Friday, February 16, 2018

"Last Gasp of a Dying Past




After the most recent degrading remarks by our President, I concluded he would have wondered how someone born in such a shithole as a manger, along with all those animals, could be an object of worship.

His foul mouthed remarks about Haiti and Africa, more than any other he has made (and he has made many), sealed the deal for me of his moral character. (Honestly, even after the Access Hollywood tapes, I held out hope he could be changed by the Presidential office).

The President has become the living symbol of the dying and despicable struggle to make America white again (and male). With each passing day, it becomes clearer and clearer that one of his most important agendas is reversing the racial demographics of this country. No more people of color coming in and lots more going out. And he continues to have the support of Republican partisans, who for years have been struggling to find ways to identify with people of color, and failing election after election. Apparently they have concluded that if the battle is lost to recruit people of color to their party, change the equation by sending them home and importing more Norwegians.   

One part of the President's racist method includes broadcasting stereotypes. Early on in his campaign, we learned that all Mexicans were rapists and murderers. He would describe one criminal act of someone in this country without documents, and extend that criminality to all residents native to Mexico.      He included in his web of suspicion the workers from Mexico who re-shingled our home, who repaved Interstate 29, who cared for the cattle who gave us our milk, who picked the vegetables and fruits I ate yesterday, who came to our nonviolence trainings in the Black Hills.

He stereotypes Muslims as security threats, when the evidence is we are far more likely to be killed by a natural born citizen than a Muslim immigrant (the home grown killers are even invading our houses of worship). He institutes a Muslim ban from Islam dominant countries and hate crimes against Mosques and our Christian cousins rise. He foments religious hatred to the point where in South Dakota, some decry an interfaith prayer service at our state capitol. What is so terrible about people of different faiths praying together unless the "other" is a stereotype and not a person?

He stereotypes Haitians. He sends them home. I've been to Haiti. It is the poorest country in the hemisphere. There are historical reasons for the poverty, just as there are historical reasons for our relative wealth. That history is connected. But amidst the poverty in Haiti there is also beauty and joy. It is unlikely one born with a golden spoon in his mouth and always surrounded by the trappings of wealth would be able to see it. He would likely just see a shithole. But I wish the President would try. Please Mr. President, make a trip to La Gonave. Walk the hill from the dock and meet the people as I did. See the human spirit in the midst of the poverty. Understand they don't all have AIDS and be chastened.

He stereotypes Africans! There are 54 countries in Africa. We have long standing relationships with many. What must leaders in those countries think? How does it reflect on all of us? On an earlier occasion he is reputed to have said, Nigerians should go back to their huts! Perhaps he thinks Native Americans should go back to their teepees; and where would they put them?

Recent experience with Nigerians interested in learning about Gandhian nonviolence has helped me better understand the economics in that country. Fossil fuel interests dominate the Nigerian economy. Shell oil is famous there for lobbying government officials with enormous sums of money, destroying agricultural environments and some believe colluding in the assassination of a nonviolent activist.
      Nigerians do not live in "huts." That is a racist stereotype! Go, Mr. President! See Nigeria! See the world! And don't just stay in Trump Towers! Perhaps you can stay with my friends, Christopher Ehidiamen, a Christian teacher and leadership consultant for Nigerian corporations. Or maybe be hosted with Betty Abah, of CEE Hope, working with adolescent girls and against child marriage. See the real Nigeria and how we as a country might learn from them, how to be great again.

This President is a challenge for the party of Lincoln; for those who still believe in the Constitution and a democratic society; and most important to me, he's a challenge for the Christian church. Now is the time for the church to proclaim in no uncertain terms that ALL are children of God, born with dignity and deserving of our respect. Now is the time to make Sunday morning, as well as Friday prayers, or the Sabbath, or any other time of the week, the most colorful ever. It's our heritage and our destiny! This President and his stereotypes are the last gasp of a dying past.

Carl Kline

Friday, February 9, 2018

"What Would You Do?"


What would you do? That is the question that lingers long after the last scene in a Belgian film, “Two Days, One Night,” that my wife and I watched recently. So too it is the question that is meant to follow us through Torah, lingering in the spaces that give rise to midrashic searching, to questioning and wrestling. I am hardly a film critic and am wary of watching if I don’t know a film’s “V” rating, the “Victor factor,” whether too violent or too sad, preferring to watch movies mostly to find respite from life’s harsher realities. Drawn to a Belgian film initially as a connection with Mieke’s roots and family, it offered a powerful reflection on life, pushing at times the limits of the “V” rating, but no more difficult than engaging with parts of Torah. The film became for me a commentary on Torah and life, as the two are joined in the context of living life with people, bringing us to ask, “what would you do?”

