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Theologies of Genocide and Earth Day Ethics


by: Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt on April 20th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Children marching for climate justice in 2017

Children marching for climate justice in 2017. Image courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

While waiting to speak at an environmental event earlier this year, another speaker told me a fascinating story. As part of his work for a university program dedicated to energy research, he invited a prominent fossil fuel executive to a graduate-level seminar. For the class, these sharp and highly informed students prepared themselves with arguments to deftly rebut the climate denialism they fully expected to confront. The actual encounter, however, went different than they anticipated. The executive befuddled them with heart-felt declarations of how his corporation was doing the will of God. The students did not know how to respond.

Almost a week after hearing this story I found myself speaking to a group of church youth about climate change. One of the youth who appeared to be about 12-years of age arrived with a passionate zeal to do intellectual battle with me. Evidently, the description of the workshop had motivated him to attend so that he could disabuse me of my ideas about climate change. From the very beginning, he wanted me to know that God gave us fossil fuels, so that we – humanity – could use them. I patiently put forth the perspective that a loving God would not want humans to suffer on a large scale so that we could burn fossil fuels. I did not expect to win him over, but I did want to offer a theological framework for the other youth to interpret and assess such views.

In the case of this youth, the theology espoused is transparently a theology of genocide. It involves a view of God that justifies actions that cause and will cause human death and suffering to an enormous and horrifying extent. Yet, the theological statements espoused by corporate executives and present members of the presidential cabinet can sometimes sound more like theological candy than theological poison. The EPA’s Scott Pruitt would have us believe that the burning of fossil fuels provides an opportunity to bless humanity, not curse it.

Seminary professor Leah Schade provides a compelling biblically-based rebuttal to Pruitt that posits a different blessing – one that is revealed in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is “the ability to discern how to live within the natural boundaries God has set for us.”

Pope Francis had it right. Planet earth is our common home. We don’t want our home to become the planetary equivalent of the gas station bathroom from hell just because of some bizarre moral notion that God has blessed us to spew atmospheric excrement into the air.

In a sense, Earth Day should be both a house party and a house cleaning party. We should celebrate our magnificent home, and we should be inspired to serve as caretakers of it. This requires that we all do our part, and it requires that we have a leader at the EPA who clearly embodies the caretaking ethic required of us. Instead of serving the fossil fuel industry, we need someone who serves the public by tending to the beautiful world around us. Our present health and our future wellbeing depend upon it.


The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He can be found on Twitter as @The_Green_Rev.

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Israel@70: Fixing the way we pray for the State


by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on April 17th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

The traditional prayer for the State of Israel, more literally titled “A Prayer for the Peace of the State,” tefilah lish’lom hamedinah, was written in 1948 by the chief rabbis of what had up until then been Palestine, in a time of war. The state was under direct attack by the Arab armies, and there was little distinction between peace, survival, and victory.

As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday, it is time to make such distinctions. Israel and the Jewish people live in a much more complex reality, a democratic reality. A reality where the strongest military cannot create peace on its own.

This reality is one where the triumph of one party or policy can undermine the flow of justice and reverse the outlook for peace. It is a reality where praying for Israel must include not only praying for the well-being of the Jewish people, but also praying for the well-being of the region, and the well-being of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Israeli citizens, most of whom are in some way under Israel’s control. And it is a reality where praying for the well-being of mutual enemies must include praying that people on all sides be protected from their own hatred, not just from attack.

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Beyond Resistance: Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love


by: Rev. Carolyn Wilkins on April 13th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training in January 2017

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training, January 2017

These are the times that try men’s souls, but we can Rise Up!

A few weeks ago, I was walking to join a protest rally at City Hall in Los Angeles, when I caught the eye of one of the city employees. We briefly exchanged salutations and he then whispered to me, ‘Oh no, not another protest,’ and continued to express his distaste for having his day interrupted by people complaining about something. Instead of arguing with him, I shared that he’s right: most people do complain, but here is a group that wants to do something about it -they are standing up for justice. As my new friend went his way, he said, ‘You’re right, they are doing something worthwhile.’

Many of the people I speak with are frustrated and angry about congress, this administration, the NRA, the environment, Trump supporters, etc. These are (indeed) the times that try (wo)men’s souls - this quote from Thomas Paine, written to dispirited soldiers in Washington, DC, seems so appropriate at a time like this. Yet, we have a choice on how we want to respond to this moment in history… We can complain or we can rise up, take action, and give voice to our vision of a loving and just world.

