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When Effects Are Invisible: From Comfort to Freedom

Apr10

by: on April 10th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

“When a behavior becomes the norm, we lose our ability to view it as dysfunctional.” Jeff Garson, Reflection #42, Radical Decency (URL temporarily inactive).

“To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.” Ta Nehisi Coates, My President Was Black.

What is it that makes the existing global system continue to function with our ongoing participation, when so many of us know how close to the edge of catastrophe we are? Without pretending to know the “answer”, I have figured out some bits of it that make sense to me.

For some of us, it’s because we actually buy into the system’s values and ideals, and we feel aligned with it, or because we recognize it as not working, and yet don’t believe anything better is possible. For some of us, it’s because we feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the necessary changes, both individually and globally, and thus buy into the illusion that we can opt out of the system and just have our own very individual lives, as best we know how. And for some of us, it’s because we don’t even know the significance and effects of our actions, especially collectively. Much of the time, all these factors combine to give us an internal foundation of either acceptance or resignation that sustains our capacity to continue to make choices that are destructive to self, others, and/or the web of life.

Looking at it that way, I can have more compassion for all of us – very much including myself – for all the ways that we uphold and sustain that which we may wish to be different. It’s with this kind of compassion that I want to share two vignettes that in the most concrete and personal way illustrate some of the challenges we have about seeing the direct and indirect consequences of our actions. Along the way, my hope, as always, is to also provide a guide for action for any of us who want to continue to walk the path towards turning the tide and learning to steward life and all the resources of this one planet for the benefit of all. Although the vision is, as always, on a system level, the choices that we make are, by necessity, personal, and their individual effect, usually, minuscule beyond our own small sphere of life. Still, from my own experience, these kinds of choices are life altering in the only direction where we have complete power as human beings: internally.

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My Own Private Unorthodox Lent, Day 4

Mar4

by: on March 4th, 2017 | No Comments »

In my Sunday School Companion, each Lesson begins with official definitions, definitions that have the imprimatur of numerous Catholic officials. The Catechism asks, “How shall we know the things which we are to believe?” and answers “…from the Catholic Church through which G’d speaks to us.”

These words are strangely relevant to a recent experience: an eloquent speaker called out people who appropriate another culture – by wearing dreadlocks, for example, or, in my case, having a yin-yang tattoo, or even, also in my case, bearing a name from another culture. It seems I’m a cultural appropriator both by choice and by birth. When I got home, I realized even in this unorthodox Lenten journey I’m a cultural appropriator!

The speaker was angry and justifiably so. How often have sacred symbols been used to make money or cover over the destruction of the very culture they purport to hold up? Too often to count.

And yet, is it always harmful to cross, and mix and blend cultures? Is there a way to share culture in a world where culture changes constantly, sometimes through bitter force but also through chance and choice?

As with so many issues, power enters in. People of less power have been banned from partaking of the objects, places, and even the language of the more powerful, yet perversely, they’ve also been forced to partake of it. White people have been able to cherry-pick without permission and often in complete ignorance.

Yet I want to say something for cultural sharing, for each person’s right to individuate, to seek and find among the myriad offerings of the world that which, often for mysterious reasons, speaks to their souls. Haven’t important movements and groups arisen from such mixtures? The Black Muslims, for example, or Norteño music.

Is culture to be strictly fenced, walled, and patrolled so that petty thieves like me are kept out entirely? Where do the boundaries end? Is it possible to honor as well as appropriate? I’ve always felt a certain softness toward men who like to wear dresses and makeup, shave their legs, etc. as many women do in modern Western culture. Wow, I think, Even though we have less power, they want to join us and be like us. Well, go ahead. Welcome. Does it sometimes seem a caricature of femininity? Maybe, but even so, I can honor the spirit.

I wonder how I, as an impoverished American, could relate so strongly to a 17th-century French nobleman, Voltaire? Yet I felt him as a kindred spirit. I learned French, not “my” culture. I also studied Spanish and Hebrew. Come to think of it, even my English isn’t native. I should be speaking German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian. Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, people feel a strong and deep connection to an “other.” I’m reluctant to criticize all such connections. As my friend, Arlene, pointed out, Catholicism itself is a mixture, a combination and amalgamation of multiple traditions.

