Mourning is the homage our bodies, our minds, our souls pay to grievous loss: lost lives, lost dreams, joys, hopes, and expectations, lost innocence, lost innocents. Our first need in a time like this, when loss on an incomprehensible scale has come upon us, is to mourn. Only our souls can tell us when it’s “enough.”
Music, such as the prayers beautifully sung by the rabbi and the young Muslim boy in the Newtown memorial service this week, enable us to grieve as does nothing else I know. I am longing to hear again Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 3, called “Three Sorrowful Songs.” (We have the deeply moving recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.)
Poetry too can be a solemn reminder of our need, if only to stop. This week my heart stopped for another Emily Dickinson poem:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting things away
We shall not need to use again
The grief-swept heart is also a hearth, and its sweeping is a humble task. What then are the tasks to which we who count ourselves among the dedicated community are called? (I do not think you need to be a member of a “religious community,” but I do think you need to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to the common good, responsive to its needs.)
The first task of the dedicated community is to open a space for mourning in our personal and social lives. There is always the temptation “to pass by on the other side,” unlike the Good Samaritan, or to pause briefly and soon forget. The entertainments brought us by the mass media — with the exception of some broadcast and print news outlets– will do everything they can not to let us “stop for Death,” to shut mourning out. This tragic massacre calls upon us to weep with those who can only weep until we and they have wept enough.
The second task is to tell the truth: A demonic evil has visited us, yet again. Has this rough beast finally got our attention? “We know who you are!” the demons cry out to Jesus (see Mark 1:24) — a strange testimony to the way in which a blessed presence brings evil out of hiding, out into the open, hoping to shock and awe us with postured self-importance. “Demonic” signifies deeds that twist what is good to evil ends. Being pressed by Piers Morgan on CNN to justify the absence of gun controls, an unflappable gun seller said, “The truth is shooting semi-automatic guns is fun.” I’d never heard “fun” so stoutly defended, as if he took us for idiots. Demonic expression often takes such grotesque forms. The United States of America is shamed among nations for its culture of violent “fun.” Our task is simply to tell the truth about guns, video games, movies, sports, even art— starting with ourselves.
The third task is to give voice to righteous anger: What keeps our society on its knees, worshipping at the altar of this culture of violence? We have made of “freedom,” precious freedom, an idol, a stuffed scarecrow of a god. We have twisted the image of God – the spiritual freedom in which we are made– into a license to please ourselves and never stop. But of course anger is never righteous unless it is directed to good ends, unless it takes our spiritual freedom in hand and puts it to work. For instance, to enact gun regulation at least as serious as our regulation of ladders, to fund mental health programs at least as much as we fund the TSA, to eliminate obsessively fascinating gratuitously violent entertainments of all sorts.
We can be gratified that President Obama, by saying that we must act as a society to end the violence such as we have seen in Newtown, Connecticut, has heard the public outcry, at last, and has called for legislative action. He has once again showed himself to be our Pastoral President — a calm and consoling leader, calling the flock to support one another, praising Newtown’s example of courage and compassion before the world. Knowing that a minister is also a community organizer, he also said that we, America, must do better by our children and by even ourselves, in concrete and costing ways. He thereby puts not only us but also himself on the spot, actually to do it!
But lest we too quickly pass by this ugly visitation, Death — this eruption of demonic fury, laughing in our faces as it crams the innocents into its maw — lest we fail to stop and ponder the meaning of this meaninglessness, I want to cite Ross Douthet’s column in the New York Times, December 16, “The Loss of the Innocents.”
“In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed—babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of five locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God—a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“ ‘Can you understand,’ he asks his more religious sibling, ‘why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? . . . Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?’
“Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at ‘too high a price.’ Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth ‘the tears of that one tortured child.’
“It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
“In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
“In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today—besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow—is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
“That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
“The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable—the shadow of violence, agony and death.
“In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”
Journalists and poets have become our theologians. Who will be our prophets?
