February 7

Reaching Out

One of the characteristics of the current national dialog seems to be that both sides think the other is crazy, perhaps even evil. I want to challenge us to move beyond that perception.

I do admit that we live in a nation structured to promote this view. Our two party system presents us with the view that there are only two options, and you’re going to be on the receiving end of one of them. Media now targets its message for the particular political realities of its intended audience. And hatemongering has become a regular “news” feature, from Bryan Fischer to Rachel Maddow. We’re being programmed to discount those who disagree with us as irrelevant.

But why do they disagree with us? Do we care? Or are we so self-enthralled (or dare I suggest arrogant) that we claim to have the only possible correct opinion? Surely there can be no one correct opinion. Ask a professional fisherman, a surfer, an environmentalist, and a real estate developer what ought to happen to a coastal area and you’ll get four “obviously correct” but competing proposals.

I think we’ve forgotten that.

Not everyone lives and works in a city. And not everyone lives and works in a rural community. Those are the major lines along which we’re divided.

Let’s take racial issues for example. Los Angeles County is only 29% non-Hispanic white. Race is a huge issue. Yet some 70% of American white people live in “white enclaves,” where minority issues are not prominent. Or consider government overreach. Few urban folks can imagine a situation in which a militarized government agency comes in and shuts down what you thought was a legal business, yet that’s the reality small rural dairies and food producers live with. Likewise, few urban people can imagine living in an area in which the federal government owns 2/3 of the whole state. I’ll take the urban/rural divide over gun control to be obvious, and I’ve tried to explain it elsewhere.

When someone vehemently holds to an idea you find offensive, there’s a good reason for it. And it’s usually not the obvious reason. Most often, people’s livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened. But they’re not going to say that. No one wants to admit that they are “selfish” enough to want government policy to reflect their own needs.

Why did hundreds of ranchers show up to support the anti-BLM protest in Bunkerville? Because that was an issue that directly affected their ability to put food on the table. I’ve seen urban folks claim that no one makes a living ranching. That makes it easy to dismiss the participants as “crazy” or “radical.” Obviously those commentators haven’t been to areas like Utah where ranching supports thousands of families.

Why are urban people more likely to support LGBT rights? Because urban communities are more diverse, and they are more likely to have economic or family connections with someone who identifies as LGBT. (My uncle moved from a small rural town to Los Angeles before “coming out.” I can’t say I blame him.) And there’s more identification with “other.” If gays lose rights, how long before Muslims lose them? And Hispanics? And blacks? And Jews? And pot smokers? How long before Asians are once again banned from owning property? Think that’s far-fetched? It was only 65 years ago that certain racial groups (notably Asians) gained the right to become U.S. citizens! And there are still Japanese-Americans who remember Manzanar. But take a drive through Cedar City, Utah, and you’d never know that race is an issue. The county is 90% white and 7% Hispanic. And the gay community (yes, there is one) is largely hidden. In a largely homogeneous community, there’s little incentive to care what happens to other people who don’t live there, and who are perceived as different and possibly threatening.

I’m not saying we have to agree with each other. I am saying that, if we want to remain a unified and peaceful nation, we need to start thinking beyond what the media and politicians tell us.

We need to try to understand why people disagree with us.

Otherwise, our nation will dissolve into something we won’t like very much. (And those who so often comment that conservatives have all the guns obviously haven’t taken an evening stroll through Compton, CA recently. Ugly will mean ugly for everyone.)

Think beyond the sound bites. Why do these people hold these opinions?

It’s not just common sense, it’s patriotic.

February 5

Jesus Isn’t Safe

Dirk Willems stopped to save the life of his pursuer, which resulted in his own execution in 1569.

The biggest objection I hear to allowing refugees into the U.S. is the danger that some of them might be extremists. Now, the chances of being killed by an Islamic Extremist is a fraction of the chances of being killed by eating cheeseburgers, but I have to acknowledge that it’s a valid fear.

But it’s not a Christian fear.

The Bible is clear about how we should treat our enemies.

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
    and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink… (Proverbs 25:21)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47 redacted)

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. (Romans 12:17a)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

Surely that’s a foolish approach. Yet that’s what the Bible says, in the Old Testament and the New, from both Jesus and Paul.

Maybe they weren’t serious?

