Friday, July 19, 2019

Tell me a story...

Every so often I'm reminded of the power of stories. Facts may help to change a person's mind, but stories have a chance of changing the heart.

For instance, if you really want to understand what sacrifice for your country is like, sit down with a veteran and hear their personal story. That will stay with you much longer than a parade, speeches and fireworks. 

Better yet, hear the other side of the story as well. Hear the story from the adversary. Then you may come away with enough understanding of war that you'll join those veterans who know it's not something glorious and celebratory, but it's disturbing enough to eat at you all the rest of your life.

I've heard stories from Vietnam veterans that touched my heart. There was the vet who spent forty days alone in the desert, like Jesus, fasting and reading and praying to put his life back together again. There's the friend who will die taking pieces of debilitating shrapnel with him. There's the veteran who will never have children because of her exposure to toxic substances. 

        Last summer I had my first opportunity to hear from a person native to Vietnam, a casualty of war in his own country. He was a child when the war came to his village. In the confusion and terror of the initial fighting, he was separated from his family and left behind. Another fleeing family grabbed him up and took him with them. He never saw his birth family again; still has no knowledge of what happened to them.  

As he recounted the story of his loss and eventual adoption in the U.S., he had to gather himself in long periods of silence and tears. I envisioned him with veterans I have known, both of them far more open hearted to the other than those of us who have never seen the violence of war up close. We can make lots of excuses and rationalizations in our minds about the necessity of war, perhaps because we don't have the stories of reality that touch the heart.

I'll never forget my week end with the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The small village where the event was located was filled with huge circus tents. Thousands of people were there to hear storytellers from diverse backgrounds. 

Brother Blue, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill,  was black, walked around the crowds with balloons tied to his blue clothes and told folk tales from Africa and Asia; or sometimes he told Shakespeare's stories in a contemporary context. A playwright from Yale, he became famous as a storyteller on the streets of Boston. 

Moving from tent to tent and storyteller to storyteller, over the course of two days, one joined hundreds of others in times of laughter and grief, joy and tears, all through the power of oral storytelling. I came away convinced that the power of the spoken word was alive and well, if only we were prepared to listen.

My habit is to read stories before going to sleep at night. I read fiction, novels. There is far too much non-fiction in my daylight hours. Fiction, stories, help me sleep. Perhaps as I've aged, I need the story time of childhood again. Reading The Chronicles of Narnia to our children before bedtime is one of my most memorable experiences. I still hear them saying, "One more chapter dad, one more."

         Stories help put politics in context. There's a story I remember of parents fleeing to another country with their new born child, because there was a danger he would be killed. There's a story I remember of a whole people fleeing, seeking a "promised land," because they were oppressed and treated as slaves where they were living, There's a story of a person of another ethnicity helping a wounded traveler on the side of the road. There's a story of one laying down his life for others.

One could hope those Biblical stories still resonate as people reflect on our southern border. One could hope those stories are still being told, again and again and again. 

My fear is of a different story. It's a story where things get reversed, where lies become truth and evil becomes good and war becomes peace. It's a story with phrases like Big Brother, Hate Week, Thought Police, Fake News, Not One of Us, and Doublethink take on a life of their own. An Orwellian society is not my idea of a story with heart.

      How about the story of estranged brothers finding peace with each other again? Or what about the story of the hated brother, sold into slavery, forgiving his brothers and coming to their aid? Or can't we remember the story of the flood, or the garden, or who is responsible for this amazing creation?


Carl Kline

Friday, July 12, 2019

"What Does America Stand For?" - - Of Leader and People as One


 
           In my most cynical moments, coming at times in spite of myself, I have wondered if America has gotten what it deserves in this president and all the damage and harm that he has done. I catch myself quickly. All those who have been so harmed cannot be deserving of such harm, whether of people or earth, and of relations one to another in the fragile web of life. My thinking shifts then from the cynical to the intensely sad, wondering if all that has transpired today through a masquerade of leadership is the natural consequence of American emphasis on independence rather than interdependence, of self more than group. I wonder if today’s government has emerged from attitudes once carried in such expressions as “better dead than red,” or in the notion that anyone should be able to “pull them self up by the bootstraps.” I wondered in the week of the Fourth of July what it says of a nation’s character and values that in singing of who we are it is of “bombs bursting in air,” rather than of “purple mountain majesty,” which might have been our anthem. I wonder if our poisonous legacies of racism and xenophobia that make some unworthy of compassion,  blind us to the image of God in every human being. In such views and values there is reflected an essential lack of inter-human connection and of compassion, attitudes that have become full blown today in our national disconnect from the good and from goodness.

