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The False Consciousness of Stewardship

Jun28

by: Eleanor Johnson on June 28th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

According to New York Magazine, citing data from NASA and Bloomberg, it’s been the hottest month in recorded history for a year now. In these temperatures, we’ve got big frozen things melting, low-lying places flooding, hurricanes swooping out of season, trash pools whirling in ever-widening gyres, and species quietly going extinct. The long-term impact of the heating up of the earth’s surface is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that something needs to change.

In all of this discomfiting warmth, I am primarily concerned about people, and I am of a mind to start pointing fingers. Not at big industry, emerging nations, or even the U.S. government. I want to point at people who read the Christian Bible superficially, thus engendering misunderstandings that become powerful and damaging political ideologies. More specifically, I want to point fingers at Christian environmentalists who, with the best of intentions, take on the mantle of environmental “stewardship,” which they derive from the Bible, but actually use that mantle to the detriment both of the earth and to accurate readings of the Bible itself.

I’m talking about the Biblical treatment of stewardship. Many Christians invoke the idea of stewardship as a justification for their environmental stances. In one interpretation of Christian stewardship, God gave the earth unto mankind, so that mankind could act as steward of that gift, using the earth’s resources to the greatest possible advantage. Now, of course, many Christian Environmentalists understand stewardship not as carte blanche to do what they will with the earth, but as an obligation to manage God’s gift responsibly. But all too often, the idea of stewardship is impressed into the service of demands to drill for oil in the arctic or dump massive amounts of waste into the seas because, well, there those places are, kind of big and empty and underused.

What I find fascinating about the discourse on stewardship is that it misses the point of the steward parable – often by wrongly conflating it with the Parable of the Talents. The actual stewardship parable, often called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, tells a story of a steward who is entrusted to manage his lord’s wealth responsibly. But the steward fails in his assigned task, wasting all of the lord’s goods, so that the lord demands an account of his expenditures and fires him from his job. Bad news: it looks like there are pretty dire consequences for mismanaging the lord’s goods. But things get more interesting. In response to getting busted, the unjust steward goes to people who were in debt to the lord, and he reduces their debts by half. Now things get really weird: the lord praises him for redistributing the lord’s wealth in this way, for being “unjust,” and for taking wealth from the lord himself.

Needless to say, this parable has historically been a source of consternation for Biblical commentators. But in the 1380s, a cleric named Thomas Wimbledon had a great insight into it. He delivered a public sermon on the Unjust Steward to a group of Londoners, which emphasized how the steward’s original squandering of the lord’s wealth would have consequences for the weakest, poorest, and most desperate in society, and how that neglect to take care of those in need was his primary crime. Thus, the steward’s redistribution of wealth at the end makes sense: it is direct atonement for the initial act of wasting and squandering.

Now, the circumstances of the 1380s were different; Wimbledon wasn’t protesting environmental squandering by nation-states and corporations. But his fundamental insight is deeply relevant to our current socio-political and environmental situation. The Parable of the Unjust Steward only makes sense if you understand it as a claim for the importance of economic justice, the redistribution of wealth, and the protection of the poor. That is what the Bible endorses as the mandate of a steward. So, if the industrialized nations — in fact, I’ll just say the U.S. – wants to orient its environmental policy around the idea of stewardship, it needs to do so with the awareness that stewardship is ultimately about the protection of other people. Poorer people. People down the ladder of socio-economic stability and security.

In our current geopolitical moment, then, anyone who wants to lay claim to stewardship of the “earth” should actually make an effort to foster economic and environmental justice that will include, for instance, the Global South — the area of the surface of the earth that suffers the most acutely from the ongoing effects of colonialism, structural inequality, and environmental decay. If you want to be a good steward, a good Christian using the earth’s resources well and responsibly, you have to do so with an eye not simply toward the material preservation of what you have been given — like coal, oil, gas, or water — but also toward the people who have less than you have and who are structurally positioned to have less access to what you have.

So, as the earth continues in its perhaps doomed course of warming up, I would like to make a plea that people who rely on the Bible to justify their political stances on the environment read a little more carefully, so as to recognize that, to Jesus, the goods of the earth that we are most meant to preserve are the welfares of its human denizens.

Eleanor Johnson is a professor at Columbia University.

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Talking to Josh Fox and a Review of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

Jun28

by: Heidi Hutner on June 28th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Heidi Hutner’s Blog, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

“Can a person stop a wave? Could you stand on the shore and stop a wave from crashing? What are the things that climate change can’t destroy? What are those parts of us that are so deep that no storm can take them away?”

- Josh Fox

How to Let Go of the World opens with Josh Fox dancing to the Beatles — joyously celebrating the banning of hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Fox and thousands of fellow “frackativists” had just successfully pushed through the ban on ‘fracking’ in New York (2014).

Fox’s first environmental film, Gasland (2010), brought national attention to the negative environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

So, Fox had good reason to celebrate the New York State ‘fracking’ ban, and yet…

Fox soon recognized that while the banning of ‘fracking’ in New York State was a big win, there was and is much more to be concerned about in the environmental battle.

Namely: global Climate Change.

How to Let Go of the World next takes the viewer on Fox’s journey of environmental despair (a condition I deeply identify with and talk about in my TEDX talk “ECO-GRIEF”).

Fox returns to his family home in the woods that inspired the making of Gasland, only to discover that a favorite childhood tree is infested with parasitic insects (induced by Climate Change). The infested tree is a living symbol of the changed world we now inhabit–a world gravely altered by the ravages of fossil fuel extraction.

Fox is thrown into a state of hopelessness.

Yet Fox determines to, “find the people who’d found this place, this place of despair, and gotten back up.”

The film then takes the viewer all over the globe. We follow Fox as he seeks to understand how others cope with environmental grief.

We observe the negative environmental, health and social impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New York, sea-level rise in the Marshall Islands, deforestation and oil spills in the Amazon, and the wanton burning of fossil fuels in smog-laden China, among others.

Along the way, Fox has heart-to-heart conversations with prominent Climate Change authors Bill Mckibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, and climate scientist, Michael E. Mann. He also speaks with the activist and “civil disobedient” Tim DeChristopher, who went to jail for 21 months for protesting a Bureau of Land Management lease auction to the fossil fuel industry in Utah.

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Review: Why People Pray by Mordecai Schreiber

Jun27

by: Alice Ogden Bellis on June 27th, 2016 | No Comments »

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber’s Why People Pray is a remarkable book. It is ecumenical and yet aware of a great deal of the history of both Jewish and Christian spirituality, as well as Muslim and Eastern approaches. Rabbi Schreiber is learned, but down to Earth. He is not afraid to tackle the difficult questions (e.g., is anybody listening?) nor to give, on the one hand, the honest answer that ultimately we do not know many of the answers, but on the other hand, his own convictions born out of a lifetime of serious searching. The thirty-five chapters are short, most just a few pages, but they are packed with insights for the pious and even the free-thinkers. He quotes sources as disparate as Huckleberry Finn and Thomas Merton, William Blake and the Muslim Al-Hadid, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and Stevie Wonder and Karen Armstrong, as well as much scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and many traditional Jewish sources.

Born in Israel pre-1948 to secular Jews who had escaped the horrors of the Holocaust in time, Morry Schreiber found his way to religion on his own. Perhaps because of this, his approach to spirituality is fresh and open. He does not preach, but inspires and leads the reader gently to consider the value of prayer. The tone is conversational, and yet a great deal of wisdom from a life lived on three continents and that has traveled much of the globe is packed into this small volume.

The book is divided into three parts: What is prayer? What do people pray for? Prayer today. In the first chapter we learn about Rabbi Schreiber’s childhood and also his general approach to the subject, in which he says, more or less, that to live in a sense is to pray. The second chapter “Is Anyone Listening?” is one of the most important because the author’s honesty and openness is so clear. He admits that we do not know for sure, but he senses a divine presence in his life. Of course, he says it much more eloquently than that. He goes on to talk about the sources of prayer and then the essence of prayer, which he calls the “expression of our deepest emotions” (p.17). In this chapter the range of expression is seen, from the quiet of a traditional Quaker meeting to the exuberant African-American holiness worship service. An interesting chapter on prayer and magic explores the difference between magic in its negative connotations and at the same time explores the positive associations of the word magical in our understanding. Another interesting chapter deals with prayer and sacrifice and notes that after the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis used Hosea 14:3 as a way of transitioning from a religion of sacrifice to one of prayer:

Forgive all guilt

And accept what is good;

Instead of bulls we will pay

[The offering of] our lips[1]

In a chapter entitled “Creative and Static Prayer” the focus is on the need constantly to update written prayer materials so that they will reflect the current context. Nevertheless, some prayers are timeless and seem to be able to cross temporal boundaries better than others. Rabbi Schreiber gives a wonderful example of a fourteenth century Syrian Muslim prayer for peace which would be very appropriately prayed today. The next chapter is a reflection on the power of words, both their positive and their negative power, depending on how they are used. They were used rhetorically in very negative ways building up to the Holocaust, but they can also be used with great positive power. In the chapter called “Prayer, Work and Creativity” the concept of prayer is extended beyond words to the area of human work and especially creative work. The works of Van Gogh and Gauguin are briefly considered in this section.

In the section on prayer and meditation, Eastern spiritual traditions are brought into view, especially Buddhist practice. Rabbi Schreiber notes that in Judaism Kabbalistic traditions and in Christianity contemplation are also forms of meditation. He moves from meditation to life with people, in which he balances the individual nature of meditation with the communal aspects of prayer.

The next chapter is a reflection on praying to God as a father figure, where Rabbi Schreiber admits the problems inherent within Judaism and Christianity given the overwhelmingly masculine imagery in the Bible. He indicates that God is neither male nor female and that there is the Virgin Mary for Catholics, the Shekinah, the feminine divine presence for Jewish women, though this may be too abstract, and women biblical characters now included in the prayer book. What could also be said is that since God is neither male nor female, we can create new imagery for God that is gender neutral or that is binary: God as mother and father, since there is some female divine imagery in the Bible.