From the least of them to the greatest
every one is greedy for unjust gain;
And from prophet to priest,
every one deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
Saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 6: 13-14
On December 2 the New York Times reported: “Israel’s announcement on Friday that it was moving ahead with zoning and planning preparations for the [4.6 square mile area known as E 1] . . . would connect the large Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, dividing the West Bank in two. The Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem would be cut off from the capitol, making the contiguous Palestinian state endorsed by the United Nations impossible.”
We have reached the tipping point in public awareness that the so-called “two state solution” has slipped beyond our grasp, never to be retrieved. Year after year the Likud-led coalition of Israeli parties has claimed that it wanted serious “peace negotiations” with the Palestinians. Now it is apparent to all that the nice picture painted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–“two sovereign states living in peace side by side, one Palestinian and the other Jewish Israel”—is a myth designed to mask the truth. She knows this, of course, but finds it inexpedient to say so. We’ve known for many years that, with the Likud ascendancy, hard-line and religiously fundamentalist Israelis have sought to spread Israeli settlements as rapidly as possible in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (which they call “Judea and Samaria”). To this overarching aim they seek to perpetuate the occupation of Palestine and keep the massive military aid flowing from the United States. The U. S. Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, loves it.
The idea of a truly independent Palestinian state—With its own military? With equal rights to water resources? With a right of return from the Palestinian diaspora? With a shared capitol in Jerusalem?—is utterly out of the question to dominant Israeli public opinion. The best we can foresee is a Palestinian Bantustan, or two, or three, with economic conditions kept so meager that any talented Palestinians will emigrate. I find myself painting a picture that Netanyahu himself could love! Only one problem: It will be an apartheid state, dotted with impoverished, semi-autonomous reservations for the natives, united by figurehead leaders, as we see today in Gaza and the West Bank. If this picture looks familiar, it’s because this is pretty much what we already have.
For a long time we’ve imagined that, somehow, a just peace would be negotiated. President Bill Clinton invested a lot of political capitol in the effort, and got burned. President George W. Bush, sensing it was a loser, and didn’t even try. Then came President Barack Obama, whose advent was crowned as if with leafy fronds on Palm Sunday: Hail the Nobel Peace Laureate! His only efforts have been to protest—ever so mildly—the expansion of Israeli settlements as “not helpful to the peace process.” Which Mitt Romney, predictably, called “throwing Israel under the bus.”
So, what’s brought us to the present tipping point, the collapse of the “peace process” in quest of “the two-state solution”? The Israeli response to Mr. Abbas’s successful bid for United Nations recognition of Palestine as a “non-member State” (rather than “Entity,” as at present), announcing thousands of new homes for Israelis to be built in occupied East Jerusalem. The overwhelming vote left the United States in splendid isolation from world opinion. So much for Mr. Obama’s repairing of our national reputation!
Obama has remained silent on the issue, allowing his minions, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice to carry the political water for him. Both justified our vote against recognizing Palestine in this minor way, saying it will be “a setback for the peace process” and “changes nothing on the ground”—words that are true only in the sense that the Israelis, as they well knew, would punish the Palestinians with another massive building program in occupied territory. It had long been planned, the New York Times reported. U.S. protests against these building projects have a ritual quality; there is no follow-up, military aid is never at risk. The retaliation nicely serves the real Likud goal, sealing their illegal annexation of East Jerusalem with irreversible “facts on the ground.”
In East Jerusalem in 2007 I saw the banners placed high on buildings celebrating the 40th anniversary of the “annexation.” Even then I was naïve enough to be shocked. (My sermon, “Journey to Israel and Palestine: What I Saw, What I Heard, What I Felt,” is now posted on the “Addresses and Sermons” page of this blog.) Although the annexation and the settlements in occupied lands are illegal under international law, the U. N. is unlikely to do anything about it. We can expect Hamas, from its base in Gaza, to continue it’s sporadic attacks on Israel. Are these rockets counterproductive? A hopeful view of the situation says No, not helpful. But recent experience suggests that such attacks actually garner moral support. This comes both from within the Palestinian bloc and from much of the world, which stands horrified at the massive Israeli military responses.
