Friday, November 29, 2019

A time for rapprochement between religion and economics?

          A few centuries ago the Dismal Science of Economics and the Divine Science of Theology  went to court seeking a divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Economists claimed that theologians had their heads in the clouds. Theologians countered that economists had a cold and calculating hearts. The court of public opinion granted the divorce. The two parties drifted further and further apart with the passage of time, and their distrust of each other deepened. Then in 1759, Adam Smith, a leading economist, wrote, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it seemed like there might be an opportunity for rapprochement. Yet, as markets became more firmly established and theories of market economics became more sophisticated, the chasm of distrust between economists and theologians remained as deep as ever. Recently, however, there appears to be renewed interest in both camps to start a new conversation. There is simply too much at stake to allow the status quo to continue. 

Let me cite two examples: the World Council of Churches has identified global capitalism as an idolatry, and a number of economists have argued that the defense of self-interest as a cardinal virtue of the marketplace is, at best, myopic.

The rapacious nature of global capitalism and its tendency to commodify everything has raised alarms not only among members of faith communities, but also among climate scientists, economists, and the general public. The chorus of prophetic voices decrying this situation is growing louder and stronger. At the same time members of faith communities are making significant contributions in shaping market sectors. Organizations of Habitat for Humanity are redefining the meaning of affordable housing. Faith communities are major providers of healthcare. Many educational institutions are related to faith communities. In classic language, faith organizations have both a prophetic and a priestly/pastoral presence in the marketplace. Pension funds, of course, are one of linchpins creating a tight bond between faith organizations and markets. 

In the balance of this essay I want to introduce three possible places of rapprochement between economics and religion that people in a democratic society must have: the mental capacity to make meaningful choices; the material means to act on and implement their choices; and, authentic political communities of choice. I will call these capacity-building vectors that must be present and coordinated in a healthy democracy. From an economic perspective rather than limiting legitimate interest to shareholders, we are beginning to hear new conversations that recognize the valid interests of all stakeholders. Conversations in faith communities tend to center around themes related to the common good. Stakeholders have a shared interest in the common good, albeit at times these interests may be in conflict.

           In a vibrant democracy people must have the mental capacity to make meaningful choices. Public education is one of the battle grounds or meeting places for faith communities and economics. The push to privatize and further commodify education through charter schools, vouchers, and the like while at the same time curtailing or cutting funds for public education poses a threat to the future of a democratic society. The recent Chicago teachers strike serves as a case in point. Educators in Chicago created a union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), in 1937. The union did not gain collective bargaining rights until 1966. In 1987, the CTU went on strike for pay, reduced class size, and resources for the classroom. The CTU strike in 2012 focused on smaller class sizes, increased funding for music, art, physical education, reduced emphasis on standard tests, and paid time for teachers to prepare for classes. Once the Chicago teachers went back to work their message spread across the country. Teacher strikes in New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Tampa, and points in between emphasized a community approach to achieve educational reform. Lessons learned in these struggles continue to be applied. According to US Department of Labor more than 485,000 workers went on strike in 2018. The 2019 CTU strike was not just about long overdue pay increases, but also for better resources to improve students lives, such as increasing the number of counselors, nurses, and social social workers. The focus on the need for these resource specialists is explained by changes in the community such as increases in gun violence, domestic violence, and drug use. Clearly many of the problems and challenges teachers confront in the classroom have their origin outside the classroom. To address these issues requires broad based community mobilization.

In a democracy people need the mental capacity to make informed and meaningful choices. They also need the material means that allows them to act on their choices. Using a Quality of Life Index (QLI) economists and political leaders are able to track and assess the well-being of communities at a very refined level. QLI measures include such things as access to affordable and adequate health care, education, food security, housing, public safety, and environmental sustainability. Rather than focusing exclusively on the wealth gap and the wage gap, as seems to be the current obsession of the public media, our society would make more progress toward creating a stronger democracy if we focused on ways to improve the QLI of those members of society who are most a risk. A shared commitment to a better QLI for the most vulnerable members of society could be a point of rapprochement for economists and theologians, and provide a road map for the future.

