Friday, December 23, 2016

2 mindfulness practices

Lately I've been trying to note behaviors mentally, as opposed to berating myself for them (mentally). With this in mind, here are 2 mindfulness practices I've been using lately:

Phone practice. I mentally note every time I take out my phone when I'm doing something else. This happens a lot when I'm cooking (put the water on to boil, open the phone), and when I'm walking the dog – two activities I've been trying to do more with more attention. I often find that when I take out my phone I'm already at the end of a long strand of distracted thinking – that is, I was already distracted before I took out my phone. 

Irritation practice. With three teenage kids I get a lot of chances to practice this. Irritation, leading to anger, is one of my primary character defects. Usually with anger or irritation the response follows immediately on the heels of the stimulus. So my goal is to mentally note rising irritation, and (hopefully) to be able to pause between feeling the feeling and reacting. So if I get irritated after the sixth stimulus, when last week I would have gotten irritated after the second stimulus, that's progress.  And when I get to 1,000, I win! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Use the Oxygen Mask First

As a follow up to my previous post about non-hatred - about opposing Trump and Trumpism with everything we can, but not by being motivated by hatred and anger toward them - and in response to the many many people who are reacting to the election results with fear and a sense of helplessness, I would like to posit what I think is the very first thing we should do as we develop our strategies and commitments for the future.

And that very first thing, our very first response to Trump and the disastrous results of the elections is: work on your spirituality.  

Thursday, November 24, 2016


In the current version of the “stump sermon” that I deliver in congregations, I begin my delineating Kansas Interfaith Action's four mission areas (racism, poverty, violence, climate disruption) and conclude by proposing four corresponding values that can guide our work as we try to bring the voice of faith and conscience into public policy advocacy.

This last piece has gone through numerous iterations since I first gave the sermon on MLK Sunday of this year. (Shout out to Rainbow Mennonite Church in KCK.) For one of these values in particular I've had trouble finding the words that capture precisely the tone and meaning I'm trying to set.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Election Postmortem

Before I move on to What Comes Next, I want to spend a little time on a postmortem on the election. First of all, I want to own that I was completely wrong in my predictions about this election. My crystal ball was really cloudy; my "realpolitik" analysis did not accommodate what was clearly a paradigm-shifting election. There were others, particularly supporters of Bernie Sanders, that were more aware of what was really at stake than I was. I was tepid about Bernie because I thought Hillary was more electable, and I was convinced as recently as 2 or 3 weeks ago that she was going to beat Trump like an orange, Many of Bernie's supporters are now saying, See, we told you so, if you had nominated Sanders you wouldn't have President-elect Trump right now. I have my doubts, as I always did about Bernie. But it's a counterfactual anyway.

I'm pretty hesitant to blame the results on Hillary Clinton's failings as a candidate. Over time she became much better than I thought she was capable of. She wiped the floor with Trump in each of the debates. Certainly in my bubble there was a lot of enthusiasm among people who wanted to see that glass ceiling broken, and toward the end (after voting began) there was an outpouring of emotion (#pantsuitnation) that could be compared favorably to Obamamania.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hillary's Feminism

And now, a little radical theory for you all:

Hillary Clinton's imminent election serves as both the crowning achievement, and the last hurrah, of the kind of Second Wave feminism she represents.

Clinton's feminism is of the classic variety: a white-woman, glass-ceiling focused feminism that was the main force of the movement in the early 1970s, but which has since been superseded, and put into some amount of disrepute, by the intersectional feminisms that came later. (This analysis is complicated by the fact that she became prominent in large part because of the achievements of her husband; I'm going to put that to the side for now for the sake of clarity.) 

Clinton's form of feminism has the same flaws as integrationist racial and gay activism of recent decades: It focuses on the inclusion of women (affluent women mostly) into the economy and society as-it-already-exists, never asking it to change its priorities for having them. That is, women are now to be included at every level of boardroom, executive suite, etc., but completely on empire's terms - no change is demanded of capitalism's priorities or practices, save solely for the inclusion of the formerly marginalized population. 

It's interesting to see how having Trump as her opponent has served Clinton in this regard. Because he is so misogynistic, it puts her type of feminism into its best light. She is able to play the "champion of women" role to the hilt because he makes her form of feminism look both necessary and sufficient. Critiques of her approach are stifled because of this. 

More recent radical activists would not be satisfied with the kind of inclusiveness-as-sole-goal that Clinton represents. Even in capitalism's own terms, the fact that childcare, healthcare etc. are not taken as givens this long into the process shows the limits of the Second Wave approach. All the more so anything more radical, such as calling into question the demands of empire and capital themselves - which Clinton is not likely to do, as she has never done it before. 

Thus, Clinton's ascension is both the culmination of the Second Wave's goals, and their eclipse, as more radical feminists ask for more than the slice of the desiccated pie that Hillary's model offers. 

