Christmas 2017

 

Christmas 2017

(The ones) who go out weeping, carrying their bag of seed, will come back with songs of joy, carrying home their sheaves.” (Psalm 126: 6)

“As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Sovereign God make God’s victory… blossom before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)

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As sandy soil gardeners, we live through each growing season with the awareness that our ability to coax flowers to bloom and plants to produce vegetables is limited by the whims of weather, climate change, and the cycles of the moon! This past spring, summer, and fall have been especially challenging. We’ve watered, composted, mulched, staked, weeded, and chanted encouraging words over anemic faltering plants. Our harvest songs of joy have been strained and muted as we have given thanks for the one meal of green beans, three tomatoes, a couple dozen cherry tomatoes, five stubby cucumbers, a few stalks of scraggly broccoli, and several snippets from stunted basil. Now the frost has frozen in place the pea-sized brussels sprouts. The garden, cleared of debris, awaits the protective blanket of snow.

It occurs to us that our gardening struggle may be a living metaphor that reflects the governmental and social malaise currently infecting our wellbeing. Many weep as they sow seeds of non-violence, seeds of welcome to the immigrant and refugee, and seeds of healthcare for all; only to see them sprout and fall to the blight of lies, the drought of empathy, derision of care for neighbor, and the domination of coercive power. Many “suffer the insults of the arrogant, the contempt of the proud,” and the patronizing of the rich. (Psalm 123: 3-4)

However, this Christmastide, on the edge of our fatigued garden grows a thriving five-foot blue spruce tree supporting dozens of white Christmas lights. Its persistent presence in our depleted garden proclaims the reality in the promise of a future proclaimed by Mary, mother of Jesus, “God has brought down monarchs from their thrones, and raised on high the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This evergreen tree of life declares with Isaiah, “As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Sovereign God make God’s victory… blossom before all the nations.”

May the seeds of God’s realm of justice and peace be sown among us this Christmas to be nourished and blossom in our lives and in all the nations of the world.

Merry Christmas to all

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Shooting in Houses of Worship Dilemma

Shootings in Houses of Worship Create a Dilemma

On November 4, Americans again came face to face with an insidious climate of violence when a man fired guns into the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The next day, November 5, there was a deadly shooting at the Fresno, California St. Alphonsus Church. These two events were preceded by gun deaths in places of worship in the Antioch, Tennessee Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in September, 2017; at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center on January 29, 2017; in the Charleston, South Carolina African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015; at Overland Park, Kansas Jewish Community Center in April 2014; and in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh Temple on August 2012.

This latest mass killing in Southern Springs, Texas has filled the news media with questions to church members about gun violence and security. After expressing a commitment to prayer, continued trust in God, grief for those who have lost their lives, and care for those who have been injured or who have lost a loved one; the conversation moves toward ways to prevent future violent events. Over and over we hear the conviction that restrictions on gun possession are not realistic, possible, or even acceptable. Finally the conversation turns to contemplate ways to increase security: hiring security guards, training church leaders to discern dangerous people entering church, and encouraging all people to be trained and carry guns to worship for self defense.

This focus on security in response to these shootings in Synagogues, Churches, Mosques, and Temples has revealed a dilemma. For many Christians, as well as other people of faith, the invasion of gun violence into worship centers has challenged part of their mission: to welcome the stranger and those who are hurting. Many religious centers host substance abuse support groups, homeless people, refugees and undocumented people, food banks, and provide space for counseling centers. Therefore, it is conflicting to seek ways to restrict some people while at the same time maintaining a welcoming place for all people. It is also a predicament for worshippers to seek security from gun violence by carrying guns into worship settings. For example, Christian Scriptures record an episode where one of Jesus’ disciples draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a Roman soldier who is attempting to arrest Jesus. Jesus responds, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He then touches the soldier’s ear and heals him. It seems violence only breeds more violence and never accomplishes true security.

Consequently, some faith communities are becoming venues for exploring ways to resist the conventional responses to violence and the conventional view of security. The Reverend William Sloan Coffin wrote in his book, Credo, “Will we be scared to death or scared to life? (Religious communities) being challenged to live with enormous insecurity… could become centers of creative and courageous thinking.” This potential of creative and courageous thinking suggests that there are no guarantees in security devised by human beings. There is always risk that cannot be eliminated by cordoning off property, asking for I.D. and fingerprinting. Also, it is incongruous to the mission of communities of faith to hire armed security, encourage looking for suspicious persons, and carry personal guns into worship services. The choice between stringent security and a welcoming community for all people seems to be a choice between death and life: death to a humane society or life-risking love of neighbor.

