Wednesday, November 30, 2011


"What do they want?" my vicar asked, looking over at me on the deacon's bench, knowing my involvement with Occupy.  My response – during the Prayers of the People – was "We pray for a society that is fair and just and loving."  In the faith setting of a church service such an answer, I felt, was not only appropriate, but profoundly simple and manifestly clear – we seek a society that more closely resembles the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community we all profess to strive for, just as we seek forgiveness for the unfair, unjust, and mean-spirited society we have created.
But that may have been an inappropriate and/or inadequate answer to a wrong question.
First, its pronoun is wrong.  The proper question is "What do we want?"  Are we not the 99%?  Do we not want to convince even the 1% to join a new, more humane consensus?  Do we not have eyes and ears and hearts to see and hear and feel what Stephane Hessel calls the "unbearable things all around us" – the myriad injustices and indignities heaped upon us by out-of-control capitalism and a democracy corrupted by money.  Must we rely on the courageous campers who have opened our eyes to those unbearable things to also fill our minds, grown flaccid, with ready-made answers?  Have we not minds of our own?  Can we not engage?  Can we not exert ourselves, and, through such exertion, tone up our capacity to think for ourselves and, together, shape our answers…the answers we need, we seek, and, yes, want.  As Hessel writes in Time for Outrage, "The worst attitude is indifference."
And we have been indifferent for a long time – for more than forty years – as our political and economic system, our liberal, enlightened civilization, our sense of self have been warped beyond recognition.  Against this background, that "What do they want?" is a wrong question in that it is premature.  It attempts to leapfrog the necessary prefatory question: "How did we get here?"  The answer to that question is perforce long and complex.  It must, however, be tackled, if we are to find our way forward.  For starters, consider this long excerpt from The Coming Insurrection, an already-four-year-old analysis by France's "Invisible Committee" (Why must they always be French?).  It is a little book being read by our American youth.
                        The West is a civilization that has survived all the prophecies of
                        its collapse with a singular stratagem.  Just as the bourgeoisie had
                        to deny itself as a class in order to permit the boureoisification of
                        society as a whole, from the worker to the baron; just as capital
                        had to sacrifice itself as a wage relation in order to impose itself
                        as a social relation – becoming cultural capital and health capital
                        in addition to finance capital; just as Christianity had to sacrifice
                        itself as a religion in order to survive as an affective structure – as
                        a vague injunction to humility, compassion, and weakness; so the
                        West has sacrificed itself as a particular civilization in order to
                        impose itself as a universal culture.  The operation can be
                        summarized like this: an entity in its death throes sacrifices itself
                        as a content in order to survive as a form.
                        The fragmented individual survives as a form thanks to the
                        "spiritual" technologies of counseling.  Patriarchy survives by
                        attributing to women all the worst attributes of men: willfulness,
                        self-control, insensitivity.  A disintegrated society survives by
                        propagating an epidemic of sociability and entertainment.  So it
                        goes with all the great, outmoded fictions of the West maintaining
                        themselves through artifices that contradict these fictions point by
                        There is no "clash of civilizations."  There is a clinically dead
                        Civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that
                        spread a peculiar plague into the planet's atmosphere.  At this
                        point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own "values,"
                        and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a
We have thus arrived at a dark place – not Orwell's 1984 with its ubiquitous overt oppression by force, but rather Huxley's Brave New World where we sleep walk through life, numbed by drugs and distracted by the bread-and-circus of infotainment.  As the Invisible Committee says "The catastrophe is not coming, it is here.  We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization.  It is within that reality that we must choose sides."
The campers of Zucotti Park, Frank Ogawa Plaza, Justin Herman Plaza, Berkeley and Davis have chosen sides.  They have chosen the "impudent act," the provocation, the shouted "Wake up!"  And now it's time for the rest of us to choose – to wake up or continue sleep walking.
Finally, my vicar's question and my attempt at a prayerful response are also both wrong in that they talk past each other.  The question seeks not the campers' statement of the problem, its genesis, or the proffered vision.  It seeks rather – in typically pragmatic American fashion – a program, a statement of concrete steps forward.  As such, it is a question that is a source of hope…that, at last, we are waking up…that, having been provoked, we have begun the search for answers.  It is a search that can bear fruit if we engage in it together – not just the campers, not just the 99%, but all of us; if we base it on a solid understanding on where we've been and how we got here; and, if we keep our eyes on the prize – a fairer, more humane society, a democracy in which all voices are equal, capitalism with a human face…that Beloved Community, if you will.