In the film, which unfolds in the course of one weekend, the main character, Sandra, is away from her factory job on a health leave as she struggles with depression.         
Highlighting the stigma of mental illness as a subplot, the owner of the factory where she works is wary of Sandra’s return. Duplicitously setting the stage for the moral drama that we are meant to become part of, the owner of the factory offers a choice to the other workers.
      They can each receive a 1000 Euro bonus or Sandra can return to work. It can’t be both. With the devoted support of one co-worker who has told Sandra of the insidious choice, labor rights now another subplot, Sandra spends one weekend, thus “two days, one night,” searching out each of the other workers. Gathering courage from out of her despair, she goes to each one to put a human face, hers, on the choice that they and we are faced with. What would you do?

Through the lens of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), that question becomes the test of what it means to truly live. Our response to “what would you do?” becomes the moral measure of life, our own and of life itself, of what it means to live with wholeness, integrity, and truth. The question becomes more pointed when made real in given moments of our lives, those times when we need to answer in real terms, not “what would you do?”, but “what are you going to do?”

The Torah portion begins with a setting of the stage, with words that on the surface seem simple, even pedestrian, telling of Yaakov’s living in Egypt for the last seventeen years of his life. Now on his deathbed, we are told, Vayechi Yaakov/and Jacob lived…. That phrase offers its own teaching, a question pulsating beneath its apparent simplicity, “what does it mean to truly live?” About to be gathered to his people, Yaakov’s life swirls before him in all of its days and nights, all of its highs and lows, a life filled with so much struggle and strife, so much pain. Finally finding some solace in the dimming light of harsh truth, a dysfunctional family whose torment he is largely responsible for, there is a certain comfort in the questions that emerge. The questions that begin on one person’s deathbed become for us questions of life that are comforting in their way of encouraging us to live. Yaakov as Yisrael is calling us as his children, b’nei yisra’el/children of Israel to rise up each day to engage life and people with integrity.

The moral choice in whether to think only of oneself and one’s own follows Sandra through the film as she visits through one weekend each of her co-workers. The question put to each person she visits increasingly becomes our own, will they/would we forgo a sizeable bonus to still include among us one whose need for work is equal to our own? So too, Yaakov’s life in flashing before him also flashes before us. As he sees, perhaps through tears, those moments in which he lied and cheated, twisting the bonds of love with his father and brother, colluding in untruths with his mother, favoring one wife and one child to the detriment of all, does it matter that seamy decisions might have been shrouded in the assumption of a greater good, as his mother believed, that he and not his brother was the more worthy progenitor? The question remains, in film, in Torah, in life, “what would you do?” As Yaakov wrestled in the night, so do we and seek our way.

     As his deathbed wrestling plays out, even now more urgently than his wrestling with the angel long ago, Yaakov calls for his beloved son, Yosef, and asks him, even pleads, v’asita imadi chesed vemes/deal with me in loving-kindness and truth (Gen. 47:29). Still in this world, the father asks his son to try to hold him in both kindness and truth. It is only after death that we speak in Jewish tradition of all that we do on behalf of the dead as acts of chesed shel emes/kindness of truth, or true loving-kindness. The frailties and failures of a life do not disappear with death, but are then held as part of one whole, an ideal with which we may struggle at times, yet to be wrapped up in kindness that allows the dead to be more fully gathered to their people. So Yaakov pleads, that he not  be buried in Egypt, but brought home to Canaan to sleep in the ancestral grave in the Cave of the Machpelah.

That Yaakov sought to fully live in Egypt in the latter years of his life gives reality to his lasting teaching for us. It was here, in exile, away from home, away from all he had hoped would be, that he wrestles more deeply and earnestly than he had before. It is here that he finally finds at least an approximation of wholeness, even if yet imperfect, with and within his family. The holy RIM, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Rothenberg reminds us of Egypt as the narrow places in our own lives, Mitzrayim, from meytzar/strait, the places in which we are challenged to yet live with truth and integrity, to make our way without losing who we are. Ironically, it is Yaakov in Jewish tradition who is associated with truth, not as representing the ideal of truth, but as a frail human being who struggles, like all of us, toward the truth. Needing the blessing of truth to help him on the way of truth, we say in words of prayer each morning, thereby making the gift our own, titen emet l’Yaakov/give truth to Yaakov (Micah 7:20). Helping us to see Yaakov’s very human struggles as our own, however they may differ in degree, the RIM teaches, in this way we are also able to live in every Mitzrayim that is each one’s/al y’dei zeh y’cholin l’chi’yot b’chol ha’mitzrayim she’yesh l’chol….