Religious communities understand that a valued life faces into the insecurities of welcoming the stranger and extending love to enemies. There is a saying of Jesus, “Any who would gain their life will loose it. Any who would loose their life (following me) will gain it.” Other faith communities have similar understandings. Muslims have a commitment to give to those in need. Jewish Scripture calls upon people to welcome the stranger into the land.

People in our churches, synagogues, and mosques are being challenged to demonstrate to the wider society life-enhancing ways to face into fear, hate, and violence. They are exploring alternatives to force and defensive security as instruments of persuasion. For example, it is disarming to greet people in the parking lot and the worship space with a warm welcome rather than a cautious reserve. Some religious centers have already declared themselves “gun free zones.” I was once in a church that gave its keys to the leaders of substance abuse support groups for access into the building every day of the week. These groups cared for the building as if it was their own. And they greeted each person who came through the door. All were welcomed. All became known and included.

None of this will guarantee the end to future acts of violence invading worship space. But previous attacks on religious communities may be the fuel to move people of faith to substitute ineffective security for courageous actions of love of neighbor. Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faith communities have the guiding principles and historical narratives to transform the future of human interaction. They can choose, in the words of William Sloane Coffin, “not to mirror but to challenge culture, not to sustain but to upend the status quo…” We have models from great leaders of the past who were willing to live non-violently in harms way that others may live in the way of justice and peace. Even as I write this essay, a report comes in of yet another random shooting that included a school. In this environment we need leaders and a movement that forgoes a focus on security and gives meaning to the risk of transforming the human condition.

 

Thoughts for Veterans Day 2017

Thoughts for Veterans Day 2017

Each year, in preparation for a Veterans Day program, the newsletter of my community asks that all veterans confirm the community’s record of their branch of service and “war time service location.” Upon reading this year’s request, it occurred to me that “war time” has become normal time. At least since the Viet Nam era the United States has been involved in perpetual war fought in one country or another against a diversity of “terrorists” and their supporters. This brave new world is rife with fear, suspicion, and hegemony.

Since the end of World War I United States international policy has been split into two opposing movements. The first movement embraces non-violence, negotiation, and amenable resolutions as instruments of peace. It was launched with the U.S. Senate ratification of the international Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, signed by President Calvin Coolidge on January 17, 1929. The Pact reads in part that the signers, “Condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” It also adds that the parties agree, “that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.”

The primary instrument of the second movement is military power. Its mantra is “peace through strength” backed by superior weapons and a warrior class. This movement is sustained by a professionalized military and by words such as those sung in our National Anthem, “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air… Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us as a nation.  Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just…”  This movement has reached a pinnacle of coercive power in the bluster of implied threats from President Trump toward North Korea and Iran.

The primacy of U.S. military power to settle disputes has been perpetuated with the deployment of military units in over fifty countries. U.S. citizens and sometimes members of Congress are unaware of military activity in some of these countries. For example, Senators Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer say they did not know there were 1000 U.S. troops in Niger. Their presence came to public attention with the notification of the deaths of 4 soldiers who were among a 12-member Army Special Forces unit accompanying Nigerien forces near the village of Tongo Tongo on October 3. It seems the United States has become a warrior nation.

It is apparent that the arc of the pendulum has swung from its peak amplitude of Armistice Day and the “pacific means” movement of the late 1920’s to the opposite peak of the early 21st century movement of “Warriors” as the salvation of the nation. Armistice Day has been coopted by Veterans Day, conceived to celebrate and honor men and women warriors who are put into harms way with the tools of war to solve international conflicts.

However, the focus of Veterans Day can be redirected. It may be the time to support military veterans with the acknowledgement that it has been a great tragedy to entice these women and men into participating in military solutions when there are other ways to make international friends, become good neighbors, and offer transforming love to enemies. It may be the time to offer our apology for luring them into experiences of maiming, death, and a lifetime of dreadful memories. It may become a day to pledge a “welcome home,” care for their wounds, and commit to a policy that condemns a normal recourse to war.

A step toward the transformation of the Veterans Day celebration is to include the many thousands of civilian veterans who have volunteered to go into harms way without weapons of destruction.

Veterans who have marched for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, rights of GLBTQ people; thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served as fire fighters, medics, miners, social workers; thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served with Doctors without Borders, as aid workers with Syrian and Myranmar Muslims refugees, as workers with the Red Cross and Red Crescent; thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served in the Press Corps, for the World Council of Churches, in the Peace Corps, and as state department workers in embassies and consulates; thank you for your service.

Veteran volunteers who have searched, rescued, and rebuilt after earthquakes, landslides, fires, floods; thank you for your service.

Thank you, all who have non violently sacrificed and sometimes risked your lives to advance the swing toward good neighbors, peace, and reconciliation. You are riding the wave of a movement toward a future humanity where coercive violence will be unacceptable among people and among nations. As John F. Kennedy said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” It is a brave new paradigm, yet unnoticed by many. It transforms the nature of human beings. Thank you for leading the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Hospitality not Walls

My Turn                                                                                             August 30, 2017

Choose Hospitality, not Walls

Recently, a woman stopped me on Elm Street in downtown Manchester and asked, “Do you have a dollar? It’s all I need to make up enough money for a cup of coffee.”

This unnamed woman interrupted our dash to a sandwich shop for a strategy session to prepare for a meeting with our U.S. Senator. We were to plan effective advocacy against a bill to come before the Senate. Our presentation was to be based upon a humanitarian and justice foundation. I was mentally pacing out the steps of our approach to the issue as we walked by the entreating woman. I completely missed the connection between our urgency to advance our humanitarian case to the Senator and the immediacy of the woman’s request for a dollar.

The image of the woman seeking a cup of coffee stayed with me for the next few days. It brought back a memory of my years as a welfare officer in a small New Hampshire town. The people I had assisted taught me that behind every crisis requiring immediate financial aid was the critical need to have someone listen to their story and empathize with their suffering, anger, fear, and frustration with the entanglements and injustices of government regulations and social systems.

That memory morphed into missed possibilities of interaction with the woman who met us on the street. We could have invited her to walk with us to the sandwich shop to buy her a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich or a pastry to go with it. Or, I thought, we could have invited her to sit with our planning group and listen in on our conversation over coffee and breakfast. Perhaps she could even have contributed her understanding of injustice, abuse, and destruction of dignity to the issues that were motivating our advocacy concerning the Senate bill.

Or even more compelling, perhaps her story would have been important for our U.S. Senator to hear. We had been promised an hour. Giving up fifteen minutes of our time to the woman may have affirmed her dignity and ability to advocate for herself. As people of privilege, we have access to our Senator’s office and the ability to speak to the power of our U.S. Senate that may not be easily available to her.

I’m not asking us to condemn ourselves for walking by a person panhandling when we are on the way to work, shopping, or to pick up one of our children from school. (However, for those who are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, as well as many other faith traditions, there is Scriptural precedent for stopping to give help). I use the story only to illustrate our country’s widening communication gaps among people with differing life experiences. Frequently people do not notice or even acknowledge the existence of other people living in different environments, cultures, or economic circumstances. However, when we do notice one another it is often when needs, values, or identities come into conflict. Every day we read in newspapers, tweets, and on Facebook derogatory labels attached to rival individuals and organizations. There is name-calling, suspicion, misunderstanding, and sometimes hate and violence. We hear them on radio and TV news as well as on entertainment venues and talk shows. They come from some of our nations leaders, hate groups, and occasionally from some more moderate advocacy organizations. I’ll not give credence to those labels by using them as examples here.   Unfortunately many of them are already imprinted into our consciousness.

This widening communication gap calls forth the worst within us. It revives old prejudices and misunderstandings about classifications of human beings. A recent United States map drawn by the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates geographical divides, some back to the Civil War, that are being actively promoted by separatist groups. The White House is reviving the divide between Americans and all others: insisting on a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and creating barriers to immigration and even tourism. Legislative leadership, state and national, tends to pit economic considerations against human needs.

The pathway toward a more humane society includes advocating for legislation that breaks down the separation barriers of widening disparities in income, education, cultures, religion, ethnic origins, and the differences in accents and traditions of people living in rural and urban settings as well as from different regions of the country. It also involves courage and the risk of hospitality that welcomes together people from all strata of our society. Everyone is invited to the table: those who eat with spoons, or forks, or fingers, or chopsticks – with their left hands or their right hands. Our differences are real. Some people are very conscious of rank and respect, insisting on “sir and ma’am.” Others are more comfortable with informal expressions of equality. Some value avoiding conflict at all cost. While others value a good debate. Some always look for ways to give praise and support. Others are more economical with their compliments. Some are enthusiastic, boisterous, and chaotic while others are more comfortable in a climate of soft-spoken reason. Geography and personal history influence temperament as well as the status and meaning of our lives. Some speak slowly and smoothly. Others speak with clipped staccato consonants. Some values are almost universally accepted. Others are diverse and in conflict.