I want to personally invite you to our next Spiritual Activism Training that begins on April 24. In our program, titled Beyond Resistance:Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love, we are integrating spirituality and activism to build a world of love and justice.

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Who Are “They”?


by: on April 9th, 2018 | No Comments »

April 9, 1968, Benjamin Mays gave the eulogy at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. Only five days after King’s death, the world did not yet know who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed him. Mays understood and said so in his eulogy that more than one individual was responsible for King’s death. Mays was not talking about a conspiracy theory of any kind, but he was talking about the entire nation being complicit in murder.

Mays said:
“We all pray that the assassin will be apprehended and brought to justice. But, make no mistake, the American people are in part responsible for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. The assassin heard enough condemnation of King and of Negroes to feel that he had public support.”

Mays spoke about the millions who hated King. He spoke of the Memphis city officials who ought to have given the garbage workers a living wage without demonstrations. He spoke of a nation where African Americans needed to sit-in and demonstrate and march to be treated equally in this society. He said:

“We too are guilty of murder. It is time for the American people to repent and make democracy equally applicable to all Americans.”

He told his audience that we have the power to make things right. (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/benjamin-mays-mlk-eulogy/552545/)

When I first heard that King had been shot, the same thought that came to me when I learned that Malcolm X had been killed returned: “Well, they got him.” From that day to this, I have been thinking about who the “they” is in my thought.

I grew up during a time when news of murder, bombings and assassinations punctuated our daily lives. I remember my parents’ sorrow when Medgar Evers was assassinated in June of 1963. They had attended college with him at Alcorn College in Mississippi. A few months later, four little girls died in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In November of that year, we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination when our teacher was late coming into the room after lunch. In 1965, Malcolm X died. Cities erupted in violence, and the anti-war demonstrations gained intensity as the Vietnam War came home for dinner each night on the evening news.
So, when I learned that King had been killed, I was not angry or afraid or surprised or shocked or even sad. I was resigned to the fact of American life, that as Mays said in his eulogy millions of Americans wanted him dead.

As I have thought about the “they” who are responsible for the death of King and others, I have determined that the “they” are not only human beings. As the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV)

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Sign statement supporting B’tselem’s call to Israelis soldiers to refuse orders to shoot into crowds of unarmed civilians


by: on April 9th, 2018 | No Comments »

B’tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organization, has called for Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to shoot into a crowd of unarmed civilians. The Israeli government justifies its killing of demonstrators last Friday and its intent to do so again this Friday by claiming that there are violence seekers among the crowd, and that some threw molotov cocktails toward the separation wall. Yet this is no excuse to kill innocent civilians. Intentionally shooting and killing nonviolent protestors is inhumane and inexcusable. We face this problem in U.S. peace and justice demonstrations when a few people smash windows or throw rocks at police. It is often very difficult to restrain them, and some have been identified as undercover police agents trying to discredit our otherwise non-violent movement.

In Gaza, the dictatorial government of Hamas does not want peace with Israel, but only an obliteration of the Israeli state, and defacto aids the right-wing in Israel who say that any two state solution would only be a front for further armed struggle against Israel. Hamas rightly suspects that a 2 state solution that showed real caring for the Palestinian people would lead most Palestinians to elect leaders who accepted a peace with justice for both sides, and that would leave Hamas leaders with a much decreased popular base, whereas their credibility increases every time Israel violates basic human rights of the Palestinian people.

After 51 years of Occupation, Israel’s policies have not brought Israel security but only ongoing struggle and increasing anger at Jews around the world whose best-known public organizations and institutions mostly rally around whatever Israel comes up with to enforce its Occupation. Most polls indicate that most Palestinians would settle for a Palestinian state in the West Bank that was economically and politically viable (the terms that would provide peace, security and justice to both sides are well known–you can read them in Rabbi Lerner’s book Embracing Israel/Palestine which can be ordered at www.tikkun.org/eip). Hamas has stated over and over again that it will settle for nothing less than a Palestinian state that includes all the territory of the current State of Israel. So we are not surprised that there were some people in that demonstration with violent intent to serve the tacit alliance between the extreme Right in Israel and the “destroy Israel” goal of some Palestinian extremists. But of course, violent intent is not the same as targeting and shooting Israelis, which did not happen. It was Israelis who were shooting indiscriminately into a demonstration of people seeking to challenge Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Please read part of B’Tselem’s call here, then below it you will find the statement we are asking you to sign to support their campaign (click here to sign).