Ironically, these attacks also serve the Likud interests, for they maintain the psychology of a mortal enemy on their borders, needed to justify their continued expropriation of Palestinian land.
The upshot of this demonic situation? A one-state solution! It’s time to drop the two-state myth. Let the whole of Palestine/Israel be one country. Would it be a democracy, enfranchising everybody? Maybe, some day. Would it still have racially segregated and unequally funded public schools, among other indicators of legalized injustice? Maybe not, some day. Look how long it took the United States to address these issues, and we’re still far from done with it. Though I suspect the world no longer has that much time; something will explode, first.
A writer of “romance” novels in a recent interview said that her stories are popular—among other obvious reasons—because they have the kind of endings people naturally wish for, happy endings. I’m afraid that this commentary does not have a happy ending. “From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely, . . . saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” Call these words a “Jeremiad” if you wish, but know that Jeremiah was considered a true prophet because his prophesies proved true.
G. K. B. (Photos taken in 2007 by G. K. B.)
. . .such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
William Butler Yeats supplied an explanatory footnote to these final lines from “Sailing to Byzantium”: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sing.” Only art–“the daughter of hope and memory”—can achieve permanence, an imagined perfection. All else is transient.
Now I have sailed, I mean flown, to Byzantium, the ancient Greek city that Emperor Constantine renamed Constantinople in the Fourth Century to glorify himself, and the conquering Turks renamed Istanbul in the Fifteenth. The Old City, called Sultanhamet, is commercially vibrant, with its mother of all shopping centers, the Grand Bazaar, and crammed with monuments of political power and cultural grandeur. The Emperor’s palace is gone, the Sultan’s palace remains, beautifully preserved in stone and enameled tile.
A short walk from the palace we find the huge Blue Mosque; our volunteer guide was a carpet salesman we met when we paused in front of his store. He explained the features of the structure (called “blue” from it’s magnificent interior blue tiles) and its functioning in Islamic practice. The wall-to-wall carpeting marks out spaces for the men standing or kneeling for prayers, close-packed shoulder to shoulder “lest the Devil slip between you.” (Women are kept from view, lest the Devil. . . .) Faith lends solidarity, and solidarity, faith. How articulate this layman was about his religion, and how glad to share it with us!
Yes, we did go to see his carpets, and no, we didn’t buy. My attitude soured when he suggested that the 9/11 attacks were known in advance and perhaps instigated by our government. I argued briefly with his conspiracy theory and left it at that; such a discordant note was a reminder of the persistence of suspicions and enmities. Even in this seemingly tolerant society—few young women cover their heads and arms—is rooted in a cultural identity sharply distinct from our own.
Only one other time did I feel the urge to question an interpretation of history. An attractive, outgoing young guide, leading us on a hike through the fantastic landscape of Cappadocia (“mushroom” pinnacles, cave dwellings, an underground city) explained that after World War I a million Christians from the region had moved to Bulgaria, and a million Muslims had moved from Bulgaria to Turkey. This most ancient Christian land was now almost devoid of the people who made it so, and the final cleansing came less than a century ago! Our guide made the forced uprooting of populations sound like a mutually agreed exchange. I didn’t question her version, but let it pass for amity’s sake. After all, many peoples and many faiths had succeeded one another in this land.
This too set me to thinking about the succession of civilizations and their defining religious faiths: the greatest structure of them all, Santa Sophia—or in Greek, Hagia Sophia. It was built between 532 and 537 under the emperor Justinian—but let us give the architects due credit!—by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. The following year it was consecrated to Holy Sophia, a feminine designation of the divine rooted in the Wisdom books of Hebrew scriptures. It is called “one of the most perfect examples of Byzantine architecture, its chief feature being its enormous dome, supported by piers, arches, and pendentives [the arched supports for a dome], and pierced by 40 windows, which crowns the basilica.”