We must also realize that we are but at the very beginning of a long process that can still go wrong… if we lose heart or interest.  We are at a pivotal moment in a movement that is barely two months old.  First they ignored us, then they laughed at us ("Get a job…after you take a bath."), now they're fighting us – the drumbeat on Fox, the police violence on campuses, the orchestrated raids on the camps.  As I write this, Occupy San Francisco stands in precarious isolation.  But this is not about camps, it is about ideas.  It is not about tents, it is about people.  The tents are being torn down, but the people are still standing.  We are not scattering.  We are coming together around the ideas, seeking to put the flesh of action on the bones that are their animating spirit.
I have taken part in several such seminars in San Francisco…in the middle of Market Street, in general assemblies on Justin Herman Plaza, in a Catholic church, in a Friends meeting house.  Others have elsewhere.  A week ago, Michael Moore attended one such meeting with more than forty Occupy Wall Street activists.  They produced a consensus vision statement and Moore proposed a list of "10 Things We Want," ranging from single-payer health care and the rescinding of the Bush tax cuts for the rich to constitutional amendments removing money from the electoral process and stripping corporations of their "personhood" (  The OWS General Assembly will consider these proposals and others may find in them a worthy nucleus for further discussion.
Seek out such discussions.  Take part.  Engage.  As the Invisible Committee said four years ago, "To go on waiting is madness."  And, as Michael Moore said last week, "Don't sit this one out."  Next time someone asks you "What do they want?" be prepared to respond with what we want.  Who knows, there may yet be an American Spring.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Nikos Kazantzakis wrote that, in this harsh, harsh world despoiled by greedy "elites," "Christ wanders about hungry and homeless, that He is in danger, and that now it is His turn to be saved by man."  And, one has the sense, this Thanksgiving week, that it is the church's turn – the turn of its aging, cautious, guardians, some of whom may have forgotten last Sunday's Gospel – to be saved by young people, who may not realize they're Christians, but, nonetheless, have remembered…and, as we're wont to say, inwardly digested Matthew 25.
In their caution and amnesia, those we look to for ecclesial leadership have been slow to speak or act…lest they offend.  It takes money to maintain those buildings.  And, so, they keep their silence, forgetting – or looking away from - so much recent history…when silence killed.  They seem to have forgotten the lament of Leo Baeck, the leader of Germany's Jewish Community from 1933 to 1943 – "Nothing is so sad as silence;" or that of Stephane Hessel, the French Resistance fighter and Holocaust survivor, writing of today's indignities and inequality – "The worst attitude is indifference;" or Martin's j'accuse – "There is a time when silence is betrayal."
That time has come again.  And, in the face of the suffocating silence and indifference, the young people of America and the world have taken to the streets to stand in dignity and voice a cry that can no longer be stifled – "Enough!"  We've heard it in the canyons of Chiapas – "Basta!"  We've heard in Tahrir Square - that place named "Liberty" – "Kefeya!"  And now we hear it on our own streets - from Zucotti Park to Justin Herman Plaza - Enough!  Enough of the self-serving greed; the indignities heaped on God's people; the despoliation of God's creation; the worship of that false god, the golden calf of an amoral, uncaring, unfettered "Market;" the endless wars that devour our youth, our treasure, our souls; the lies and manipulation that mock our intelligence and feed our outrage; a silent church of too many buildings and not enough people.
But the people are there.  They always are.  They're on the street and doing church in new ways that are very old.  They don't ask "Lord, when did we see you hungry?"  They feed the hungry.  And the unseen God smiles.  They break bread together – sometimes a long Italian loaf, a thin pita, or thinner taco – and pass the cup - grape juice, perhaps, for those struggling with addictions.  They hold hands in growing circles of protection to say together the Lord's Prayer and sing - with feeling not felt in any building - "Amazing Grace" and "We Shall Overcome."  And, on a trolley track on Market Street, they light some candles and sit in silence…not knowing what will come, but prepared and free of fear.
"This," as Josh Griffin, a young priest in Portland, said, "is not a protest movement, it is public liturgy of the finest sort.  This movement is powerful because it is showing us a way forward."  In their disparate voices, in terms that should speak to Christians, the young people of Occupy have decried an unfair, often inhumane system.  And, now, with clear vision and engaged minds, they are beginning the task of formulating the concrete goals and objectives the cognoscenti mockingly clamor for.  They will lead the "leaders" and show them the way out of this morally bankrupt cul-de-sac into which they have led us…and left us.  They will, indeed, show us the way forward.  And, if those of us in our comfortable churches will follow…out the doors of our aging buildings…to where God's people are huddled in their pain, their fear, and yearning, we – together - may save the good name of God.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Mike Check!"

