Friday, April 21, 2017

Altars



I've been reading a small book called "An Altar in the World." It's written by Barbara Brown Taylor, an adjunct faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and a professor at Piedmont College. I'm told she lives on a farm with lots of animals in the yard.

In one chapter she wonders, "Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls - even four gorgeous walls - cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the house of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God?"

We know what is happening to the earth as altars are confined to sanctuaries. The riverbanks are drying up or overflowing. The mountaintops are loosing their glaciers. The deserts are expanding. And the trees are being logged. Perhaps with Barbara, we need to be more aware of the altars in the world.

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Last August, with a group of people in the Black Hills, one of our members told us we needed to stay up for a meteor shower. It was August 10. Every year, that is the night of the Perseid meteor shower. For some Catholics, this is known as the "tears of Saint Lawrence." Lawrence was a Christian martyr, burnt alive, and the canonical date of his martyrdom is August 10, 258 AD.

Most of us were too tired to stay up watching on a mostly cloudy night. But Barbara Brown Taylor remembers a night when she was seven, when her father came into her room, woke her sister and her up and said, "come on, you have to see this." They took a blanket, laid on a wooden balcony off their parents bedroom and watched the tears of St. Lawrence. For a seven year old girl, the experience was an altar in the world.

Several years ago, my wife and I walked the Cape Cod National Seashore with some young friends. We had our bedrolls and the food and water we would need for the trek. We were walking because we wanted to see the beach up close and personal while we still could. We were fearful of the continuing erosion and attempts at making it a private preserve. When you walk slowly, in spaces where there is no other sign of human intervention, a tidal pool, a distant dolphin, a spectacular sunset, even a misty morning rain becomes an altar in the world.

Usually, we are so intent on a destination, our walks, runs, cycles, or drives, take us right by the altars in the world we might otherwise see. 

I doubt one of the walks on my bucket list will be completed in this lifetime. The Pilgrimage route "Way of Saint James" holds a special fascination for me after seeing the movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen. Even so, I'm told so much of that path is now a paved road, not a pastoral trail, with hundreds, even thousands of walkers with you on a summer day. I'm fearful any altars would be obscured by pavement and people.

Maybe I'll stick to the labyrinth in the yard of the church. It could be my substitute for walking the Spanish pilgrimage route, just as the first Christian labyrinth substituted for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A labyrinth can be a special meditative and prayerful tool. It might even open ones' eyes to the altars in the world.

I've walked the labyrinth before, at a retreat center in Pennsylvania and at the Black Hills Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. Both sites were in a wonderful natural environment. Although altars in the world need not be huge and ornate in majestic surroundings. The holy is there for us to see in the modest and minuscule as well, if only we open our eyes. Think of the child squatting to examine an insect. 

I may try and join others on May 6, at 1:00 on International Labyrinth Day, when walkers around the globe will walk the labyrinth together, at 1:00, as one.

It's possible we need wilderness to be truly human. The more we exist in man made environments the more we lose touch with Creation and our relationship to all that is. There's a quality to our experience in the remaining wild places, that haven't ben too badly disturbed and damaged by human activity. These places can touch something deep inside us, a place in our being that forces us to recognize the beyond. It might be the slap of a beaver on a misty pond at 5:00 AM on an Easter morning. Or it might be two golden eagles floating together three feet from your nose as you sit on the face of a cliff. Or it might be an angry deer that warns you that you are not God, just part of the Creators' Creation. Even a creek can teach us, through eddies and music and clarity.

There's a new altar in our living room this morning. The smell has started to permeate the room and leak out into the hallway. That smell has been an altar of the holy for me since childhood. Easter lilies are not just for church, but for homes. And who wouldn't be transported to heaven by a whole field of them.

Carl Kline

Friday, April 14, 2017


The U.S. is not a nation of immigrants
April 14, 2017

     The myth that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” feeds into the national self-image that the United States is both a free society and a land of opportunity. It is a seductive myth because we cherish the well-established fable of American exceptionalism, and the idea that this nation is “a city set upon a hill.” But the myth is more fiction than fact, and it hides a deeper and deeply unsettling truth about our nation’s past and present. We need to stop saying that we are a “nation of immigrants.” The following article explains why.
     The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first US citizenship act. It limited naturalization to free white citizens, thus excluding Native Americans, slaves, indentured servants, Asians and many others. During the following decades and centuries other naturalization laws were enacted, but it was not until 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act was enacted. 
 Adam Goodman’s article, “A Nation of Immigrants,” which appeared in the October 8, 2015 issue of Dissent Magazine traces the nation of immigrants paradigm to the Chicago School of Sociology in the early twentieth century. Goodman says that the paradigm gave European immigrants a privileged place in US society, and allowed them to treat non-European immigrants as secondary actors, while ignoring Native Americans completely.
      The big change came in immigration policy came with the enactment of the 1965 Immigration Act. This Act ended the national-origins quota immigration system that had prevailed up until then, and created new opportunities for people from around the world to come to the United States. The number of immigrants as a percentage of the total population nearly tripled between 1970 and 2015, growing from less than five percent to nearly fourteen percent. The nation of immigrants mythology emerged during this period.
      Importantly, the “nation of immigrants” myth fed into the flawed “Bering Straits” theory of indigenous migration from Asia to the Americas some 12,000 years ago. Accordingly, Indians were the first immigrants. The Anglo settlers and others who came later were simply subsequent waves of immigrants coming in search of a better life. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz debunked this “Bering Straits” theory. She argues that indigenous peoples were in the Americas at least 50,000 years before the English and other European settlers arrived. Recognition of this history is not permitted by the "nation of immigrants" myth. The plain truth is Native Peoples were dispossessed of their land.
      No president better embodies the federal government's irregular warfare against Native Americans than Andrew Jackson. It is not reassuring that President Trump has moved a statue of Jackson into the Oval Office. In contrast to Jackson Era policies, the Indian Restoration Act of 1934 created a framework for a measure of Native American self-governance. But many issues remained unresolved. After World War II the federal government turned away from policies supporting Native Peoples and turned toward policies that it believed would lead to the elimination of Native Peoples.
       Congress adopted House Concurrent Resolution 108, the Termination Act, on August 1, 1953. The stated purpose of the Termination Act was "free those tribes listed from Federal supervision and control." The termination policy meant that federal trust protection and transfer payments guaranteed by treaties and other agreements would end. That same year, 1953, Congress enacted Public Law 280, which transferred all tribal court jurisdiction to respective state courts. As a result of these acts of Congress, 109 tribes were terminated, approximately 2.5 million acres of Indian trust land was removed from protected status and sold to whites, 12,000 Native Americans lost tribal recognition, and tribal governments lost their right to govern. The termination policy was not ended until 1968. Tribes and individuals harmed by the termination policy have not been made whole for the loss they suffered or fully compensated for the damages caused by the government’s action.
      The myth that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” hides the history of our nation’s anti-Indianism while promoting the notion that this is a land of opportunity founded and built by immigrants. Since many Christian denominations have repudiated the doctrine of discovery they can now take the next step and renounce the nation of immigration myth. This will help clear the way to advance much needed conversations calling for respect of the almost 400 treaties that the United States has with Native nations, ensure protection of Native lands, lend support to the Native American drive for self-governance. 
      The United States is not a "nation of immigrants." It is a settler nation trying to discover its identity  and redeem itself. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Better Late than Never

"Better late than never" is hardly ever an apt description of reality. Instead, it seems to me a rather trite and tired phrase people use to try and make you feel better. I've heard the phrase too often. And I was reminded recently of how "too late" I was with one situation in graduate school.

I'd gone to Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the fall of 1963. The country was entering a time of social and political revolution. There was no one more capable of helping entering students like myself understand the philosophical and moral issues of the day than theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, author of "Moral Man and Immoral Society." But just as I arrived, he retired, conducting only one seminar class for graduate students in his apartment. In my three years in Seminary, I never saw him. I was simply "too late."

A documentary film on Niebuhr has just been released and is traveling the country. The trailer for the film emphasizes the influence he had on several Presidents and others like Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though I never met him, his books have given me a point of view that has survived to this day. It's a point of view that helps me understand better the seeming inability of governments to chart a path to peace, even when that road is paved with gold.

One of the primary contributions he made to my thinking is how moral action becomes more difficult as numbers increase. So perhaps an individual can make a moral choice that satisfies. And it will be easier for a city or state than for a nation. But because of the complexity that comes with larger and larger groups of people, moral choice fades as sin and self interest rises. 

There is some consolation in Niebuhrs' Serenity Prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Still, I'm unable to understand and accept the suicidal inclinations of supposedly rational governments.

With Jesus and Gandhi as our teachers and models, we have a perfectly rational and credible path to peace, where human beings can be as quick to care and forgive as to threaten and kill. Haven't we already seen the fruit of building larger and more sophisticated weapons of war? Must we add another $54 billion of weaponry when we already spend more than the next seven nations combined? Weren't Hiroshima and Nagasaki enough to say "never again?" Weren't Wounded Knee and Sharpeville, Dachau and Buchenwald, enough to keep us from demonizing others? Must we continue to witness mass slaughter and all the additional flags flying in our cemeteries?

One of the reasons we trust force over love is because we haven't learned the alternative. We don't study and take to heart the way of Jesus. We know nothing about a comprehensive strategy for social change promoted by Gandhi, that begins with prayer and ends with self purification and self sacrifice. We say everyone can't be a saint but promote everyone being a warrior. We tend to equate compassion with passivity rather than with passion. We teach our young to compete and our males machismo and relinquish instruction in how to be tough minded but tender hearted. We promote religious and political fanaticism.

As Niebuhr says, "The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism." 

And perhaps the most prophetic statement of Niebuhr for our country, enamored by a sense of entitlement and American exceptionalism, "One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun." 

For many years a group of us took conflict resolution, violence prevention, bias awareness and peer mediation programs into public schools in the northern plains. Feedback was generally positive. Teachers had calmer classrooms. Principals had fewer students in their office. Even first and second graders learned to mediate conflicts between their peers.

I was reminded today of the work friends are doing in India to mediate serious conflicts and train young people in the ways of nonviolence. A good friend in Mexico leaves next week for a remote village in Chiapas to do a training program in nonviolence as a colleague of his in Monterrey continues to bring rival gangs together to sign peace treaties. Brookings is home to the Satyagraha Institute that organizes education and training programs in solving conflicts without resort to force and coercion. Training will take place in three countries in 2017, including Nigeria, desperate for an alternative to violence.

As the world seems determined to prove Niebuhr right; as governments find it difficult if not impossible to make moral choices; individuals, you and I, can still choose. "Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply." 

We can probe deeply. And if we probe deeply enough, especially in the likes of Jesus and Gandhi, perhaps we can at least be saved by hope. Our choice for hope would be better late than never. 

Carl Kline           Friday April 7, 2017