In 1453 the Turks added minarets, effaced its Christian iconography, and declared it a mosque. High on the interior walls are huge, circular placards—canvass on wooden frames—bearing inscriptions from the Koran. It is a museum, now, devoid of worshipers. Yet in its art, proud daughter of memory and hope, the sacred remains.
As you may have read, the Turkish government has been seeking the return of ancient works of art taken by Western collectors, now in museums. That seems fair, even if Islam had nothing to do with most of these works. It would also be fair—but far less likely—for Turkey to return Hagia Sophia to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vast human sufferings and cultural depredations have come with the succession of religions and civilizations. Nothing reminds us of this more vividly than the marvelous Archeology Museum in Istanbul: a few beautiful artifacts remain.
A succeeding religion lords it over its conquered and dispossessed predecessor; it also hates those who claim, in turn, to succeed it. In truth all are transient and stand in need of the holy wisdom that finds permanence in this common human condition. May we feel compassion for all, affirm respect for all, deeply appreciate all. Standing awestruck in Hagia Sophia, that was my prayer.
G. K. B.
I have learned some practical things from Barbara. For instance, in the use of language, written or spoken, “Be specific and you’ll be terrific.” Or when a clear-cut judgment is called for, recalling what Martha Graham said to her in a dance class, a few years ago, during a particularly excruciating exercise: “My dear, either the toe is pointed. . . or it is not.” Such words become family by-words. Like the New Yorker cartoon depicting a statuesque woman on the TV screen, clobbering a piece of meat while a man leans eagerly forward and declaims, “Sock it to ‘em, Julia, baby!” Years later Barbara took her framed, kitchen-spattered copy of the cartoon to a book signing where Julia Child happily autographed it.
The caption became another oft-repeated by-word, a quick way of saying what Emerson said more elegantly, “Nothing great has been accomplished without enthusiasm.” Do other long-married couples do this—accumulate one-liners, apt phrases, specific sayings—that come up in a day’s conversation again and again? No doubt. Barbara and I have had an uncommonly long time to do the accumulating. We married on June 21, 1958, “the longest day and the shortest night of the year,” as her mother Elsie, eyes wryly squinting, reminded me. We were very young.
Barbara has accomplished a great many things since that day, and never without enthusiasm. The following tribute to her attests to the fact, in one realm of her hyperactivity:
2012 Louis C. Cornish “Living the Mission” Award
For Outstanding Contributions to International Partnership
Presented by the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council to
A founder of the UU Partner Church Council, present at the initial 1993 organizational meeting in Charlotte, NC, Barbara has made constant, adroit and abundant contributions to the UUPCC and to international awareness among Unitarian Universalists. As a Board member until 2009, Barbara was a shrewd representative to the Czech Unitarian Church, playing a crucial role as negotiator, diplomat and advocate for the integrity of the Czech Unitarian Church.
With management acumen, good sense and great humor, Barbara nurtured policies and practices that have strengthened the foundation of the UUPCC. As Secretary, the President of the UUPCC, she smoothed the transition from an all-volunteer organization to one with a vital partnership of engaged volunteers and capable staff. Never parochial in her loyalties, always she has reached out to other international organizations to collaborate in mutually beneficial ways, negotiating memoranda of understanding with the UUA and other collaborators. Valuing work both global and local, she was instrumental in the development of the Greater Washington Area Partner Church Council.
Barbara’s smile lights up every room. Whether by dancing in consort with her first husband Kim or with administrative savvy and derring-do, Barbara brings passion, prudence and joy to our common commitments. We are delighted to celebrate all that she brings to the international UU community, to the UUPCC, and to Unitarian Universalists everywhere.
[signed] Richard Van Duizend, Board Chair, June 2012
The funny thing is, it’s all true. I just wish she’d stop introducing me as her first husband. After all, we still work “in consort”!