Hearing that Thursday night's general assembly at Occupy San Francisco would center on Scott Olsen, the young Marine veteran critically injured (probably by a tear gas canister) in Oakland Tuesday night, I made it a point to end my day at that meeting on Justin Herman Plaza.
The evening began - as usual - at Open Cathedral at 16th and Mission with an unusually moving service attended by twenty or so regulars, our faithful ushers from the Tenderloin, the Rev. Lee Anne Reat and her husband from St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio (, and – God, hiding again behind her serendipity – Randy from Occupy San Francisco who joined our growing circle for the Lord's Prayer and for Communion.
After the service, I filled a shopping bag with bananas and tortillas at the market across the street and headed for the Ferry Building.  The general assembly was just starting.  Remembering from Monday where the food tent was, I joined the line and emptied the bag on the serving table.  A little girl – maybe five - delighted in a banana.  I said "Hi!' to her single-parent mom and pet their tiny dog.
All the while, I could hear the stream of announcements from the bull horn and the repeated "Mike check!" from each person moving forward to speak to the bowl-shaped crowd of intent, well-behaved youngsters who mixed comfortably with those joining after work in their suits, cellphones in hand.
We learned about the meeting in the mayor's office; the joint undertaking to tend to sanitary conditions (standing next to the dishwashing area, I couldn't help but smile); the "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions; news that Occupy Wall Street was marching to honor Scott Olsen; the desire to re-name Justin Herman Plaza and Varney Alley, the latter to Veterans' Alley and the former to anything other than the name of the former head of the despised Re-Development Land Agency; and the plans for Saturday's big march.  It all unfolded in an orderly democratic fashion, with each speaker grasping the mike of the bullhorn held by someone else and beginning with an oft-repeated shout - "Mike check!"  
Someone standing next to me asked after "the minister from the Mission with the long black hair…yes, Monique."  "Will she come here?"  I replied that I was sure she would, having just come from a service in the Mission with her.  I, then, asked the young lady taking notes in front of me whether I too could make an "announcement" to the assembly.  "Sure, get on Maria's lineup of speakers." 
I made my way to Maria.  She asked my name and I was handed the mike.  I had been there long enough to understand the cadence – short bursts repeated "amen corner"- style by the crowd to ensure that everyone heard the message. 
I began…"Mike check!...My name's Vicki…I'm here tonight to say…[pointing at my collar]we've heard you…and they've  heard us…I'm here to wish you  Shalom…not the silence of the graveyard…but the true peace of justice…No justice, no peace!...the peace of truly shared prosperity…We are with you!"
And from the smiles, "amens," and high-fives as I melted back into the crowd, I knew that we were, indeed, with each other…that clergy were numbered among the 99% and most welcome in the movement.
I'm back in Vallejo.  It's late.  Bed beckons…and I can pray with added meaning at the end of a meaningful day:
            it is night.

            The night is for stillness.
            Let us be still in the presence of God.

            It is night after a long day.
            What has been done has been done;
            what has not been done has not been done;
            let it be.

            The night is dark;
            Let our fears of the darkness of the world and our own lives rest in you.

            The night is quiet.
            Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
            all dear to us,
            and all who have no peace.
            The night heralds the dawn.
            Let us look expectantly to a new day,
            new joys,
            new possibilities.

            In your name we pray.

Monday, October 24, 2011


"No justice!  No peace!"  "No justice!  No peace!"  We have heard the cry at countless demonstrations.  It is a plea not for the mere absence of violence, the silent, complacent peace of the graveyard.  It is, rather, a call to the peace of Shalom that rests on justice and that encompasses a shared sense of well-being in the community.  
For too long now that sense of justice and shared well-being has eluded us.  We have experienced forty years of endless war – overlapping, futile, and, for the most part, unworthy wars…wars that have left us mired in Afghanistan and facing perceived enemies on every continent.  We are suffering the consequence of decades of rampant greed and reckless risk-taking that have produced a Great Recession in an America we hardly recognize any more.