Yet Jesus, as he was hanging from the Cross while being executed as an innocent man, held true to this teaching:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

This, I think, is the point: Being Jesus wasn’t safe. Following Jesus isn’t safe. As Paul wrote:

All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)

As we consider the question of refugees, we might question which is more important: the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people trying to escape from violence and conditions we cannot imagine, or the risk of a handful of extremists who might try and might succeed in committing violence against us. And even if they did, is that an unreasonable cost?

Yes, we can throw up our protests of safety, but in doing so we run the risk of creating yet more enemies where we might have made friends. Moreover, we reject Jesus, who called us to do the opposite.

Let me say that more clearly: following Jesus is not the safe path. Ask the crucified Christ. Ask the executed Paul. Ask Peter, who was crucified upside down. Ask Dirk Willems (d. 1569), who as he was escaping from prison from a charge of heresy, stopped to rescue one of his pursuers who had fallen through the ice of a frozen pond, saving the man’s life. Willems was recaptured and burned at the stake.

Do we want to take the safe road, or do we want to follow Jesus? I know my answer. What’s yours?

January 21

Time to Plan

I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse.”

(The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”)

My friend Kim flew across the country to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC today. I applaud her commitment to voice her dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the way things might change for the worse in the near future. But the question remains: now what? Will a demonstration of a hundred thousand or a million or even a billion people change anything? How does that translate into political power? The government regularly takes actions that most of its citizens oppose. Unless there’s a lever to translate that opposition into consequences, they do it anyway.

First the obvious bad news: Trump will be our president for the next four years. This would seem to be bad news for much of the country, which currently gives him a favorable rating of 37%. And if you look at who his policies are likely to hurt the most, the people who currently support him are probably (as H.L. Mencken put it) going to get it good and hard. But it could be worse. If Trump steps down, we get President Mike Pence, and not many people want that. I’m reminded of the 1973 movie, “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which the best guarantee of the President’s safety was that the VP was an idiot, and not even our enemies wanted to see him in office. (Naturally the President’s plane goes down and the VP becomes president just as we are having a crisis with China…)

But maybe this isn’t all bad news. People need motivation to consider change, and perhaps time will motivate us.

Put another way, there’s a need for change and an approaching window of opportunity.

It’s time to plan.

As it happens, I have some experience with this sort of planning. For nine years, I worked on peace strategy in Sri Lanka. My team helped bring about a six-year cease-fire.

For the purpose of this brief discussion, the planning process can be oversimplified into three steps:

  1. Identify goals
  2. Humanize and build bridges
  3. Apply political pressure

This is where it gets tough. Because the first question is the hardest: what do we want? Vague ideas of equality aren’t going to cut it. We’re facing a system that promotes the status quo at best. It divides us, the electorate, roughly along urban/rural lines. And it’s supported by a media system that pits intellectual elites against the working class, dividing us further. And when you look at who does get what they want, it appears to serve corporations and the financial elite, not any of the divisions of the broader electorate.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The first principle of a sub-group trying to rule a majority is distraction. The most common means is to identify an outside enemy, while dividing any possible resistance from within.

The point is, we need to know what we want to change. Corporate influence on politics? The dualistic two-party system? Centralization of power that insists there is one solution for the entire country? D. All of the above? A constitutional convention implementing a parliamentary system? Dissolution of the Union? Some or all of these will appeal to people in different situations. It’s important to know what we want before we move forward.

We need a vision.

Then comes humanization and bridge building. We’ve been divided. We’ve been taught that “the other side” is the enemy. That’s a deception. They aren’t. We have to make the effort to reach out to them and try to understand why they see things the way they do. Urban voters are unlikely to understand why a militarized Bureau of Land Management is such a big issue for rural voters. And rural voters can’t really understand what infrastructure means in an urban setting. We’re going to have to sit down with each other and talk it through. Spend a week on a farm, or (for farmers) with a family in the city. We’ve got to bridge the divide if we hope to accomplish anything.

There will be resistance. Those who divided us in the first place don’t want us to humanize the other side. It suits them for liberals to believe that all Trump voters are racists, and for conservatives to believe that Hillary voters are gay socialist devil-worshipers.

But the alternative is continuing the slide, or dissolution, or civil war.

Only when we have identified a vision and built bridges can we consider applying political pressure. Otherwise, it’s just partisan politics as usual. Or it will become partisan politics as usual, as soon as the two parties get involved.