I’m proud of Barbara’s achievements, and delighted that the Partner Church Council has honored her for her manifold efforts for international liberal religion and its institutions. It’s an astonishing record—in which, please note, she didn’t just volunteer—they drafted her again and again. The citation understandably focuses on her PartnerChurch work—which has been local, in Arlington and Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as national and international. There’s more.
Barbara was UUA Delegate and Treasurer of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists for several years, with memorable meetings in Spain and Germany. (On the last of these I came to Oberwesel, on the Rhine above the Lorelei rocks, to rescue my veritable Rhinemadschen, hospitalized after a bruising fall.) She was the keynote speaker for the International Association of Liberal Religious Women, in Kochi, India. They drafted her on the spot to help moderate subsequent sessions of the IARF Congress, for which the Dalai Lama spoke—no, radiated blessedness. On our Philippines adventure, last winter, see my previous blog posting, “The God Who Made the Earthquake.”
The beat goes on. When the UU women of the Southwest were organizing the first International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, in Houston, three years ago, they drew Barbara first into the organizing committee and finally into the Presidency of the fledgling organization. No wonder. (She has stage presence. She strikes up conversations with strangers. She lights up the room. Her beau coup phone conversations are punctuated with laughter.) Some 600 women from 18 countries came to that first gathering. Transylvania Unitarian women have now taken the lead to organize the Second Convocation, in Maros Vasarhely next October. We’ll be there, Barbara out front, I the trailing consort.
I’ve often noticed that when Barbara talks about her childhood, all the stories are drawn from age 7 or earlier: Life in SlavicVillage, Cleveland, Ohio, in the family compound around E. 52nd and Broadway. Did you notice, in the citation cited above, the strange story of her being a “shrewd representative to the CzechUnitarianChurch”? It’s inexplicable, except for her motivation–SlavicVillage lives!
I, being thoroughly suburbanized, missed such myth-laden geography. But I did not miss Barbara’s development as a student (and dancer) at Oberlin and Harvard, a high school English teacher, a modern dance teacher with children, a liturgical dance leader in five UU churches I served as minister, a researcher and writer on museum education and on children’s museums, a TV arts education developer, an editor of two national education journals, president of the Holbrook and Kellogg Co. (name invented from my waspish-sounding ancestors); publications director and finally a Director of Strategic Corporate Relations for Management Concepts, Inc., a training company in Fairfax County, Virginia.
What did they teach at MCI? So far as I can tell, specifically two things: FOCUS and EXECUTION. She already knew that from Martha Graham. I used to say her real job was talking to strangers–on the phone, at big conferences, wherever she happened to be—for the good of good ol’ MCI. All this did not, emphatically did not, come easily. They are not selling widgits.
Nor have I mentioned ongoing volunteer work, with a foot in two locales—serving on the Boards of the upstart Madison County Education Foundation, and the Fairfax County Arts Council. One year she organized the Council’s International Children’s Festival, and was scolded by the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China for inviting the Children’s Folk-Sport of Taiwan to participate: “Mrs. Beach, do you not know that Taiwan is NOT a country?”
How did she learn to do all that? By raising two sons and, so far, one husband. By the noble vocation (and serious human relations training ground) called Minister’s Spouse. Or Consort, if you prefer. By teaching, dancing, and really great cookery. By being specific, by keeping the toe pointed, and by socking it to ‘em. –GKB
“Though we have very agile minds, able to penetrate into the mysteries of nature, we put this gift and attainment to ignoble uses.” –Jonathan Edwards (1750)
In a world that seems awash in violence, our voices need be raised and raised again for peace. On this Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2012, even news of the Olympics in London is drowned out by news of yet another mass murder in America, this time what appears to be a racist “hate crime” perpetrated against a Sikh community, at worship in their temple in Wisconsin.
(A reporter asked a Sikh to explain their religion, and the man replied with an admirable clarity and directness: Sikhs accept three responsibilities—to give homage to God, to work industriously, and to give back to the community—by which we mean the whole community, not just our religious group.)
Two weeks before it was the man in the Colorado movie theater, who seems to have been motivated by nothing deeper than the insane wish to play “the Joker” role in the latest pop-culture craze, the Batman movies. Also, back in the news today is the fellow who, one year ago, shot Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others in Arizona at a political rally, and now may face trial. Again we look for a motive, and can only say that everything about the case points to the stimulus of extreme political language, including “targeting” opponents for defeat.
Yes, in each case the perpetrator “must have been insane.” But insanity too has a social context: a culture of xenophobia and hatred, which feeds on violent imagery and imagines guns are a quick fix and a glorious extension of oneself. We as a society must take control of our own social context: dismantling hate groups, stopping the endless diet of gratuitous violence in mass entertainment, eliminating the politics of vilification and the megaphones provided to it by the mass media, and, of course, the total removal of automatic and so-called semi-automatic weapons.
Effecting a domestic peace agenda will not be easy. Every analysis, and every proposal to remediate the situation, brings forth howls of protest. These wielders of the political veto are so vociferous that our political leaders are intimidated. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney has so much as mentioned gun control after our latest round of atrocities (and let’s stop dignifying them with the term “tragedy”). They’ve been told they will lose votes. We’d rather hunker down.
Effecting an international peace agenda will be even more difficult. Here too our political leaders refuse to lead. Mr. Romney goes to Israel and assures its extreme right wing, Netanyahu and Co., that we will back them when they do what they’ve been itching to do for a long time now: bomb Iranian nuclear installations. Backing them means, of course, going to war with Iran when Iran retaliates against Israel (and the US, if only covertly), as it surely will. While President Obama dithers, his Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, publicly “predicts” preemptive action by Israel; diplomatically, it was giving them the green light. All this so that one nuclear power can strike out at a hostile, would-be nuclear power, thus assuring its deepening hostility for yet another generation. Demagogues need each other to shore up the political base.
To say “all options are on the table” is to say we are ready to go to war. In 1945 President Harry Truman took up the option that scientists with “very agile minds” had put on his war-making table: atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities (rather than, say, naval installations). Controversial, yes. Morally defensible, no. Ah, how hard it is to find heroes in such stories!
This is our Hiroshima Day, 2012. Some Israelis have chosen this day to protest their Defense Ministry, with a simple message: “No to war with Iran! Do not bomb. Talk.” I learned of this event from the brilliant and brave critic, Adam Keller, director of Gush Shalom, whom I met in Tel Aviv a few years ago.
(Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org; Israeli Committee for a Middle East Free of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons, email@example.com; Unitarain Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, www.uujme.org .)
My old friend and colleague Richard Boeke has forwarded notes from the Hiroshima Remembrance held early today at the HorshamPeaceGarden, in England. Several haiku were read, including these:
Hoeing, I gather bones
from Hiroshima’s burnt earth
under the blazing sun.
with an iron will,
This is our cry.
This is our prayer.
Peace in our world.
“Mmm. Too bad it isn’t a sin! –Andre Gide, on first tasting ice cream
Recently Barbara and I drove the Washington Beltway at rush hour—a venture comparable of trekking half-way upMt.Everest, as friend Tom Dungan did recently. We went not as Sir Hillary said, “Because it is there,” but because the SilverDocs festival was there, in Silver Spring,Maryland. It was not, I assure you, “the journey itself” but the destination that amply rewarded us. Namely, the first public showing at the prestigious American Film Institute festival of a documentary (created by Rob and Lisa Fruchtman) about women in Rwanda who are doing two things: drumming and making ice cream. It’s called “Sweet Dreams.”
To explain. Our niece Alexis Miesen and her business partner Jennie Dundas established an ice cream shop featuring their own scrumptious Blue Marble brand in Brooklyn, NY, a few years ago. Jennie’s contact with Kiki Katese, a Rwandan, and Alexis’s first-hand engagement in African development programs led them, at Kiki’s urging, to help a group in Butare to establish their own ice cream shop. Ms. Katese had already formed Ingoma Nshya, the first-ever women’s drumming group (heretofore a men-only activity in Rwanda), and she envisioned the ice cream shop as a way of their generating much needed family income, and business skills, and . . . something more.
The film begins with the drumming of 20 or more beautifully regaled Rwandan women—ecstatic in performance and mesmerizing in effect—and goes on to explore their lives, and their coming together in a cooperative to create Inzozi Nyizaa, a shop with ice cream made entirely from local ingredients. There are some tense moments, getting started. At first the freezer doesn’t freeze. Not everyone can get a job. The expenses and income must work out. Sometimes an employee must be let go. And what about advertising when, at first, the customers don’t come flocking in to enjoy this unfamiliar delight—even if “it’s not a sin”? So there is plenty of human drama in this wonderfully made documentary.
But why ice cream in Rwanda? Don’t they need basic things like nourishing food and education and health care and . . . ? No doubt. Equally we could ask, why drumming? An answer was suggested by the film, and by the panel—the filmmakers, Kiki, and Alexis—in the open discussion following the screening. The genocide of 1994, in which the people of one tribal group (Hutus, a disadvantaged majority) massacred the people of another tribal group (Tutsis, favored under the Belgian colonial regime) has left deep psychic scars. The film shows how individuals and the society continue to struggle a profound sense of grief and sense of violation. They need the means of material well-being, but they also need spiritual well-being—which is what “salvation” really means.
This is the “something more” that Kiki Katese perceived as profoundly needed by the people of Rwanda: An opening toward the future, personal and communal hope. The drumming group brings Tutsis and Hutus together in a joyful experience of “laughter and forgetting,” the kind of psychic release that makes a new beginning possible. The ice cream shop brings not only skills and incomes and savings accounts—enabling some to achieve goals such as college education and new homes—but also, after all the bitterness, the happiness of something sweet. Its name captures this meaning, for Inozizi Nyizi means “Sweet Dreams.”
More needs be said. It is not only people “over there” who need hope, confidence, and other ingredients of psychic well-being. It is we ourselves. Whatever our personal circumstances the daily news is profoundly discouraging. The more so when up when good news finally comes.
Just as the Rwanda genocide was beginning, I was writing my little book, If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question? Its chapter, “The Moral Covenant,” provided a short list from the day’s news, events exemplifying the moral disorder of our times: the murder of a gay teen by a teen gang, the self-justifications of a notorious murderer and rapist, genocide in Bosnia, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, right wing American calls to “religious and cultural war,” continued confiscations of Palestinian land by Israel, displacement of American workers by “investment Capitalists” (Kohlberg Kravits). The entire list has a dreadfully familiar ring. It would be easy to count the occurrence, among these items, of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, wrath, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and sloth.
I went on, in my book, to ask about newsworthy examples of the Four Cardinal Virtues—prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. I noted two, which will also have a contemporary ring: Jean Sutherland, released from 444 days’ captivity in Iranduring the hostage crisis of the 1980s. She spoke of the need to forgive and forget, to move on and to live. And Aung San Suu Kyi, placed under house arrest for her persistent calls for freedom and justice in Burma. The unexpected joy this year is her release and election to the Burmese parliament, followed by her triumphant international tour and receiving, in Oslo, the Nobel Peace prize which had been awarded in absentia in 1994
Two women of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. They give us more hopeful dreams. Renewing our confidence in the goodness of others, our own confidence is renewed.
There are of course many other examples, including the women we meet in the film, “Sweet Dreams.” My If Yes book was later reprinted (and is still available) under a straightforward title that my publisher insisted upon, Questions for the Religious Journey. I still like the original title, convoluted as a pretzel though it be. If yes is the answer, what is the question to which it answers? What elicits your life-affirmation, your “Yes!” to life? For instance, if drumming and ice cream are the answer, what is the question? What fundamental human need, including my personal need, do these good things respond to?