B’Tselem’s Call

B’Tselem launched a media campaign in Israel entitled “Sorry, Sir,  I can’t shoot”. The campaign includes newspaper advertisements clarifying to soldiers that they must refuse to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The organization is taking this unusual step following last Friday’s events, when soldiers used live fire against unarmed demonstrators. Of at least 17 Palestinians killed that day, 12 were killed at the protests. Hundreds more were injured by live gunfire.

The military is preparing for the demonstrations, but instead of attempting to reduce the number of those killed or injured, official sources have announced in advance that soldiers will use live fire against demonstrators even if they are hundreds of meters from the fence. B’Tselem warned of the expected outcome of this policy and now, ahead of the expected demonstrations this Friday, it is again clarifying that shooting unarmed demonstrators is illegal and that orders to shoot in this manner are manifestly illegal.

Contrary to the impression given by senior military officers and government ministers, the military is not permitted to act as it sees fit, nor can Israel determine on its own what is permissible and what is not when dealing with demonstrators. Like all other countries, Israel’s actions are subject to the provisions of international law and the restrictions they impose on the use of weapons, and specifically the use of live fire. The provisions limit its use to instances involving tangible and immediate mortal danger, and only in the absence of any other alternative. Israel cannot simply decide that it is not bound by these rules. . .

The responsibility for issuing these unlawful orders and for their lethal consequences rests with the policy makers and – above all – with Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, and the chief of staff. They are also the ones who bear the obligation to change these regulations immediately, before this Friday’s planned protests, in order to forestall any further casualties. That said, it is also a criminal offense to obey patently illegal orders. Therefore, as long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply.


Our Statement

We join with B’tselem the Israeli Human Rights Organization in calling on Israelis to follow both international law, human rights, and Torah principles, and to know that those principles require individual members of any military, police or other state unit to refuse orders to shoot into crowds of unarmed civilians. We call upon our elected officials, our religious organizations, and our cultural and political leaders, as well as the public institutions in the Jewish world that have often given blind support to Israeli policies toward Palestinians, to challenge Israel’s defense of such orders and demand that Israel give explicit instructions to its armed forces, border guards, and police to not shoot unarmed civilians and to hold those guilty of doing so or ordering such to be prosecuted. And we urge all countries of the world to give this same instruction to all of their border guards, police, national guard, and armies when dealing with public demonstrations regardless of the content of the demonstrators demands, rhetoric, or intentions. 

Please click here to sign our statement in support of B’Tselem.

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On the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination


by: Peter Gabel on April 6th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

As we approached the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., my partner Lisa and I watched all of Eyes on the Prize, the film history of the civil rights movement. Stunning in that history is the utter rage and desperation of the white population of Birmingham and Montgomery and Little Rock as they faced enforcement of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation order in the 1950s and early 60s. When nine innocent black children sought to attend Central High School in Little Rock, one young white woman was so distraught that, as one commentator who was there put it, her face was contorted almost beyond recognition with pain and anger; she simply could not believe what was “happening to her.”

What was happening to her? Revealed in her very rage and pain and contortion was that her very self was being ripped away from her. And as I show in Chapter 4 of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, that self is actually a false self, the medium of her recognition as a social person within the nexus of relations that weaved her into what her state governor kept calling “the Southern way of life.” We know that that self is “false” because it is defined by a totally arbitrary “outer” characteristic, the “whiteness” that she experiences on her outside that locates her in an imaginary communion with other whites, an imaginary community that substitutes for an inner absence and inner withdrawnness, an isolation at the very core of her very being. Southern whites in enacting their racist community were not experiencing one another in a relation of I-and-Thou, a relation of authentic mutual recognition of one another’s being. They were not actually present to each other, experiencing the fullness of spiritual mutuality. Rather they were participating in a false community of skin color, which precisely because it was false and merely “outer”, had to keep inflating itself by demonizing their non-white human comrades, who also appeared as merely “outer” to them, whom they could not experience in their true universal humanity.