On the other hand, if everything blends into a mush, might we lose some important legacies? Maybe we need both: cultural magpies and cultural guardians.

Being Called Out for Cultural Appropriation

Once, my first response to anger and shaming would have been to cower and apologize whether I thought I was in the wrong or not.

Later, I responded with hurt feelings and resentment that someone did not recognize me for who I truly am.

Is there a third response? How can I apply faith, hope, love, and contrition here?

Maybe I have faith that if I really knew this speaker better, I’d see her suffering. Maybe I can have hope that what feels like antagonism can someday be healed or at least accepted. I can think of what I love about that speaker, for example, vocal allegiance to many causes I also support, the speaker’s important work with youth.

And finally, contrition. What can I amend? Can I bring more thought and awareness to the symbols I wear or display, and perhaps accept that no matter what I choose, others may have a different perspective from mine, maybe forever, and, even though at times it may be painful, it’s also important, and necessary.

My Own Private Unorthodox Lent, Day 3

Mar3

by: on March 3rd, 2017 | 3 Comments »

What does Good News Mean to Me? An Act of Contrition?

Near the beginning of my 1888 Sunday School Companion, I find An Act of Faith, An Act of Hope, An Act of Love, and an Act of Contrition. Interesting order.  First, faith, hope, and love, and only in the end, contrition. I like that. Our culture seems rife with self-hatred, self-critique, self-rejection. I can see how we might need to focus on faith, hope, and love first so that contrition doesn’t become “I’m horrible and worthless and there’s no hope.” Maybe the “good news” resides in faith, hope, and love; faith to trust in the power of truth and love; hope that we can make a difference; love, well love is the healing balm that needs no explanation.

Much of the language of these “acts” does not speak to me.

I especially want to roll my eyes at “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee” as if it doesn’t even matter that another person was hurt. G’d’s the only one that matters (Because in the Jewish tradition, people don’t speak the name of G’d, I’m using this replacement.) And one part just goes in the trash: “I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven…” Isn’t that like saying, “I could kick myself for mouthing off because now I can’t have the car”? Apparently, the philosopher Levinas has worked hard to avoid the eye-popping selfishness of “virtue” done for gain.

But one thing I do love: each Act begins with “Oh my God!” That’s exactly how I felt yesterday when I realized I had not been “vocal and visible” as my friend Kari put it. Those words are such a meme in our culture—OMG!—that it’s funny to find it at the beginning of sober and orthodox prayers from 1888. I’m interested in this idea of doing an act of faith, of hope, and of love and then contrition. I wonder: could I do them all in one day? They might be really small.

For example, I trust, I have confidence in the people who put together a certain program I’m going to read in. Is that an act of faith?  I feel optimistic and hopeful about the experience. I want to do it with love for my fellow participants, the audience, and myself, maybe even “the world”.

And then, contrition. Wow, looking it up, I see contrition includes older meanings of “to rub, wear, scrape away, destroy.” Strong language.

But maybe strong language is needed. I am often burdened with regret. Sometimes even after making amends, I can’t let go of it. Old regrets stay with me: the time I was so rejecting of a nice person in 7th grade. I can still see her hurt blue eyes. And it was all about being popular. It was all about distancing myself from someone low-status. These “sins” (I’m not fond of the word) form a tough, burnt layer that apparently requires major scraping! Maybe that scraping, rubbing, destroying” is needed so that I can not only forgive myself but let go of longterm grudges against others. I strongly suspect the two are intertwined. Hmmm. There’s a lot of freedom in letting both go. A lot of lightness and room for new things to take their places.

Working for Change in a New Era – How?

Jan15

by: on January 15th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

At an anti-Trump rally in Baltimore, MD, Nov 10, 2016.

We are only days away from the inauguration of a president for the United States of America that probably most of the people of the world believe is a disaster for humanity. Those of us living in the United States who are frightened of what his reign might bring are thinking long and hard about what we could possibly do in this new climate.

This disquiet has been showing up time and again on both the free calls I host: the Fearless Heart Teleseminar and the Facing Privilege calls. On one recent call, someone asked a very pointed question: if I had the opportunity, somehow, to speak with Donald Trump for 30 minutes, what would I say to him?

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Accountability, Love, Shame, and Working for Transformation

Dec22

by: on December 22nd, 2016 | Comments Off

“All through history, and for many of us in our own experience, there are deeds done, causes furthered, and values proclaimed, that must be regarded as destructive, motivated by hate or greed, harmful to humanity on whatever scale, local or world-wide. These things may all be ‘good’ in the eyes of those who do them, but what of us? What do we really see, or think, or say and do? Are we justified in doing anything to stop harm being done? Are we even justified in speaking about it?” (from a reader, in response to an earlier post)

It happens regularly: I speak of love, understanding, compassion, and working to transcend separation, and in response, people raise the question of what to do in the face of harm done. As if accountability must be punitive, shaming, or harsh, while love would mean not confronting people about their actions.

For me, the path into the freedom and transformation I seek includes going beyond any divide between love and accountability, acceptance and action, nonviolence and the strength to speak up and work for change. It’s all about how we do accountability; what kind of action we take and with what motivation; and what our movements for change will look like.

This is where my many years of practice with Nonviolent Communication, deeply informed by my engagement with the legacy of Gandhian nonviolence, has supported me so much in seeing freshly.

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Witnessing Standing Rock: A Short Guide

Nov30

by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on November 30th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Three women holding up a sign saying "water is life." I traveled to Standing Rock in order to help sustain the camp and be a witness. Here are some humble suggestions of what you might do if you travel to Standing Rock, and if you are in solidarity with indigenous struggles locally.

Work in the kitchen! Mounds of garlic are peeled daily to feed the thousands of people eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. There are five main kitchens throughout camp, so there are many opportunities to go into a nearby kitchen and ask when a good time to volunteer is. Working in a kitchen is a great way to contribute directly to the basic ongoing daily needs of the camp and to meet people!

Go to an early morning ceremony. Standing Rock is a prayer camp and attending an indigenous led ceremony is the best way to learn about the spirit of Standing Rock. Morning ceremonies start at 6 AM and may be led by women. The ceremony I attended by the sacred fires on Friday morning was led by a medicine woman named Blue Lightning, who I had the honor of getting to know while I was there. She asked me to be guardian of the east gate because she learned I was one of the first woman rabbis from young Jewish people from the Bay Area who contributed to building several tents for her family encampment. The morning ceremony was dedicated to “untangling” energies that need to come back into harmony. People were invited to dance in four concentric circles around a four directional altar created with crystals and shells. When the sun rose, about a hundred people walked down to the river for a pipe ceremony led by Lakota women who have greeted the dawn in this way by the shores of this river for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is their land.

Be in service. While I was at Standing Rock, I remained in service to Blue Lightning’s intergenerational family, which consisted of elders, parents, and children. I was able to serve in this way due to my relationships with Bay Area Jewish young people in their 20′s and 30′s who contributed funds for and built several winterized tents, each one complete with insulation, a wood stove, lots of heaters, a porch, chairs, cots, blankets, rugs, tables, and a complete kitchen with shelves, cooking utensils, a stove, storage bins, and wash station for Blue Lightning’s family encampment. The kitchen was dedicated by Blue Lightning to be a meeting place for elders. It’s warm and welcoming. I spent time setting up the kitchen and attending to immediate needs of the elders.

Participate in an action that feels right to you. There is nonviolent direct action training at camp. There is also an ongoing conversation about whether or not a particular action is sanctioned by elders. I chose to attend a Thanksgiving Day silent vigil by the river organized by indigenous youth with the sanction of the elders. The action had several components: some people remained in silence on the camp side of the river while others crossed over the river on a plank to get to Turtle Island, which is sacred ground to the Lakota. There were indigenous men protecting the nonviolent nature of the action by not allowing anyone to climb up the hill to the ridge where dozens of militarized police stood in wait threatening them with violence over a bull horn while telling people they didn’t want a confrontation at the same time. People were still traumatized by Sunday’s attack, which injured 166 people. While I was there, the police installed bright floodlights by the river. They also placed barbed wire along the ridge of Turtle Island and the river’s edge. If you are planning to be part of a direct action, please check in with the legal tent on Facebook Hill to be trained and find out about arrest procedures before you participate.

Listen to stories. Being in camp with an indigenous family allowed me to hear lots of stories such as Blue Lightning’s family stories; Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute histories; tribal origin tales, creation tales, and teachings about prayer; the story of this particular Pipe Line; eminent domain, broken treaties, and Native sovereignty rights; and stories about Standing Rock itself. Jane Fonda’s appearance at camp over Thanksgiving started some conversations. The threat of police violence sparks rumors, so don’t believe every story. Dallas Goldtooth is a good source for staying in touch with what is actually happening. Indigenous news sources are the best way to stay informed.


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You’re Not a Bad Person: How Facing Privilege Can Be Liberating

Nov25

by: on November 25th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

“Having wealth is unjustified, but the Rockefellers justify it by doing good. I had to cut through all this and understand that there is no rational justification for my family having the amount of money that it has, and that the only honest thing to say in defense of it is that we like having the money and the present social system allows us to keep it.” — Steven Rockefeller, 1983

There’s no way around it: facing our own privilege is uncomfortable. Just now, before completing this piece, I was talking to a friend who told me, in so many words: “I am ashamed of being a man, and I am ashamed of being white.” He is far from alone in this discomfort. Because we live within modern, capitalist cultures which are highly individualized, we often don’t see the structural dimension. Many of us then struggle to separate out privilege from attitude. In this context, having our privilege pointed out to us often sounds like we are being told we’re a bad person. This makes conversations about privilege highly charged and often ineffective.

After almost two years of facilitating Facing Privilege calls, I have come to believe that something better is possible. We can frame things in a way that shows the reality of structures of privilege and minimizes any unnecessary challenge.

It starts with recognizing and naming that since privilege is structural and not individual, it has nothing to do with goodness or badness. It’s plainly a factual reality about life. The key is to focus on two distinctions: systems as distinct from individuals, and having privilege as independent of choosing how to engage with it. Since both of these distinctions tend to be obscured, I have found that people often find relief in teasing apart these two aspects of privilege.

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Protecting and Learning in a Time of Hatred

Nov17

by: on November 17th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Like anyone who is profoundly disturbed about the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, reflecting, and talking with other people. I wrote an immediate response to the elections the day after. Now, having digested the results for longer, I have more clarity about what I wish to see happen as we grapple with this new reality.

I want to start by saying that the results are not affecting everyone in the same way. That eight transgender youth killed themselves on the day of the elections is a clear indication of the fear and despair that this extremely vulnerable group is experiencing. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks all manner of hate crimes, harassment and other ways of targeting certain populations have documented over 400 new incidents since the election. While anti-Semitic incidents are also very much on the rise, including swastikas and spray painting “Heil Trump” on a wall, and I am also female and an immigrant to this country, I am not at present targeted, and darker skinned and visibly queer people are. Whatever else happens, whatever else any of us say or do in the coming years, I want us to keep this in mind: some people are suffering immediate consequences, and they need immediate and ongoing protection.

437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center Nov 9-14, by type


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Trauma and Community in San Jose

Nov12

by: on November 12th, 2016 | Comments Off

Trauma and Community in San Jose

Some drank. Some called in to work, sickened. Some wore black. Some sobbed. Some stayed up all night, unable to escape the pain and dread in their stomachs. Two therapists I know were flooded with crisis appointments. One of my students was on suicide watch. Those who were lucky had a community.

San Jose Public Library rally

The first community I turned to was my Facebook friends who provided these comforting words: “We must now be better. In France, after Hitler’s ascendancy, there was the Resistance. That must be us. Stand up. Protect the vulnerable. Volunteer locally. Donate globally. Say something when you see something. Be courageous. If we are the privileged, for goodness’ sake, for God’s sake, for our country’s sake, for our friends’ and families’ sake, for the least of these, use that privilege. If there is someone you don’t know, or understand, get to know them. Make friends, like kids do. The Muslim man, the trans woman, the Black little girl, the frightened little boy…”

Another friend reminded me, “I never thought I’d make it through the Reagan years but dancing and community and protest were certainly at the center.”

I Decided to Stand Up


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The Kapp Putsch and Modern Memory

Nov4

by: Michael N. Nagler on November 4th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

On March 13, 1920, right-wing elements of German society along with some military units, particularly the Freikorps, or volunteer corps, smarting from the humiliating conditions imposed by the victorious allies at Versailles, and alarmed by the mildly democratic policies of the year-old Weimar government, staged a Putsch (coup) in Berlin, led by Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz. The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch was a resounding failure – in one respect. Kapp quickly declared himself Reichskanzler (sound familiar), but the Weimar leadership, already partly in exile, called on all Germans to strike. The resulting general strike was so effective that the putschists simply could not rule the country. In three days they themselves were in exile, or prison. The successful resistance has long held an important place in the canon of successful nonviolent actions catalogued by Gene Sharp in his pioneering works on nonviolence. Though it was marred by some fighting (and had a violent aftermath, as communists and labor unions tried to take over) it was in fact a classic example of the power of civil resistance to protect a democratic order from takeovers or invasions.

But that was not the end of the story. One putschist who had been flown in to Berlin to participate keenly watched the chaotic events unfold. His name was Adolph Hitler. He admired the energy and ruthlessness of the Freikorps, with their swastika-marked helmets, and noted the putsch leaders’ mistakes (including timing). Before long he set about appealing to the same anger Kapp and the others had manipulated, only more effectively, and played heavily on the ruthlessness. By 1935 he could triumphantly declare, Ich habe in fünfzehn Jahre die Deutsche Nation gerettet, durch meinen fanatischen Wille: ‘I have rescued the German nation in fifteen years through my fanatical will.’

There are two lessons from these chaotic events that we, too, can learn; in fact, we ignore them at our peril.

One. It definitely can happen here. While our democratic institutions are far more robust than those of the fledgling Weimar republic, which itself had been installed by a recent revolution, they are weakening under attacks now from all sides. If Donald Trump fails to win the presidency next week, by the grace of God, he has nonetheless gained shocking support, and done so by appealing to precisely the same unspecific indignation, xenophobia, scapegoat logic and inflated egos as Kapp and his “conservative” backers — not excluding the same dark hints of violence. If our democratic institutions are stronger than those of the fledgling German republic, our general culture is if anything more violent, thanks to the development (and abuse) of modern mass media — and the flood of weapons. Trump is failing at least in part, maybe entirely, because he is not the fanatical, ruthless, inhumane personality Hitler was — but who’s to say such a maniac could not appear next? We have had the shot across the bow of our democracy.

Two. Nonviolence is the way out. But nonviolence cannot simply mean you wait for the putsch to happen, then rush out into the street and non-cooperate. That is a stopgap — if it works. It has to mean a complete overhaul of the cultural factors that have led to our putting more fellow citizens in prison per unit population than any comparable democracy, having more guns than people and a higher rate of murder or suicide by orders of magnitude, a larger military budget than most of the world’s countries put together, and a foreign policy apparently incapable of any response but endless war. Throw in an addiction to media violence that indoctrinates the minds of children from the earliest ages, and the picture is not reassuring.

What is reassuring is that nonviolent alternatives to all these factors are already present, across the board. Economically and socially alternative communities are springing up all over, along with a sprinkling of “public benefit” corporations that work to a far more humane and inclusive bottom line and often are democratically owned, or at least managed, like Berrett-Koehler publishers, like Kickstarter, to mention two examples. Nonviolence is slowly being recognized as a subject for research and education (189 U.S. schools at various levels have peace studies programs, at last count, and thousands have at least one peace/nonviolence course). Civil resistance is being more often and sometimes more accurately practiced, as we’ve seen here from Occupy to Standing Rock, with many episodes in between that are not cited by the media. As nonviolence scholar Erica Chenoweth told me recently, “nonviolence is the technique du jourfor uprisings now.” And not just uprisings. A worldwide institution called Unarmed Civilian Peacemaking (or Civilian Protection, in any case UCP), descended from Gandhi’s concept of a Shanti Senaor ‘peace army,’ is operating in some of the most dangerous pockets of global violence — yes, including Syria — and to very good effect. UCP has been seriously discussed at the UN and received substantial support from some European governments (not American). And for the long term, perhaps this may be the most important of all: freethinking media, like what you’re reading right now. We should be learning about and supporting all these inspiring developments. What they’re up to, and why it’s working, has to be far better known and far more systematically developed; otherwise we might be heading for a particularly nasty case of history repeating itself.

This article appeared on Pace e Bene and was republished with their permission and permission from the author.

Professor Michael N. Nagler is the President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future.