One thing Clinton has shown herself to be in this campaign, however, is open to pressure from the grassroots. Like Obama, she will do the right thing if she's forced to do so. It's up to us to do the forcing. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

State Politics

If what you've always wanted is my take on Kansas politics, well, this is your lucky day.

Context for those who don't live here: The Republican Party here is split in two: moderates in the traditional businessman mode (whom I'll call Mod Rs), and right-wing conservatives of the tea party variety (whom I will call UltraCons). They have always cohabited uneasily, usually with the Mods in charge, until the election of Sam Brownback in 2010. He took it as his business to purge the legislature of Mod Rs so that he could get the votes for his "experiment", and most of the Mod leadership, especially on the Senate side, was purged in 2012. This year, in the aftermath of the dismal failure of the Brownback experiment, many of the leading UltraCons were defeated in their primaries, leaving the fall campaign in those races as the Mod versus Democrat.

Being primarily an issue advocate and not very active on the electoral side, once the Cons were defeated in the primary I didn't much care what happened in those races. To me the difference between a Mod R and a Dem is pretty nominal. Both are likely to vote in favor of the positions that my allies and I would take. So I turned the limited attention I have to devote to electoral politics to races where the remaining UltraCons were facing Dems, figuring that the rest would take care of itself.

However, what has happened in these cases is that the Dem, who expected to run against a Con, has to differentiate themselves from the Mod that they are in fact facing - a task that, as I say, isn't always easy to do. Therefore, things tend to get a little personal. One of the favored approaches is to criticize the Mod as being "from the party of Trump and Brownback," which is true as far as it goes, but depends on the voter not knowing that the Mod actually opposed and defeated Brownback's candidate.

A lot of this is played out on social media. There was a fundraiser that some of the Mods attended with Congressional Representative Kevin Yoder, some pictures of which went around Facebook and Twitter with comments along the line of "You see! They are Republicans!" As election day gets closer the level of venom gets higher, which to some extent is par for the course, but is also unfortunate, for the following reasons:

First of all, it's only in the fevered imaginations of Democratic partisans that the label "Republican" is, in and of itself, disqualifying. Most Kansans who are registered to a party are Republicans, and I would venture to guess that there are very few districts in which the Democrat could win without at least unaffiliated voters, who are, almost by definition, not going to care that much about party affiliation. Also, as I say, the Mods who remain defeated UltraCons, and anybody who pays the least attention to politics will know that, so the Dem claiming the Mod is a Brownback lackey will mostly serve to make the Dem look manipulative and dishonest.

Then there is the matter of incumbents. Advocates have a category called "friendly incumbents," which means people who have supported our issues in the past. We all have lists of them, and for the most part we support them, against any opponent, no matter what the opponent's position on our issues. When the friendly incumbent is a Mod R, it tends to drive partisan Dems a little crazy, as they say, Why would you support a Republican when a Democrat would be a more reliable vote? Well, there's three reasons, the first two being that that's not always the case (I have issues I work on where some of the Mod Rs have been more reliable supporters than some of the Dems), and second, you always need Mod Rs to win any vote in the legislature.

But the third reason is that you have to understand the context these people have been working in. The leadership of their party made it clear that they weren't welcome. They got terrible committee assignments, and every one of them was working under the expectation that in any cycle they would get primaried by an UltraCon and that every reasonable vote they ever took would end up on a inflammatory postcard. Yet they continued to stand for what they believed in. They're a gotdam profile in courage, if you ask me.

I happen to live in a district where, in both the rep and the Senate race, a Dem is running against a Brownback stooge, so my choices are easy. If I lived in a district where that wasn't the case, I would probably make my decision based on who I thought was more qualified, based on their experience. In some races that would be the Dem, and in some it would be the Mod R. Whether they got their picture taken with Kevin Yoder would be a fairly insignificant data point. (Full disclosure: I have had my picture taken with Kevin Yoder.)

Ultimately, I'm concerned not so much with what happens in November as what happens in January, and throughout the 2017 session. Mod Rs and Dems are going to have to work together in some form or fashion to start to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and all's-fair-in-politics aside, the more that happens between now and election day that makes that harder to arrange, the less I'm going to like it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Spirituality of Sadness

The Spirituality of Sadness
Unitarian Church of Lawrence
August 14, 2016

Today is a significant day on the Jewish calendar. It is called Tisha B'av, the Ninth of Av, and it is a remembrance of basically every tragedy that ever occurred to the Jewish people. Originally it was designated as a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, and since then many other tragedies have also been ascribed to that day, such as the beginning of the first Crusade in 1095, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.

The traditional practice for this commemoration is a 25-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Lamentations and selections of mourning psalms called Kinot. Here are the first 3 verses of a new translation of Eikhah by Rabbi David Seidenberg

1 Eikhah! How can it be – that she sat alone, the city so great / so swelled with people? She was like a widow. The one great among the nations, ministering among the states, became a slave caste. 2 Crying, she will cry in the night, her tear upon her cheek There is none for her, no comforter, from all her lovers. All her companions played traitor with her. They became for her enemies. 3 She, Judah, was exiled, by poverty, and by (so) much hard labor She sat among the nations, not finding any rest; All her pursuers caught up with her between the confined places.

