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Archive for the ‘Empathy’ Category

Reflections on Madiba: Nelson Mandela and the Power of Dignity


by: on December 9th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Sunday, December 8, 2013 was a day of reflection upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa who died December 5, 2013 at age 95. As I reflect upon the meaning of this extraordinary life, I return again and again to his dignity and to the power this sense of self bestowed upon him, even before the South African people elected him to lead them.

Mandela was born into an African royal family, and he was groomed from an early age to be an advisor to kings. And so he was. He became an advisor to world leaders and rose to be the leader of his country and a moral example to the world. This all came to be because of his unyielding determination to be respected as a human being and not to rest until his people were also respected as free and equal human beings. The goal of the end of apartheid [apart hate] in South Africa was constantly before him.

Since Mandela’s death, I have heard many commentators speak of his dedication to non-violence. They marvel at his willingness to forgive both personally and politically. As a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, some have placed him in the pantheon of heroes and sheroes who dedicated their lives to a cause larger than themselves, who worked diligently for peace. Make no mistake, Mandela deserves this recognition.

At the same time, it is more accurate to place him next to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (the post Mecca Malcolm X) than to Martin Luther King, Jr. or to Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela was a radical humanist in the mold of Malcolm X. He makes a cameo appearance at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X reciting Malcolm’s famous declaration:

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Mandela was willing to achieve his goal of human dignity for all “by any means necessary.” This included violence against a violent and vicious system and through forgiveness and reconciliation at the moment of transition from an [apart hate] society to a rainbow society where all races are treated equally in custom and in law.


Take Action Against Climate Change in the Wake of Typhoon Haiyan


by: David Weinstein on November 26th, 2013 | 5 Comments »

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Nove foto da Firenze)

By now most of us have seen photos and heard reports of the heartrending loss of life and destruction from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The monster storm has affected 11 million people and destroyed 670,000 homes. Blown-out towns have been reduced to grim junkyards of rubble. It seems beyond words. But words and images are all we have from afar, so I will ask a few questions and try to connect a few dots.

The shock of this sheer devastation has aroused the compassion of the American people, perhaps evoking memories of September 11. But at the same time, not enough of us are talking about the connection between extreme weather incidents and climate change. There is a grim irony in the fact that the UN Conference on Climate Change was meeting in Warsaw at the same time as Haiyan. It’s an outrageous reality that this body has reached no agreement about curtailing greenhouse gases and global warming.

This is basically because the United States Congress steadfastly refuses to pass any clean energy legislation commensurate to the clear and present danger of catastrophic global warming, despite Super Storm Sandy, droughts, floods, and wildfires on our own shores. Why is this, especially since the majority of Americans support its government taking action to fight global warming? One can only conclude that our government values profits of the dirty energy sector over the well-being and lives of their own citizens.


Occupy the Dharma: How Contemplative Practice Will Save the World


by: Jay Michaelson on November 14th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

(Meditation over the Grand Canyon/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Moyan Brenn)

We hear it all the time. Meditation is narcissistic. It’s self-centered; you’re staring at your navel instead of out there fighting injustice. And God forbid it actually works, in which case you’re too happy. Dropping out, calming the mind – this only mutes our righteous political indignation. Because angry activists are effective activists.

Not only is this offensive and inaccurate, it’s not even new. Since the nineteenth century, Westerners have complained that Buddhism is pessimistic, passive, and world-renouncing. In the Victorian period, Buddhism was seen as nihilistic, offering no vision of hope, in contrast to Christianity. Contemporary complaints about Buddhist, Hindu, and other “Eastern” spiritualities are part of a colonialist and orientalist discourse that belies any claim to real progressivism.

To be fair, there are challenges in pursuing a spiritual practice concerned and engaged with problems of justice. There is a tendency in any contemplative practice to focus on one’s own “stuff,” because that’s what contemplatives do: we turn inward. And within Buddhism in particular, one can find world-renouncing and quietistic teachings, especially within the Theravadan tradition; the Buddha warned monks to stay out of politics, for example. Indeed, the very notion of a monastic community implies some degree of retreat from the problems of the world into a cloistered existence focused on other things. These tensions are present in all of us who take seriously the mandates to cultivate both wisdom and compassion. Often, one has to focus on one or the other.


My Response to Tom Rogan’s “How President Obama Can Achieve a Nuclear Deal with Iran”


by: on November 13th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

The Guardian’s recent article, “How President Obama can achieve a nuclear deal with Iran,” speaks about why a nuclear deal with Iran is urgently needed, and what Iran must give up. This Guardian piece is a little weak on what the United States and the Western powers must offer as part of the deal. When read by itself, it repeats the “tough-minded” and largely blind to emotional nuance approach that has made the West’s dealings with Iran so fruitless. Here’s what author Tom Rogan writes:

In the cause of peace, the clock is ticking.

Western Intelligence services have delayed a nuclear Iran. Still, the evidence on the ground is unmistakable. Iranian nuclear activities increasingly point to a weaponization agenda. Of most concern: Iran’s soon-to-be plutonium production facility at Arak. As David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Institute for Science and International Security note (pdf), claims of an inherently peaceful nuclear program cannot easily co-exist with a heavy water reactor. Correspondingly, in last weekend’s P5+1 negotiations, the French Foreign Minister suggested that allowing Arak to remain in operation would represent a “sucker’s deal”.

He’s right.


7 Reasons for Spiritual Progressives to Engage Humbly with Fundamentalists


by: Sigfried Gold on November 12th, 2013 | 7 Comments »

Progressives deliver lofty words about embracing people who are different from us, but we often fail to put those words into practice when it comes to religious fundamentalists. In truth, there are many deep forms of spiritual wisdom that fundamentalists could share with us if we approached them with humility, care, and curiosity:

1. Fundamentalists go whole hog. They know what they believe. They know who’s right and who’s wrong. How do they do it? Do they do it about everything? Try asking a fundamentalist: What is it exactly that is fundamental for you? What are the commitments from which you will not budge? Are you able to stay open-minded on religious or political issues outside these commitments? Different fundamentalists will have different answers, of course. But it’s no betrayal of our own commitment to open-mindedness to consider emulating fundamentalists if we find something worth emulating. Which of our own beliefs are we willing to throw ourselves into without reservation? On what are we willing to take a stand from which we will not budge?

2. Fundamentalists have faith. Some of what they believe they believe without objective, empirical evidence, or even against scientific evidence. Are we able to see that they embrace faith not out of stupidity or ignorance but because their faith is confirmed by what they perceive as some deeper spiritual evidence? Can we see the ways that a demonstrably irrational faith can be motivated by entirely reasonable and real concerns and needs? Faith is not simply a choice to believe something without evidence. It begins as an experiment: “What happens if I try believing X?” And when something good happens, it grows. Are we interested in cultivating our own faith? Faith in what?

3. Fundamentalists have been at it a long time. They follow traditions that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. They’ve had time to build up a vast repertoire of practices, concepts, rituals, bits of wisdom. Their rearguard scramble to defend their traditions from modern threats may keep the most absurd parts of their program in clearest relief, but dig a little and you’ll find the richness of all they’ve built and that has sustained them over centuries.


Weekly Sermon- Learner’s Mind: Make The Inside Out


by: on November 11th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text: Isaiah 58: 1-9; Luke 12: 54-59

Forty years ago, in the wake of the rebellion at Attica Prison, Rev. Robert Polk of the Riverside clergy founded the Riverside Prison Ministry. Throughout this past weekend, the Prison Ministry has been celebrating this anniversary by anchoring a year-long campaign to bring light and change to life-destroying parole practices in this state and in this society.

Forty-one years ago, in response to that rebellion at Attica, a Rochester man named Steere began a ministry at Attica prison. It still goes on. Volunteers and men inside join each week in a conversation about one thing only, what it is like to be in your own skin, with your own burdens, and how you learn from it. From what I learned and experienced during ten years with that program, I have brought you a number of things over the years.

Forty years of ministry is a good thing. But let’s let that number, “forty years,” seep into our skin alongside the ancient scriptures we have just heard, for our societies haven’t much to show for long exposure to the word of God; and in these United States, the last forty years have looked more like years of wilderness wandering with no Moses and no true law at all. Since those terrible days at Attica, the criminal American justice system has multiplied its prison population sixfold, from 350,000 to more than two million. Those being watched by parole and probation exceed five million men and women. They are blocked from public housing or help with the price of food. “The box” blocks them from working. It’s that box on employment applications – “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” States block the formerly incarcerated from voting, ever, as if to say you will never have a place among us. It seems that society aims to destroy them.


Jews Show Solidarity with Immigrants in the Fight for Immigration Reform


by: Amy B. Dean on November 7th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Doug Geisler)

Jews understand what it means to start a new life in another country. As a nation of immigrants, the US welcomed and protected generations of Jews who fled persecution, famine and poverty in Eastern Europe and the Middle East to begin a new life in the US together with their families. Today, a commitment to the core Jewish mandate of “welcoming the stranger” takes a different form. This year, Jewish activists around the country have mobilized – some even getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience – to push Congress to pass an immigration reform package that would put an end to families being separated by deportation and establish a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But as progress on immigration reform stalls in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, some hard-line GOP members want to withhold all access to citizenship for one of the most vulnerable groups of immigrants: the undocumented. Moreover, some politically conservative Jews have been quoted in the press as being involved in this push against a pathway to citizenship for newcomers to the US. One vocal opponent to reform is Stephen Steinlight, former director of national affairs for the American Jewish Council (AJC), who in June told the Jewish Daily Forward that he views Jewish pro-immigration reform activists as “do-gooders leaning over backwards for the aggrieved.” Can Jews overcome such political difference within their ranks to achieve justice for immigrants?


Politics, Humility and Homophobia: The Strangest Bedfellows of All


by: on October 14th, 2013 | 5 Comments »

I opened my email to the news that Governor Brown had vetoed AB 1229 which would have allowed local governments to require a smidgen of affordable housing along with luxury developments. Immediately, I felt tense and angry, outraged that rent control is illegal in California, and now this further setback. I was despondent and disgusted that a liberal governor would veto one tiny step toward affordable housing.

Then I opened another email about a community college inviting for-profit education companies, at least one of whom had said public education was “broken,” to hold a conference on campus.

My stomach tensed. My forehead ached. I felt antagonistic, judgmental, enraged and ready to shout.

Once this state of mind didn’t trouble me. I may even have welcomed the adrenaline.


Making Radical Decency a Daily Practice


by: on October 14th, 2013 | Comments Off

My recent blog, The Case for Radical Decency, brought the following provocative reaction – the subject of this week’s reflection:

“If ‘picking and choosing’ where to practice Radical Decency is ‘doomed to failure’ does that mean only saints can succeed? How does one incrementally improve?”

“If Radical Decency is doomed to failure unless applied at all times to everything, must I be a Buddhist monk or the equivalent?”

(Credit: Creative Commons)

How this Mindset Traps and Defeats Us

Radical Decency seeks to diverge from the culture’s wildly out of balance emphasis on competitive, win/lose values, advocating a decisive shift in priority toward a more humane set of values. That is its central purpose.

With this in mind, notice the extent to which this self-judgmental approach replicates the very values the philosophy seeks to replace. Tally up the evidence and make a judgment: Have I succeeded in being radically decent – or not? Am I a saint – or a failure?


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind- A Window on the World House


by: on October 7th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text:Lamentations 1: 1-6; Luke 17: 1-6

Last Sunday, leaning in close to the prayer of Psalm 91, we felt after an answer to the questions: how does God protect, how does God save? Our thoughts hung close to the personal experience. We said little of our self in relation to any community, or to larger joined purposes in the world. Yet now, hearing the words of Lamentations – How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!- we are exposed to grief of a most public kind, the destruction of a nation’s home and purpose. If for many generations Americans of a certain class have been spared such absolute, public grief, America has not spared other nations from feeling this. Need we name them?

In the psalms and the prophets, salvation – the hope for it, the need of it – was always this public personal thing; never only a personal promise, but peace on earth. When today a Jew is puzzled by the Christian claim that the Messiah has already come, mostly the puzzlement is that the world still suffers, and do we not see? Where is the Messiah’s “peace on all my holy mountain?” Do we Christians prefer to shun, starve, or destroy the world’s billions in order to lay claim to salvation as a personal prize? We need that Jewish judgment on the meaning of salvation. After all, it is Jesus’ judgment, too.