I’m struck by how similar these thoughts are to my reflections, last month, on Albert Schweitzer’s long quest for an intuitively valid ethical principle and his being suddenly overcome, upon seeing a herd of bathing hippos in an African river, by a sense of “reverence for life.” And my own sense of reverence upon discovering two tiny fawns in my vineyard. If fawns and hippos are the answer, if women and men of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice are the answer, the question is this: Where do I continue to find hope, confidence, and other signals of transcendence in my life? And share these gifts with others?
For information on the documentary, go to “Sweet Dreams.com”; for my book, Questions for the Religious Journey, see the Publications page of this blog.
“Slowly we crept up-stream, laboriously feeling—it was the dry season—for the channels between the sandbanks. Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘reverence for life.’ The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I found my way to the idea in which world- and life-affirmation and ethics are contained side by side.”
Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought (1948), p. 185
Yesterday, tying up my blessed Norton grapevines, yet again—they grow so vigorously at this season and, in contrast to the rather sedate ways of vinifera vines, want to plop over and spread out and mingle with the over-grown grasses and weeds—something brown, something I’d just uncovered under a particularly refulgent vine, caught my eye. Looking back to the vine I’d just finished, I saw a small fawn, no larger than a good-sized cat, curled in on itself, lying very quiet. It made no move as I approached, but watched me through big smoky eyes. I wondered if it could walk, how long it had waited there for its mother, whether its mother would be alarmed if she could sense that I’d petted her baby.
I moved on, into the last row in this long, late-spring vineyard labor (if I could not call it “a labor of love” I would think myself crazy) when I discovered another fawn, hardly distinguishable from the first, in a similarly bowered spot. I went back to the house for a camera, to record this “visitation.” It was something less than a herd of hippos in an African river, but the event lent me a similar sense of reverent hush, of being blessed. It caused me to be concerned for these two young lives—twins, perhaps—so alone, so at the mercy of whatever beast should discover them. Even one such as I!
I learned Albert Schweitzer’s story of how he came upon the idea of “reverence for life” long ago in my Unitarian Sunday School. Dorothy Teare, one of our teachers, the mother of a best friend, Richard, was especially devoted to Schweitzer. I remember the small bust of Schweitzer in the Teares’ home. Ever since, when I transport insects out of doors, rather than assassinate them (I’m not a Jain, so all species do not receive this consideration), Barbara says I’m “doing my Albert Schweitzer thing.”
A few years ago UUA President William Sinkford modestly suggested that we Unitarian Universalists renew our acquaintance with “reverence.” To die-hard rationalists it seemed like a radical suggestion. I could only smile: Just how rudimentary can we get in our theology? But “judge not”: there is a genius in Sinkford’s suggestion, and in Schweitzer’s ecstatic certainty: reverence for life—a term so simple, so pure, so rooted in primal feeling.
InAustin,Texas last weekend for a wedding and to preach at my former church, I found myself in conversation with John Berry, a poet and friend going way back. I don’t recall how we got into it, but John said he’s found that, when you go looking for something, it hides; when you walk away, it unexpectedly comes to you. Schweitzer’s story of how he came upon “reverence for life” seems to be a case in point. Should I not say I came upon those fawns, but that they came to me?
That would mean reading the whole experience symbolically, as an event that becomes meaningful when we see how it points beyond itself. And to be sure, that’s what I’ve been ruminating recently: How to think theologically? Or more pointedly: Why do we believe in God? “Ah! Suddenly those fawns arrived at my very feet!”
And almost as soon, they were gone. When I came back a couple of hours later they were nowhere to be seen. I imagine mother deer had been watching from the nearby woods, and that, even at their tender age—a few days?—she had been able to shepherd her babes to safety. To do her own “reverence for life thing.” G. K. B.