Thirdly, in a vibrant democracy people need to be able to participate in meaningful ways in political communities that are transparent and accountable. Faith communities can be places where people learn basic skills such as sharing resources and responsibilities that are needed to create and sustain such communities. Lessons learned in these communities can be put to use in the public square. Faith communities can also become educational centers where people learn how to do community analysis. 

Economists trained in schools of economics that teach in primacy of self-interest and who sanctify the bottom line may dismiss the foregoing as being unrealistic and just another example of head-in-the-clouds theology. But I believe that we live in a time when a rapprochement between theologians and economists is not only possible; it is necessary. 

Rev. David Hansen, Ph.D.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Affirming With Our Presence That We Have Not Given Up

I met recently with an elder friend at his home. At ninety-five years, he is still an indefatigable activist for peace and justice. As I was about to leave, we stood at the door for a moment. Looking at me intently, my friend asked, “Have you given up?” I was a bit startled by the question, the very thought of giving up anathema to me. Somewhere between tears and a shout, I said with unexpected passion, “No, of course not, we have no right to give up!” Then, with equal conviction, my friend said, “That’s good, anyone who has given up is not welcome here.”

I have been thinking about that parting question, both so troubling and inspiring to me. I could not imagine giving up the struggle for a better world, a more just and peaceful society. It has been a struggle that has called me for what seems to be my whole life, a call to engage for as long as I can remember. However engaged we are in the world and its needs, there are times for all of us when we need to step back, times when we feel soul-tired, times when we need a place to cry as we look out upon so much destruction in the world. There are times when we need the support of others, times when we need the support of our own convictions, times when we need God’s support, to take God’s hand and walk quietly together.

It was the week of the Torah portion Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24). I continue to filter my friend’s question through this packed and beautiful, this devastating and powerfully challenging and uplifting Torah portion. It is filled with life in all of its raw beauty and complexity, people in conflict, people in love, people struggling toward wholeness, at times reaching great heights, at times failing miserably. At the outset, Avraham and Sarah teach the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim/welcoming of guests, becoming a model for all time of graciousness to the stranger, the passerby, the one in need. 
The absurdly improbable flowering of love comes to be with Sarah’s pregnancy at ninety years, her husband at one hundred. The jealousy of Sarah for Hagar plays out in bitter tones that still reverberate through time, the sending away of a mother and child, the separating of brothers. God debates in poignant soliloquy whether to tell Avraham of the thought to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities so filled with violence and cruelty they cannot stand. God does tell Avraham, part of setting forth the mission to be given to Avraham’s descendants. Our task shall therefore be to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice/la’asot tz’dakah u’mishpat (Gen. 18:19). 

      And so Avraham rises to God’s challenge and argues on behalf of the people of these violent cities. From the heights to the depths, we rise and fall with our ancestor as he fails to say a word on behalf of his own son, putting a knife to the throat of his own flesh. By what right do we think our children are ours to do with whatever we would? We scream and cry and try to keep going. The portion continues, from heights to depths, ways of war and ways of peace, domestic tensions and modeling of sholom bayis/peace in the home.

The journey through Vayera is wearing, exhausting us by its end. And yet we stay with it because that is what Torah trains us to do. A scroll of life unfolding through time, we are challenged to think, to feel, to wrestle and struggle with Torah as with life, with life as with Torah. In the way of reading and wrestling with Torah we are trained to never give up. We make mistakes, we triumph in the way of moral accomplishment, we fall and fail, we grieve and we celebrate, and we keep going because that is the way and nature of life. It is anathema to give up. The challenge of Torah at its end is there from the beginning, Choose life, so that you may live, you and your children… (Deut. 30:19). We keep going, we keep walking, we keep on keeping on, as Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, encouraged us with song and a smile, and in the way of the old freedom song, “gonna keep on walkin’, gonna keep on talkin’ on to the freedom land.”