Whether in the day-to-day kindnesses we do for others, even at our own expense, or in allowing for the inconvenient presence of social programming in our own back yards, or in paying taxes with a sense of prideful purpose for the sake of the common good, or in recognizing that “me first-ism” is not the way of truth in either interpersonal or international relations, these are the real life situations in which we are called to act with integrity. These are the “narrow places” in which we wrestle, not in the gathering of our days, but all along the way, in the real moments of life, as in “Two days, One Night.” Holding all of the tensions between kindness and truth, with compassion for our selves and others, the question from film, from Torah, from life becomes our own, “what are you going to do?” emerging from “what would you do?”

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, February 2, 2018

Singing

There's a singing video making the rounds on social media. Apparently there are more than 12 million people who have viewed it. You see a teacher sitting on the bleachers at her school as a group of young people are singing to her. The children are smiling and moving with the music, even while sitting, and are obviously into the song. They are probably forty or fifty in number, racially diverse, accompanied by what one assumes is their music teacher. At one point he has a short solo part and a beautiful voice. Toward the end of the song the children all hold out a flower they had hidden below their seats and extend it toward the teacher.   

In all of this, we periodically see the teacher, who is crying. She wipes her eyes. She manages weak smiles before the tears flow again. At one point she is so moved she almost falls over backwards. It's as if the power of the music and the energy of their care for her sweeps her off her seat. 

She has cancer. The students know it. They are offering her a love song. It made me cry.

         Another video on social media made me cry as well. This one was of a mother forgiving her son's killer in court. She hugs him. She hugs his mother. She greets all the members of his family. She tells the killer she will always be a part of his life and she will not let the society kill him. She makes it clear that all lives are connected so taking one life affects many lives. She is obviously Muslim and acting out of her faith.

I may be getting more sentimental with age but I don't want you to think most things make me cry. Still, the tears do seem to come more lately and I'm wondering why. They can flow listening to good music or watching good theater. It can happen when I'm telling a story about an event that moved me or reading someone's else's story in prose or poetry. I've begun to seriously ponder what's behind it all.

This is my conclusion so far. In a world seemingly gone mad, I crave examples of kindness and harmony. In the event with the teacher, I saw and heard both. After seeing the video, I wondered about the healing capacity of that experience for the teacher. How did it impact her body? How did it help her fight her cancer?

We are learning some of the physically therapeutic benefits of music. Studies have concluded that music can make a difference for those with brain injuries, stroke, Parkinson's, perhaps even autism. Music therapy has come into it's own. Movement can be aided by rhythmic auditory stimulation. Musical improvisation can help with emotional expression. Singing and respiratory exercises can aid in restoring speech. Even persons with severe brain damage and no speech or movement can be stimulated by music to smile.

Once when I was as ill as I've ever been, the Canadian Tenors sang constantly by my bedside. They moderated the pain as well as any opioid. If I woke in the middle of the night and the CD had run its course, we just started over again. Given how mothers have used lullabies to soothe crying babies for ages, it seems strange we haven't recognized the therapeutic value of music as medicine sooner.

Then there's kindness. It's also about harmony. It doesn't have to be as unusual and dramatic as forgiving your son's killer in court. It can be as everyday as forgiving the person who cuts you off in traffic instead of carrying that anger through your day.

Undeserved kindness is so exceptional it can be life changing. Especially when we know we've done wrong, to be forgiven and embraced is shocking. To be kind and forgiving when we've been wronged, is equally shocking. Kindness sets in motion an energy that creates change. When God does it, it's called grace. 

I confess it's difficult to face some days with harmony and kindness. If one is open to what's happening in the nation and the world, there is bound to be disharmony and upset. At one time we were promised a kinder, gentler conservatism. There are no such claims now. At one time we had political parties that could sing in harmony (with enough practice). Today they sing very different tunes, alone.

Our task is to keep singing. Music and harmony is the way of the world. Do you remember that old round we used to sing, "Music alone shall live, never to die." And our task is to do those small acts of kindness for those with cancer, brain injured, or simply stressed in the super market. 


One of these days maybe we can send a mass choir to Washington to serenade the Commander in Chief and the Congress. Perhaps there could be some healing.

Carl Kline