Friday, April 28, 2023

"A Genetic Conflict?"

 I've recently completed reading Octavia Butler's trilogy "Lilith's Brood."  The story line is set post nuclear winter when the earth has become unliveable for humans.  Any survivors of the war are sterile and afflicted with all kinds of deadly ailments post radiation.  An alien force known as the Oankali seek to heal both the earth and humankind through interbreeding and management of DNA.  The series narrates the fear and resistance that human beings experience when the nonhierarchical, nonviolent opportunities for change and healing are offered.

Butler postulates an intriguing idea throughout the three novels - - that humankind is in the grip of a major genetic conflict: they are species of high intelligence and they are hierarchical. 

The Oankali offer the possiblity of a new human colony on Mars where humans, healed of their infertility, can live in freedom - although they will never be fully able to replicate "earth" as they knew it.  There is uncertainty about how long the human species might survive in a new world before they once again find a way to destroy themselves. 

From the second book in the trilogy, Adulthood Rites, an Oankali speaks with a human: Your people are intelligent, and that’s good.  The Oankali say you are potentially one of the most intelligent species they have found.  But you are also hierarchical - you and you nearest animal relatives and your most distant animal ancestors.  Intelligence is relatively new to life on Earth, but your hierarchical tendencies are ancient.  The new was too often put in the service of the old.  It will be again.  You’re bright enough to learn to live on your new world, but you’re so hierarchical you’ll destroy yourselves trying to dominate it and each other.  You might last a long time, but in the end, you’ll destroy yourselves.”

The words keep reverberating as I read the headlines. The struggle for dominance of one human way of being over another way of being seems inescapable.  The level of intelligence committed to this need to dominate is impressive.  When I read about the Ivy League creds behind a DeSantis or a Kavanaugh and witness the many very intelligent, university trained minds that populate the House of Representatives and the Senate and the Supreme Court, not to mention the many governors' offices and state legislatures around the country, I wonder if Butler's dystopic conclusion is right.  

The need to dominate is incredibly ancient in our genetic make-up - - the survival of the fittest and all that.  When paired with the  more recent development of intelligence in our evolutionary process, it has become increasing destructive and deadly.  Witness the armaments that are now stored in even the most benign looking households, owned by families with young children, or by individuals whose mental and emotional balance are more governed by fear and the need to dominate than by confidence and lovingkindness, or by militias whose minds can only see threat and danger that needs to be dominated and destroyed.  Witness the conflict over control over the judiciary in Israel.  Witness the terrible terror in Sudan.

The idea of a "genetic conflict" or contradiction poses a real dilemma for the spiritual path.  Something to ponder in the daily endeavor to enter life in a way that causes no harm and, indeed, helps to alleviate suffering, without exercising dominion over the will of another.   It represents a "knotty" problem - one that doesn't lend itself easily to unraveling.

In a recent dharma talk, a Buddhist teacher offered some thoughts about how to approach the "knotty problems."   He suggested that a first step is to develop some sense of ease or a "pulling back" from the problem to gain a broader perspective - - to become a little more comfortable with not knowing how to address the issue.  A second step would be to let go of the need to judge and to fix blame and, instead, to cultivate curiosity and interest in the problem - - to witness it - - perhaps even to recognize who we are being in the midst of the problem.  And a third step, to allow ourselves to recognize any way in which we are able to "move the lever" - - to see where, even in the smallest way, we might initiate action that moves toward the unraveling of the knot - to take action that arises out of not knowing and witnessing. 

I came away from the dharma talk feeling more empowered for life where I live it, realizing that I, too, embody the Butlerian "genetic conflict" or contradiction, but through mindfulness I can at least moderate it and make choices arising out of a different way of being.

 Jewish mystical tradition affirms that a Divine Spark resides in all aspects of creation.  It also challenges humankind to be about the work of "raising the sparks" - - uncovering and revealing the holiness of all life in all its diversity in the service of the Wholeness of Life.  This work demands that we relinquish the need to dominate and control and "rule over." The work demands that we  cultivate a healthy curiosity and freedom to follow a life of liberation and creativity - to reverse the order - and permit intelligence in the service of life instead of hierarchy and dominance.

In her dystopic fiction, Octavia Butler's work seems often to posit this possiblity for humankind on another planet - in some new world.  But eventually I  come to the conclusion that we humans have to wake up and make THIS world the place of wholeness and well being if we are going to survive our own self destructive tendency.   We have the intelligence, but the need for hierarchies of control and dominance has to go.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 21, 2023

A Good Killling Ground?

 We haven’t been with family since before the pandemic. Nor have we felt all that positive about travel. But we are jumping into it this week, as we have planned a family reunion where we will share some beach time together.

Then I read this morning about the beach shooting in South Carolina with six people wounded. There was a second article about a near-the-beach shooting in Mexico, where two male tourists were killed and a woman wounded. I knew a person could be shot and killed: in school; in church; in the theatre; at the mall; in a drive-by shooting while in your car, or on your porch, or walking. It hadn’t occurred to me that the beach was a good killing ground. But why not? Guns can show up there, just like everyplace else!

It reminded me of the Sunday morning I almost got shot by some South Dakota deer hunters. I was serving a rural church and taking a different route than usual on a little traveled country road. I suddenly came upon three hunters who had trapped a deer in a roadside ditch. It must have been initially wounded as they were all three close and surrounding it. The deer was jumping erratically, as if it was all nerve action with nothing controlling its movements. The hunters were obviously frightened as its hooves were flying in all directions and they couldn’t be sure a deer body wouldn’t be hurtling onto them at any moment. All three of them were pumping more bullets into this moving target and at least two whizzed by my window.

I sped on, breathing deep and feeling gratitude for my self passage; as well as dismay for the violence of the scene I had just witnessed. I can imagine how veterans of war, as well as victims of mass shootings, can be traumatized by their experiences with lasting impacts.

We should all be getting traumatized by the school shootings in this country. One picture I saw on Facebook I had to re-post. It was a young girl. She looked to be 10 or 11 years old. She was obviously at some demonstration with other students and carrying a home made sign. It read, “If I die in a school shooting, leave my body on the steps of Congress.”

One person commented that it might be hard to do that if she was killed by an assault weapon. There would likely be lots of pieces.

Another post I replicated reads, “I choose the 2nd. Grader over the 2nd. Amendment.” I’m afraid our one Congressional Representative, Dusty Johnson, doesn’t make that choice! I wrote him about banning assault weapons. They are meant for war. Thy used to be banned; and back then gun violence was not the number one killer of our kids; like it is now. According to the response to my letter,  Dusty believes, “The Founders placed the right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution, and I believe it should be defended.”


Dusty proceeded to tell me all of the things he was doing to protect gun rights, saying nothing at all about what he was doing to protect school children; or beach goers; or church goers; or shoppers! He concluded with, ‘I will continue fighting to advance our Second Amendment rights and curtail unconstitutional limitations wherever possible.” Thanks Dusty! Do you think we should be glad traffic accidents and suicide are no longer the leading cause of death for our young people? With gun violence and mass shootings, we have a new number 1.

But, I suppose Dusty is just following in the footsteps of our senior South Dakota Republican. Senator, Senator Thune. In an interview about assault weapons, he was quoted as saying, “"In my state, they use them to shoot prairie dogs and, you know, other types of varmints. And so I think there are legitimate reasons why people would want to have them.” He’s not alone in his lack of confidence in gun owners being good shots with a 22 or hunting rifle. Representative Buck from Colorado believes his constituents need assault weapons to keep raccoons from getting chickens.

None of these folks want to address assault weapons in Uvalde, where 19 children and 2 teachers were killed; or the Buffalo super market where the shooter gunned down 10. Or did you see the video of the killer at the school in Nashville, shooting out the glass in the doors where she entered with an assault weapon? Watch it! Six died there; three children and 3 adults.

Perhaps you heard that the damage to the children’s bodies at Uvalde was so significant, parents had to give DNA swabs to help identify the remains of their kids. Doctors tell us these assault weapons can “pulverize human bones, turn organs into mush, and leave wounds the size of an orange.”  

Honestly, what is so hard about saying weapons of war should be reserved for war? They should not be in our homes and on our streets, threatening young and old wherever they go. 

It’s past time for mass resistance to mass shootings. Here’s to a student/teacher strike, all across the country, till we have a new assault weapons ban. Let living young people lie on the steps of Congress; not dead ones!

Carl Kline

Friday, April 14, 2023


A minister and a rabbi walk into the pulpit…

If I added a priest there might be the beginning of a minister, priest, rabbi joke.  But - - no joke.  It may be a first for our small congregation for a Christian minister and  a Jewish Rabbi to share the pulpit on Sunday morning.  Long past overdue.

The pulpit sharing comes in response to the challenging words in this week’s gospel text, five little words in particular. The first verse of the Christian lectionary reads: "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the doors of the house where the disciples were staying were locked for fear of the Jews… (John 20:19 - 31)

Throughout the Lenten season, the preaching commitment has been to examine and tell the Christian story responsibly.  So words like “…for fear of the Jews” demand attention.  What was going on here?  The disciples in the locked room were all Jews.  There were no Christians in the room in this hyper-charged moment, there was no “church,” just a small group of Jewish  men who had had the adventure, the challenge, the inspiration and, eventually, the great sorrow that came with accompanying Jesus through his teaching and preaching and healing ministry.  We have to ask “what did this language mean?”

But those words cannot be considered by Christians alone.  They need to be considered in dialogue with Jews.  The tragic history that the presence of those words in our sacred texts unleashed is there in that locked room and, in a sense, keeps us confined in a narrow, locked space.

Carried beyond the context of the 1st century struggles for religious identity under Roman oppression, the gospel’s words would become “texts of terror” for later generations of Jews as the epithet “Christ killer” became useful in rallying crusades, expulsions, forced conversions, property theft, pogroms - eventuating in the horror of the holocaust and in the up-tick of anti-semitism we are witnessing in the world today.  It is hard to come to terms with the shadow side of our own scriptures, but the words are there and cannot be denied.

Relationships between Jews and Christians are still burdened by fear and suspicion, by guilt and lack of understanding.  The terrible consequences of portions of our own scriptures are still waiting to be healed.

So - - a minister and a rabbi walk into the pulpit to have a conversation together about the texts in our traditions that wound.  We will talk about how Jews have heard these words “for fear of the Jews” from the gospel over the centuries, about the pain of being scapegoated and persecuted for over 2000 years as perpetrators of sins against Christianity.  We will talk about texts that have been used and are used to condemn and discriminate against LGBTQ+ human beings.  We will talk about human willingness to adhere to a vengeful god and the willingness to ignore the high calling to holiness, to love the Holy with all our heart and soul and strength, to practice hospitality toward the stranger, generosity toward those who are poor, compassion toward those who suffer.

Jews and Christians hold these high values in common.  Those values were present too, in that locked room, although the fear described in such a way -  - “for fear of the Jews” - - became a dominating force as history unfolded.

But there was another message - - The Presence of Wholeness and Healing entered the room offering peace, offering the breath of inspiration and power and holiness, offering the power and possibility of forgiveness as the small band moved forward.

Our ancient texts are like a vast ocean on which the competing waves of fear and peace undulate.  In the scriptures familiar to Jesus and his disciples, the central metaphor is the story of the movement of Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  Modern Jewish families around the world celebrated and remembered this story in their Pesach seders during the week Christians call Holy.  The Hebrew word  for Egypt is “mitzrayim” - - it carries the meaning of a narrow or constricted place.  Through the prophetic voice of Moses, Israel heard God’s call to emerge - - to come out of mitzrayim - - the slavery that limited and constricted them in every way.   It was a terrifying journey, fraught with thirst and hunger and a good amount of complaining, but they did it!

The metaphor of mitzrayim is in our spiritual DNA. We tend to constrict or contract in the face of the unknown and the unfamiliar.