So the mood is one of sadness, of mourning, even of despair.

And it led me to think about how we deal with feelings of sadness in our own lives. I think it's pretty safe to say that we Americans, preternaturally cheerful creatures that we are, don't like to feel sad. I guess nobody likes to feel sad, but we tend to think there's something wrong with it, or with us for feeling it, so we do whatever we can to avoid it. We distract ourselves. We medicate ourselves. We anesthetize ourselves with drinking or shopping or television or Facebook.

Well my friends, I'm here to tell you that sadness is part of the human condition, and we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering by trying to avoid it. Perhaps that's obvious, but sometimes the obvious still needs to be said.

In the Buddhist tradition, the second of the three causes of dukkha/suffering is aversion, or trying to get rid of our avoid negative mind-states. So the problem isn't the negative mind-states themselves, it's in trying to avoid them, or suppress them, or distract or distance ourselves from them. Guaranteed, when we suppress or repress our negative mind-states, they will reappear somewhere else, often in ways that are uncontrolled or destructive. Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.”

So the first, best thing we can do is feel the feelings. Not to try to figure out the reasons, or to replay the story, or to figure out what to do about it, but just to feel it – in our bodies, in our souls. A quote from Jay Michaelson:

Equanimity is not the banishment of sadness. [Neither does it mean being blissed out, feeling our feelings less intensely.] It is the acceptance of sadness for what it is, and the letting go of the desire for it to end.

So let's do a little practice with this. I invite you, if you're comfortable, to close your eyes, and let's focus on our breath for a few moments. Now I invite you to call up an incident from your from your personal, emotional life that brings up feelings of grief or sorrow. (pause) Take a few moments to sense or visualize that situation, tuning into where you feel it in your body. (pause) Does your face feel flush, does it feel there a rock in the pit of your stomach? Now drop the story and just notice the feeling of sadness. Focus on your breath, and on your feeling. If images arise, let them, and then let them fall away.

Stay with that for a moment. It's okay. Now put your hand on your heart. Say to yourself, it's okay. Your feelings are okay, sadness is okay, grief is okay. Say to yourself, I love you, I'm here. Now open your eyes. Look at a person near you. Smile at them with your eyes. Say to them, it's okay. Say to them, I love you.

Feel your heart open a bit. You know that feeling when you look into your neighbor's eyes and you see what they're feeling - what that's called? It's called compassion. We'll return to that in a moment.

So the first thing is to feel the feelings. To be okay with feeling this way – not to be afraid of it, or averse to it, but to recognize it, even to welcome it, as part of our humanity. Then and only then can we start thinking about what to do about it, if indeed anything at all needs to be done.

Now let's turn our attention to another kind of sadness - sadness outside of ourselves, in the outer world, in the public square. We live in a very trying time politically. We have a man running for president who would be a figure of fun if he weren't so dangerous. We have a government in our own home state that thinks kicking children off of food stamps is an anti-poverty program, and that having guns anywhere and everywhere is security. We probably don't really understand what's happening with Brexit, or in Yemen, but we know can't be good. We live with the growing threat of climate change, which is an aversion we as a society definitely try to avoid. We have black citizens being killed by police at a rate of one per day. There's a lot to be sad about.

So as before, let's take a moment to follow our breath – and now call up one image of something that is bothering us in the world today. Feel what that brings up in your body, in your heart. Now drop the story and focus on the feeling, and on your breath. If thoughts arise, let them go, and stay in the feeling. Now send out feelings of lovingkindness to the people in your story. May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace.

I am often asked when I speak about how we can be sure that whatever activism we take part in will have a positive effect? I wouldn't say this in that setting, but the answer is – we don't.

We feel sad because there's what to feel sad about. Let's take a moment, before we try to solve our dilemma, to realize that we will never really solve our dilemma. If we were to miraculously fix one problem, we would immediately be overcome by all the other problems. The kind of eschatological, endtime thinking that represents in Judaism as the coming of the Messiah, in Buddhism as “enlightenment” and in communism as the Revolution, is a myth, and not in my opinion a helpful one. There's no magic bullet. Social change, like personal spirituality, is hard, slow, spade-work. What we have, all that we have, and all that we will ever have, is this moment, to feel fully and to do with what we will.

All too readily our disappointment and sadness becomes anger and hatred. Anger at Republicans, anger at Israelis or Palestinians – depending on your point of view - anger at the “terrorists”, anger at the corporations, anger at Sam Brownback. Anger. Outer-directed, focused on the guilty other, the problem, the cause. I put it to you that this anger, as natural as it is, as normal as it is, in unhelpful in three ways – it is in fact a distraction from our real feelings – of sadness, of loss, of fear – in other words, it's just another drug to take us away from our aversions; it doesn't give us the strength we need to work on problems that seem overwhelming; and it doesn't produce the ends we want. It doesn't enable or promote effective action or produce the kind of world we're trying to reach. It's okay, obviously, to feel the feelings, because we're not to be afraid to face any of our feelings, as long as we don't act on the anger but can get beneath it to the sense of loss that produces it.

The Zen monk and peace activist Thich Naht Hahn is an amazing example of working with sadness on both the personal/spiritual and public/temporal levels. He came of age during the Vietnam War, during which, as a young monk, he started a social service organization called School of Youth for Social Service. He carefully and purposefully didn't take sides during the war, for which he, and his organization, was harassed by both sides. At the beginning of the war, members of his Buddhist order immolated themselves to protest what was going on; in the middle of the war, members of his organization were kidnapped and killed by the Viet Cong; and at the end of the war he was sent into exile by the new government. So, a lot of political unhappiness, a lot of personal unhappiness. And what does he do with it? For the rest of his life he builds sanghas – Buddhist communities – and travels the world teaching mindfulness and peace.

A quote from Thich Naht Hanh:

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.

He felt his feelings deeply, and was able to find there the strength to walk peacefully but with purpose through the world.

What comes out of working with this sadness? What was the feeling when you looked into your neighbor's eyes earlier? Compassion. Now I'm going to offer you four things you can do with these feelings I'm forcing you to pay attention to. And the first tool is compassion. When you look around this room you realize that everyone is feeling the same feelings you are. And when you look out in the world, you realize that way people feel is the way you would feel if you were facing similar circumstances. Another aversion technique we seem to have perfected is judgmentalism. If this person is suffering, it's because of their stupid behaviors or beliefs. But we know, as the Buddha taught, that it's the conditions of peoples lives that lead them to their particular beliefs and behaviors, and that if we were in their situation we might do likewise. And when we realize that, when we really feel it – in our bodies, in our bones – then we feel, not hatred of them, not judgment of them, but compassion for them, and even love.

And the second tool we have is gratitude. Because we realize that for everything that we have gone through – and all of us have gone through a lot – we have a lot of advantages. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, we had decent educations, most of us have white skin, which in this country accounts for a lot. We have the ability to feed and clothe ourselves, we have friends and loved ones, you guys have an awesome fellowship, we have antibiotics, and farmers markets and recordings of like 3,000 Grateful Dead shows. That's a lot, right? Making a gratitude list is one of the most powerful spiritual techniques available to us.

And the third tool is connection. Connection to ourselves through this feeling of our feelings, connection to each other through spiritual community, connections to others working on issues that we're concerned about, connection to the earth. As EM Forster famously said, “Only connect.” I haven't spent much time talking about it today, but I believe that one of the key reasons for the the increase of depression and alienation in our society is our alienation from nature. Whenever someone asks me about increasing their spiritual connection (often framed as “connection to God”), I recommend spending time in nature. It is there we can often feel more connection with creation, and, if we are so inclined, to a creator, than in any other setting.

And the fourth tool to positively utilize our connection with our sadness, with our compassion is in service or action. Getting out of ourselves and helping another. Whether this be – on the service side - serving at LINK, or being a Big Brother/Big Sister, or mentoring a younger person in our profession, or – on the action side – organizing or just showing up at a Black Lives Matter event, or testifying at a City Commissioners meeting or in the state legislature, or – perhaps – getting involved with a great group like Kansas Interfaith Action, when we put our values and our feelings into action, when we get out of ourselves and help someone else, it helps to turn our difficult feelings into something that can change the world for the better.

A brief poem, by Gregory Orr:
Some say you're lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn't
Understand poems or songs
You'd never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It's deep inside every person:
A tear tinier than a pearl or a thorn.

It's one of those places
Where the beloved is born.

I started by talking about Tisha B'av, the date that commemorates the destruction of the Temples. It is said that the messiah, the harbinger of a redeemed world, is to be born in the afternoon of Tisha B'av. It is thus that – to use a Thich Naht Hahn image and thereby mix spiritual metaphors - the lotus of redemption itself forms in the mud of destruction. I've already told you I'm not really into messianic imagery. But by accepting our sadness, by tending to it – not wallowing in it, but caring for it – we can use the tools it gives us – the tools of compassion, gratitude, connection and action – and turn thereby turn our sorrow into a force that can bring a little bit of redemption to the world. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Is Violence Inevitable?

This post was written as an assignment in the Certificate of Nonviolence Studies program I am enrolled in at the Metta Center. It was supposed to be written as a conversation, but I did it as a blog post, so I thought I would also post it here. It's a very important area of thought and study so if you have any comments please feel free to share them. MR. 

Our questioner asks, as it has often been asked, that while nonviolence is a good idea, is it not, (alas!) in contradiction with hard-wired human behavior – the predilection toward solving problems with violence? The reason there has always been war, this argument goes, is that “mankind” is warlike; that we manipulate others to protect and advance ourselves and, at best, a small group of our closest relatives; or, to put a Lockeian spin on it, that human civilization is a battle of all against all.

I want to counter this argument by moving through, as it were, the range of science, from the so-called harder sciences, to the softer.

First, the “hard” science of human biology. In the popular understanding, Darwin's theory of evolution supported the Lockeian version of individualism sampled above: that the goal of life is to win, to survive and reproduce, and that because cooperation doesn't advance these goals it is against human hard-wiring – that is, evolution.

This understanding has been put to political purposes virtually since it was promulgated, to support a “social Darwinism” that, conveniently, jibed very well with the prevailing paradigm of private property and income inequality.

Yet it leaves a key question unanswered: how does altruism – which undoubtedly exists in human relationships – arise and continue to exist in a system that rewards only selfishness? In the absence of a moral reasoning, why should evolution work this way? This has been a great question of sociobiology.

In 1980, sociobiologist Robert Axelrod developed a game that would test how people would do if they cooperated, or if they acted selfishly. The full explanation can be found here but the upshot is that those pursuing the “nice” strategy – working cooperatively and rather trustfully – did better than those who attempted to take advantage. To be brief in the extreme, at the end of the process Axelrod delineated the following strategy for maximum success in the game:

  • Be nice: cooperate, never be the first to defect.
  • Be provocable: return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation.
  • Don't be envious: focus on maximizing your own 'score', as opposed to ensuring your score is higher than your 'partner's'.
  • Don't try to be tricky.

This sounds a lot like Gandhi's strategy! He may not have known anything about evolutionary biology, but apparently he was onto something.

The question of “provocability” leads us into the question of “mirror neurons.” V.S. Ramachandran, a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, conducted early research on mirror neurons, and calls them “the basis of civilization.”

Briefly, there are motor command neurons that fire when I take a particular action, such as waving my hand or picking up something. Apparently, when you watch me doing such an action, a certain subset (about 10-20%) of the neurons in you that it would take to perform the same action, called mirror neurons, also fire in you. When you see me in pain, these motor neurons fire in you and you feel a certain amount of my pain. This, Ramachandran and others hypothesize, forms the biological foundation of empathy.

So here we have the biological basis of empathy and cooperation – that is, nonviolent means of achieving what Darwinism claimed could only be achieved by manipulation and selfishness.

On the “softer” scientific, sociological level, we turn to the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. In their groundbreaking work, Why Civil Resistance Works, they charted the success and failure of over 300 nonviolent and violent campaigns between 1900 and 2006. They found that nonviolent campaigns proved twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as those that resorted to armed insurgency. This was the case regardless of the nature of the regime and its readiness to resort to repression. ( As time has gone on, and the sophistication of nonviolent organiation has improved, the rates of success of nonviolent strategies have continued to improve, while the rates of success of armed insurgency have declined. The main varying factor seems to be mass participation, which is higher in nonviolent struggles and has significant subsequent advantages, including strategic flexibility and diverse and resilient leadership.

Significantly, this disproves the popular adage, attributed to Chairman Mao, that “all political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” This truism is of a piece with the “people are violent, only violence works” theory we are discussing here.

The question will inevitably arise as to whether nonviolent strategies could work against a indiscriminate user of violence, such as ISIS. Leaving aside the fact that it was violence – that is, the invasion of Iraq – that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place, we have seen in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan that continued application of violent methods have not come close to solving the issues in those countries. The question then becomes, do we continue to apply the same failed methods, or do we try to apply methods of nonviolent action that have proven effective in domestic situations? Eventually – perhaps when all other options have been thoroughly exhausted – we will try this.

And the third form of “science” I want to bring into the discussion is the humanities – the human moral voice. Despite the fact that much of the violence in the world today comes from people identifying with one or another religious teaching, in fact both the teachings of the various religions, and their practices, lead to the pursuit of peace as both the means and the end of human existence.

In terms of teachings, virtually every spiritual tradition in the world has a version of the teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In my own Jewish tradition, this is based on the idea that each human being, whatever their “race”, nation, or creed, is created btzelem elohim – in the image of God – and that their life and freedom, and justice itself, are based on this basic, not similarity, but sameness, between us.

It is the application of the moral voice to the scientific method that gave both power and his strategic acumen to the greatest nonviolent strategists, from Gandhi and King through Soo Chi and the Serbian activists of Otpor!. While their opponents were convinced, as our questioner is, that only violence can work in human struggles, they were utilizing the “force more powerful” - nonviolence – and it is the secret to their success – and, potentially, to our own. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel.

The period from the 1967 war to the first Lebanon War in the early 1980s can fairly be said to have been a halcyon era in the American Jewish community's relationship with Israel. During that period – and during that period alone -- American Jewry spoke in one voice about Israel: in solid support of the actions of the elected Israeli government. Ever since, things have been a little more complicated.