The pathway toward a more open, just, and peaceful society is not easy, particularly amidst the fabricated divisiveness flaunted all around us. The pathway begins modestly, in our neighborhoods and communities. It begins at the coffee shop or the bookstore, at the ballpark or during intermission at a concert, in the grocery store or the dentist’s waiting room. It begins by listening to each other for understanding, to nurture empathy, to create dignity, and to inspire advocacy for the well being of one another.

For me, the journey down the pathway to increasing awareness and hospitality opened up with the invitation, “Do you have a dollar to complete the cost for a cup of coffee?”

(Published:  My Turn, Concord Monitor (NH), September 18, 2017)

 

Palestinian Schools Threatened

As the school year begins in New Hampshire the headline news seems to be the inability to find enough school bus drivers, especially to transport our grade school children to school. Districts having difficulty are offering signing bonuses to driver applicants, modifying start and dismissal school schedules, and delaying openings by a few days. Beyond efforts to provide transportation to all children there is also the on going goal of fulfilling the value of equal access to quality education once children arrive at the school building. This goal is far from fulfilled in New Hampshire and across our country. However, we cling to the value and persist in the search for solutions.

In contrast, on August 22 Ma’an News wrote Israeli military forces reportedly seized eight mobile classrooms from the village of Jubbet al-Dib, near Bethlehem and a neighbor of the illegal Noqedim Israeli settlement. The classrooms were donated by an Italian NGO for 64 students from the first to the fourth grade. Although disputed by village leaders, a spokesperson for the Israeli civil administration contested that the structures had not received the necessary permits, and that the construction was “illegal.”  The Norwegian Council Policy Manager Itay Epshtain said, “It was heart breaking to see children and their teachers turning up for their first day of school under the blazing sun, with no classrooms or anywhere to seek shelter in, while in the immediate vicinity the work to expand illegal settlements goes on uninterrupted.”

Another school, a kindergarten, was demolished in the Bedouin community of Jabal al-Baba on August 21. According to The Norwegian Refugee Council, NRC, some 55 schools in the occupied West Bank are threatened with demolition and stop-work orders by Israeli authorities, many of them built with funding from the European Union states and other donors. “In the first three months of this year there were 24 cases of direct attacks against schools, including incidents where tear gas canisters and sound bombs were fired at students on their way to or from school. Last year, four communities’ educational facilities were demolished or confiscated and 256 education-related violations were documented in the West Bank, affecting over 29,000 students,” NRC’s statement said.

It seems, while we in New Hampshire seek ways to keep our children in school, our Israeli military ally is initiating ways to keep Palestinian children away from school. These actions by the Israeli military fly in the face of one of our cherished values: the right to access to quality education for every child.

The Israeli military attack on Palestinian children’s access to schools in order to make room for Israeli settlements and their infrastructure motivates people around the globe to boycott Israeli illegal settlement goods. It is an illegal Israeli settlement, Noqedim, that encroaches on Palestinian land where those mobile classrooms were situated. Senator Maggie Hassan’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement needs to take into consideration Israel’s anti-education activity toward Palestinian children as well as the United States complicity with its military financial aid to the Israeli military that enforces this injustice.

Senator Hassan believes the roots of the BDS movement spring from an intention to harm Israel. However, she misses the understanding that non-violent boycotts are an acceptable action for change acknowledge by our Supreme Court. In addition, she does not take into consideration that any movement includes a spectrum of advocates. In this case the vast majority of supporters of BDS recognize Israel’s right to exist as they call for the humanitarian administration of the occupied territories and a return to negotiations between Israel and Palestine. And even though it is becoming less and less realistic, many still support the goal of a two-state solution.  Also, Senator Hassan perceives BDS as an impediment to a return to negotiations and a two-state solution. However, BDS can just as easily be considered a non-violent lever to motivate to start negotiations. In contrast, Israel, with its military, political, and economic dominance uses harsh treatment of Palestinians and their children, as well as expansions of settlements, as pressure to force the Palestinians to the table.

And most of all, it is important that the United States be true to its value of education for every child, not only in our country but around the world. Our country can not credibly advocate for that value while at the same time being complicit with the Israeli military who violates that value in its treatment of Palestinian schools and children. U.S. complicity is evidenced by its more than $3.1 billion annual aid to the Israeli military.

There are three ways that Senator Hassan and Senator Shaheen can influence the United States to be a justice-seeking nation as well as to stand for the humanitarian value of dignity and respect for children and their education.

1.Vote “no” on S.720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and pledge to reject all amendments, and Senator Hassan to withdraw her co-sponsorship of S.720.

2.  Seek legislation to withhold military financial aid assistance to the State of Israel due to its military practices of injustice in the occupied Palestinian territories including impediments to education as well as arrests and detention of Palestinian children.

3.  Vote for the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, which has been ratified by 194 countries including Israel.

The second and third actions were affirmed by a 79% majority by the delegates to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ at their meeting in July, 2017.

Children in Palestine have been under duress for over fifty years. They witness daily barriers to their education and constant anxiety concerning their vulnerability to institutionalized violations of their legal rights. Therefore, calling our ally and friend, Israel, to account for its use of power is the right thing to do. It’s how friends support each other.

“Race,” a False Absurd Construct

Recently I sat in the DMV waiting for my number to be called so I could to renew my license. Waiting with me were people with different shades of skin from diverse economic, ethnic, regional and country backgrounds.

To distract us from the long wait was an overhead screen displaying a series of slides. One of the themes was the organ donation check off option on the driver’s license application. One slide explained that matches for organ donations are not related to skin color or regional, national, or ethnic origin. Therefore matches for donated organs can be identified across the spectrum of humanity. It seems we are one people, worldwide! This simple affirmation concerning organ donation challenges the commonly accepted concept of racial divides and the hierarchy of white privilege.

However, the concept of “race” still dominates our social narrative. Historically, the concept of “race” was developed to establish a “white race” as dominant. The construct of “race” was from its inception, and still is today, about who has the right to privilege, power, status, and wealth, and who does not. It has become ingrained in our psyches. Contrived racial divides tyrannize us. The white privileged in our society decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s a criminal and who is not. People with dark skin are followed down store aisles as subjects of possible shoplifting. Their lives are at risk when they are stopped for a driving violation. We read stories of violent reactions to imagined threats from people who do not fit the privileged norm for skin color and clothing. People speaking with foreign accents or Arabic sounding language are feared to be terrorists. Many groups of people are considered untrustworthy as viewed by people with power and privilege.

We have checkpoints at border crossings and airports rife with similar mistrust. Our Congress has voted large sums of money to extend the wall between the United States and Mexico. President Trump has issued an executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from six mostly Muslim countries. (The Supreme Court has ruled to put limitations on the ban until the Court can take up the case in their fall session).  Now he is attempting to revise U.S. immigration policy with rules giving priority to English speakers and those embodying certain values of the privileged. The lesson being learned, it seems, is that Muslims cannot be trusted and foreigners must be carefully scrutinized.

As an elder white male I live in this world of privilege. I can talk to the police without fear of being misinterpreted. I’m waved through border patrol checkpoints in Arizona. I’m frequently directed to the fast lane at airport security because of my age and profile as a white person of northern European descent. I can walk up and down the isles of any store without being followed. I don’t have to worry about wearing the right clothes to avoid appearing suspicious or dangerous.

However, in this social paradigm, we are all boxed into a contrived system of purity, superiority, and privilege for one particular group. The questions become, how black is black enough to relate to the pain in the cries that black lives matter? And how white is white enough to claim privilege and power? The answer to the second question is, any person with other than entirely white ancestry cannot claim to be white. The tradition in our society, and sometimes in the law, assigns all people of mixed unions to “races” defined as subordinate to the standard of the white privileged.

The way out of this box is to move into a new paradigm and live a place where racial constructs are an absurdity. It will be like moving from a flat earth society to a global community where there are no “pure” Native Americans, whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians… only human beings. It is time to embrace a future where people from different cultural, ethnic or geographical origins are free and encouraged to express openly the richness of their languages, cultures, spirituality, and historical origins without the stigma of coming from an inferior place.

Of course, while this paradigm emerges, continued support must be given to affirmative action and the “black lives matter” movement. A growing awareness of the absurdity of racial constructs will serve as a corrective to the white privilege from the old paradigm. Recognizing that there is no such thing as different races of people is a tool to be used pry away white privilege anytime it surfaces in jokes, fear, and social interaction or in access to education, equal justice, jobs, and housing.

The foundation of white privilege, like a house built upon the sand, will sooner or later fall. The reality of a common humanity is the way into the future of justice and dignity for all.   It behooves us to make it sooner.

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The historical context of “race” comes from The Origin of the Idea of Race

by Audrey Smedley
Anthropology Newsletter, November 1997