in the midst of a hard time, vulnerable and so easily rejected. In regard to so many who are vulnerable or in a place of distance or separation from others, the Torah refers to ways of response and return, prescribing rituals and offerings meant to bring the distant near. At the end of each section concerning one who is apart, the Torah uses the phrase, zot Torat/this is the Torah of…, meaning of that person. It can be read simply as a technical phrase, Torah as instruction regarding what is to be done to facilitate this person’s return to ritual life. In just hearing the word Torah, however, meaning teaching, or instruction as a guide for living, we are drawn to the fullness of its meaning, hearing the phrase as much more than a technical instruction. We are being told of the unique Torah of each one, reminded that everyone has their own special teaching to share, regardless of their state or situation in life. At the outset of the portion, we are reminded to open our eyes and heart to the Torah of the afflicted, those from whom we might most quickly turn away.

Each of us is at times the afflicted one, at times whole and at times in a state of brokenness. In the course of our lives, we each gather unique teaching that is our own, Torah that tells of our own life and experience, teaching that only we can share. In his teaching on the phrase, zot Torat ha’m’tzorah/this is the Torah of the afflicted, the S’fas Emes, the Gerer Rebbe, offers a loving challenge: there are found words of Torah in every soul…, but they become blocked within…; and it is for us to bring them out from potential to real.

We learned words and ways of Torah that morning, the Torah of a fast food worker who had discovered her own potential and was striving to make it real. After fifteen years, one woman’s fight for $15.00 is about realizing potential, and so for all others, who like her are seeking respect for their existence. That is the Torah that she taught us in front of a Dunkin Donuts. It is the Torah that needs to go forth and spread throughout the land, a teaching of respect for each one’s existence, affirmed in the value given to their work.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein