Revisiting

The high holidays started. Although this is a time of peace, the struggles over the past few weeks had escalated to the point of almost being unmanageable. It crossed my mind on more than one occasion that I might not be in the right frame of mind to participate. Like Abraham, I was tested. So, here I was in what is quite traditionally a return to very Jewish identity, the Holocaust as the ultimate rationale for nationhood and borders, the state of Israel. And yet the head of this both young and old state apparently supporting an angry intolerance of two different states – North Korea and Iran. The disconnect between authority and people has rarely seemed so palpable – as Tillerson eloquently put it, “The President speaks for himself.” So, pro-Israel, but not the one that supports the warlike posture of the leader of the country I live in, I answer the call to be present on Rosh Hashanah, nevertheless understanding that “Silence is not an option.”

We are perhaps just noticeably fewer at the synagogue (parking was a little easier). The service was healing in spite of the wounds that it revisited. We were offered a poet’s response to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, written during world war II “To be a Jew in the 20th century“, with a seemingly more open posture. As the service moved through the traditional passage on restoring purity, only one person walked out, although many probably mentally made the walk. There was only one overt laugh during the prayer for our country at the line “Let our country be an example to the rest of the world.” And then there was the traditional reading of the binding of Isaac. We were all called to the bimah during the reading, and this year, for the first time, I noticed that none of the women around me said the words. Every year we have struggled with the meaning of this story, interpreting it in different ways. Was it the answer to adolescence – “Don’t look to your father to save you, be a man, only G_d saves.”? Was it the end of child sacrifice- one anthropological explanation? Or was it a “horror movie”-like once-in-a-lifetime Durkheimian-Jungian enaction that evoked a tribal reexperience of fear and then celebration at survival – a sociological and anthropological explanation? Does everything hinge on the word “we” meaning that Abraham knew he would return with his son? Or does everything hinge on the word “tested” meaning it was “for real”? As Abraham raises the knife to his son, I step down from the bimah, and then quickly return as the angel appears to stay his hand. It was my expression of this teleological suspension of the ethical – the asking of the taking of a life that is not yours, but rather G_d’s, to take.

I kept thinking about it, and eventually this year I understood a different meaning. The message was about humility. It was about accepting an origin of being unworthy of life, that only by the grace of an angel is our life spared or given to us. And this is the meaning of the words “only son” as the story is told in the Jewish text. Our people have no greater origin. I remember the stones that are symbolically thrown for the women who would save their sons in other traditions, and I am yet not silent.

Be at peace.

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Gospel, hurricanes, monsoons, and North Korea

“9Let your love be perfectly sincere. Regard with horror what is evil; cling to what is right. 10As for brotherly love, be affectionate to one another; in matters of worldly honour, yield to one another. 11Do not be indolent when zeal is required. Be thoroughly warm-hearted, the Lord’s own servants, 12full of joyful hope, patient under persecution, earnest and persistent in prayer. 13Relieve the necessities of God’s people; always practise hospitality.

14Invoke blessings on your persecutors—blessings, not curses. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Have full sympathy with one another. Do not give your mind to high things, but let humble ways content you. Do not be wise in your own conceits. 17Pay back to no man evil for evil. Take thought for what is right and seemly in every one’s esteem. 18If you can, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with all the world. 19Do not be revengeful, my dear friends, but give way before anger; for it is written, “‘Revenge belongs to Me: I will pay back,’ says the Lord.” 20On the contrary, therefore, if your enemy is hungry, give him food; if he is thirsty, quench his thirst. For by doing this you will be heaping burning coals upon his head. 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome the evil with goodness.”

The above is from a Weymouth translation of the Book of Romans, authored by Paul. Although sensitive to Judeo-Christian differences, I consider all authors of the “New Testament” to be originally Jewish, so the evolution (or devolution) of their thought is understood in that context.  So, I went to a Methodist church this morning. I felt the need to come to some understanding of recent events, and for me it felt necessary to hear someone else’s thoughts about G_d. Max Weber stated that there are 3 religions that can explain the incongruence between merit and destiny. I don’t the Judeo-Christian tradition was mentioned as one of them. So, the sermon was on the fact that “Life’s not Fair”. We have millions of people right now in Houston who have elephant needs and attachments to their possessions which were lost in the hurricane. Next to this, you have millions of Indians walking to school through waist-high water whose attachment to things was much less, and although 950 lives were lost, the property and infrastructure is relatively less in India. So, Houston will have to be rebuilt, and if there is anything positive to come out of this, it may be that there will not be enough money to rebuild Houston and fight wars, build walls, etc. The money rebuilding Houston and the jobs and more efficient and better infrastructure that will result from this has the potential for good.

What a time (ironically?) for problems with North Korea. So, here I don’t think that G_d is militant. If North Korea has tested a very dangerous weapon, the question remains how to handle this. There are many countries with nuclear weapons, and it is almost insanity to believe that we will get along with all of the countries forever and ever. So, the two problems that I see that could be resolved nonviolently between the US and North Korea are:
1) meeting the needs of the North Koreans for survival and well being in a context of a world that has enough resources to meet these needs. Show concern for the country.
2) North Korea does not accept that the US dictates how it should be – armed, disarmed, starving, with a different government, etc. It very likely sees the US as a threat with nuclear arms the same way that the US sees it. It would be horrible to think that these weapons are safer in a country that has the appetite that the US has, than in North Korea which is possibly defending against national survival.

Do I think morality is on either side of a war? In terms of G_d and the survival of the world, a country with less consumption is probably ultimately better for the world. I don’t think that legislating this is a solution, but I also don’t see maximum consumption legislating others on the verge of survival as being a good way forward for the world.

So, why not accept that N. Korea will become nuclear, allow them to have a life-style which is comfortable for them, and be at peace with the world.

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Restructuring

As I listen to the back and forth on this issue, it occurs to me that the opinion is out there (I’ll say way out there, but for others it is not so far) that the foundation of the united states is corrupt. I think that there are at least a few that feel that overthrowing a “white supremacist” government and restarting the country with a “more moral foundation” would be a noble path forward that would channel a lot of energy – a complete rejection and break from the past. And then, I reflect on the other alt-right side that seems to want to take down the government (or weaken it) from within (hire people who have wanted to destroy agencies to lead them, etc.). With both of these movements given voice, we (define we here, but maybe I mean those caught in the middle) try to ensure that most people can live happy productive lives in the limited environment that surrounds us.

So, here I would argue that physical walls are for the most part (again avoiding absolutism) a really bad idea. If in a moment of tension, we weaken to the point that strong government does step in, the walls become our own prison that we have built for ourselves. It is much better to resolve issues with words and kind diplomatic gestures than to create barriers for ourselves to get in and out of our own homes. It is a challenge (that can be practiced daily) to learn to resolve conflicts oneself without violence or threat of violence, to develop the presence that allows our own individual peace and will to be able to find and express itself.  Vine Deloria, Jr. made an argument in his book that “Geography is often used to trump history.” This statement is often true about Native American history – the displacement of the Native Americans to reservations, about segregation – the separation of people with imagined possibly different agendas, about prisons – the building of walls to separate crime from the everyday world, and ultimately about political geography. Nations build and defend borders to protect their way of life; often displacing those that interfere with it. Deloria’s statement is a military statement. If one would rather see nonmilitary solutions to conflicts then, perhaps, extending this provocative thought, we should try to increase our level of tolerance for discomfort with other people’s histories.

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Rethinking

Charlottesville has challenged us to rethink some questions. Initial reactions to events have calmed somewhat. For the most part, I have a preference against absolute positions, but here are some interesting (I think) ideas:
1) public space should for the most part be dynamic and rated at least PG if not G. if we allow it to change, we increase the interest in the space, increase the visibility and development of artists and create spaces to discuss.
2) the role of the police in this conflict. I can’t really say because what we have is media accounts. The white supremacist slogans were reportedly pretty horrific and provocative. In addition, they were so heavily armed that it has been said that the police were somewhat intimidated. That said, the guns were not said to have been used. Instead, the origin of the tragic death seems to have been not so much what anyone said, but the car of a 20 year old kid.
3) equivocation. this has been discussed a lot. one side has a moral position about the fundamental dignity of every human being and the right to religious freedom; the other side’s moral argument seems to center on freedom of speech and the right to bear arms to defend that speech in the event that people who say that speech are targeted. the positions and values are not equivalent. Do people have a right to fight about it? If they don’t fight the small battles strongly, does the immoral side get stronger?
4) compulsion. in my view, this is where the president drew the line. he was being asked (possibly forced) to state the above, and he initially chose not to be forced into taking a side. It is arguably the privilege of rank.
5) many people feel that the line needs to be redrawn. about 2 million people fought for the North in the civil war; about 750 000 fought for the South. Those that fought for the South effectively were defending slavery, although as is the case in most wars, most people fight for their families and friends. Are we going to say that those 750 000 who defended slavery are not American, or entitled to citizenship? The irony is that this was the losing side’s argument, the winning side forced everyone to stay together. So, in the spirit of everyone growing together, let’s agree that we are not going to deny people that live amongst us the basic rights of citizenship.
6) what do we do with harmful speech, behavior, and ideas? do we censor it when we know it causes harm? do we correct one another when we hear and are subject to it? what are the rules of disengagement? do we associate it with loss of rank? driver’s license? opportunities for friends? opportunities for employment? opportunities for business? opportunities for conversation? housing? internet access? education? medical care?
7) I’m wary of the above because I have seen political forces be applied against movements – civil rights activists, pacifists, communists, gays, muslims, the mentally ill, etc. Being categorized or “criminalized” because of positions (sometimes erroneously sometimes out of context) by “an observer” should not have the power to disenfranchise people to the point of being shunned, etc.  And here I would argue, we up the level of civility, making sure that those points that we do try to address can be heard in a quiet respectful way no matter how the other side acts.  It is easier said than done.  To quote Michelle Obama “When they go low, we go high.”
8) There is one piece of advice that has served me well over the years, and I turn to it again and again in times of anger. “Never do things for negative reasons.” To me, this does not mean never respond to anger negatively, but rather think about it, and find a positive reason for the actions that one ultimately chooses to take. We owe it to the fine lives that were lost in this situation to prove that we can do better.

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The Civil War: 150 years later

I’m horrified at the events in Charlottesville.  Two weeks ago, I had been asked by the Quakers what to do about the planned protest.  My solution had been to ignore the protest, stay away from it, not give it any press.  I wonder at the bravery of those who did go.  In the end, they got press, not just from others, but also from me.  So, what to do about the monuments to a war that many would rather not remember, what to do with the fact that honoring these monuments perpetuates a discomfort in some that is oppressive to them.  I once thought taking the monuments down was the solution.  After visiting the Native American cultural centers however, I realize that in many ways, that is what happened to them.  Their symbols and culture were removed from our society and put in museums.  Some of these museums have survived, yet others have closed.  So, I am much more ambivalent today about removing the past from the present.  I now think, (and am open to debate), that qualification is necessary.  Use the monuments as an opportunity for reflection about what they mean.  Something like:

“Many years ago, much of the wealth of this country was founded on the unpaid labor of forced immigrants whose families were mostly destroyed in the process.  Slavery as an institution formally ended as a consequence of the end of the Civil War.  This country sacrificed 620,000 men to resolve the question of how much a human being could be exploited by another for profit.  The burden of this exploitation was unequally and almost without exception borne by persons of color.  This burden is felt to this day by many people as we strive towards a post-racial society.  Some people may be reminded by this monument of the pain and intimidation of the suffering; yet others of the shame at being associated with the side that lost the war and the moral line that they failed to uphold by their position on slavery.  We seek to remember the pain, and acknowledge the suffering and work yet to be done.”

Maybe we need different structures – but would they evoke the same feelings, and are these feelings central (necessary) to our history? Or should the public space be used to evoke feelings that we can get along? Can we trust people to make the distinction between taking down a statue that looks like a person, and taking down a person? Do we fight idols? Was Trump really so wrong in making the Sabbath (the day the event happened) a day for peace, and nonengagement in the fight? For waiting until Monday to condemn?
 

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Some Thoughts on North Korea

It’s a small country. Unlike Russia, where relations have not always been easy, and nuclear arms have been developed, the problem, I think, is that we continue to punish a country for being angry and different. I wish that everyone could take 3 steps back and realize that a) confrontation, b) nuclear arms, and c) war are not good solutions to this problem. Leave them alone. Try to get along with them. They are wanting the same rights that many other countries have as far as weapons go. We have had angry nuclear countries before. Why is this situation different? Is it the relative size/power of the countries, and the fact that this size/power discrepancy does not seem to be comprehended by a very isolated country?

We have better things to do than to destroy our planet trying to forcefully redefine this relationship.

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A Little Space

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