The fissures in the American Jewish community over Israel are examined in detail in Dov Waxman's new book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel. Waxman, a professor of political science and Israel studies at Northwestern University, uses survey data and contemporary records to trace the development of the American Jewish “conversation” (more recently, “argument”) over Israel from the early 70s through today. He finds that, although the opinions of American Jews on Israel's actions, particularly around its treatment of the Palestinians under its control, have changed, their emotional connection to Israel (consistently at 60-75% over the years) has not.

Much of this story is in tracing the development of what the pro-Israel left in this country. In the 1970s, the first of these organizations, Breira (“choice”), was made up of Jewish professionals and called for a Palestinian state and talks with the PLO – almost two decades before Oslo. But the Jewish community then was dedicated to uni-vocal support of Israel, and Breira was outside those lines, so it was destroyed, its participants blacklisted from communal employment.

Since then, numerous other such organizations have arisen. The most successful of these, J Street, describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” supporting a two-state solution and – here's the innovation - American pressure on the Israeli government to help convince it to come to such a political deal with the Palestinians. A more radical organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel; this, Waxman notes, puts it “beyond the pale” for a Jewish organization, and thus JVP is not included in the American Jewish “tent,” and Waxman pays little attention to it.

The question of whether the more moderate J Street belongs “in the tent” is a vexing one; in 2014, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted not to allow J-Street to become a member, with the vote going according to the usual fissures these days: the bigger, more liberal organizations – the Reform and Conservative denominations, the Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women voted to include J-Street, while the more small, more politically conservative and Orthodox organizations – such as the National Council of Young Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, voted against.

Which brings up an interesting point: criticism of Israeli policy does not only emanate from the left. The rightist organizations are often quite vocal in opposition to certain Israeli policies, particularly accommodation with the Palestinians and territorial compromise. Yet while whether leftists are allowed in the tent or not remains ever-controversial, rarely are rightists, no matter how extreme, prohibited from speaking at a synagogue or Hillel.

Concurrently with all this, Waxman traces the growth and development of the mainstream Israel advocacy organizations, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. The question of who, exactly, these organizations represent is an important one. The answer, according to Waxman, is that they represent the people in the room. AIPAC draws over 14,000 people to its yearly conferences, and it has activists in virtually every congressional district in the country. However, its membership skews older and more politically conservative, than the Jewish community as a whole. And as with Jewish Federations, the focus on financial support means that the “target audience” is a smaller group of wealthy people, rather than the larger body of Jews.

We're in a time when younger Jews, when they choose to be Jewishly active, prefer to affiliate with organizations that they develop and that reflect their priorities – social justice, environmental, participatory spirituality – rather than join mainstream organizations with huge infrastructure and a particularistic vision, such as fear of antisemitism or uncritical support of an Israel.

We are also in a time when an entire generation of Jews from intermarried households are coming of age and, as Waxman points out, such young people are less committed to religious practice, institutional membership, and political support of Israel. If the community doesn't meet their needs, they are as likely to drop out as to put in the time and effort to change it. Meanwhile, the rates of birth and affiliation within the Orthodox community are higher, and rates of intermarriage are virtually non-existent. While the Orthodox currently comprise around 10% of the American Jewish community, another 50 years of the current demographic trends might show another story.

Waxman's sympathies are clearly with the Zionist left. He thinks it is foolish for mainstream communal organizations to oppose groups like J-Street, which want to be part of the conversation and which, while small in comparison with AIPAC, represent significant numbers of (particularly younger) Jews.

The most challenging part of all of this is how difficult it has become for people to have conversations with each other beyond the boundaries of their various camps. Invective flows freely – typical in this internet age. Progressive rabbis and other communal professionals are so fearful of triggering a negative reaction that they choose not to discuss Israel at all. Thus, as Waxman convincingly demonstrates in this valuable and important book, the very thing that once united the American Jewish community – Israel – now is the thing that divides us most of all.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guns, Guns, Guns

I've had an aversion to guns all my life. One of my first quasi-memories is of Robert Kennedy lying on the floor of the kitchen of the LA hotel. I've never owned a gun, or even (I'm pretty sure) fired one. My first letter to the editor was on this subject in the New York Post, I must have been 12 or 13. And one of the formative experiences of my youth was the shooting death of John Lennon, when I was a senior in high school.

This is an area that is unquestionably worse now than it ever before. After Reagan was shot there was a flurry of gun control activity, and during the Clinton Administration semi-automatic weapons were banned. Yet today we are awash with more guns than ever.

Of course, the fact that I live in Kansas is significant also. Kansas is a "guns everywhere" state; a person no longer has to have any kind of permit or even training to own or carry a gun. The politics of the issue are horrible – the legislature passes another gun-loosening law every year and the margins are huge. I once criticized one of the Democratic representatives on Twitter for co-sponsoring a guns-everywhere bills, and I was upbraided immediately by one of my Democratic activist friends, who told me that this particular representative would lose his next election if he was on the wrong side of this issue. I have another friend, an electrical-lineman who is active in his union, who tells me that, no matter what the impact of the economic or social policies of any particular candidate on his co-workers, if they perceive the Dem to be anti-gun, they'll vote against him. So that's the context.

When the biggest guns-everywhere bill was passed, some of the pastors I know were pretty upset. As of now houses of worship are allowed to ban guns from the premises, and they wanted some assurances that that would continue to be the case. The Lawrence representative told them not to say anything, because if the legislative leadership figured out that they had exempted churches they were more likely to remove the exemption than to codify it.

When we started Interfaith Action, we saw two particular niches we could fill on any particular issue: a) as the faith component of a larger coalition, or b) as the prophetic voice speaking out when the politics don't allow anyone else to speak out. (I had previously filled both these roles, at different times, when discussing climate change.) So we were perfectly comfortable serving as the voice in the wilderness on the gun issue.

As it turns out, the approach that's most promising is "campus carry", which has already passed here and will go into effect in June of 2017. It has elicited a pretty strong backlash. We're working with a number of groups on this issue, which you can follow over on the KIFA page.
But this is my personal blog, so I'm talking about how this affects me personally. I've been spending more time working on and thinking about this issue, because of meetings we've had about campus carry and because we're having an event on Sunday (Mother's Day March Against Gun Violence). I also happen to be taking a course in nonviolence studies through the Metta Center.

To me, the proliferation of guns is represents the very antithesis of the kind of nonviolent, caring, concern-for-the-other world that I would like to live in, and help to build. I mean, you can't get much less nonviolent than a gun.

The other piece that comes up for me is the horrible level of political discourse in the country right now. The presidential campaign is particularly disheartening; but even leaving that aside, people are coming at each other from such polarized points of view that it's hard to even hear what each other is saying.

This applies especially to the gun issue. If you have ever used social media to comment on this issue you know any mention immediately elicits a horde of nameless, faceless gun advocates (I will try not to call them "gun nuts"). It's very disconcerting.

There is also the sometime-implicit, sometimes-explicit threat that if we made any progress on this issue the other side would resort to force of arms. And with 300 million guns in this country, and only (at most) about 40% of the country owning any at all, that means the other side is quite heavily armed, which can't help but impact on the discourse, which is one of the reasons we don't want so many guns in circulation in the first place!

Like most radical right-wing political positions, there is an unmistakable racist subtext here too.
So we've got an issue which is the antithesis of the world we're trying to build, where the other side has all the political power and all the guns and are violently disinclined to accept or hear the arguments of those who don't think having guns everywhere, carried by anyone, is any kind of problem at all.

Care to give me a pep talk, or talk me through the nonviolent approach to this?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


The first time I voted in a presidential primary was for Jesse Jackson in 1984. I voted as a “Democrat Abroad” because I was doing a junior year abroad in England at the time. My reasoning, as best as I can remember it, was that we always vote for the lesser of two evils, so this time I wanted to vote for someone who holds policy positions I agree with. This vote, by the way, led to me being called a “self-hating Jew” for the very first time, by the rabbi of my parents' synagogue.

Since that time there haven't been many Democratic candidates, even in primaries, as progressive as Jackson. One of the few is running this year – Bernie Sanders. His policy positions surely hew closer to mine than do Hillary Clinton's, yet I am mostly staying neutral in the primaries, determined to vote for whoever the winner is. I have many friends who are fervently “feeling the Bern”, yet I am not.

Why? A few reasons:

First, I live in Kansas, which has as much impact on a presidential election as a flea has on an elephant. It's a blood red state, and will go for Donald Trump if he's the nominee. Unless I want to travel to another state (or make a lot of phone calls) getting all worked up about it would have almost zero impact even in the primaries. Meanwhile, our state is a political Superfund site, with a governor and legislative supermajority seemingly determined to seek out and snuff any hint of a Good Thing that might happen in this state. I'd rather focus my energies on that.

Second, I have serious doubts about Sanders' electability in a national campaign. His fans are always touting the polls showing him beating Trump by 20 points, but Hillary has run a rather passive campaign against him, and I'm not at all sure those numbers will hold up after the Republicans throw slime at him for six months. I don't think the word “socialist” will be seen positively in a fall election. By the time the slimers are done with him, I'm afraid, Bernie Sanders will be indistinguishable in wide swaths of the public mind from Hugo Chavez.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, for all her negatives, is by resume the most qualified presidential candidate in my lifetime. What she loses in enthusiasm from the millennial left she will regain from moderate Republicans who can't bring themselves to vote for Trump but consider Clinton moderate enough. Sanders won't get those votes.

And in this election, where the alternative isn't Bob Dole or George Bush Sr. but Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, we can't afford to lose. I have thought all along, and I still think, that Hillary will win in a landslide against either. I'm not at all sure of that with Sanders.

But the main reason is that I see the Bernienauts making the same mistake that we all made with Obama in 2008 – the myth of the miracle worker, or putting all our eggs in the candidate's basket. There is only so much a president can do in the absence of a left infrastructure that hasn't existed in this country for a long time. Even if Bernie won, he would still have a recalcitrant House that would oppose his every move. Clinton will have that too, but I just feel that she could maneuver that better than he could. She's used to making policy, while he's used to being a ideologically pure backbencher; the skills are very different.