And the powers-that-be of this world stand athwart the need for change - banks that gambled with our savings and took our homes, corporations that export our jobs, politicians who spout focus-group tested one-liners and fiddle while a nation burns, a corporate media that would distract us from the fire with daily offerings of circus-like "infotainment."  The results are an income inequality not seen since 1928, in which 40 percent of the nation's wealth is held by one percent of our people; real unemployment near 16 percent; an increasingly less progressive tax system unworthy of a civilized society; rampant cuts in programs for the suffering among us; a people on its knees.
No wonder, at this moment of crisis, that the national mood is one of fear, the worst fear being that we might not be up to the task – an "uneasy feeling," a "sinking feeling," as the erstwhile New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it, "that important opportunities are slipping from the nation's grasp."  We are, he said, "squandering a golden opportunity to build a better society," adding, "If America can't change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue."
Indeed it will…if we don't change.  But we have had our cold shower.  Our eyes are wide open.  We are poised to act.  Our hour has come.  We dare not squander this opportunity to build a better society.  As people of faith and as Americans, we are a people of hope.  We must give voice to our longings and aspirations.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said about a war, "A time comes when silence is betrayal."  That time has come again in America. We are at another moment when silence is betrayal.  Our old ways of doing things no longer work.  We must find new ways…new ways that reflect our faith in God and our concern for one another.    
As people of faith we must now speak truth to power – in Wall Street and Washington – and stand in solidarity with those in the Occupy movement who seek a more equitable society.  We are mindful that we are called, in the words of Micah "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" and strengthened in the struggle by the promise of Jesus that "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
Mindful also, as Walter Rauschenbusch said, that such righteousness is "not a matter of getting of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven," we must insist that "the highest type of goodness is that which puts freely at the service of the community all that man is and can be" and that conversely, "the highest type of badness is that which uses up the wealth and happiness and virtue of the community to please self." 
As people of faith, we must seek a seat at the table and help shape solutions consistent with our values of justice, equality, charity, and solidarity with our fellow human beings.  We must not shy from the political fray, for both politics and religion concern themselves with social relationships, how we relate to one another, how we will shape our societies.  And good politics, like good religion, seeks to shape a just society. 
Finally, we must be diligent in the effort and impatient with those who would temporize.  In the words of Dr. King, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy."  
Only when we redeem that promise will we enjoy the true peace of Shalom.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Professor Bernard Lewis, of Princeton, takes the view that Israel must win its struggle in the United States and it must have the support of American public opinion. 
 Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back (1976)
And, by 1976, Israel had won this struggle in the United States.  Since 1960, the dominant narrative about Israel's "struggle" in the United States was that of Otto Preminger's adaptation of Leon Uris' "Exodus" – Paul Newman's Ari, a tanned and arrogant veteran of Britain's Jewish Brigade, and John Derek's Taha, an obsequious throwaway "Arab."  And, in academia, the facts of the struggle between Jew and Palestinian were, for decades, filtered through the lens of orientalists like Lewis.
That narrative is still dominant…at least in the United States.  But even Americans are beginning to hear and listen to another narrative…of Palestinians and the reality of life…and death…in today's Israel/Palestine. 
The pain and urgency of that long-suppressed narrative broke through on our television screens during Israel's Christmas 2008 assault on Gaza, known euphemistically by the sanitized code name "Cast Lead."  There was no way of sanitizing the real-time images of that assault that killed 1,300 Gazans, half of them women and children.
Nor was there any way to sanitize the blood-red images of dying children contained in Eyes on Gaza, a narrative by Norwegian surgeon Mads Gilbert of that winter 2008/09 in Gaza's al Shifah Hospital, or the psychological trauma visited upon the children that survived ( ).
No longer were the Palestinians the cardboard cutout terrorists of our one-sided view of reality.  They were living, breathing…dying human beings just like us, just like the Israelis.  They were beginning to be heard.
And, thanks to people like Berkeley's Barbara Lubin and Ziad Abbas, Oakland's Nancy Hernandez, and, most especially, Susan Johnson, a 70-year-old grandmother from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the Middle East Children's Alliance (, in collaboration with Afaq Jadeeda's (New Horizons) Center, organized the "Let the Children Play and Heal" project to enable the children of Gaza to work through their trauma through art.

Through its Maia Project, MECA is also working in partnership with community organizations in Gaza to build water purification and desalination units in schools throughout the Gaza Strip.  And, as part of this latter effort, Ms. Hernandez provided the children there paints and crayons and colors they hadn't seen in their young gray lives.  She asked them to draw their visions of water and they gave her pictures of black tanks atop their houses – tanks that hold the one-or-two-hours-a-week of water allowed each Gaza household.  And then they started drawing other visions of their reality – of the death, destruction, fear, and deprivation that have been their lot. 