Thus the imaginary community of whiteness served as a defense against an inner absence and emptiness and deep vulnerability, grounded in fear of each other’s non-recognition of their true social being…and it’s this whiteness-defense that desegregation, with its “mixing” of the races, was threatening to strip away from this woman in the throes of her contortion and rage. Her true fear, however, was not the loss of communal whiteness, the white outer bond, but rather the terror of being thrown back upon her true being as a longing social person, longing from birth to be truly seen and loved and to truly see and love others. Stripping away the whiteness defense threatened her with being revealed as utterly vulnerable to the revelation of her vulnerable deepest humanity, and to the utter humiliation of being seen as longing for the true spiritual bond of I-and-Thou that she had never been allowed to experience in the course of her Southern conditioning. The contortion of her face expressed her inner terror at being robbed of her defensive “way of life,” the nexus of the false sense of “we” that established her in what social connection existed in her world. And in truth that false sense of “we” was not only based on common whiteness, but on the “erotic” energy flows among Southern whites that actually constituted the Southern way of life as a felt web of social practices – from the paddling of children to the romancing of “Gone With the Wind” to an infinite number of other relational customs . By “erotic” I refer not to explicit sexual energy as such, but to the binding embodied energy of the flow of social recognition whose pathological nature is revealed in its association with the absurd outer characteristic of whiteness, imagined absurdly to be a “superior” characteristic, and in many other ways.

In reality, nothing was being taken away from the woman who was beside herself with despair and rage by the nine innocent black children seeking to join her school community. In reality, she was being offered, finally, the opportunity with the end of segregation to reveal herself and see others as fully human, as beautiful embodiments of the deep, universal social being longing for its own mutual recognition that was denied to her in her spiritual imprisonment of the false self and false “we” of her conditioning. But she could not face the terror of the humiliation that nothing would be there if her “white” self was taken away, was denied its segregation and imaginary preeminence.

And the same was true for James Earl Ray, Dr. King’s presumed assassin, who 50 years ago on April 4th, felt he had to destroy the person offering him a pathway to a more fully human, fully loving, moral destiny.

For more on the destructive role of imaginary community, see Chapter 4 of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, available from Routledge Press and at Amazon.


Peter Gabel is the Editor-at-Large of Tikkun and author most recently of The Desire for Mutual Recognition, published by Routledge Press.

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Israeli Human Rights Group B’Tselem Urges Soldiers to Refuse Orders Demanding They Fire on Unarmed Palestinian Protesters


by: on April 4th, 2018 | 7 Comments »

In the wake of last Friday’s violent response to protests along the Gaza border, in which at least 17 Palestinians were killed by IDF snipers and hundreds more wounded, Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem is urging soldiers to refuse “illegal orders” to fire upon unarmed protesters.

The campaign, which is called, “Sorry commander, I cannot shoot,” comes at a critical time. More protests are scheduled for this coming Friday, and many more will occur leading up to May 15, which is the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, referred to as the Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians. May 15 is also the date the Trump administration hopes to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move which promises to further intensify already growing tensions and frustrations.

B’Tselem’s campaign also comes on the heels of Israeli officials publicly reaffirming the military’s firing policies, further warning that any Palestinians who come within 100 meters of the Gaza fence will be risking their lives, even if they are unarmed.

A part of B’Tselem’s statement on its campaign, which will appear in newspapers across Israel, reads:

An order that permits live gunfire at unarmed civilians is blatantly unlawful. As Justice Benjamin Halevy ruled in the Kafr Qasem case back in the 1950s, the illegality of such orders “is not a question of form, nor is it imperceptible, or partially imperceptible.” On the contrary, it is a case of “unmistakable illegality patently evident in the order itself, it is a command that bears a clearly criminal nature or that the actions it orders are of a clearly criminal nature. It is an illegality that pains the eye and outrages the heart, if the eye be not blind and the heart be not callous or corrupt.”

The responsibility for issuing these unlawful orders and for their lethal consequences rests with the policy makers and – above all – with Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, and the chief of staff. They are also the ones who bear the obligation to change these regulations immediately, before this Friday’s planned protests, in order to forestall any further casualties.

That said, it is also a criminal offense to obey patently illegal orders. Therefore, as long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply.

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Passover at a Detention Center


by: Jonathan Rosenblum on April 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

A diverse group of people gathered for social justice seder

Photo from Mele / Northwest Detention Center Resistance Solidarity Seder, courtesy of author

Passover is quintessentially a union story. Some 3,500 years ago, in the middle of the night, 600,000 immigrants downed the tools of their oppression and defiantly walked away from slavery in Egypt. It was the first recorded mass strike in history. And yes, it was an illegal strike!

Given the story and lessons of Passover, it seemed only fitting to celebrate the holiday at the site of today’s most inhumane injustices – to recall past freedom victories while also reminding us of yet-to-be-completed liberation work that requires our collective action.

On April 1, more than 100 Jews and friends gathered outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington to recall the ancient story of liberation and to recommit ourselves to fighting for the rights of today’s Hebrew slaves – immigrants unjustly detained inside places like the for-profit-run Northwest Detention Center, awaiting legal proceedings and likely deportations.

“We cannot be free until we are all free,” noted Rabbi David Basior of Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle, pointing out that 1,500 people are held behind the barbed wire of the detention center, and that the center itself was built on occupied Puyallup tribal land. “Let us celebrate Passover, let us acknowledge it, but in this world where there are still places that occupy indigenous land, that break moral codes of how we should treat one another, that defy our values, not just as Jews but as humans . . . our work is not done,” Rabbi Basior said.

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Why I Refuse to Be Silent After Israel’s Violence in Gaza


by: on April 2nd, 2018 | 12 Comments »

Much remains unknown about Israel’s violent response to mass protests along the Gaza border on Friday, and as far as Israel’s leaders are concerned, that’s just fine – officials have made clear they have no interest in learning any of the details. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, after commending soldiers for killing at least 16 and injuring hundreds more, stated there will be no inquiry into the army’s actions. And the army itself won’t be changing its firing policies, even after disturbing videos emerged of unarmed Palestinians being shot while praying, smoking, rolling a tire.

All of this (and I say this painfully) is expected for a country which has come to accept that “control over another people requires days of killing and slaughter.” It’s why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly congratulated soldiers after killing unarmed protesters. It’s why Israel’s Foreign Ministry had the chutzpah to publicly blame Palestinians themselves for making Israel kill them, calling the protests a “murderous spectacle” without a hint of irony or empathy. It’s why the IDF justified shooting a protester in the back by noting he was rolling a tire, as though such an action naturally demands the death penalty.

Again, as shocking as these responses have been, they’re not entirely unexpected. Israel’s right-wing leadership has increasingly expressed in public how little regard they have for Palestinian lives or hopes for self-determination.

What should not be expected, however, is silence from those who claim to still be invested in the “Jewish State” as a democratic project where civil and human rights – much less the right to live – are granted to all, regardless of race or creed.

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On Earth as it Is in Heaven


by: on March 31st, 2018 | 4 Comments »

I say and say again that in the eyes of the Roman government and of the religious authorities of his day, Jesus was not an innocent man. For the most part, Christian theology says that Jesus was a sinless man, a perfect sacrifice, who died for the propitiation of the sins of humankind. John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The Christian witness to a call to believe that Jesus lived a perfect sinless life, that he died on the cross to save humanity, and was raised on the third day with all power and authority in his hands. When we believe, we are saved from hell. We are saved through faith alone. This is the soteriology of Jesus’ story.

I want to consider the ethics of his life and death. I want to consider the possibility of bringing heaven to earth.

Jesus was condemned to death by the Roman authorities because he was a threat to their power. He was handed over by religious authorities because he was a threat to their position and authority. The story of the last days of Jesus’ life is a story of the result of economic, religious and political power coming together to preserve itself. It is a warning of what happens when religious authorities stop speaking truth to power and seek to use the power of the state to maintain their traditions. It is a story of what happens when people begin to worship the idol of tradition.

Jesus was not a Christian. He was born into a Jewish household and raised to understand the law and the prophets. However, his ministry was about teaching people to observe the spirit of the law and the prophets and not only the letter of the law. He came to teach a radical love as demonstrated in compassion and living the Golden Rule that says: “IN EVERYTHING do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He taught that human beings ought to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As ourselves. There is no them and us, there is only us. When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we ought to read it as a guide to living in this world.

Some theologians think that it is meant in a symbolic and spiritual sense. I disagree. When Jesus instructs his audiences to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to give up coat and cloak, to love enemies, to stop worrying about the future and what we will eat and wear, he is talking about a new way to live in this world. Jesus advocated a radical love economy where everyone entered into an obligation to help those who needed help when they needed it. In the model prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, he prays that the heavenly Father would forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. He instructed at least one rich man to sell all he owed and give it to the poor.

Jesus instructed his followers to leave their gifts at the altar if someone has something against us. We are to make peace with the person then return to give our gifts. He taught secrecy in giving, prayer, and fasting. He taught that what the Father sees in secret, he rewards openly. So much for public piety.

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