Which means we need to start now. Plan now. Build bridges now.

There will come a window of opportunity when everyone is fed up. Will we be ready?

November 4

You (Yes, You) Can Help Defeat ISIS!

ISIS wants us to hate Muslims. In fact, ISIS needs us to hate Muslims. And it’s in our nature to want to blame all Muslims for ISIS and similar organizations. But there are important reasons we should resist that urge.

Lately I’ve attended a number of gatherings about “interfaith relations” – which seems to be code for “the Muslim question.” There have been parallels cited from WWI, in which aliens of German origin were forced to register and, in thousands of instances, were arrested. And of course, in WWII Japanese, German, and Italian aliens were expelled or subject to internment. Japanese resident aliens and Japanese-Americans were by far the most numerous, and are also the most publicized.

Many Christians argue that this was wrong, that thousands of innocents suffered based on the risk that a small number might be a security risk. There seems to be little evidence that internment actually did any good. And the question might be asked, did the ill-will generated actually harm our nation in the long run?

But there’s another, far more practical aspect of these actions: Did internment help or hinder the enemy nations from which these residents originated? Was the German or Japanese war effort affected in any meaningful way by our interment of their citizens? I don’t think so. The internment decision was a moral one based on fears that appear in hindsight to have been unfounded. Internment had no real effect on the war itself.

Times have changed. Our nation’s enemy combatants are no longer nations. They are terrorist groups, paramilitary organizations that seek influence rather than territory or resources. We can’t easily find them, but we need to react against someone. So we react against the people our enemies claim to represent. But what worked against Nazi Germany will not work against ISIS. In fact, it’s what they want us to do.

The majority of Muslims have no interest in supporting ISIS or any other extremist group, any more than the majority of Christians support the KKK or Timothy McVeigh. ISIS wants to change that. And the most powerful tool they have is making Muslims hated by everyone else.

Think about this: if ISIS can get us angry enough to turn on Muslims in general, where will those Muslims turn for support? If ISIS can get us to take actions that make Muslims hate us, ISIS’s message is going to sound more palatable. If we hate Muslims, we’re helping ISIS. It’s what they want. It’s what they need. It’s what every terrorist leader dreams of.

ISIS, and all organizations like it, have a strategy: They attack us. We get angry. We retaliate against Muslims. ISIS gains support.

The bad news is, there’s no military response to a war like this. (Unless we’re willing to commit genocide.) Any military action helps our enemy. Remember Al Queda? They used to be a few guys hiding in caves, planning attacks. After we attacked Iraq, Al Queda became one of the most powerful paramilitary groups in the world.

What eliminated Al Queda was not military action, but intelligence (in the broader governmental sense). Leaders were identified and eliminated. Unfortunately, our government often killed civilians in the process, which created more enemies just waiting for new leaders.

Whether a government can conduct surgical strikes precise enough to eliminate terrorist leaders without harming civilians is a question I can’t answer. But there’s an alternative (and necessary) approach we haven’t taken often enough.

Terrorists are disempowered when we refuse to hate the people they want us to hate. Yes, they’ll try again. Yes, there’s a price for that. But in war, there always is. Doesn’t it make sense to prevent new enemies rather than having to fight them?

ISIS needs us to hate Muslims.

Don’t fall for it.

 

July 24

Jesus and the Sword

In the Gospels, Jesus continually promotes nonviolence, loving our enemies, making peace, and turning the other cheek.  But does He allow for self-defense?

Let me back up a moment and consider Matthew 10:34:

 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

A handful of Evangelical Christians have tried to convince me that this verse means Christians will need to take up arms to defend the faith.  I haven’t found that borne out in any of Christ’s other teachings, nor do the various Biblical commentaries support that view.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,

Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.

But even this view is outnumbered.  The majority of commentators suggest that “the sword” refers to the influence of evil over men, who will then argue about the true message of Jesus’s teachings in the short term, while peace will indeed be the eventual result of Jesus’s reign.

In any case, the seems little support for the idea that this verse prepares us to take up arms.  Rather, it seems to be warning that, despite Jesus’s teaching, people will take up arms.

On the subject of self defense, we have Luke 22:36:

He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one…”

This Jesus says at the Last Supper, as He prepared to send the Apostles out into the world without Him.  On the surface, He does seem to be warning them that they will need a weapon suitable for self-defense.

However, this truck me as inconsistent with Jesus’s words as he is arrested.  One of the Disciples strikes the chief priest with a sword and cuts off his ear.  (Luke 22:50 doesn’t say which one, but John 18:10 says it was Simon Peter.)  Jesus rebukes the disciple and heals the priest’s ear.  The he rebukes the priests for coming armed, clearly implying that Jesus would have gone with them without being forced and that weapons were unnecessary.

Earlier, Jesus told the Disciples,

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The inconsistency between this instruction and the arrest on the one hand, with the instruction at the Last Supper on the other, bothered me.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for an argument in favor of self-defense.

Then it occured to me: “The one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag,” and if he has no sword he must sell his cloak and buy one.  But Jesus explicitly instructed his Disciples.

[T]o take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… (and Luke adds, “no extra shirt.”  Mark 6:8, Luke 9:3)

So a man with a purse would need all those things, but the Disciples had no purses and therefore did not need these things.

It’s also clear that Jesus had no intention of using violence to avoid arrest or violence or even death.  And He called his followers to do as He did.  “Follow Me” is the second most common instruction in the Gospels, after “Love.”  Or, as Paul puts it, “Imitate Him.”

Many commentators argue that the word “sword” in the passage is symbolic, and means the same as its use in Matthew 10:34, meaning that dangerous times are coming and the Disciples should spiritually prepare themselves.  That’s possible.  But to me, it seems that Jesus is reminding His disciples that if they had possessions, they would need luggage and protection, but they are specifically instructed not to have possessions.

As John would later write,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world;  for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With that as a mission, who needs self defense?

July 19

I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus

I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007.  It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people.  In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils.  The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people.  In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.

Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.

Fighting was fierce in the East for many years.  In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.

As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either.  The government lied about the extent of its control.  In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours.  The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control.  But I didn’t know that until I got there.

My first challenge was to figure out how to get there.  No one knew.  Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.

I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance.  The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night.  Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style.  The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy.  Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns.  And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.

I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late.  But I had no idea the journey I was in for.  As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus.  Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious.  We passed through a total of ten checkpoints.  There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one.  The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times!  Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.

Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil.  All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese.  I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.

Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties.  The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking.  I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.

At the sixth checkpoint, something happened.  I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus.  So did the nurse.

The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time.  They looked at me and nodded.  Then they looked at the nurse.

“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.

The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.

“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off  the bus.”

I held my breath.  Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.

The one soldier looked at the other.  They paused.  Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.  The nurse had defied authority and won.

She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.

I continued on to Batticaloa.  The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access.  We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it.  I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people.  I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared.  I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody.  I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom.  I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties.  And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps.  One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands.  When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”

My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind.  But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.

July 17

Hospitality: The Cure for Violence

Our guest pastor today made a bold statement.  She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.

I wrinkled my brow when I heard it.  She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house.  How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?

Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts.  Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy.  We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.

Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army.  I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”

He thought for a long moment.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Let’s take Iran, for example.  In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family.  In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah.  Thirty years of oppression followed.  And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.

We still claim to support self-determination.  Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.

Then there’s Iraq.  Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:

U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.

Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran.  Arms and aid flowed freely.  George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.

Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy.  As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence.  It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.

Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years.  Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?

Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka.  People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive.  The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government.  And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government.  Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation.  Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up.  He found desperate people to do it for him.  The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.

There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism.  But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree.  Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists.  It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.

Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.

Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.

Do you see the connection yet?

If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.

If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.

There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it.  I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy.  Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security.  They will create even more enemies.

But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home.  We can become a hospitable people.  We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat.  We can do it more than once.  We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles.  And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.

That’s a tall order.  But how far would you go to stop the violence?

July 14

The Value of Eye Contact

In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness.  It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.

In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE.  The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them.  We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.

These villages are incredibly poor.  Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs.  The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them.  Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.

The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.

“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”

“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go?  Into the sea?”

Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.

Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.

I hear a low voice call to me.

“Sir?”

Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”

I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.

Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.

“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.

“Of course,” I reply…  “How do you know English?” I ask her.

She grins, ruefully.

“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”

“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.

“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.

“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

I consider her words.

“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.

“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”

I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.

“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”

“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.

“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”

“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.

“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“A message?  How?” I ask.

“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“They signed it?” I ask.

“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”

The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer

Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.

It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”

The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.

The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.

“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”

“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.

If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant.  But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.

I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.

Does that make the villagers’ accounts false?  Yes, and no.  Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.

But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative.  They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing.  They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it.  Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.

Does that make their narrative more true?  Obviously not factually.  But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website.  And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes.  You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone.  Our virtual world has brought many advantages.  But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.

Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.

When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them.  Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it.  We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.”  People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.

 

This Thing of Darkness is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.

December 14

Life During Wartime

My parents remember World War II, during which nearly 12 million Americans served overseas.  Out of a population of 133 million, 9% were in the military in 1945.  This caused huge social and economic displacements.  To support them, supplies to civilians were rationed.  Meat, cheese, sugar, and coffee were all rationed, as were tires, fuel oil, and shoes.  The sacrifice of this monumental effort was felt throughout society.

I grew up as the Vietnam War was expanding.   I used to sneak downstairs to peek around the corner and watch the Huntley-Brinkley newscast because I liked the theme music (the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th).  One of my pivotal memories is, at five years old, seeing rows of flag-draped coffins on the black-and-white TV.  I didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t ask my parents because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I knew something really bad was going on.  The Vietnam War, undertaken against our own experts’ advice and badly executed, also had a monumental impact on society, dividing those who served from those who viewed soldiers as symbols of a government’s failing policy.  I was less aware of the Kent State shooting when I was ten years old, but well aware of the controversy over the draft as I entered my teens.

Ironically, it was during this period that President Johnson declared his War on Poverty, which reduced the poverty level by 38% over eight years.  This metaphorical use of the word “war” would affect our society in different but perhaps greater ways.  Since that time, we’ve engaged in a War on Drugs (1971-Present) and a War on Gangs (2005-Present).  We’ve waged war on cancer, AIDS, and obesity.  Then there’s the War on Terror (2001-Present), which has permeated our lives and consciousness for almost 15 years.  More recently, politicians have accused each other of waging War on Women, War on Energy, War on Religion, War on Jobs, and War on Working Families.  Television shows now include “Storage Wars” and even “Cupcake Wars.”

Apparently, we are a nation at war.  But not really.  Even the War on Terror cannot be compared with wars we’ve fought in the past.  About 1.4 million people now serve in the U.S. military, only 0.4% of our population.  Just over 5,200 American troops have been killed in battle since 2001.  That ranks the War on Terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) slightly above the Philippine-American War of 1899.  (Haven’t heard of that one?  I hadn’t either.)  We’re a far cry from 53,000 killed in Vietnam, or 290,000 killed in World War II.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying our soldiers don’t go through hell and make appalling sacrifices discharging their duties in the field.  They do.  I’m saying the rest of us don’t.  There’s been an ammunition shortage in civilian markets caused by billions of rounds being fired overseas, about 300,000 rounds per insurgent killed, causing the Pentagon to buy ammunition from Israel because domestic manufacture can’t keep up. Otherwise, there’s very little effect on us here at home.  We aren’t rationed.  We aren’t drafted.  Taxes are low.

But we’re at war.

We’ve shifted from “total war,” in which an entire nation mobilizes to defeat an enemy, to constant war, in which only persistent rhetoric from politicians reminds us that we even have an enemy.

James Childress warns, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”  We’re being reminded how to hate an enemy, but sheltered from what war really means.  And after 15 years without victory, it would seem that either our leaders don’t know how to win this war, or they don’t want to win it.  Clearly there are advantages to continuing a war that we at home don’t really notice.

But what will the long term cost be?  The power vacuum left  as we destroyed governments in the Muslim world has led to the rise of new and innovative enemies.  ISIS was unknown in 2001, but is now prominent and growing.  Iran has used our intervention to strengthen its presence throughout the region and support other militant groups.  How long will it be before we have a real enemy with whom to fight a real war? And are we really prepared for that?  We talk of being a nation at war, but is that what we really want?  Or can we imagine, now that our major enemies are gone, becoming a nation at peace?

As we contemplate that question, let us never forget that this is what war really looks like after just one battle.  Personally, I vote for peace.

Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where 17,000 American soldiers were buried after the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken in 1945.

 

November 18

This Thing of Darkness – How I Dealt With Nightmares

This Thing of Darkness BookCoverNew

Richard showers first. I sit in a wooden chair by the window and enjoy a soft breeze that blows in off the sea a few blocks away. The mosquitoes aren’t bad tonight; the wind keeps them at bay. The smell of the ocean is mixed with night jasmine blooming somewhere nearby. This, I reflect, is a very pleasant moment. I’ve haven’t been noticing as many pleasant moments lately, and I resolve to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts.

Ten minutes later, Richard returns from the bathroom wearing a sarong, his hair wet.

“It’s all yours,” he says. “But I didn’t leave you any hot water.”

“Jerk,” I reply.

The joke is old and worn. We don’t have hot water. All our showers are cold. After a long day during the hot season, I love a cold shower. But on a cooler evening after the rain, I shiver at the thought.

I first arrived in Sri Lanka on December 6, 1993.  In honor of International Human Rights Day, Sarvodaya headquarters displayed a collection of children’s art .  The graphic images drawn by young children shocked me.  I had never before visited a place in which such gross human rights violations were a part of daily life.

My first stay took me through the uncertainty and fear of Chandrika’s death-defying election in 1994, the hope for peace that followed once the outgoing government agreed to step down without violence, the assassination by the LTTE of Chandrika’s opposing presidential candidate, and the collapse of the cease-fire in early 1995.  These events were dramatic, frightening, and impacting, but did not threaten me in any direct way.

In 1998, I returned to interview peace workers across the island.  On this trip, I traveled by bus to the eastern city of Batticaloa, which according to government sources was safely in government hands.  In reality, the government held most of the city, and they controlled the main roads in and out during daylight hours.  The rest was controlled by the LTTE rebels.  I saw things on that trip that would haunt me for years.  Soldiers herded Tamil travelers at gunpoint.  A pre-teen boy had lost both hands to a booby trap.  A woman showed me a medical report, in English, graphically detailing her husband’s torture at the hands of the government. A brave Sinhalese woman talked of risking her life in her efforts to support Tamil families who were caught between the two fighting forces.

I came back from that trip changed, acutely aware of the fragility of security.

The following year, I sat in the dark as a battle raged outside a compound near Padaviya in the northeast.  Artillery shells landed not far away, and I realized that people were dying out there and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

That’s when the nightmares started.  I returned home unable to work and afraid of social situations.  I exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

As the bus revs its engine and departs town, there’s a sinking feeling in my chest, an inexplicable sense of loss. Soon we are in the countryside, and I see why they keep the bus so well-maintained. There’s nothing out here. On either side of the one-lane paved highway, I see only empty grassland. Kebithigollewa really is the frontier. You wouldn’t want a bus to break down on this road.

Occasionally there are stretches of jungle, and even less occasionally abandoned homes. Each home has white Sinhalese letters hand-painted on its front.

“What do they say?” I ask Richard.

“Budu saranay,” he reads from the first one.

We’ve both been here long enough to know that it means “Blessings of the Buddha.”  I consider that for a moment, and realize, just as I see from his change of expression that Richard too has realized, that these are homes where someone has been killed.

I continued to work for peace in Sri Lanka for another eight years, and I sought help from therapists from time to time.

Ten years after the Padaviya trip, one therapist had me write about my experiences.  This helped so much, I wrote a story that sought to express what I saw and felt.  I showed it to a friend of mine, and he encouraged me to publish it.  He even designed the first cover for it.  That’s how This Thing of Darkness came into being.

Reader commentary of the first version convinced me that the story wasn’t finished.  It was a raw look at the emotional struggle of an unprepared man caught in a war, but the story and character development were weak.  Earlier this year, I rewrote the story and republished it.  It’s a much better story now.

This Thing of Darkness is a work of fiction based loosely on that 1999 trip to Padaviya.  Its goal is to convey the emotions I felt during my work there, from culture shock and fascination to horror and fear.  I hope it also conveys some understanding of what war looks like now that we no longer have two or more nations battling each other.  But above all, I sought to make this a good story, and I hope you enjoy it.

“I admire your courage, kid,” the priest says, as my tears begin to run dry. “You’ve got chutzpah, coming out to a place like this. You cry as much as you need to. Then we’ll go back to the others, and you can keep your dignity. You did okay.”

I nod. Then, in a shaky voice, I ask, “Chutzpah?”

McMurphy smiles.

“One of the hazards of working with a rabbi,” he says, “is that I’ve picked up a little Yiddish.”