These healing strands came together in a remarkable collection - "A Child's View from Gaza" – that was to have been displayed this fall at Oakland's Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA).
But the children's art was seen as a threat by the guardians of the dominant narrative.  Pressured by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the San Francisco JCRC, MOCHA pulled the plug on the exhibit.  Far from seeking to cover its role, the Federation trumpeted its glee.  "Great news!" it proclaimed.  "The 'Child's View From Gaza' exhibit at MOCHA has been canceled thanks to some great East Bay Jewish community organizing."
Irony of ironies, however, this crude exercise of censorship unleashed a national outcry, opening yet further the national media doors to the alternative narrative of the long-oppressed, long-silenced Palestinian people.  The pictures of Gaza's children became a cause celebre from coast to coast.  Their voices were amplified.
And, on September 24, hundreds attended the opening of the exhibit – in MOCHA's courtyard where dozens of us served as human easels, each holding a child's work of art in respectful silence.  A short march brought the throng around the corner to an alternative venue at 917 Washington (at 10th) where a good time was had by all despite the never-say-die protests of the would-be censors (  The exhibit will welcome visitors there through November.
Won't you come visit, come look?  Won't you use your feet, your eyes to challenge those who would censor what you can see, what the children of Gaza can say?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Forgive us our trespasses, as we
forgive those who trespass against us
Good morning.  Remembering the date, many of you are probably thinking "What's so good about it?"  Remembering the date, aren't I supposed to ask "Where were you this morning ten years ago?"  But, didn't we do that last year?  Didn't I tell you where I was?  Where my niece was in lower Manhattan?  Didn't you think about where you were…and perhaps try to forget?  Another year's gone by, a decade now.  Have you been able to forget?  To forgive?  Do you want to?  To forgive?  To forget?
Today's Gospel is incredibly simple, but, oh, so hard.  How simple?  We are called to forgive…not once, not twice, not seven times, but, Jesus tells us, seventy-seven times…infinitely…always…every  time.  And how are we to forgive?  We are to forgive as we would wish to be forgiven, as we need to be forgiven, as we pray to be forgiven:  "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." 
That passage of the Lord's Prayer, our prayer to our Father, has various wordings.  In one, our "trespasses" become "debts" and, no matter the version, refer to sins.  And, in today's Gospel, Jesus uses the debt analogy – an analogy those of us in this money-obsessed twenty-first century might especially understand.  He turns those words from his prayer to his father into a parable…as if to say "Do you get it now?"  It is a parable that can be understood in the nine little words from that prayer: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
Simple right?
Simple?  Have you ever had to forgive someone who raped your daughter…like Tracy Dugard's parents?  Someone who killed your brother…or mom or dad… some drunken driver on I-80, some faceless fighter in Afghanistan or Kurdistan?  Then, there are those anger-crazed fanatics who drove three planes into three buildings and another into the ground…and killed three thousand of our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives.  Have you forgiven them?  Can you?  And what if the three thousand had been six million?  What if you were a Jew?  What if one of the six million had been your mom or dad?  What if you had been in one of those death camps and survived?  Could you forgive the German…the "Christian"…who pulled the trigger…or mindlessly opened the gas spigot?
For me, these are not academic questions that I studied in some seminary.  They are questions that I've lived.  For three years, I lived in Krakow, Poland…an hour from Auschwitz.  I've walked that awful railroad track.  I've peered into the ovens…and swear I could smell the stench of death.  And, in Krakow 's old ghetto, I met the few survivors – a thousand of once a hundred thousand - and talked with them of those who hadn't survived.  And later, I lived in Munich, the place Hitler called the Hauptstadt der Bewegung, the capital of the Nazi movement…a stone's throw from Dachau.  There, I met many good Germans who resisted Hitler, some who may have survived with a wounded conscience, and, perhaps, more than one of the killers, survivors of another sort…the Murderers among Us that the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote about.
