Friday, May 26, 2017

The Chimera of Multiculturalism
          The United States has moved from the notion of being a “melting pot” to becoming a multicultural society. While some people are holding a rear-guard action to protect the values and virtues of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that shaped and perhaps even defined the US culture since the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607, the rising tide favors the advocates of multiculturalism as the US becomes an increasingly diverse society. But is multiculturalism the road to the future, or is it a chimera? Webster’s Dictionary variously defines “chimera” as “a monster vomiting flames,” and “an illusion or fabrication of the mind.” I will let the reader decide.
     Multiculturalism emerged as an umbrella term in the 1980s and 1990s, indicative of our changing demographics. Multiculturalism is clearly to be preferred to either a system of apartheid or forced assimilation. And the concept enjoys broad public support. However, there is no standard definition of multiculturalism. A thin definition of the term equates multiculturalism with tolerance of diversity. A somewhat richer understanding of multiculturalism proffers that a multicultural society accepts and incorporates the values, beliefs, and ideas of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. An even denser and thicker definition of multiculturalism suggests that the concept embodies the celebration of diverse cultures and empowers diverse cultural groups to claim a greater measure of equality with others in the public square.
     Because multiculturalism is an umbrella concept the breadth of groups and concerns that cluster under its shelter is breathtaking. Multiculturalism includes all groups protected by the American Disabilities Act, demands respect for all holidays, offers protection against discrimination in employment, encourages the development of educational curriculum that respects racial and ethnic diversity, and much more. For some advocates, multiculturalism is a rights-based concept that applies both to individuals and groups. Accordingly, everyone has equal rights, and society has a moral and legal obligation to respect and protect the rights of each person and group.  
     The concept of multiculturalism has broad appeal in a liberal democratic society—within limits. The rights associated with multiculturalism are civil rights. When the norms of multiculturalism begin to impinge on political and economic rights we often witness increasing tension among diverse groups and popular support for multiculturalism softens. A desire on the part of the majority to maintain the status quo and the appearance of social unity outweighs the urgency of change for the sake of greater inclusion. Multiculturalism has its place, and it must be kept in its place. Enduring poverty in the midst of abundance and recent battles over voting rights witness to a retreat from multiculturalism in these areas of public life.
     The retreat from multiculturalism is due neither to a lack of awareness of the need for change, nor a want of desire on the part of well-meaning citizens to “do good.” Like the myth of the “melting pot,” the impetus for multiculturalism comes from a strong desire to remain true to the creed of E Pluribus Unum. What is missing in this effort to preserve unity is an adequate understanding of our historical context. It is this failure that turns an otherwise noble intent into a chimera.
     Many Native American scholars and historians like David Chang and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz are helping us understand that everything in US history—nation, race, and class—is about the land. Who controls the land and determines how the land is used is a—perhaps the—central theme in US history.
Native Americans, faith communities that have repudiated what Steve Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, correctly calls the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination, and others who are calling upon the United States to honor the 370 treaties between the US and Indian nations, are changing our national narrative and shifting our moral compass in recognition of the importance of land to our national narrative.
      Non-Indian people are beginning to understand that the real history of the United States is defined by settler-indigenous relations. Indigenous Peoples owned the land, the settlers wanted and needed the land, and with the blessing of the church they took the land. Setters invoked the quasi-religious doctrines of Terra Nullius (empty land) and the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination to justify Indian genocide. The philosopher John Locke provided the necessary justification for taking the land. He argued that the settlers were defending the superior European civilization and religion (Christianity) against the “pagans” and “wild beasts.” Because the settlers were obligated to defend their superior way of life against the threat posed by the Indians, the Indians were obligated to pay for the cost of the war waged upon them. Taking the land was, in Locke’s view, just compensation paid to the settlers by the indigenous pagans.
       I am not ready to give up on E Pluribus Unum. But if we want to turn this chimera into a viable vision we have to begin with the historical reality of indigenous genocide, exploitation and subjugation. Repudiating the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination opens the way for honoring treaties and giving Indigenous Peoples control of their own land and political and economic future with cultural integrity. Of equal importance, acknowledging our real history is a truth that sets white citizens free from the shackles of historical distortions so that together we can find our way to a future beyond multiculturalism; a future in which interracial justice is normative.