In the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer, Mordecai Schreiber not only shows the specific Jewish roots of the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but also tells a moving story about a group of Polish soldiers facing death who together recited the Lord’s Prayer, allowing them to go down in dignity. The next chapters deal with prayer and various attitudes/experiences: humility, triumphalism, suffering, repentance, afterlife. The final chapter in Part I deals with the efficacy of prayer. The bottom line is that there are no guarantees, but one should pray anyway.

In Part II about what people pray for, there are chapters on: Healing, prosperity, life cycle prayers, yearly cycle prayers, sabbath and prayer, prayer and peace of mind, prayer and war, and prayer and world peace. Part III on prayer today has several important chapters. “Prayer and the Holocaust” deals with the difficult issues of how to pray in the aftermath of the horrible genocide. The chapter on the “Detractors of Faith” deals with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and reflects on how to respond to their attacks on religion. “Prayer for Freethinkers” is a chapter making the case that prayer is not just for the pious, God-intoning crowd; there is plenty of room in his mind for those who are uncomfortable using God-language. The last two chapters are “Prayer as a Way of Life” and “A New Language of Prayer” in which Rabbi Schreiber considers some of the areas in which we need new vocabulary, less sin oriented, more gender neutral, less tolerant of poverty, more eco-friendly.

Why People Pray provides ample material for a study group and includes many anecdotes that will be of use to those preparing sermons. It could be used with teenagers straight through to senior citizens. This is a rare book, delightful, and wise.


[1] Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), Ho 14:3.

Alice Ogden Bellis is the Professor of Hebrew Bible at Howard University School of Divinity.

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The Free State of Jones and the Brexit

Jun27

by: on June 27th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Friday, June 24, 2016, I went to the first showing of the movie “The Free State of Jones” at my local movie theater. It was the day after the shocking vote in the United Kingdom where a majority of voters expressed their wish to exist the European Union. It was an OMG – Oh My God – moment for me. Why do I, sitting here in the United States, care what happens in the UK? It must be all that Masterpiece Theater on PBS, all that Downton Abbey and Poldark and Wolf Hall. It must be all that James Bond and Adele and Sting and Idris Elba. It must be Love Actually.

Watching this movie about a little known chapter of American Civil War and Reconstruction history where poor whites in Mississippi made common cause with runaway slaves, formed a community, and fought the Confederacy together made me think about how history can inform our thinking about the world we live in today.

As the fragments of my thoughts about the Brexit vote crashed against the confines of my mind, I saw on screen at least one yeoman farmer during the Civil War realize that this war was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. (Quiet as it is kept, most wars are such.) Conscription laws made it possible for men who owned at least twenty slaves to offer them for service to the Confederacy rather than go to fight and to die themselves. Men with no slaves had no choice but to go and fight when called. (In the north, the rich could also avoid the draft by paying others to take their place or by paying $300.)

Further, because of what was known as in-kind taxation, the Confederacy could come and take away a portion of a farmer’s harvest, livestock, and other goods to support the war effort. When Newton Knight, the hero of the movie, deserts, he helps women and children who are left behind defend their property against this confiscation. Life is hard enough. The reality of war made life harder.

The citizens of the UK who voted to leave the European Union must have felt that membership in the EU was making life harder. I was trying to understand why they would take such a vote. Some analysts cited discomfort with immigration into the UK from Europe. Too many people were coming into Great Britain, primarily from Eastern Europe, and competing for jobs and taking advantage of the National Health System and other social safety net provisions of the country. Brexit supporters wanted tighter restrictions. They understood the situation as a zero-sum game. They thought that leaving the EU would protect them from people who they thought were making their life harder.

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New Poems from Ari Banias: “An Arrow” and “Bouquet”

Jun27

by: Ari Banias on June 27th, 2016 | No Comments »

Credit: Nan Palmero Flickr

 

“AN ARROW”

Too often I’d like some direction

but am ashamed of this fact, still I ask for it,

men are supposed be bad at admitting

they’re lost though why men agree

to fulfill this is lost on me.

Who cares what men are. Can’t we

scrap this whole enterprise, seriously

top down management

small talk, normative dating. A little box

I fill in over and over, like feeding pennies into a slot

it leads somewhere I think

I’m saving them. For when? The pulldown menus

reach longer and longer, so to scroll becomes

the new version of a sweeping gesture, more ways

to be erased. At the end of the day

we still march on directionless,

used by pronouns & all the livelong

language still drags us through its shitty toll plazas,

do “you” have a highway phobia like “I” do.

Or who do you feel most related to.

Under my breath I say Love

thy neighbor as thy self

is to thy as neighbor is to the scraggle

in my front yard is to a badly pruned bush

across the street. But love it & those neighbors

drunk and too loud on their porch while I’m trying to sleep

to love us all better. The steepest hill

in maybe all of Oakland California, pointing my body up it

walking leg muscles burning, love the fortune

to have legs the cinderblock the succulent and none of them equal,

fuck equality, predicated on sameness

why not by now insist on a complex star cluster

a fuck of will and willingness and imagination, all our most unwieldy crap?

But crap, I’m daily losing my grip as if having

handed my only bow and arrow to a stranger who

might shoot it off look at that thing! it could hit

someone I care about or love, you myself anyone or a bush

here’s another bush and another they all mash together,

one is pine-ish the other has purple flowers, it’s basically formless

& somehow I feel it’s my key relative

that cousin I’m always close to no matter how many years pass,

who once cared about art now he’s a depressed socialist

vaguely entrepreneurial by necessity, as once I was

a slutty teenage girl they now call Sir, I guess I can see that

here’s another bush that could be shaped into another form

or just left alone. Outside the neighbor kids

shout without regard like their parents

before them, I saw one kid the other day point a phone

from their window into mine to take a photo of me I wanted to take

one in response as reminder that hey it’s a window

not a mirror and the object talks back

 

“Bouquet”

Today I build flowers out of concepts

in order to speak to you sincerely.

Today you want nothing because wanting

comes too close to feeling.

And though a sad old person

who combs their silver hair

all afternoon in a high window

curses you with great acuity,

you being anyone in a suit, a suit

being whatever you insulate yourself with

so you don’t hear that voice up there

calling you out, you keep going

as grim fleets of semis keep going,

shuttling dry goods across the continent.

In their fervent rumble lives

a hope to be getting paid soon. I get it.

Even last night’s cream roses still in their cellophane

and chucked on a downtown sidewalk

by their recipient have been called out.

These are the conditions of our times, you say,

stuffing ourselves with what’s greenish,

filming quickly in a garden

whose foliage is nearly realistic.

Once, we faced each other.

Now the unused filaments grow limp in us each day.

What huge thing catapults through you

when alone on the edge of your bed

is sincerity, or a need to absorb

its most mineral clarity & let it

bloom out your eyes,

but you’d rather it didn’t.

Theory of feeling will sling feeling back to you

so you can just think it.

I offer these compact shapes of affection and sadness

which the words affection and sadness do not convey.

Cancer’s sincere, shit is, indigestion, resentment

is sincere, sweat, dogs, mint, rust,

certain friendships are utterly sincere, and genitals

are sincere, though a flower is indifferent.

Ari Banias is author of Anybody, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in September 2016. He currently lives in Berkeley, CA and holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA in poetry from Hunter College, where he was a teaching fellow. The author of a chapbook,What’s Personal is Being Here With All of You (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2012), his poems appear in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, FIELD, Guernica, The Offing,The Volta, and as part of the exhibition Transgender Hirstory in 99 Objects. He has earned numerous fellowships and awards.

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The Chuppah That Held Us All: What We Found in Our Gay Marriage That the Supreme Court Missed

Jun24

by: Michael Rothbaum on June 24th, 2016 | No Comments »

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum and his husband Anthony Russell under the chuppah.

“We probably have to leave at some point, right?”

I stood at the edge of the bandstand, Anthony’s hand in mine. We were under the chuppah, having just crushed the glass, two feet descending on one piece of fragile stemware. The weight of two grown men – men who had waited to know the time was right, who had waited to be ready, who had waited for the law to catch up with them – came crashing down on that one glass. It never stood a chance.

We had been led on this journey by my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Les Bronstein. His words, in that place at that moment, brought tears to our eyes. His partner in work and in life, Cantor Benjie Schiller, had composed a setting of selections from Song of Songs especially for the occasion. The ceremony was perfect.

But it was not the ceremony that led me to look over my shoulder at Rabbi Bronstein and ask the question I did. It was our friends and family, the people who stood facing us, cheering and hooting and clapping and hollering, after we had stomped on that glass. It was the love we felt from them, a love so fierce it felt like it would hold us up if we leaned forward. A love that did hold us up.

“We probably have to leave at some point, right?”

We did, of course, eventually leave the bandstand, the protection of the chuppah, the love of the community assembled that day. Within a week, we would receive news of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples in every city and town throughout the country. Throughout the country, there was jubilation, celebration, and talk of rights – gay rights, marriage rights, individual rights.

But in all the talk of individual rights, something felt a bit off. Anthony and I had come together, married each other, two individuals joining together as one. It was amazing, it was miraculous, and it was legal. But what about all those people who hollered and cried and cheered along with us? Where were they in the conversation, in the celebration of same-sex marriage?

Could it be that in the struggle to achieve the right to marry, we’ve lost sight of something, something key to the redemptive power that the tradition of marriage promises?

***

Far be it from me to turn a cause for celebration into a cause for concern. A year out of that momentous moment, the fact that our marriage is legal remains a source of great joy and much appreciated reassurance. We do not have to worry about forbidding healthcare regulations, pernicious tax codes, or burdensome inheritance laws (at least any more than straight couples do).

So why not rejoice over the victory of our newly recognized rights? It is the “individual” part of these “individual rights” that gives me pause. Courts have ruled that the right to marry resides with the individual. And thank God that they have. But to define our marriage in such a way separates us as some sort of other, a lone couple protected from the larger community’s disapproval of our strangeness.

What is missing is community.

Queer folks are queer, yes, but not to each other. We belong to each other, in the same way that members of other groups similarly have in-group allegiance. While it goes without saying that courageous individuals took the lead in achieving this legal milestone, the fact that the Supreme Court decided that we are indeed included in the protections of the 14th Amendment is the result of decades of visionary struggle on the part of a community of activists.

Even for queer people who reject marriage as fundamentally heteronormative, the victory of this movement represents the successful establishment of a multi-generational community, comprised of any and all queer folks who dared to publicly demand the recognition of our full humanity. From the Mattachine Foundation to Lambda Legal, from the Daughters of Bilitis to ACT UP, from support groups to sanctuaries, from parties to prayer circles to parades, queer community had to be created for queer people by queer people. This triumph of “individual rights” is also the triumph of community, self-created and self-sustaining.

And when we were reminded that queer people remain targets of violence in this world, at a nightclub that became a crime scene, it was community that came together to mourn, to uphold, to begin to heal.

It’s obvious that Justice Kennedy’s declaration that the “right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” could have only come about through exhaustive efforts of generations of queer activists, networked into underground community, often at great professional and personal danger.

Paradoxically, celebrating same-sex marriage as a victory for “individual autonomy” does an injustice to the power in those communities that continue to support us.

Even as a married couple, Anthony and I do not exist as a solitary unit, quietly living our private life of discreetly-exercised rights. As vital as the rights paradigm is, what it misses is the lived history of actual gay people, not just as individuals but within communities – the very real communities queer folks have had to build in the absence of a civil society or infrastructure that refused, until very recently, to acknowledge our full humanity.

***

A rights-focused discourse misses something else. For generations, Jewish communities have assumed the responsibility to support and sustain married couples – like the very real Jewish community that loves and supports our marriage to this day.

Anthony didn’t know it then, but it was in 2013 that I began planning to propose. In June of that year, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that the “Defense of Marriage [sic] Act” (DOMA) unconstitutionally denigrated same-sex couples; in the same session, the Court refused to uphold California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that had prohibited same-sex marriage.

Our marriage would thus be fully legal under both California and federal law. I began to make plans to propose. In a beautiful June afternoon, on the bow of a sailboat in San Francisco Bay, I gave Anthony a filigree gold hamsa pendant with a tiny diamond in the center. I asked him if he would marry me. He said, “Of course.” We hugged and kissed, two figures finally legally permitted to one another, blissfully floating in solitude.

We wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Only one year prior to U.S. v. Windsor, the Conservative movement of Judaism had formally sanctioned same-sex marriage, and created ritual language sanctifying those relationships. Yet, from the response to our engagement by our community, Congregation Netivot Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Berkeley, you would not have known that this was in any way new or novel. Love poured in from all quarters. People interrupted their davvening (and sometimes ours) to wish us the best, to inquire about plans, to pour out their support and joy and blessings. It was so sweet. And pleasantly surprising.

But in planning the wedding itself, we awoke to the stark reality of making a big gay American Jewish wedding. Catering, music, clothes, flowers, linens, not to mention the chuppah and ketubah and (of course!) the rabbi and cantor – there were dozens of details to arrange, each seemingly comprised of a dozen more. (Let me publicly apologize, here, to all the couples at whose marriages I officiated: I’m so sorry. I had no idea.) We were baffled. We were exhausted. We were short-tempered, with the process and with each other.

It quickly became clear that the individual autonomy championed by Justice Kennedy is refracted through the lens of a wedding industry that sees autonomous couples as autonomous consumers, celebrating their private rights in the private sector. Having once snickered at the idea of a professional wedding planner, we soon came to understand why couples hand over hard-earned money to someone hired to handle the details. Two individuals come together as an individual couple to make an individual celebration. Why not hire another individual to make that celebration happen?

Little did we know that as our anxieties began to mount, help was already on its way. The wedding industry was telling us that the way to celebrate a wedding was by creating a moneyed extravaganza, our love measured by the heft of the price tag. Our community told us otherwise. All the people who offered their love when we announced our engagement were now offering their assistance. Friends (and, to be honest, people we didn’t realize were friends) offered assistance with logistics, ritual, emotional support. “Can we help you with the chuppah?” “Do you need help with place settings?” “Do you need help with food?” “Do you need a coordinator for the big day?” It was completely overwhelming. And completely wonderful.

And so it was when our shul friends danced around us at our aufruf, we were encircled by the people who had helped prep our place cards and table signs, by the people who would transport our chuppah, by the people who picked up our ketubah, by the people who had fed us the night before at a Shabbat dinner for dozens of out-of-town guests, by the people who would bake ten challahs for the wedding.

It was our friends who took Anthony and me to our respective mikvehs. It was those friends who helped us with clothes and shoes and kittels. It was those friends who led the dancing and the entertainment at the reception, and it was those friends who calmed and soothed my tears and trembling on the big day. It was those friends who, directly following our ceremony, guarded our holy space in our first moments of married life. It was those friends who would host us, in homes across the Bay Area, for sheva brachot celebrations the week following our wedding day. And today, it is those friends we count on to help us through the vicissitudes of married life.

Some question the logic of going through any of the “typical” wedding rituals. Why follow convention at all? Certainly, in the Bay Area, many couples reject entirely the trappings that accompany modern wedding. Anthony and I both harbor traditionalist tendencies; we knew that wouldn’t be our path. What we didn’t know, however, was how much love and sweetness would come through to us through those old words and rites. Even me! Even a rabbi who has led countless couples on this journey, I didn’t fully understand the deep wisdom in the wedding rituals of Jewish that evoke the love and support of those around us.

In short, we have been held and sustained by community before, during, and after our wedding. This community is not our “right.” It is our blessing. And our wedding could not have happened – not in any way resembling the awesome, precious way that it did – without the blessed love of that community.

***

In his decision affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy utilized particularly majestic language. His words are beautiful. Marriage, he argued, is a response to “the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”

In doing so, it promises “the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

Like I said, beautiful. But Anthony and I have learned that the marriage is not just the response to a call from one “lonely person” to another. It also a response to the anxious call of a “lonely couple,” afraid they might call out only to find no kinship there. It holds out the promise that this loving couple will become part of a loving community, an entire collective that cares for each other.

Our marriage, we continue to discover, is more than a mere two-person union. It is two people held in communion, sacred and spiritual association, by their community.

The rituals of Jewish marriage attest to its communal nature. Numerous Jewish commentators have noted that the chuppah is open on all sides, a paradigm of the welcoming home the couple is expected to create. Jewish texts instruct that the ketubah is signed by witnesses unrelated to the couple, and read before the community. The wedding blessings praise God not for the couple, but for all couples, for all the house of Israel, for all of creation.

A wedding in any religious tradition, if done right, is not just a moment or space for a couple. It’s not just an opportunity to drop a load of cash on a personal dream of a lavish party. Our celebration was not just a celebration for us, just as our wedding day was not just a day for us. It brought everyone together; queer couples forced to marry several times in various jurisdictions; straight people who only had to marry once; single people who hadn’t yet married; and single people, gay and straight, partnered and uncoupled, who had no interest in marriage. They all elevated us in celebration. And we found that our celebration, in turn, elevated them.

Early on in our planning, Anthony told me that his ideal Jewish wedding was the wedding in Fiddler on the Roof. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. “The walls of the wedding were the walls of the community,” he told me, in that way he has of making me wonder if he should have been the rabbi rather than me. “The trappings of that wedding were the joy in other people’s faces.”

Anthony and I belong to each other. We declared as much under the chuppah. But now, as a couple, we belong to our community. And our community belongs to us.

***

County clerk Kim Davis briefly achieved notoriety last summer when she went to an honest-to-goodness jail cell in rural Kentucky rather than grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was, she said, “a matter of religious liberty.” A judge ruled that Kim Davis has the right to hate gay people, to refuse to sign those licenses, as long as she doesn’t interfere with the ability of her deputies to issue them.

Some people hate her for hating us, but I’m not sure I begrudge her that right. We still have the right to be married. And as long as Davis can’t interfere with that right, she has the right to not want to take part in it.

Judges speak in the language of legal rights and liberties. That’s their job. Like same-sex couples throughout the country, we now have the right to a marriage license. But just as it’s the job of judges to speak in the language of rights, it’s the job of religion to speak in the language of communal responsibility and connection and love. And it’s the job of sacred community to cultivate sacred space around married couples, supporting and sustaining them on their journey.

Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, Rabbi Hillel teaches in the Talmud. “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” More than a set of legal rights – even the most crucial of rights – marriage opens a couple to a constellation of love, within them and surrounding them. Having dwelled within the awesome miracle of our wedding, it is plainly obvious that individual marriage rights and sacred community move in concert, two newlyweds dancing in counterpoint, held in holy embrace.

For us, Anthony’s vision came to life, the walls of our blessed community containing and defining our wedding. It was the joy in their faces that embraced us, inviting us to embrace them. We did ultimately have to leave the chuppah, to walk off the bandstand and walk into the unknown of our married life together. But the chuppah didn’t leave us, just as our friends and family didn’t leave us. They continue to sustain and support us, defining marriage not merely as a legal contract, but as an integration of souls – with each other, and within a holy community.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum speaks, teaches, and writes about the intersection of culture, politics, justice, and Jewish choices. He serves as Co-chair of the Bay Area Regional Council of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, in Oakland. Photo credit: Clara Rice.

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After the Colombian Ceasefire Deal: Can Grassroots Communities Show a Pathway Toward Reconciliation?

Jun24

by: Martin Winiecki on June 24th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

History is being made in Colombia. After three and a half years, the peace negotiations between the administration of President Santos and the FARC-Ep guerrilla group taking place in Havana, Cuba have reached a breakthrough with a “bilateral and definite ceasefire” signed by both parties on Thursday, putting an end to the longest lasting internal war the world has ever seen.

The armed struggle between the Marxist-Leninist rebels and the Colombian state, persisting over 52 years, killed more than 220,000 people, displaced over 5,700,000 and left the country traumatized. FARC-Ep, a guerrilla troop, which had started out as defenders of the marginalized and silenced, became wrapped up in the drug trade, vile kidnappings, and extreme blood-shedding as their movement mutated from one of resistance to survival, by any means necessary. After a tumultuous journey, they have now committed to renounce violence and participate nonviolently in the social and political process of the country.

This is a crucial milestone for Colombia and Latin America, which we have to salute. At the same time, however, we must not be mistaken: This does not mean there is peace in Colombia now. This is merely a first important step in a long process. The negotiations will continue to define the details of the peace deal until August; there still are many open delicate questions to be answered. In addition to the deal with FARC-Ep, the government is leading another negotiation with ELN, the second largest Colombian guerrilla force. Beyond the cessation of hostilities between the government and the guerrilla, peace in Colombia will require the beginning of a reconciliation process, which above all must support and protect those most direly affected by the war – farmers, indigenous people, human rights defenders, and union activists. Among these, still many doubts about the peace process remain. Warning voices come from some of the country’s most courageous activists, for example the peace community San José de Apartadó.

San José is a community of over 600 persecuted farmers in nonviolent resistance in the north of the country. Their history epitomizes the drama of this country and more broadly, of persecuted people throughout the Global South. Since 1997, the people of San José have been establishing an island of humaneness in the middle of a bloody civil war. As they did not receive any protection from massacres and expulsions by the Colombian state, founding a solidarity community with a neutral stance in the war seemed to be their last hope for survival. They refuse to cooperate with any armed party, do not carry weapons and allow no drugs. San José is a ‘realized utopia’ for a world of solidarity and peace and has inspired other villages in the country to establish similar “neutral zones.” Today the project represents a movement of farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities throughout the country, which have long been powering another peace process – from the bottom up.

Yet paradoxically, it seems that the Havana peace deal could be used to dismantle projects like San José. How can this be?

San José de Apartadó is located on land rich in natural resources, which multinational companies have been eager to exploit for many years. This is a major, yet far less known, aspect of the Colombian war. In the shadow of the conflict between government and guerrillas, paramilitary troops have long terrorized the civil population. According to estimates, paramilitaries have killed far more people than the war between guerrilla and the state, yet the paramilitary violence has continued during the peace negotiations. These right-wing death squads were initially formed in the 1980s, predominantly financed and deployed by landlords, politicians, and multinationals to drive the rural population into the cities and crush civil resistance to make way for lucrative mining and agricultural mega-projects. “The paramilitaries became the hidden right hand of the state,” says Arley Tuberquia, spokesperson of San José, “commissioned for the dirty work that the army cannot carry out in the light of day.”

After many years of the Colombian government denying the existence of paramilitary troops in the country, Thursday’s ceasefire deal was a positive surprise as the common declaration of government and FARCE-Ep states their intention to disarm paramilitary groups and their successors. However, in the final deal and its subsequent implementation they will have to prove the sincerity of such statements. Without dismantling the paramilitaries, there will be no peace in Colombia.

As they refused to leave their lands and established an alternative community that resisted the exploitation of the multinationals, the people of San José became the target of a ruthless extermination campaign, carried out by paramilitaries in alliance with the state army as well as mass media and former president Uribe, slandering them as “terrorists.” The community suffered countless massacres killing more than 200 of their members. Despite all they endured, they have continued, bound together by a deep solidarity and the unwavering commitment to overcome hatred, to answer the atrocities by creating a living example of another possible world. As their late visionary Eduar Lancheros said, “As long as we are able to transform pain into hope, there will always be community.” Essential to their survival has also been the support of numerous NGOs and international activists. San José allied with the Tamera peace research center in Portugal and other like-minded projects around the world in building models for a sustainable, post-capitalist culture free of war.

There have been less killings over the past years, yet the efforts to dismantle San José have not stopped. Many community members have been offered money to vacate and there has been ongoing trickery in attempt to take away the farmers’ properties. After the peace treaty, many international organizations that have so far supported persecuted people in Colombia will likely move on to other crisis areas, thereby leaving San José in a very vulnerable position. Gloria Cuartas, former mayor of Apartadó, has accompanied the peace community since its foundation. She says, “While the world will soon believe there is peace in Colombia, paramilitaries still continue to go behind those working for human and union rights. We have evidence that parts of the government and multinationals will use the cover of apparent peace to manage what they so far have not – ending the peace community.”

An international alliance, including world-renowned linguist and scholar Noam Chomsky, Bolivian water warrior Oscar Olivera, Mexican writer Gustavo Esteva, former Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim, Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner, among many others, are now urging the negotiating parties in Havana to include a clause in the final agreement guaranteeing the right for Colombian peace villages to live freely on their land. The success of this calling would not only usher a new era for San José, but be a milestone for territorial justice – for the rights of countless marginalized farmers and Indigenous Peoples all over the country.

Tens of thousands of guerrillas will soon cease fighting and try to reintegrate into society. This will likely be more difficult than reaching a political contract – and in order for this process to succeed it will require authentic examples for reconciliation and nonviolent coexistence. Could villages like San José de Apartadó, which have been most brutally persecuted, now turn into role models for a future without war in Colombia? As the alliance of human rights experts and peace activists argue, such grassroots peace projects indeed hold an essential key for the next phase of the Colombian peace process, turning the silence of arms into lasting social justice.

Martin Winiecki, born in Dresden, Germany in 1990, is a writer, speaker, and coordinator of the Institute for Global Peace Work at Tamera, Portugal.

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#WeveSeenThisBefore

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Tuesday night, antisemites on Twitter attacked me in a particularly visceral and disgusting way, and I want you to know about it.

I believe that each of us who shows up for love and justice should be able to come as we are, fully owning our ancestors, our multiple identities, and our personal choices. I’ve been involved in Jewish social action for a long time, chiefly in my role as president of The Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a beloved and inspiring teacher in the prophetic spirit, rebuking injustice and directing attention to the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. A foundational principle in our work – and in all the interfaith work we engage – is respect for heritage and willingness to renew tradition so that it speaks directly to the present.

So when I stand up for justice, I show up as myself: a first-generation American Jew of Eastern European heritage who takes very seriously the exhortation from Amos 5:24 to “But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.” When Dr. Martin Luther King quoted that passage in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, he acknowledged a shared point of connection, evoking a primary text for both Jewish and Christian human rights advocates, a ground to stand together. In my own small way, I have discovered that showing up as myself often opens the possibility of connection with people from other faith traditions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, practitioners of indigenous traditions and more – who also draw strength from the teachings and traditions they have inherited.


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Why go to Russia?

Jun17

by: Kathy Kelly on June 17th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Since 1983, Sharon Tennison has worked to develop ordinary citizens’ capacities to avert international crises, focusing on relations between the U.S. and Russia. Now, amid a rising crisis in relations between the U.S. and Russia, she has organized a delegation which assembled in Moscow yesterday for a two week visit. I joined the group yesterday, and happened to finish reading Sharon Tennison’s book, The Power of Impossible Ideas, when I landed in Moscow.

An entry in her book, dated November 9, 1989, describes the excitement over the Berlin Wall coming down and notes that “Prior to the Wall’s removal, President Reagan assured Secretary General Gorbachev that if he would support bringing down the Wall separating East and West Berlin, NATO would not move ‘a finger’s width’ closer to Russia than East Germany’s border. With this assurance Gorbachev gladly signed on.

Little could he or the world have guessed that this promise would soon be broken during the next administration – and that the redeveloping distrust between the countries would threaten to become a second cold War, due to NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders.”

Today, NATO and U.S. troops will conclude 10 days of military exercises, Anakonda, on Russia’s western border, involving 31,000 troops. The operation was named after a snake that kills by crushing its prey. Ongoing deployment of 4,000 additional NATO troops has been announced. U.S. and South Korean military exercises just completed at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea were dubbed “Decapitation” and mobilized 320,000 troops.

Conn Hallinan, in “Bear Baiting Russia,” notes that “Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has662 bases in foreign countries around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?”

It’s important for U.S. people to learn more, from ordinary Russian people, about their responses to troop build-up and new bases on their borders, threatening military exercises, and antagonistic arsenals of nuclear weapons on high alert. As President Vladimir Putin begins summoning a new Russian National Guard that could include 400,000 troops, it’s important to hear how Russian people feel about this development.

Rather than foster cartoonized versions of foreign policy, the media should help people recognize complexity in Russian society and include awareness of desires to live in peace on the part of people in both countries.

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We Can Stop This Violence

Jun17

by: Michael Nagler on June 17th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

During the G. W. Bush years a friend of mine lamented, “We have a war President, a war economy, and a war culture.” Yes on all three; but he might have gone on to add, the key is culture. If our culture did not promote violence the way it does we would not elect a war president, we would build our economy on very different, sustainable and just principles; we would find ways to avoid conflict and use robust, creative ways of dealing with it when it surfaced. In all this our belief system, or mindset is the key three-quarters and there are signs that we’re beginning to notice it.

I have been teaching, writing and speaking about peace for close to forty years; I founded a non-profit that long ago to educate people about nonviolence. I therefore do not make this statement lightly: I feel that we are beginning to see a breakthrough. If we widen the crack there may actually be a silver lining behind the mass shootings that took place last week in Orlando, the latest and worst we’ve yet endured.

The new awareness I’m referring to is admittedly slight, but it’s enough to make a three-quarter difference  if we seize the opportunity it represents. Two examples showed up in my local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democratic on June 13th: the editorial board writes, tellingly, that nothing will stop these massacres “unless something changes in our culture, our conscience or our Congress.” On the same page, a cartoon by “Venn Detta” from theWashington Post shows Uncle Sam bowing his head (in grief ? shame? both?) before three circles labeled “Terrorism, Homophobia, Islamophobia.” They intersect a central circle called “Hate,” and the caption explains, “What ties it all together.” Why do I say that these might be signs that we’re turning a corner? Because up to now the responses to every one of these tragedies has followed a script, almost ritualized, and the one thing they have never included is any look at our culture or any attempt to probe some of its underlying forces. They have been at best irrelevant and at worst a sure way to provoke the problem. Most of them, to be sure, still are: statistics, “This is the largest number of victims in a mass shooting;” details, “Here are the names of the victims,” “Police are reconstructing the timeline,” and labels, they are “searching for the motive” so they know what kind of label to slap on the event, thus shielding us somewhat from its emotional impact. We’re being lead to relive the massacre instead of understand it.

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