But today I'd like to talk about another book by Wiesenthal – The Sunflower.  The first half of the book is a powerful parable on the "possibilities and limits of forgiveness."  It relates a tale about Wiesenthal's time as a prisoner orderly in an SS hospital in Lvov in western Ukraine.  There - alone in a hospital room - he encounters, Karl, a blinded, horribly burned German.  The dying SS man, a lapsed Roman Catholic, summons Wiesenthal to his side and insists that he hear his confession…a graphic recitation of the hundreds of Jews he has killed.  He begs for Wiesenthal's hand, his forgiveness.  It is the German's final hope for atonement.  Wiesenthal leaves the room in silence, withholding that forgiveness – a non-act that haunts Wiesenthal the rest of his life.  And we are left to struggle with the question posed on the cover of the book: "What would you do?"
Again, it all seems sooo simple.  Some of us, fingering perhaps the "WWJD" on some rubber bracelet, would confidently pose another question: "What would Jesus do?"  Of course, he'd forgive the dying murderer.  Didn't he forgive his own killers?  Of course, he'd forgive the terrorist, shouting his "Allah u Ahkba," as he flew his plane into the 82nd floor.  Wouldn't he say again: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?"  Of course, he would.
But that's the wrong question.  The proper question, the one we're asked today is: What would Jesus have us do…in our imperfections, with our limitations, with our lust for vengeance?  That's a much harder question.  And the answer is nowhere near as certain.
In The Sunflower, the question on the cover of the book becomes the stuff of a symposium that is the second half of the book.  It becomes the question that more than forty leaders of the faith and moral community – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and non-believers – are called to grapple with – "What would you do?"  
It is a question I've grappled with over a long lifetime, as I've contemplated the words of Jesus, the reflections in The Sunflower, and real life situations that have challenged me to give and to seek forgiveness.  It is a question we all grapple with again this morning as we consider – perhaps for the first time in a long time - the events of September 11, our reactions to them, and what Jesus would have us do in their wake.  As we do, let me share some random thoughts from my own struggle with this question of giving and seeking forgiveness.
First, there is the matter of perspective.  Jesus draws our attention to it in today's parable in terms of dollars and cents…or talents and denarii.  It's no accident that here the one who owes ten thousand talents – an impossible sum to repay, since one talent was tantamount to fifteen years' wages – is unwilling to forgive the debt of a fellow slave who owed but a hundred denarii or three months' wages.  Were he to rephrase this as a parable, not on debts, but on deaths - deaths visited on one another from the sky - might not Jesus ask us, as we pray in our sorrow for the 3,000 dead of September 11, also to mourn - if just silently - the 6,000 killed in Baghdad's "shock and awe," the 25,000 in Dresden, the 50,000 in the fire raids on Hamburg, the 90,000 in the fire raids on Tokyo, and the 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  If we have sought and received forgiveness for 300,000 such deaths from a merciful God, can we not find it in our hearts to forgive those who killed 3,000 of our kinfolk?  Do we really mean it, when we pray "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive who trespass against us?"
This is not to put human lives in the same category as debts measured in talents and denarii, dollars and cents, or any numbers…nor to place those lives on some perverse scales that value one of ours as a hundred of theirs.  No, each life is infinitely valuable…to God and to us.  Just as some among us may mourn the death of an individual friend or family member who died on September 11, so, too, there are Afghanis and Iraqis who mourn someone they love who died since then.  There was a rabbi who said "If you take one life, you kill all mankind."  And to do that is profoundly evil.
And, make no mistake about it, what happened on 9/11 was profoundly evil.  If, in working for the Kingdom of God, we seek to usher in God's heaven on earth, those who steered those planes into the World Trade Center opened the gates of hell; they loosed hell on earth.  What is hell?  Consider those people on the 102nd floor – the waiters at Windows on the World, the brokers at Cantor Fitzgerald, the janitors – unable to breathe the black smoke, the flames licking at their backs, holding hands in a last act of human solidarity…and leaping – willfully, courageously – to their deaths, hoping perhaps to wake up in heaven.  I have no doubt, however, that, for one excruciating moment, they experienced all the pain of hell for all the eternity that is in a moment.
But, even if we're inclined to forgive such horror, is it within our power to do so?  Some in The Sunflower discussion think not.  Wiesenthal himself says he could not forgive the SS-man, because his were not crimes committed against Wiesenthal personally, but against others.  Eva Fleischner, another Jew, agrees, pointing out that the Lord's Prayer says "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," not, she adds, "those who trespass against others."   And, according to the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel, no one can forgive crimes committed against other people by other people.  "It is," he says, "therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished."  Or, one might add, the three thousand who died on September 11th. 