David Hansen

Friday, May 19, 2017

We Need a Little Revelation, Right This Very Moment!
Vicky Hanjian   

      A quick glance at the calendar reminds me that Shavuot and Pentecost are a mere week and a half away.  Having my feet firmly planted in both Jewish and Christian practice makes for a very rich compote for me as these two observances cycle around again, always in close proximity to one another.
      In post Biblical writings Shavuot has come to be known and celebrated as the day Torah was given to Israel.  Through the Kabbalists, a tradition of staying up to study through the night on the eve of Shavuot has been handed down as a way of preparing to receive the revelation of Torah in the morning on the day of Shavuot.
      In the Christian calendar year, the Day of Pentecost follows close on to Shavuot.  It is a day when the life giving energy of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the early church in a rush of wind and fire - a day when the Holy demonstrated its power to infiltrate and shape the life of the community.  Both Shavuot and Pentecost are remembered and observed as days of revelation.  

At Mt. Sinai  the revelation came with a quaking mountain, thunder and lightning and thick clouds of terrifying mystery.  The potent drama of creation was the venue for the revelation of the law that would shape Israel’s life as a holy people, wisdom for life in harmony and justice and peace.  Basic wisdom about not setting up false gods and worshipping them; about honoring our elders; about not murdering or stealing; about not envying what our neighbor owns; about not bearing false witness against another.

   In a parallel tradition the Day of Pentecost came with rushing wind and fire and the revelation of the gift of the Holy Spirit - the revelation spoken in such a way that all could hear it in their own language regardless of where they came from.
      Christian tradition holds that the Spirit came bringing gifts of holiness for those who could use them.  Gifts like wisdom and knowledge, of faith and the ability to heal, of discernment and the ability to interpret spiritual truths.
      Taken together the two traditions of revelation form a firm foundation for the human community to live in harmony and wholeness - in holiness.  Both traditions have the power to pull us back to center in a time when the wild centrifugal forces of national and global politics send us spiraling away from the most fundamental truths.  Truths like being honest and not lying to or about our neighbors - - ordinances about not murdering -either literally or verbally - - like not stealing or envying what belongs to another.  The revelation on Sinai seems so fundamental - - and yet is so easily ignored and trampled upon at the highest levels of political machination where adequate health care or a sense of safety can be stolen from the most vulnerable at the stroke of a pen. 
       Revelation of wisdom for living is at the heart center of Jewish and Christian tradition.  The thunder, the smoke and the quaking mountain, the rushing wind and the tongues of fire, all caught the attention of our ancient ancestors.
    Our attention has wandered - but we still have the stories and the ritual days that have the power to draw us back to center and to remind us again of the most basic principles for harmonious living.   No fireworks, no exploding mountains, no mysterious smoke and clouds, no rushing wind and flames - - just a silent, ageless whisper of intent: “You shall be holy!!” Now -  get with the program!!

Friday, May 12, 2017


A friend and I were talking the other day about what has become known as "fake news" and "alternative facts." We agreed it was harder than ever to know what to believe. Exaggeration has gone viral. Outright lies have become prolific. The determined attempt to misinform, mislead and distract is ever more present. And even the old stand by of image creation and political spin casts us deeper into doubt and mistrust than ever before. We have to depend on things like "fact checker" to try and ascertain the truth. And for those who really care, you have to spend a lot of time checking sources and determining credibility.

This sense of doubt and mistrust has become so pervasive that it threatens the very foundations of our democracy and perhaps even, of future life on earth.
In one of my religion classes I share a picture of Pope Francis in his tall ceremonial mitre, long a part of papal ceremonial dress. In the story with the picture, Pope Francis is thinking about getting rid of this "pointy hat." He expects to catch hell for it but he would rather try something else, like maybe a baseball cap.    I ask my students if they think this story is true. Knowing something of Pope Francis, some are inclined to think it may be true. There is usually a mixed response. When we examine how they might find out the truth, the key lies in the author, a known satirist, who regularly writes almost
believable, and often hilarious material, about well known public figures. The text is from the Borowitz Report, satirical commentator at the New York Times.

In an age of doubt and mistrust of the hard news, many young people get their news from late night comediennes, if at all. At least you know they are joking.

And with a President who calls the media the "enemy of the American people," and only uses sources that are favorable to his point of view (sometimes mistakenly informing his point of view), trust of the fourth estate in this country has descended to a new low. That's a serious danger to democracy. An educated and trusting citizenry is essential to our country's well being. And if only the comediennes, partisan politicians and their corporate interests are "educating" us, we are in grave danger.

But there's a second danger to democracy that has reared it's ugly head. Doubt has been cast on the security and reliability of the ballot. It started some years ago with partisan activity. You gerrymander a district to your advantage. Or you "clean up" the voting rolls to leave off some people of a certain color in a certain neighborhood. Or you require identification some people won't have. Or you limit the polling places so lines stretch on for blocks and people can't take off the time from work. Or as just happened in Montana, you outlaw voting by mail because the other political party might gain an advantage.