Obama has done a lot of good things. He's done some bad things too. But let's not forget that his strong action on climate in the second term coincides with (I would argue, results from) a strong climate movement. Clinton has shown over the past couple of years that she is open to pressure from the grassroots. I don't assume she will have the same positions that she had in 1994, because this isn't 1994. Then, we were coming out of 12 years of Reaganism. Now, we've had 8 years of Obama after 8 years of the disastrous W. The situations are very different, and she will adjust. 

I think Bernie's role is to pull Hillary to the left, which he's done, and to mobilize the left grassroots, which he's also done.

But this whole “if Bernie isn't the candidate I won't vote” bullshit is what I'm afraid of. What kind of “revolution” is it if you disengage as soon as you don't get what you want?

We have a lot of infrastructure to build in this country, a left that's independent of any particular candidate and can both turn out voters for elections and pressure incumbents in between. (What Van Jones called the "inside and outside games.") The right has this, paid for by the Kochs et all; the left does not. An full auditorium, no matter how enthusiastic, is no substitute. If anything lasting is going to come out of Bernie's campaign, it has to be that.

We're going to need it, if we're to expect the left to be stronger during and after Hillary Clinton's presidency than it has been before it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

An Important Announcement

Announcing Kansas Interfaith Action/Kansas IPL 

Dear Friends -

For the past 4+ years, I have served as the Director of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, the statewide organization that serves as “the religious response to climate change.” I have been blessed to meet many of you through this work. Kansas IPL has managed to carve out an important space as an advocate for climate care both in the faith community and in the legislature, despite the (shall we say) lack of sympathy in much of the state toward this issue.

This work continues. We have spent the summer working on the Westar rate case, which stood to put punitive charges on to rooftop solar, and building support for Pope Francis' powerful encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si'. Currently we are advocating for Kansas to develop the strongest possible state plan under the federal Clean Power Plan, is the most significant commitment this country has ever made to lowering our carbon emissions. I am also traveling and sponsoring programming this fall and winter, continuing to make connections in communities around the state.

Organizationally, early last year Kansas IPL came to a fork in the road, when we split off from our previous fiscal sponsor and applied for, and received, our own 501c3 non-profit designation. This led to the board and me thinking deeply about what kind of organization we were going to be.

In my conversations with clergy and lay leaders around the state, and in my work in the legislature, it has become clear that Kansas IPL is filling a unique role in Kansas – not only on climate change, but in general. You see, up till now there has been no statewide organization working with clergy and congregations to develop positive positions on important policy issues from the faith perspective – at least, from the moderate to progressive point of view. Some states have National Council of Churches, some states have state “Impact” organizations – multi-faith, multi-issue advocacy organizations that develop and deliver responses from the faith community on issues of importance. But we done have anything like that in Kansas.

And this absence is particularly felt today, for – as I'm sure you're painfully aware – our state is moving farther and farther every day from the vision of the “beloved community.” In Kansas, taxes on the wealthy are cut while services deteriorate; consumption taxes go up to pay for those tax cuts, causing the poor, working people and the middle class to bear the burden for the more affluent; public schools are underfunded and our teachers berated; Medicaid is privatized and – out of political pique – not expanded; welfare recipients are vilified; guns are allowed everywhere and anywhere; and much more.

And again, while many of us – as individuals, as clergy – speak out on some or many of these issues, there has been as yet no organized effort to bring faith leaders together to lend a moral voice to these questions – all the more frustrating because of the self-righteousness of many of those who propound these harmful policies. It feels to many of us that our religions' teachings are being purposely twisted, virtually taken away from us by who are doing actual harm by their misreading of these teachings.

Well, my friends, the time has come to stand up, get together, and be counted – with love, with moral suasion, with faith. That is why we are announcing the formation of Kansas Interfaith Action/Kansas IPL.

Kansas Interfaith Action/Kansas IPL is an organization that will bring faith voices from around the state together around issues of economic, social, and environmental justice. In our pulpits, in our communities, in the public square, and in the halls of state government, we will envision and advocate for a society that taxes fairly, that cares for those who need it, that educates its young, that cares for its sick, that welcomes the immigrant, that treats all equally, that takes seriously its responsibility to care for Creation, that does not live in fear.

Our first step is putting together a “Clergy Advisory Committee” to help develop and implement a process to decide what our priority issues are going to be for the next year. Please contact me if you are interested in being part of this effort.

Kansas Interfaith Action/Kansas IPL welcomes you, we need you, to help bring Kansas back from the brink, to make it once again the state that we have always loved. As faith leaders we may be reluctant to get involved in “politics”, but we believe things have gone too far for that. We have a unique role to play in articulating a vision of justice, equity and peace for all of our people. For in the famous words of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”