But Holiness desires for us a life of freedom from fear and constriction and narrowness of being.The faith stories of Lent and the Passover season contain themes of transformation and renewal, of emerging from the narrow spaces that constrict us, keep us from being whole and vibrant and free and reconciled with one another.  

So - - a rabbi and a minister will walk into the pulpit.* It will be a spacious place. There will be no locked door.  There may be discomfort, but there will be no fear.  There will be lovingkindness and trust. There will be listening and hearing. There will be compassionate  and generous recognition of what binds us together as people of the Holy One.  There will be movement out of the narrowness that constricts as we take a few more steps toward understanding and healing.

Vicky Hanjian

*Rabbi Caryn Broitman and Rev. Cathlin Baker


Friday, April 7, 2023

"What Are You Looking For?"

 Debie Thomas is an Episcopal priest in California. She recently wrote a short, arresting article in a journal I read. The focus of the article was a question Jesus asks of two potential disciples in the Gospel of John; “What are you looking for?” Thomas reflects on this question for her own life, but more significant for me, she writes in such a way I was forced to encounter the question as well. “What am I looking for?”

She suggests, and I agree, that our culture has several stock answers to that question. They are responses driven into our unconscious from an early age. For one, we want recognition! I suppose it starts with the crying infant. But it’s life long, this desire for recognition, isn’t it?
For instance, here we are in the middle of March Madness. Virginia Tech and Georgia Amoore are names we now recognize in our home town, as they were the NCAA nemesis of our own SDSU Womens team. In fact, in the most recent game Tech played against Tennessee, the announcer repeated Amoore’s name so often it became tiresome. She’s a great basketball player, no question about it.

But if recognition is what we are looking for, that quest will likely become tiresome. The initial high eventually dissipates as expectations escalate and performance must escalate as well. Actors and actresses have to leave the stage at some point for their own health and happiness; as do basketball players have to leave the competitive court.

Another stock response of our culture to “what are you looking for,” is material things. It could be so simple as food on the table, clothes on the body or a roof over the head. But those who choose to live simply, like a Catholic Worker volunteer, or a “back to the land” hippie, are few and far between. And few of us forego a trade-in for a new car, or refrigerator or living room couch. And others will play the stock market or the gullibility of others to amass huge bank accounts, buying million dollar mansions   and yachts and planes. Some, like Donald Trump, will fly in planes with their name emblazoned on the side; signs of both wealth and recognition.

 And of course, a third stock response of our culture is “power”. No matter what your personal or political persuasion might be, if you want to function as a human being in this culture you need power. The question in this instance becomes, power-over or power-with? Which are we looking for? Perhaps in our present circumstances as a country, it’s an especially important question for those who would wish to govern. Which kind of power are they looking for?

As I mentioned earlier, I was forced to ask myself the question Debie raises. I’m not sure I’ve ever been provoked by an article, to spend as much time pondering something. It’s been healthy and helpful. As a product of this society and culture I’m susceptible to the same aspirations as everyone else. I doubt I would continue to write columns if I didn’t get recognition, even from a constant critic. But my deeper response to the Gospel question is one word, “hope!”

I refuse to give up reading and watching the news, even with a feel good story at the end: tornadoes, floods, wildfires, habitat loss, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, chemical spills, pipeline spills, fish kills, nuclear meltdowns, species loss! Or: wars in Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, DR Congo, Syria, South Sudan, Mali, Iraq and at least four more, where between 1,000 and 10,000 died in 2022.

Should I say more? Should I mention the 120 mass shootings so far in 2023, or the 12 school shootings so far this year. There were a record number of school shootings in 2022, at 51.

Jesus says, “Carl, what are you looking for?” And I say, “hope.” It’s a resurrection hope, where one sees life emerging from the tomb; love blossoming in fields of hate; healing emerging out of pain and suffering; service replacing selfishness; violence being challenged by peacemakers. Hope is often wrapped up in small and inauspicious acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. Sometimes, hope hangs on a lonely cross.

In the Gospel story, Jesus invites his questioners to “come and see.” Follow him and perhaps they will see what they are looking for. Thanks to Debie for reminding me, it’s my challenge as well.

Carl Kline