Now there are new threats. Can we trust voting machines won't be hacked? Have they been?

The President sows doubt about the ballot by saying millions voted illegally in the recent election, keeping him from winning the popular vote. And we have the accusation that bus loads of Massachusetts voters invaded New Hampshire to change the electoral outcome in that state. In one interview with N.H. residents making this claim, when they were pressed by the interviewer, they admitted they didn't actually see "buses," but one of them did see several people get out of a car with MA plates. 

Should we mention Russia? Perhaps the most serious threat to the ballot in our history as a country and we still don't have the answers. How exactly did a foreign government meddle in the election and was there collusion? The very foundation of democracy is at stake in this question and the investigation seems to be disappearing into the woodwork as threats of war and peace take center stage.

Finally, an even deeper threat to our country as well as the future of our children and grandchildren is the doubt being cast about climate change. For those who are able to see the film "Merchants of Doubt," you know how hard some people work to belittle and disparage scientific evidence. With a party in power that has traditionally denied the scientific evidence of a changing and warming climate, and an administration that is solidly in the hands of the fossil fuel industry, our planetary future is seriously at risk.

As the evidence mounts, day by day by day, of serious challenges to democracy and the planet, one can only hope an energized citizenry will dump doubt, and insist on wiser leaders who talk straight and engender trust, in them and our democratic institutions.

Carl Kline

Friday, May 5, 2017

Answering with Our Presence

Presente, Hineni, I am here

It was a raw and rainy day as we gathered in the wind-swept plaza that stretches between Boston City Hall and the JFK Federal Building. Called to be there by the needs of the hour, hundreds of people gathered, drawn there for the sake of three, and many more, the untold and alone. We were there to support Zully, Enrique, and Alex, all undocumented, arrested in the weeks before, seeking “Milk with Dignity” in the Vermont dairy industry, held without bond in a New Hampshire jail. There was something fitting to the harsh weather, a reminder of the struggle itself, so much love needed to punctuate the gray, and so we did. We were the sunshine, warm and bright, basking in each other’s glow, each one’s presence a ray of light to shine upon the way, commitment and hope palpable.

Surrounding an inner circle of huddled masses beneath an overhang of the massive building, a large format photocopy of a petition to release the three we gathered for, rolled out and held up like a Torah scroll, a sacred scroll of names held by loving hands. Among the columns of names unfolding, stronger than the building’s columns of stone, intimations of the weekly Torah portion, God’s voice calling, Vayikra/And God called…, as to each one of us. The desert sanctuary just completed, all its details come together as one. We are the sanctuary, there and then and all across the land, each one counted, each one needed, each one called to say presente, hineni, I am here….

I had the honor to be a speaker, the most important words spoken just before, voice strong and pleading, Lymarie, wife of Alex, “me and my daughter, we need him home.” Her voice made my own tremble as I began to speak. Hers is the timeless voice the Torah heard so long go when it said, you shall not oppress a stranger, you shall not impose restrictions…, for you know the soul of a stranger/v’atem yadatem et nefesh ha’ger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20, 23:9). It is the voice heard by Caesar Chavez, whose birthday is today as I write. It is his voice, one with his people, his spirit living among us. I held up a copy of a yellowed and tattered leaflet issued by the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis more than forty years ago proclaiming in Yiddish and English non-union grapes and lettuce to be non-kosher, “if it flows from the oppression it is not kosher.” It is the voice heard today by the Mass Board of Rabbis, heeding the call of those who came before, Vayikra. It is the voice heard by the rabbinic human rights organization, T’ruah, organizing for migrant workers and immigrants throughout the land. Created in the image of God, every human being is documented. Bearing the mark of God in all the ways of its human appearance, wherever we travel throughout this world, there is no such thing as an undocumented human being.  Compassion for those who cross our borders does not deny national sovereignty, but acknowledges a greater sovereignty that encompasses all. Knowing no boundaries, God’s compassion needs to infuse immigration policy and the way we speak of other human beings. From the valleys and vineyards of California, to the tomato fields of Florida, to the Green Mountains of Vermont and the pastures below, we call for freedom and hope for all, for Zully, “Kike,” and Alex.