It is the way of our walking that plays out in two models of Torah, the way of No’ach and the way of Avraham. Of No’ach, we are told before the great flood, et ha’elo’him hithalech No’ach/No’ach walked with God (Gen. 6:9). To Avraham, God says, hithalech l’fanei ve’h’yeh tamim/walk before Me and become whole… (Gen. 17:1). From these ways of walking, with God and before God, No’ach comes often to be seen as the more passive one and Avraham as the more active one. No’ach is seen to do what he is told, not arguing or trying to reason.
             Avraham is seen as the activist, going out in front, arguing. And yet there are times when Avraham doesn’t argue, times when he fails to act, as on behalf of his own son, Isaac, unthinkingly and unthinkably taking him up the mountain to offer him there upon an altar.      And there are times when No’ach steps forward, quiet passion welling up, as imagined by rabbis not satisfied with paradigmatic dichotomies, whether those limiting Avraham and No’ach or those limiting ourselves. A powerful midrashic telling in the Zohar is set in the moment that No’ach emerges from the ark, eyes blinking, bewildered by what he sees, overwhelmed with emotion: when No’ach went out from the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world destroyed/kol ha’olam kulo charav, he began to weep for the world/hit’chil bocheh al ha’olam; he said, ‘Master of the Universe, if on account of sin or on account of those who stray You would destroy Your world, why did You create them? Either this or this, is it for You to destroy? O d’lo tavri enash, o d’lo tavri alma/either do not create the human or do not create the world… (Torah Sh’laymah, Midrash Ha’ne’e’lam, Noach 22b).

If we would not give up, is it enough at times simply to weep and then to cry out? Is it enough at times to walk with God and tell of our weariness and ask for strength? Is it enough at times simply to keep speaking, even to the wind, in order to remind ourselves why we can’t give up? There is a powerful midrash said to have been told by Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory:

            A person came to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to plead with the people to turn from their violence, to stop their killing. This person walked the streets of the city day after day talking and pleading, but alas to no avail; the people continued in their violent ways. One day, as the person walked through the streets of the city, a child came up and asked, ‘why do you continue to talk to them, you see that they don’t listen to you?’ And the answer came gently to the child, ‘When I came here, I talked to them in order to change them, now I continue to talk to prevent them from changing me.’

There are times when our activism may be just to “keep on talkin’” in order to remind ourselves of what we believe, a way to insure that we do not give up, that we shall yet overcome and someday reach the freedom land. We need both ways, the way of Avraham and the way of No’ach, each part of one whole. Continuing to do righteousness and justice as a way of life, we keep going, walking at times with God and at times before God, needing each other. We keep on walkin’ and we keep on talkin’, at times even to ourselves. At times it may be the challenging question of an elder, at times the innocent question of a child, at times a “voice within me talkin’,” each to remind that we are morally bound to never give up; that in my friend’s home become the world, we shall all be welcome, affirming with our presence that we have not given up.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein


Friday, November 8, 2019

" a dog..."