Heschel goes one step further, citing Jewish tradition that "even God himself can only forgive sins against himself not against man"….to which Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest, adds that "no one had appointed Simon to forgive in God's name."  But Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president emeritus of Notre Dame, disagrees: "My whole instinct is to forgive.  Perhaps that is because I am a Catholic priest.  In a sense, I am in the forgiving business….Of course, the sin here is monumental.  It is still finite and God's mercy is infinite.  If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive."                   
So would I.  I'm a Christian.  And, we, too, are in the forgiving business.
I would also question the line Fleischner so crisply, so simply draws between "us" and "others" in dissecting the Lord's Prayer.  For neither does it say    "Forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me."  Who, I would ask, do we understand as "us," as "we," in the context of the Holocaust, September 11, the Lord's Prayer?  Was the Holocaust a crime only against those killed…or against all Jews, dead and alive?  Did the hijackers of September 11 seek only to kill three thousand or to instill a crippling fear in the hearts of all Americans?   And when crimes of such magnitude are committed against anyone anywhere, are they not crimes against us all in our shared humanity.  I've said it again and again.  Let me say it once more: We find our salvation, not in solitude, but in community.  
But, why forgive?  What's in it for us…to make easier our journey together through this life, toward salvation?  In forgiving, Jesus tells us, we heap coals upon the heads of our enemies.  But, think about it, isn't that a form of vengeance, of passive aggression?  Is that sufficient motive forgiving?  But, think also of the obverse – withholding our forgiveness.  When we do not forgive, do we not heap coals upon our own heads?  Do we not allow our pain, our hurt, our sense of victimhood, to fester, to grow, and eventually explode in some self-defeating act of violence?  In doing so, do we not allow our fears and anger to drive out our hopes and dreams?  Do we not allow our dreams to become our worst nightmares?  Listen to Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Isn't that what happened after 9/11?  Didn't we allow our fear and anger to drive out our hopes and dreams, our better spirits…to explode in the paroxysm of violence that has marked the last decade?  Didn't we choose vengeance over forgiveness?  Didn't we close our eyes to the words of Paul from just two weeks ago – "Do not repay anyone evil for evil….never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine'….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good?"
And, in choosing vengeance,  didn't we allow a dozen dead terrorists to heap coals on our heads – two wars, two and three times longer than World War II; two wars that have resulted in more dead young Americans than were killed on September 11; many tens of thousands of families dealing with the life-altering wounds of battle; hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis and millions more who hate us for killing their brothers and sisters; six trillion dollars mindlessly squandered on all the killing; an economy in shambles; our ostracism of the vulnerable Other; the endemic fear that paralyzes.  Are these not also trespasses for which we should seek the forgiveness of millions of faceless strangers?  Are they not debts for which we need seek forgiveness from our children and our generations as yet unborn?  Are they not sins for which we must seek forgiveness from God?
If we are to find such forgiveness, if we are to live together - perpetrators and victims - in a peaceful present, we must break free of the cycle of violence that holds us in its thrall.  And, that requires facing the sometimes hard truths that must precede reconciliation.  Such remembrance, thoughtfully embraced, can yield remarkable reconciliation, as it has in South Africa, Chile, and post-communist Europe.  When, however, the truth of past injustice is swept under the rug – as in the former Yugoslavia, in Israel/Palestine, or pre-1960s America – it produces the sorts of explosions Langston Hughes had so very much in mind.    
No, forgiveness does not mean forgetting.  We are called, rather, to remember…to never forget the sting of the pain and the injustice visited upon us… so that we do not visit it upon others.  Jews, in particular, have been called to remember the Exodus we have been recalling these many weeks and again this morning…to remember that they – that we - were once slaves in Egypt, to remember to be hospitable to the fellow sojourners in our midst.  And, in remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, they and we are all called to live into the meaning of those two words – Never again!  Never again…not for us…or anyone.
It is a vow that is being sorely tested in the Holy Land this very week as Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims confront yet another round in the seemingly unending tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth cycle of violence.  It is a situation that cries to heaven for mutual forgiveness, for justice, reconciliation, and peace.          
In a few minutes, we will add our voices to that cry, that rising prayer, as we place this tiny dove of peace on our altar and light its flame of olive oil from the hills of Ephraim that offered Jesus refuge in another time of strife.  
As we do so, on this somber anniversary, let us seize this moment as the "opportunity for reflection" that Katharine, our Presiding Bishop has called us to.  "Have we become," she asks, "more effective reconcilers as a result?  Are we more committed to peace-making?"  "The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago," she says, "will be a world more inclined toward peace."  "What, she asks, "are you doing to build a living memorial like that?" 