As the throng spread out in one great circle of song, round and round in the rain, an impromptu marching band to lead, I made my way with close family and friends of the three to a small federal courtroom in the building. Along with Rabbi David Lerner, president of the Mass Board of Rabbis, and a minister who had come from Vermont, we were to be clergy witnesses for the bond hearings of our friends, and for the hearings of others whom I tried to hold in my heart as well, that at least in spirit they not be alone. It was surreal in the courtroom, none present of those whose cases were to be heard. In turn, they each appeared by video link from the New Hampshire jail, the screen facing only the judge, a glimpse of loved ones denied to family and friends in court. 

We heard the other cases, of human lives announced as numbers, bureaucratic missteps endangering the outcome, the heartbreaking details of a father of four young US citizen children, husband of a legal US resident. The judge scowled at the arrest record, “driving well over the speed limit,” he noted. The lawyer pointed out with all deference that the record actually said the opposite, “driving well under the speed limit.” Amidst the fragile web of details, a glimmer of hope, perhaps, his bond reduced from $5000 to $3500. Another repeatedly answered “no” to whether he had any family ties in the US, no family, no leeway, no reduction of bond, no compassion. Another said he had a brother in the US, their father having been murdered in Guatemala, a carpet layer, arrested in a co-worker’s car; bond reduced from $7500 to $5000, still a small fortune for him. I had to keep remembering that this was just the bond hearing to determine whether each would remain in jail, their ultimate fate held in waiting until the immigration trial yet to come. 

Of our friends, Alex’ hearing was the first of the three, song rising up from the gathering still circling below. To the old labor song, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” words were added, “Free Zully, free Kike, free Alex.” Sitting two rows in front of me, Alex’ wife turned toward the window and smiled at the calling of her husband’s name, stroking her four year old daughter’s hair as the little girl snuggled into her, held between mother and grandmother, trying to make sense of it all. A text message surreptitiously sent, the crowd came alive, aware that Alex’ case had begun. The judge said the sound was distracting, the lawyer smiling in response that they were exercising their first amendment rights. The judge fixed on an earlier arrest for driving under the influence, a case the Vermont courts had dismissed. There was to be no bond and no release for Alex. The court unmoved by the sobbing of wife and mother, by a little girl burying her face into her mother’s lap, by a frail grandmother trying
to hold them all, a recess was called.

As the prosecutor walked past me in that heart-wrenching moment, I wondered how she would be able to sleep that night. I struggled to redirect the anger welling in my heart, to find a place for all the negative feelings, somehow to hold all that swirled. Later, I shared my feelings with the lawyer, and he said with both amazement and respect, “she believes in what she is doing, as do I.”

Each of them so young, all in their early twenties, my struggle continued as Zully’s case was called. The prosecutor urged that no bond be granted, that Zully had left her phone on to record at the time of her arrest, endangering the officers with the possibility of a crowd gathering, pointing then to the window, “like the one here today.” For both Zully and Kike, the lawyer place a large stack of support letters in front of the judge, emphasizing the love and respect for these two in the community. Commenting on the letter from Bernie Sanders, the judge was clearly amazed by the degree of support that surrounded these two, the degree of respect for their efforts to help workers, to improve the lives of others. Noting that he doesn’t usually see such support, the judge referred, without a trace of irony, to the large number of people appearing lately in his immigration court. Zully and Kike’s bond was set at $2500, an amount easily raised. Their release came on the efforts of so many who answered the call, Vayikra, a reminder that each one of us has a role to play and that what we do matters.      

It is all contained in the very first word of the Torah portion, in the word Vayikra itself, always written with a very small letter alef at the end, as in VAYIKRA. Taught positively as a reflection of Moses’ humility, it is also taken as a teaching not to diminish our own importance in the struggle for justice, in the collective effort to create a better world. For all his greatness, for all the praise for his humility, the rabbis imagine God becoming exasperated with Moses for stepping to the side, for not acting in the urgency of the moment. Through the lens of midrash, when God calls to Moses now, Vayikra, that exasperation shows, if you do not redeem them, no one else will redeem them. As Moses becomes each of us, God then says, how long will you diminish your self? The hour is waiting but for you/ayn ha’sha’ah m’tzapah elah lach (Vayikra Rabbah, 1:5). In the layers of Hebrew nuance, the call is clear, the times need you; the needs of the hour depend on you.

The needs of the hour depend on each of us. Circling round in the cold and rain, we are warmed in each other’s presence. The bond hearings for Alex, Zully, and Enrique were only the first step, as they are for so many, most all alone and without support. The greater challenge, even as Alex remains in jail, away from his wife and daughter, will be the immigration hearings yet to come. Each of us is needed, becoming all together the sunshine of justice breaking through the leaden skies. Hearing God’s call, Vayikra, we answer with our presence, presente, hineni, I am here.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein