Sunday, December 6, 2015

An American Dream

"An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don't accommodate, I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it.
 We must learn to be surprised." 
— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare.  My mom was shot and killed.  She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted.  It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe.  But Mom is too hospitable for such things.  Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone.  My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place.  Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino[i], California.  Fourteen people were killed and twenty-one injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered.  Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present.  I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls.  I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago.  More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear.  However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack.  Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person.  And certainly not dread of foreign invasion.  I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country.  Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence.  Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons.  It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders.  Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother.  When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world.  At the time I said no, I was not afraid.  What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.
There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead.  I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence.  However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world.  And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream.  I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened.  I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate.  It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love.  I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place.  They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong.  But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right.  I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence.  I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings.  However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief.  Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work. 

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially.  As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba.  In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait.  They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately.  If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year, Fresh Hope: A Prayer for Personal Transformation

May this be a year that –

…I live into the paradox of being an active participant in life, while simultaneously acknowledging (and accepting) my lack of control over most of it.

…I am sensitive to “the fullness of time,” the gift the universe is pregnant with; ready to move at the unexpected moment, to accompany and assist during the glorious travail of the birth of new life that is at hand.

…I am mindful of my thoughts, words and actions and how these influence my well-being and that of those around me.

…I am sensitive to the larger narrative, the  complex layers and connections that compose and complicate the lives of individuals, communities and eco-systems.

 …I nourish life, making way for the good to flourish while working to diminish what is destructive, practicing mindfulness and compassion in order to relieve suffering and avoid doing harm.

…I am more concerned with being loving than correct, widening the view through the lens of mercy, seeking more to know truth than to be right, trusting God more than myself, pursuing the Way rather than my way.

…I am breathing in and breathing out, giving and receiving –

    I am alive.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Yours, Mine and Ours

“Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world…

-        John Chrysostom

A rare cool morning in summer, I take Eli outside to rock with me in our disintegrating porch swing.  He is fussy over the fat front teeth pressing through his tender gums and I stroke his blond waves and croon, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”  There is a melancholy breeze whispering that contradicts and compliments the gentle, sparkling, sunshine; a parallel to this song’s uplifting lyrics set to a blue melody that makes you wonder, “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, spread your wings, and take to the sky.  Until that morning, ain’t nothin’ can harm you, with Momma and Daddy standin’ by.”

I too am feeling the paradox of joy and sorrow, relishing this sweet moment with my precious baby on a beautiful day, while my heart is heavy, conscious of those for whom the livin’ is far from easy. Thousands are dead in Gaza, and for those that live, each day is a terror.  I am constantly imagining the minds of mothers there.  What do you do when you see your child dead or wonder if this might be the last day that they live?  What do you do when even hospitals and designated shelters aren’t safe and playgrounds are potential targets?  I heard a story of the US restocking Israeli munitions so that such attacks could continue and felt my stomach turn and a scream get stuck in my throat.  How can destroying one person’s life be seen as a way to support another?

I think with shame of buses full of children and mothers who are not much more than children, who have escaped the threat of gangs forcing them to kill or be killed, who endured a traumatic journey through hostile countrysides and deserts, only to be taunted, terrorized and threatened and locked away  in a place where they sought sanctuary.  

Earlier, when harvesting okra in our backyard, I remembered the Pakistani man who came to the US with his two children to testify about the death of his mother.  She was killed by a US drone while teaching her young granddaughter and to pick okra.  Her grandson was nearby.  He says he prefers cloudy days now, sunny days fill him with fear and anger, on sunny days drones buzz like summer bees and steal lives with their stings.  I squint at the cheerful blue sky above and kiss Eli’s hands and hair, reluctantly loosening my hold as he grabs at the chain of the swing and tries to pull himself to standing.  It’s hard to accept a society where some are expected to learn to call those most precious to them, “collateral damage.”

A creeping anxiety has begun to sneak into the evening.  It is especially troublesome when Ted is away and I think of something happening to him or to Eli.  Are we any more deserving of safety, are we any less vulnerable than the neighborhood family who just lost their three-year-old daughter?  She was even at home, yet a bullet still found her from the street.  My dreams take a dark turn.  I see my sister and nephew in pools of blood and am horrified and haunted even when the morning light leans warmly in, sending bouncing rainbows from the prism hanging in the window.  They are not just numbers to me but devastating loss of dear loves that will never be forgotten or recovered.

The next morning I sit nursing Eli with the radio on in the background.  Another young, unnarmed black man, has been shot by the police.  A friend whose staying with us tells me this happens far more than is reported, usually the media grabs hold of it when there is a community response that can add dramatic flare and detract attention from the violence and corruption infecting our police forces.  I hear the voice of this young man’s mother break as she relates the story of seeing his body, which had been left for hours in the street.  Instead of being given an explanation by the police, she is cursed at and driven away.  “He was my first born,” she says and tears run down my face as I nourish my own firstborn.  I wrestle with the awareness that because he is not brown and does not live in the Middle East, his chances of having the opportunity to spread his wings and take to the sky are significantly higher.  What good is it for Mommy and Daddy to be standing by when others don’t believe in your life’s worth?

That night Eli will not stay asleep.  Ted and I give up and let him stay up with us.  We’d been attempting an in-house date night, dinner and a movie, but welcome the interruption and expansion of the evening into family date night.  I am grateful that we are all together, and laughing and tuck away each moment as a treasure.

When we finally get to bed I think of God.  A part of me wants to be angry or unbelieving.  But overriding these reactive feelings is a shared sense of sorrow.  I meet God’s presence not with any accusation or pleading but with empathy.  I think of my own heavy sadness and imagine how much more the mother-heart of God must weigh as she witnesses her babies killed and killing and longs to gather them all under her wing and sing, “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry.”

I find myself grasping for hopeful threads to weave as I move forward through the days that continue to open, signs that will free me to be joyful and challenge me to be constructive in my conscientiousness, responsive and responsible.  I am uplifted by the actions of a group of friends who went to Syracuse to confront the Hancock Airforce base that launches drones.  They served an order of protection on behalf of the children of Pakistan and were arrested but later released with future court dates that will grant them the opportunity to continue their witness and resistance to these “targeted strikes” that continue to strike down wedding parties, goat herding youths and grandmothers. I am encouraged by my friend who started Because, I Love Peace, which shares updates about the tragedies in Iraq, but also accounts of the efforts of those bringing relief services through the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middles East (FRRME). I am heartened to see the governor in my current home state gathering religious leaders and congregations together to consult and come up with a plan to help house and care for migrant children who have come to the U.S. seeking refuge and reunion with family.  Governor O’Malley is not only seeking available institutions but inviting individuals and families to play a role and offer foster care.

 In this morning’s daily readings the gospel selection (Matt. 18:15-20) contains an interesting juxtaposition.  Jesus talks about the reconciliation process to be practiced if “your brother sins against you.” If you are not able to work things out quietly, “bring one or two others, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”  A few verses down, Jesus seems to switch gears, saying, “whatever you bind on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” and “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  It seems like a non-sequitar unless the repetition of “two or three” indicates that this is not merely a matter of filing a complaint or making a request but being in a reconciliation process with God akin to the one described above.  This indicates a condition not only of being heard but of listening, a need for mediation and interaction in which we are also required to allow God to ask something of us.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tough Jobs and the Joyful Futlity of Work without "Value"

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money.  By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.  The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.  At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. 

Thomas Merton, from “The Rain and the Rhinoceros.”

A few weeks ago I saw a 60 Minutes re-run that was new to me.  The final segment was the beautiful story of a symphony orchestra in Kinshasa, in the Congo.  It is the only orchestra in the Congo, the only orchestra in the world with all black members, the result of a project started by an airplane pilot whose business went bust.  But there’s no business angle in the musicians’ passion for Beethoven.  The orchestra does not get paid.  Many work in the markets trying to make what little income they can.  Many have children.  A few are children or young adults anyway.  Two brothers who are vocalists live ten miles from where rehearsals are held six days a week.  They travel ninety minutes each way, mostly walking.  Asked when they started with the orchestra, they give the exact date, November 8th.   It is ingrained in their memory because, as they say, “it’s like a birth for us in this symphony orchestra.” 
One of my first thoughts as I watched video of these boys’ daily “commute” (what would amount to an intense hike for me) was, “how can they do this without getting paid?”  It was a question both of motivation and of sustainability.  Why would they do it, and how can they spend this significant time and energy on something that doesn’t make them money? A professional musician from Germany who was inspired, after watching a 2011 documentary about the orchestra, to travel with a few others to Kinshasa to help with their training came into the story echoing my own thoughts:  “It is difficult to relate,” She says, “people from our country wouldn’t do this.”  An NPR writer reports, “They tackle difficult pieces… out of sheer love.”

I realized that my questions belie the internal, often unrecognized paradigm that’s developed from living in a profit-driven culture.  I have been thinking lately of the pre-eminence, the god-like quality that Economy holds in our country and in the global west; perhaps most everywhere. Crimes against the earth are excused as sacrifices to Economy: the ravaging scars of extraction and war.  Crimes against humanity too: jobs that degrade the body and spirit, disregard for those who “don’t contribute” to or who “drain” the system.  Work and living things of all kinds attributed worth in direct relation to their monetary potential.

What is left in our lives that we do “out of sheer love?”  I don’t mean hobbies and entertainment that we work into our “free time” (another monetary designation?).  And I don’t mean those fortunate few who get paid to do work that brings them joy and fulfillment.  I mean, what do we ever choose to dedicate days, weeks, lives to for sheer love?

Around the same time that I saw that 60 Minutes piece, I saw a youtube video that was circulating on Facebook.  It was of a fake ad circulated by Mullen advertising agency in Boston.  The job position was called “Director of Operations.”  As applicants interviewed they were given a list of responsibilities and expectations: “constantly on your feet…constantly exerting yourself,” “no breaks,” “you can have lunch but only after your client has eaten,” “requires excellent negotiation and interpersonal skills,” “sometimes you have to stay up all night,” “no vacation.”  The applicants were uniformly appalled, “that’s almost cruel,” one said, “all encompassing,” complained another, “inhumane!”  And finally, when the interviewer clarified, “The position is going to pay absolutely nothing,” the response was, “No one would do that!”  And here the interviewer plays his trump, “What if I told you there was someone who already works in this position?”  The interviewees shock transforms to a mix of laughter and tears as the interviewer says who that person(s) is, “Moms.”

It may very well be true that Motherhood is, as the title of the fake-ad asserts, “The World’s Toughest Job.”  But more amazing than the fact that women (and I don’t want to ignore Father’s and other significant care-givers and partners, but this is Mother’s Day folks) do dedicate their lives to this “job,” and very few bother to stop and estimate how much money it’s worth or what title it would have in the working world.  Motherhood is one of the last vestiges of work that is deemed intrinsically valuable in the global West.  Perhaps some people don’t feel that it is really respected, but that hasn’t stopped moms from mothering.  No doubt there are economist studying its worth in terms of contributing to national wealth, but I don’t know any moms who’ve felt the need to consult those studies before deeming mothering their children to be a worthwhile endeavor.  My sister aptly called it, “life without weekends.”  Why would we do it?  Because, as a friend and fellow-mother commented, we are “forever in love,” with these lives that took shape in us and continue to be shaped by us.  It is something that we do for sheer love and it gives me hope.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Considering Syria

Each weekday morning at Jonah House, the community gathers for morning prayer, reading from the lectionary and sharing reflections.  This morning we found ourselves in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Paul, a spiritual leader of the budding church, is overwhelmed with love for them and offers this effusive prayer: “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of God… bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God….” The prayer goes on, bursting with life and love; a full paragraph comprised of two heartfelt, spirit-filled sentences of encouragement and exhortation that can hardly be stopped by a period.  Paul indicates that fullness of life requires strength combined with patience; wisdom and understanding combined with action; and, in all things, the tempering, humbling persistence of thanksgiving.  It’s about mind, heart and walk – a fruit-filled life – a prayer that every loving parent offers for their children.

It’s a prayer that I, with foolish faith, pray for the world in which I share life, the country in which I share citizenship and the society in which I share presence.  Over the past couple of weeks, it is a prayer in which I have been disappointed to the point of daily distress.  Syria is on my mind all day, every day.  Syria, and the sickening persistence with which our politicians are pushing for US military intervention.  I confess, with full disclosure, that as a pacifist I find it hard to believe that a violent assault can ever be the source of lasting, peaceful resolution for any conflict.  It seems to me that violence begets violence.  However, that being said, even were there to be such a thing as a “just war” or efficacious military interventions, I am still waiting for evidence that an air strike in Syria could be such a thing.

While it does seem right to respond to devastating deaths that have for sometime been occurring in Syria, I cringe when I hear Kerry suggest that insistence upon an air strike is an act “grounded in facts, informed by conscience, and guided by common sense.”  I cringe now that Obama has substituted the phrase “to act” with what he actually means, “to attack,” as though to not violently assault another nation automatically indicates a resolution to passivity.

A representative of Oxfam America President RaymondOffenheiser was interviewed yesterday by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.  As a representative of Oxfam, Offenheiser’s primary concern is with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria and refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries, does not see a US military involvement as a source of reprieve to their suffering but rather an action that is likely to spread and intensify it. Oxfam, “recognizes a need for strong and immediate action,” but is “not sure military action is the answer.”  He goes on to say that if you strip away the rhetoric, at the end of the day all the parties agree that the only true solution is a political solution and a military strike will not only widen and prolong the conflict, putting more civilians in danger, but will undermine the trust that would be necessary for a real and lasting solution.

 And frankly, though images of those wounded and dead from the alleged use of chemical weapons was used as the catalyst to incite the US to this very particular action, the good of the Syrian people seems very far from the content of debates at present.  We hear more about “US interest” and Obama’s image than what might alleviate the suffering of Syrians and bring some political resolution to the ongoing civil war, not to mention the underlying regional war (please see the Amy Goodman's interview with Fawaz Gerges for a more comprehensive perspective on the complicated state of affairs in the Middle East).  Even those who oppose a strike are being dismissed as suffering from “war fatigue” allowing the administration to get away without answering questions about the gaping holes in the “evidence” being presented that the Assad regime is responsible, not to mention any indication of how this will in fact effectively help the situation rather than worsen it.

This morning Amy Goodman interviewed Alan Grayson, a Florida state Congressman.  Grayson caught me by surprise, articulately manifesting many of the pressing questions about evidence and efficacy and how, rather than promoting US interest, a strike would in fact do powerful damage.  Despite the encouragement of having these issues brought to light, it hurts to recognize what continues to be left unaddressed. I wish that we would hear more from those who are opposed to US military intervention about Syrian interest.  Though the arguments indicating that it is against US interest are compelling, it does little for those who genuinely desire to aid the Syrians who are suffering (Fawaz Gerges is a better source for this than Grayson). It is astounding to me that anyone would believe an air strike (and almost undoubtedly subsequent “boots on the ground”) would curb the carnage and not expand the loss of life, creating a ripple effect of violence that will not be contained in Syria.

What would happen if all involved, and those of us not explicitly involved, absorbed the reality that “to act” does not necessarily mean “to attack.”  Employing our own weapons, whatever we may call them, also means using “weapons of mass destruction.”  To not violently intervene does not mean to be passive.  I am wondering, what would happen if we acted on the tragedy by mourning the destruction and loss of life in Syria and creating a space to offer healing and to seek to understand and address the insanity rather than simply exacerbating it?

I find myself recalling one of the final scenes from the film Children of Men.  In this story the line between good guys and bad guys becomes realistically blurred.  The government that claims it is maintaining order is manipulating its citizens and abusing refugees.  Many of the rebels that once seemed for “the people” turn against individuals in favor of the movement’s agenda.  By the end, nearly everyone is shooting each other and no one knows why.  What stops the shooting is not the hero picking up a gun and picking off the worst of the worst (actually, the “hero” Clive Owen, never uses a gun).  What stops the shooting, just for a moment, is the crying of a newborn baby in the arms of its terrified mother.  What would happen if our response, if the world’s response, to the crying children of Syria was to pause and lay down arms rather than to pick them up and fire?

Please see below for more recommended reading/viewing:

"On United States Intervention in Syria: Remember a Few Things" by Joshua Brollier,

“What I, a Pacifist, Would Say to Obama About the Crisis in Syria” by Greg Boyd, 

“Tell Congress: Don’t Attack Syria,” Congressman Alan Grayson (a petition and video interview),

"Top Ten Unproven Claims for War Against Syria," Denis Kucinich

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to the Baltimore Sun, CBS nightly news, Democracy Now, and Ted for listening to my rants and laments and helping me clarify my thoughts.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Watching the News

Every night at Jonah House, we watch the evening news, local and national.  This is a practice I have neither participated in nor witnessed since it was my parents sitting in the “family room” and watching stories of war and of weather and of ducks crossing the street, the news anchors sliding from one expression to another to fit the scene superimposed behind them. I would skulk in and out ruefully wishing we could change the channel to Family Matters or Perfect Strangers or put in a movie, for crying out loud! 

Now that I am an adult amongst adults (granted of a wide age spectrum) I find myself obligated to sit and watch and listen.  I find myself surprised by how much I have come to appreciate this tradition; how I join Liz and Ardeth in occasional exclamations that affirm Carol’s commentary; how I am invited to learn and wonder about the world beyond my daily experience.

Ted and I have been here, watching the news two weeks as of tomorrow. Granted, much of the time, during repetitive pieces, I am sitting with my pink highlighter, reading Pregnancy Childbirth and the Newborn. Still, I am attentive enough that almost every one of those fourteen nights I have been moved to tears.  I have a number of triggers that instigate the tears, but the most powerful and consistent is any story that involves children.  Some stories pass with the night, and I cannot recall them even now as I sit and try to conjure them.  Others take hold and follow me into the next day, and the next, and the next. 

Recently I was moved with gratitude and wonder by what could have been another heart-wrenching tragedy.  I would have missed it had I not been watching the news, because after the first few days, I never heard the name of Antoinette Tuff again except amongst our little circle here.  She is the school clerk who managed to disarm what could have been the next devastating school shooting.  Antoinette did not use a single weapon or threat, only the nonviolent power of compassionate presence.  She talked to the mentally ill teenager, talked through her own terror and his, shared her own despair (“I tried to kill myself after my husband left me”) and opened the space for him to speak his through his mouth instead of the AK-47 and explosives he carried.  She convinced him to lay down so when the police came in, they wouldn’t come in shooting.  She never called him a monster or a brute or a “bad guy.”  “I love you,” she said, as he laid down his weapons and his body, “and I’m proud of you for giving yourself up like this.”

My heart swelled with her courage and the hope her action brought, the vision of what is possible.  But anxiety and frustration followed shortly after as the news story quickly shifted to a movement for heightened armed security in schools in response to the recent surges of violence against children.  I believe that if the boy Antoinette addressed had been met instead by a nervous guard with gun drawn, there would not have been a happy ending to this story but more loss and lawsuits, tragedy stacked on tragedy.

There is another story that, however much I wish it would fade like a one-time anomaly, returns to us each and every evening; the civil war in Syria.  Always, with stories of war I feel a sense of angst, anguish and helplessness. But as we are besieged each night with images of children without wounds writhing and gasping in the throes of death, of men and women crying as they cradle their beautiful babies… I don’t have words anymore to say how it feels to watch this from our safe lovely space.  How does one respond to such things?
Last night John Kerry responded in a press conference.  He talked about the grief of watching through a father’s eyes as fathers weep over their lost children.  And how I resonate with his words, feeling both guilt and relief as my own unborn baby demonstrates her life, dancing in the womb!  He talked about the impossibility of ignoring such things and I knew that our daily prayers for the people, and my quietly heavy heart were evidence that this is indeed true.  He said, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons.”  Indeed, how we cry for world leaders to be held accountable for their actions!  Yet, here I knew that Mr. Kerry’s sentiments were far from mine.  I knew because we had just learned that six U.S. officials had just been surreptitiously exonerated for war crimes in an under-reported court case (see CommonDreams).  I knew because his message was materializing as a rally to arms made from an imagined moral high ground. 

 But what came to my mind with his words never came out of his mouth.  What came to my mind is the question, “how many millions of children have died from U.S. weapons?”  Is a drone strike, or a midnight raid any less heinous a way for innocents to be killed?  Will the civilian lives lost by U.S. airstrikes be less devastating to their families because the weapons were not invisible chemicals but blasting explosives?  Can more killing curb the interior violence and unrest that has surged throughout the country, or will it only expand it?  Has anyone tried to bring healing?  Has anyone offered compassionate presence?

Perhaps they have and failed.  Or perhaps it was a small success that no one heard about.  Such things often go unnoticed, or are not remembered long.  There is seldom a ceremonious honoring of those whose courage does not bring death but life.  Last night, we saw President Obama honor a war hero for exemplary courage in the face of battle.  He was indeed courageous, motivated by love for his companions who he strove to save in the midst of enemy fire.  His willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends was indeed worth honoring.  Yet, it did not keep the enemy from firing or the friend from dying and in a way it seemed as much or more a token for us viewers of the news. It is an attempt to assuage discontent of a public who are daily witnessing endless, ineffective war. 

I wonder, where is the Medal of Honor for Antoinette Tuff?  Where is the honor for someone whose strength is in their vulnerability and openness and willingness to stand face to face with “the enemy” and to say, “I love you”?  Is it too late for such acts to have any effects on a place so ravaged as Syria?  I don’t have an answer to that question, or really to any of those posed except to hope that, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I can say as MLK Jr. once did, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would plant my apple tree.” (A quote Ted had pulled off his tea bag and passed to me as we watched the news last night).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Love & Trust

Because I did not get my act together enough to create a blog post for this week I thought I would simply do a reprint of the article I wrote for the last White Rose Catholic Worker newsletter (just got it yesterday Rosies and it looks great!).

Outside, in the icy drizzle, a man rummaged through trash cans on the street corner. He pulled out paper cups of old, cold coffee that he quickly drained. I sat on the other side of a plate glass window, hands encircling a ceramic mug, sipping the same beverage, fresh and warm. I imagined going out to him – “Hey, want to come in for a coffee?” but only sat and stared. That clear glass was an impenetrable force field, separating us from each other. He walked on, and I walked to the bathroom; weaving between crowded tables wondering, what held me back? Why didn’t I cross that line?

Above the bathroom sink, I noticed a sign about taking responsibility for your belongings. “It is extremely unfortunate that there are those who exploit our sense of trust and community…” This sign implied that a sense of trust and community enables us to feel safe, to feel free to be unguarded. A sense of togetherness, and the trust that this is mutual, allows us to be vulnerable with what we value, whether that is our property or our selves. Where does that trust and togetherness come from, and how to function if it is not present, or if it is betrayed?

Responding to the imminent G8 and NATO summits, Marie posed the following question to our community, “What makes us feel safe?” What came immediately to mind was trust and mutual care, with the sense that the two are closely joined. But what do these terms mean? How are they embodied? Where are they seen? Trying to pick out thematic threads of trust I found it interwoven everywhere. So much is bound or rent by either its presence or absence. The following is an aphoristic endeavor to begin expressing some of my questions and theories on trust and love.

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Loving relationship makes us strong and loving relationship is built on trust. Destroy a person’s trust and you can break her into pieces that no longer know how to come together, to togetherness. There is perhaps no practice as vicious as the intentional dismantling of trust, the violation of vulnerability.

Trust is dismantled systematically in acts of violence like torture, which takes advantage of the ensuing precarity to assault the victims’ memory and identity, planting a perpetual seed of doubt in the process, inhibiting future trust → relationship → healing.

In the absence of trust, it is easy to think everyone is ‘enemy’, to feel endangered, to react either in attack or defense.

Even when spared torture, we are not spared from the doctrine of enemy which is often subliminally or explicitly, inadvertently or intentionally, injected into cultural rhetoric and reinforced through divisive social systems. Trust is assumed present among like circles, absent among unlike circles. Social contracts are developed on these assumptions, privileging those presumed trustworthy and suspecting or outright rejecting those presumed unworthy.

Reliance on war for “national security” belies a lack of trust in the human dignity of those with opposing interests or disparate grouping. It implies a belief that trust is impossible; a belief that, when acted upon, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Belief in human dignity is foundational – trust in the value, the goodness, of beings and Being Itself. This allows the development of a subsequent trust – that it is worthwhile to put love even where love is not found, and trust to find it. A belief in human dignity (indeed, a reverence for all life) makes love of enemy, of victim, of stranger, of self, worth the risk.

Trust in human dignity, human goodness, is a troubling task. Humanity’s capacity for cruelty and destruction is far from ‘dignified.’ Perhaps this is why the church is so careful to reiterate it, to remind us that against all appearances it is so. If we are able to trust in this foundational principle, might we find that acts of violence are a chain of reactions, not essence-based actions? That what is inhumane is actually inhuman?

Trusting beyond the reactive logic of reciprocity – trusting in an abiding potential for good that attributes dignity even to the undeserving – allows us to care for each other even when the other seems unworthy, unlike, suspect, or when we ourselves feel inadequate.

Trust is initiated through threads of fragile fibers sent out by one to connect with another. If received, an additional thread is sent, and then another, weaving together, forming a strong chord of connection. If broken, one must trust in something beyond the worthiness of the other or the ability of the self to send it out again. There is no hope for strong ties without a willingness to expose oneself to this risk, whether with friends or enemies. Strength comes in relationship, relationship requires trust and trust is always a risk. This is the paradox of vulnerability: exposure, or the risk of it, causes one to feel the need for defense; conversely, exposure to others opens one to authentic relationship which frees from the need to defend.

When we trust in our own needs being met, the rigid wariness of risk disintegrates, the walls of self-preservation crumble, we are open to love. Trust is easily taken for granted in loving community. It is almost invisible, quietly making rough places smooth and weaving unlikely relationships, even between like and unlike, friend and enemy.

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“Love casts out fear,” Dorothy Day wrote, “but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love.” We need a trust in something that overrides, that exceeds the fear so seeds of love can be planted. I believe the Christian ideal is one built on trust - trust that supersedes the fumbling fallibility of humankind - trust in the system that God established, articulated by the prophets, reiterated through the gospels: give drink to the thirsty, invite the homeless poor into your house, share your bread with the hungry, cloth the naked as though their body was your own, attend to the sick and break all yokes of oppression.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” It is difficult and often untried because to welcome a stranger and to share from our closet or pantry, to eschew bondage, means loss of privacy, of property, of power. Or does it? Practicing these behaviors – the Works of Mercy – breaks the law of trustworthy like and suspicious unlike, breaks the glass between those drinking coffee in a cafĂ© and those drinking it from a trash can. Trusting in this ideal, living as if it were so, creates an opportunity for individual and social healing. Security that comes when we offer goods instead of guarding them. Freedom that is gained by being given. Community that comes through being a neighbor. Peace that is created when we see enemies as neighbors and love them as ourselves. A strong chord is woven, a garment of trust and mutual care that envelopes the world, makes us safe, sets us free.