            Near the end of August, just before our grandkids left for college, it became a reality that Flash, our beloved  “grand-dog” was rapidly failing and that the most loving and compassionate thing to do would be to “put him down.” We went with our son and daughter-in-law and our grandkids to witness and attend to the end of Flash’s life. I was awed by the amount of grief I experienced, both anticipating it  and then going through the actual process at the vet’s that morning - -the same place where my daughter-in-law and I had picked him out 13 years ago.  Back then he was a sad, unhealthy puppy from a litter that had apparently been “mis-bred” - - not a full Gordon Setter - maybe a mix of Gordon Setter and Irish Setter.  Scrawny, malnourished, wormy - neglected by the breeder due in part to her own mental illness.  But he was the one that appealed!  With love and attention and stability in the family, he grew into a goofy adult dog with the peculiar habit of eating poop and tissues whenever he had the opportunity.  When we arrived at the vet’s office our son lifted Flash out of the back of the station wagon. He was able to walk on his own on the leash.  The place was familiar to him so he was not stressed.  The vet explained that she would give him some anesthesia to relax him and settle him and then would give him the overdose that would ease him out of this life.
            It was a sweet, gently awesome thing to be there and understand how quickly the spirit vacates the physical container -how gently it happens - how complete and final it is.  One second, the heaving, straining breathing signaled life still present - and the next -peaceful quiet absence -and yet Presence- as we sat there and said our good byes and cried our tears.  We mourned the passing of this goofy, loveable dog who had given us all so much love and enjoyment and laughter over the years of his life in our family.
            I was only partly tuned in to the story of Abu Bagr Al Baghdadi’s death when it was announced on the morning news.  As the day’s story unfolded, I was stunned to hear from the president’s mouth that Baghdadi “…died like a dog, like a coward…”  I felt disturbed and sad and not a little nettled by the lack of dignity of these words coming from his mouth, as though, even if an enemy, Al Baghdadi had no value as a human being.   Somewhere, someone, a mother or father, a wife or son or daughter is mourning  the of death of this man.  His life was, without a doubt, committed to a level of violence and terrorism and to the flagrant waste of human life that is beyond me to imagine, and yet he was a human being. 
            Several traditional teachings from Judaism and Christianity keep riffling through my mind.   Jesus, while being tortured  and crucified by Roman soldiers, the occupying terrorist power in Judea at the time, prayed as he was dying: “Father forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”   A teaching that aspires to give us hope that compassion toward an enemy is possible under the most extreme circumstances and that the behavior of the enemy may be a manifestation of the grossest lack of conscious awareness of what he or she is doing.
            Right at the beginning of Genesis, the ancient creation story affirms that humankind is created in the image of God.  Nowhere does it say only “good” humans are created in God’s image, nor does it exclude racist humans or terrorist humans, or female humans or disabled humans - - - it simply affirms that God created humankind - - ALL of us - - in God’s image.  To harm or kill another human being is to deface the image of God.
            In the midst of the kind of polarization that seems to rule the day in this country at the moment, this represents a radical theology of humankind, I think.  How can it be that all human beings, without regard to status, race, gender orientation, without consideration for  a person’s orientation to compassion or to terrorism and cruelty - - how can it be that all human beings are created in the image of God?
            Over the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to a body of Hasidic wisdom called Tanya.  One of the most powerful concepts in the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman is the concept of the beinoni - a term for the individual who straddles somewhere between  tzaddik (a saint) and  rasha (a wicked or evil person). An absolute tzaddik is one who has absolutely no inclination toward evil residing in him or her.  There is no longer any conflict between good and evil within a tzaddik.  A rasha, on the other hand, is one who is totally directed by the governance of the body drives and emotional whims and there is no awareness of any manifestation of Divine Soul.
Then there is the beinoni  who has not sinned in his or her behavior but who has not completely purged him or herself from evil either - but rather lives in a state of needing to be continually aware of the deliberate, conscious decision never to draw life energy from any source other than God. [1]  Perhaps this is similar to the teachings of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition.
            This is a gross over simplification of a very beautiful and complex spiritual psychology but it is helping me to build a frame of reference for venturing toward compassion and understanding of the density of such a one as Al Baghdadi from whom virtually no light could shine.
            At some point the Tanya goes on to teach that a complete tzaddik (in whom there is no inclination toward evil) or a complete rasha  (in whom there is no inclination to good) are extremely rare.  More often there is almost total “goodness” with a touch of “evil” or almost total “evil” with a touch of “goodness” - - something like the Yin/Yang symbol where opposite halves are intertwined with a tiny spot of the one appearing in its opposite half and vice versa.
            So, perhaps it is possible that somewhere in the recesses of the person called Al Baghdadi, a well hidden spark of light might have permitted him to love a child or an aging parent, while the rest of him found it easy enough to mindlessly obliterate human life, to generate hatred and terror on a much larger scale.   Even the tiniest spark of light, no matter how dim, marks him as a human being.  He died like a human being, running from pursuers, alone, afraid, terrified enough that he chose to end it all himself before being captured.   The rest of us lose our own human dignity when we speak of his death with glee and triumph.  His life and his death are part of a human tragedy. 
            Our beloved Flash died like a dog, a beloved member of a human family, attended to with care and compassion, with tears and mourning, with dignity and grace.  There is a huge difference.  