In the way time and text become entwined, I was stunned to come across a Talmudic debate that leapt off the page and played into my musings. Chad amar/one says, dor l’fi parnas/[the character of] a generation is according to its leader. And one says, [the character of] a leader is according to their generation (Arachin 17a)…. I stared at the page and kept going back over the words, still needing to explore and go more deeply. I wondered if it is as clear-cut as the debate might suggest. It would seem it is some of both, that a leader does emerge from the values and character of the people.  So too, a leader can help to shape the national character, drawing out that which is most noble in the people, or that which is most ignoble. 
In a way that I think can equally be seen as natural consequence, the great commentator Rashi suggests God’s role in choosing leadership that reflects the nature of a society. Commenting on the Talmudic view of leadership and people as offering a moral mirror of each other, Rashi teaches: im ha’dor az/if the generation is arrogant/the Holy Blessed One raises over them an arrogant leader/parnas az; v’im ha’dor nochin zeh la’zeh/and if the generation is peaceful one to another, the Holy Blessed One raises over them a leader who guides them peacefully/parnas ha’manhigam b’nachas….

        Continuing to muse on the symbiotic relationship of national character and leadership, the weekly Torah portion called Korach (Numb. 16:1-18:32) offers its own challenge and warning. In a jarring moment of conflict and turmoil, Moses is challenged. The portion pulsates with an underlying question of how we make room for challenge as part of political and communal dynamics. We watch Moses to see how he as a leader responds to challenge. There is merit in Korach’s charge that Moses has taken on too much power, that all the people are holy. The way of our speaking truth to power is held up for us to examine, to consider what works and what doesn’t work and why and why not. Is Korach seeking to disburse power more equally or to usurp more of it for himself? Whether it is Moses’ job he seeks or Aaron’s, tensions play out as between branches of government, here a divide between priest and prophet and the underlying question of how each is meant to serve the community and a greater good.

Each forming parts of one whole, as branches of government, the priests in the line of Aaron are those who would serve in the sanctuary, giving symbolic structure to the ideals to be nurtured in the people. In the prophetic line of Moses are those called to remind the people of what God seeks of us, as the Prophet Micah taught, it has been told to you, O mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God… (Micah 6:4). Neither way, the role of priest or prophet, of legislator or judge, is to be sought for personal gain. Each role is to be placed as a mantle in response to God’s call. Each as a call to service, the call to leadership was meant to help shape national character, and so too the character of the leader.

As the struggle between Moses and Korach plays out, it is a mistake to see the Torah as offering a model for leadership. Nor does the Torah offer an explicit model in most realms of human struggle. For all of the explicit mitzvot that it gives, the Torah is not primarily prescriptive. Rather, it offers a context in which to struggle with real life situations, which, however much the details may vary through time, remain timeless in their familiarity and immediacy.

Holding all of my wrestlings with Talmud and Torah and the day’s tortured news, Mieke and I took a delightful break for a Fourth of July FaceTime visit with grandchildren. Oma asked, “why aren’t you at camp today?” And the older two answered as though, “of course, Oma,” “it is the Fourth of July.” And what does the Fourth of July celebrate?” In one voice, they answered, “It is America’s birthday!” “What do you think we could give America as a birthday present?” Seven year-old Leo answered with a shy a smile, “We could make Trump not be president any more.” “Yes, that would help,” I said, “but we need to do more than that. America needs to be about more than one person.” I thought of the Talmud’s question about leaders and people and who determines the character of a nation. “What can we the people do?” I asked, making allusion beyond their understanding to the essence of which the day is meant to remind.

Feeling my way I said, “We could remind everyone what America is supposed to stand for.” Without a moment to expand on my tentative response, four year old Ruby asked, “what does America stand for…?” “Wow, what a great question, Ruby,” the question giving me pause, the pure innocence of a child’s asking causing my voice to crack for a moment.

“It is supposed to stand for equality, Ruby. That means that every single person is just as important and has the same rights as everyone else.” One of the kids chimed in as though on cue, “That means everyone can vote….” “Yes, that is true,” I said, “and so important. Do you know, though, that when America started only white men could vote, not women and not Black people. That doesn’t sound very equal does it? That has changed over time, but not enough. Not everyone is able to vote today even though they are supposed to be able to. Also, not everyone has what they need in America. Some people have so much and others don’t even have enough to eat, so that is not equal yet either. As a birthday present, we can remind all Americans about what equality really means and help to make it happen. That is what America is supposed to stand for.”