To Katharine's question, to those of Simon Wiesenthal, of Langston Hughes, of that silent voice in your heart this morning, let me add, let me close, with just one more…from a drunken driver beaten senseless beside a Los Angeles Freeway.  In the wake of the acquittal of his attackers, in the midst of the riots that had already taken thirty-five lives, a bewildered, tearful Rodney King asked: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It's just not right. It's not right. It's not…."  

Friday, July 29, 2011


In mid-July some 90 religious, political, and media representatives gathered at London's Lambeth Palace at the behest of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to discuss in conference the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.
The purpose, according to Archbishop Williams, was to raise "literate, compassionate awareness" of the plight of Palestinian Christians in light of the "very significant" and "accelerating" decline of their population and to consider "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
The conference followed closely on the heels of a mid-June BBC interview, in which Williams spoke of Palestinian Christians as a minority in a largely Muslim population and, with no mention of the effects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, attributed the Christian exodus solely to Muslim extremism. This led the Rev. Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, to write the archbishop to point out that "as Palestinian Christians, we perceive ourselves as an integral part of the Palestinian people ... [and] do not refer to ourselves as a minority."
Ateek noted, moreover, that "as Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, we equally live under the oppression of the illegal Israeli occupation of our country." This was reiterated at the conference by Samer Makhlouf, a Roman Catholic, who reportedly called the occupation "the father of all problems in the region." (See John Allen's report in the National Catholic Reporter.)
Others at the conference tried to draw attention to the specifics of those problems… the sorts of hardships I have seen firsthand visiting Palestinian Christians in late 2008 and again this March. These effects are most clearly evident in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian village in Palestine, whose economic livelihood is threatened by the settlements and military outposts that surround it, and Bethlehem, whose many Christians are cut off from Jerusalem by the thirty-foot high separation wall and a tightening ring of settlements, including the veritable cities of Gilo and Har Homa. At the Christian-run Bethlehem University, for example, students with Jerusalem identity cards described the daily hassle they must endure at Israeli checkpoints, while those with West Bank papers complained about their complete inability to visit the holy sites -- or relatives -- in Jerusalem.
No wonder the population of Christians in Israel/Palestine has stagnated, growing only from about 150,000 in 1946 to fewer than 160,000 in 2006 rather than the far higher figure that might be expected from natural demographic growth. As the Palestinian Christian academic Bernard Sabellah noted, according to Allen, this stagnation is accounted for by the "missing" Christians who have emigrated.
Almost amusingly, Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University reportedly told the conference not to worry … "the churches are full" thanks to Filipino guest workers and 50,000 Christians who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. These latter "Christians," he failed to note, are for the most part Soviet "Jews" who have made aliyah to Israel and brought with them racist, fascist attitudes that have given rise to neo-Soviet policies that would discriminate against Palestinians and Filipinos alike and, in the process, threaten Israeli democracy.
So, to return to Archbishop William's pregnant question, "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
For the most part, the archbishop and others danced around the "realities on the ground" -- realities made worse each day by the bulldozers that daily create thousands of new illegal settlements, home now to half a million Israeli Jews on the West Bank -- preferring instead to talk of "balance," as if a confrontation between Israel's behemoth military machine and a people on its knees could ever be "balanced" -- and bottoms-up grassroots "constructive engagement;" the sort of "constructive engagement" engaged in by the Episcopal Church since 2002.
To what effect, one has to ask? According to Canon Robert Edmunds, chaplain to Suheil Dawani, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, such an approach risks ending in "words and goodwill" that don't change the lived reality of Palestinian Christians. They are, he said, but "band-aids," adding that "if we don't encourage the government of Israel to cut a deal, we're going to be putting on band-aids for a very long time."
It is far past time not just to encourage, but to insist that the government of Israel cut the two-state deal demanded not just by justice but by the best interests of Israel. It is time for the Episcopal Church to consider and adopt a policy that will get the attention of the governments of Israel -- and the United States -- a policy of divesting from all companies that enable the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and boycotting all products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
The bleeding Palestinian Christians -- indeed, all Palestinians -- deserve not just our words, prayers, goodwill, and conferences. They are not just some object of abstract historicity and, therefore, in the eyes of our archbishop, "critical to Christianity's identity." They are living, breathing, bleeding human beings whose dignity we are called by our baptism to respect.
The above appeared on Episcopal News Service July 28, 2011