[1] Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom, trans. By Rabbi Rami Shapiro, SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010. p.xi

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, November 1, 2019

"...ends in the making"

              As you read this, the library has had their semi-annual book sale. There were 200 boxes unpacked on Tuesday morning and I'm sure there were plenty of books left Sunday afternoon when you could get them for $2 a bag. I went three times, filling five canvas bags.    I've been complaining for months about how we need to downsize. There are enough books in our house to start a bookstore. In years past, we've had book giveaways. We invite folks for refreshments and books. The books are arranged attractively on tables. No one is allowed to leave the house with empty hands. If my goal is downsizing, then the means to get there is giveaways and curing my addiction at book sales. That's easier said than done. In my case, the means are not always in harmony with the end one seeks.
In the summer of 1959, a friend and I hitchhiked from Aberdeen, S.D. to New Orleans, LA. We had been told that if we showed up at the office of the Scandinavian Shipping Lines in New Orleans, we could get jobs working on cargo ships for the summer. They didn't tell us we couldn't work on the same boat when we first contacted them. My friend left on an oiler bound for Venezuela. I left on a banana boat headed for Honduras.

         Honduras was what was called a "banana republic." Bananas were the economic lifeblood of the country. United Fruit Company owned the plantations and was the political and economic power in the country. In those days it appeared to me that most of the economic activity in La Ceiba, where we docked for bananas, was centered in the harbor and the banana industry. Shoe shine boys appeared on the docks as soon as the boats arrived, prepared to shine your shoes or sell their sister. Almost every street had an armed soldier on patrol and the bars did a brisk business with banana boat crews. Poverty was rife and most work seemed to consist of tending and hauling bananas.
       That early experience has led me to try and understand better the way corporations can exploit countries to the detriment of all of their citizens. Honduras was poor and there was no way a small farmer was going to be able to grow bananas for export. The land and business was owned and operated by a foreign multinational with political clout.   Add to this history the political and military influence our country has exerted there, it's no wonder the Honduran people are fleeing in droves. The overthrow of an elected President in 2009 in a military coup drew a weak response from Washington and has insured a corrupt, even criminal administration, in power.   In short, if you want people to stay in their own country and not approach the U.S. border as migrants, exploitation and violence in their home country needs to end.
 The means to  the  end of avoiding border wars is economic and political freedom and stability at home.

         It appears there is bipartisan support against the decision of the President to hastily withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. On the one hand, I couldn't agree more with the desire to bring the troops home from these pervasive and seemingly permanent deployments all over the globe. The end goal is a worthy one. But the means is in question. Shouldn't such foreign policy questions be a matter of consultation, where all of the ramifications are carefully considered? Apparently there was little consultation with anyone, including the military and Congress, certainly not with the allies on the ground, the Kurds. The means this President uses to reach his ends are increasingly autocratic and questionable. This is typical of authoritarian thinkers, who can't be bothered with the interplay of various opinions, data and possible outcomes.

            The President might argue the ends justify any means necessary. Others have made the same argument. 45 wouldn't be alone. But if one looks at the historical record, one discovers that it leaves much to be desired. Seeking the end of racial purity left millions dead in gas chambers and concentration camps. Believing one has the exclusive ownership of religious righteousness left whole continents of people designated as savages.

Ends and means must be in harmony. In fact, Gandhi is likely right when he says that, “For me it is enough to know the means. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life. We have always control over the means but not over the end. I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means. They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.”

It's obvious that if we plant a weed we won't get a rose. It should also be obvious we reap what we sow. We make a serious error, if we fail to see the moral connections and interrelationships between the ends and the means. Great crimes and grievous mistakes can follow. Gandhi said, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”

Carl Kline