Off to the side, their mom’s voice reminded them about the long line of people walking past their corner with signs supporting immigrants, “like Zayde did in Boston,” Noa said.” My voice cracked again at the unexpected opportunity to so meaningfully mark the Fourth of July. “We have to make our birthday present even bigger,” I said. “When we remind people what America stands for,” Ruby, “we have to remind them that we are supposed to welcome the stranger and the immigrant, to be kind and caring to people in need. That is what the Torah teaches us too. There is a poem on the Statue of Liberty in New York that welcomes every one. It says to come, everyone who is tired, and poor, everyone who wants so much to be free. The poem was written more than one hundred years ago by a Jewish woman whose name is Emma Lazarus.”

As we said good-bye, I thought of Isaiah’s words of hope that a little child shall lead. On a day that should be given to reflective pause, it was the question of a child that led me to consider, “what does America stand for?” In all of their innocence, the children knew just what to ask. As the children lead, so may we merit the leaders we truly deserve, and together give shape to a national character rooted in interdependence and compassion, of leader and people as one in purpose and destiny.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein



Friday, July 5, 2019

It doesn't have to be this way...


     During the farm crisis of the 1980's, there was a steady stream of students in my campus ministry office, looking for someone to listen to the troubles on the farm. I remember one young man describing the tension whenever he went home. His mother and siblings were walking carefully and talking quietly because his father was hitting the bottle big time. The student had found half empty liquor bottles hidden in several places in the barn.

On another occasion a student wanted to explore what an alternative future for him might look like. It was becoming obvious that his future was not in farming. The family homestead of several generations was about to go under. There wouldn't be a farming operation for him to take over. You could see the grief of his forebears in his eyes.

Farmer suicides are back on the front pages. Statistics are being debated, as comprehensive studies are not available, but some suggest the suicide rate of farmers in this country is higher than for veterans, and we all know suicide rates among veterans are extreme. The latest statistics are 20.6 veteran suicides per day, including active duty troops and national guard.

Net farm income has declined by 50% since 2013. Median farm income for 2019 is forecast at -$1,449. You can only go so many years where the cost of production is more than the income from the product before it's bankruptcy or, increasingly, suicide. Besides, that 2019 projection was likely before we understood the continuing consequences of the trade war with China. Soybeans have already taken a nose dive and can likely drop further with the increased tariffs. One wonders how farm state Republicans like our own can stay so muted about what's happening to their major constituents, as a clueless President strives to run the business of trade like his personal real estate investment. It seems this President is at war with everyone, either in a war of words, a trade war, a sanctions war, or, God forbid, a new hot war with Iran.

If all that wasn't bad enough, we have an administration hell bent on doing everything it can to increase the climate crisis while farm families are underwater. The future farming climate is clear, as we hit 415 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in human history; hotter and wetter. That's not very good news to agricultural workers in the Midwest, already waiting on flooded fields to plant their crops. Now, as I write this, we're looking at five more straight days of rain.

      Actually, farming as we know it, is not a life sustaining occupation anywhere anymore. The suicide rate among farmers is a global problem. In India, since 1995, 270,000 farmers have taken their lives. Many attribute this extraordinary number to the adoption of modern agricultural practices, where one has to buy seed, and fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and equipment, year after year, going into larger and larger debt to moneylenders. Instead of traditional practices of saving seed and using more organic methods for regeneration of the soil, and plowing with the bullock, farmers line up at the Monsanto store and fill the till.

Suicide among farmers is not limited to India and the U.S. In Australia a farmer dies by suicide every four days. In the U.K. it's one a week. And in France a farmer dies by suicide every two days.

It doesn't have to be this way! The growth of farmers markets in this country is one example of a return to simpler days and healthier ways of being. Here is farm food going right to the dinner table. You don't have to have a huge operation with all the attendant inputs to grow food fit for human consumption and to provide an income. You don't have to "feed the world" or buy up another section. We can move in the direction of smaller operations and more sustainable livelihoods. There are organizations all over the country prepared to help those with a desire to live on the land and work with it, to do farming in a sustainable way.

One such organization in our own backyard is Dakota Rural Action. The DRA mission statement reads, "Dakota Rural Action is a grassroots, family agriculture and conservation group that organizes South Dakotans to protect our family farmers and ranchers, natural resources and unique way of life." As important, is their mission statement for rural vitality. "To lead South Dakota citizens toward a knowledgeable understanding of the relationship between agriculture and the environment; supporting and promoting agricultural systems that protect our air quality, water quality, public health and socio-economics; and sustaining vibrant communities for future generations."

        We are failing our family farmers. We need to wake up and recognize our food doesn't come from the grocery store. It comes from seeds someone plants in healthy soil that needs to be watered well, needs sunshine to grow and harvest.

Carl Kline