My Neighbor IS Myself

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Mark 12:30-31 

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over the course of my 66 years, I’ve heard people say that they can’t love anyone else because they don’t love themselves.

While I’ve no doubt that many of them had serious attachment disorders, I’m equally convinced that many people are using it as an excuse not to love, or even recognize, their neighbor.

I think there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what Jesus was saying.

I’m not claiming that Jesus told me directly, but I do believe that God is still speaking and that God speaks to me in many ways. Here is the way in which this commandment is revealed to me:

Love your neighbor because you and your neighbor ARE one. Do for your neighbor what you would do for yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one. Give to your neighbor what you would give to yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one.

I was pretty much born believing this. I don’t know where the belief originated in me, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe this, even through a lot of rocky years of having a very fraught relationship with God. Fundamentally, everyone on this Earth is my neighbor and part of me.

Would I make war on myself?

Would I refuse to feed myself?

Would I not avail myself of medical care?

Do I not try to live with dignity?

Do I not want to live out my spiritual beliefs without hindrance?

Do I not want to have a voice in my community?

If my answers are no, then how could I possibly think that other people deserve to be victims of war, of famine, of lack of medical care, of religious persecution, of silencing?

In agreement with John Donne that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” part of me is diminished every day when I learn of a new, horrific result of the polices that are governing this country and this world.

It is inconceivable to me that the director of Homeland Security can sit stony-faced before Congress and the world and blame parents for the death of their children while in Border Patrol custody.

It beggars belief that a person of wealth can shut down the government and put federal workers on furlough, meaning they will never be repaid for the time the government was shut down.

I can’t conceive of a mindset that allows millions of children to die with the gift of US weapons to a murderous regime.

I thought I had been suffering outrage the past two years; it is not outrage, though, it is grief, pure and simple. Grief that sometimes stuns me into a state of numbness. How do I help my neighbor and therefore help myself? At this time in my life, all I feel capable of is writing about it and speaking out about it, and showing kindness to the neighbors I see in person every day, whether I know them or not.

I’m not sure that is enough. God help us all.

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American Imprisonment

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American journalists Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal left a notorious Iranian prison in 2011 after two years in captivity. A third journalist, Sarah Shourd, had already been released in 2010 after the three, who were reporting from Iraq, took a suggested hike and found themselves being accused of having crossed into Iran as spies.

Bauer, who is now married to Shourd, gives a brief account of the ordeal in his book, American Prison, an account of his real undercover exploit as a guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPossibly Bauer, who works for Mother Jones Magazine, is the only person who could truly sum up the brutality of a private prison because he already knew what prison brutality could be like.

And in fact, there were factors in the American prison that he called worse than what he experienced in the Iranian prison.

American Prison,  A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, released this fall, was named in The New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2018.

Just when it seemed that there was hope for prison reform under President Obama, the country fell into the abyss of the Trump regime and the Sessions Justice Department. While Bauer’s experience happened in 2014, there was hope that the tide against mass incarceration and imprisonment for profit might turn.

Instead we have more imprisonment for profit, called detaining young immigrants, and rollback of sentencing laws.

Bauer’s book about one of the prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America (since renamed CoreCivic) is a painful but, in my opinion, necessary read. One will not be surprised that many of the worst abuses are against African-American prisoners. There are no legitimate efforts made to rehabilitate prisoners, and medical attention is applied sparingly because it cuts the profits. Prisoners have died from neglect.

Perhaps the worst is the utter hopelessness that is reflected in Bauer’s voice at the situation prisoners find themselves in. He describes an inmate nicknamed Corner Store who spends a year beyond his sentence in Winn, Louisiana, because his mother lives out of state and the prison provides him with no help in finding a situation in Louisiana that he can be released to.

If possible, even more frightening is Bauer’s own reactions to being a guard. He starts out trying to be empathetic but finds himself becoming hardened as time goes on to a point where he is writing up prisoners for trivial abuses of the Draconian regulations and beginning to not care a damn about the human beings he is hurting.

Bauer underwent this transformation in only four months, before his photographer was discovered on the jail’s property and Bauer and Shroud skedaddled. The photographer was locked up in Winn; Mother Jones’s lawyer was able to get him released.

For-profit prisons operate on a state level, contracting with the state for prisoners. But we can guess that both state and federal prisons are badly in need of reform, as are mandatory sentencing and over-sentencing. Michelle Alexander began the discussion with The New Jim Crow; Bryan Stevenson continued it with Just Mercy. Paul Butler advocates for prison reform in Chokehold, and I’m sure there are other books out there that I not read that advocate the same.

The point is, these books will continue to need to be written until the United States looks at incarceration and sentencing from a true point of justice and not from a point of vengeance.

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.

 

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

A Map of the World

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As a bumbling, stumbling out-of-control toddler lurches his way across the world, knocking alliances and good will into the trash bin and trying to redraw the map of the world, people wonder how he can still be followed by any sane person, let alone be shown homage by the majority of the one group that’s supposed to keep him in check.

A quote from Oscar Wilde came to mind this week and I was introduced to another from Thoreau by my Facebook friend Christopher. I see similarities in them and also a diagnosis of what is wrong with those who continue to enable a narcissistic, greedy wannabe dictator.

Years ago, I saw a play by David Hare called “A Map of the World.” Hated the play but loved the title’s allusion: “Any map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Oscar Wilde

Then this from Thoreau: “Friends . . . they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”

Both quotes are about vision and how one sees oneself in relation to the world. First, a person has to have a vision of the map of the world and then acknowledge the billions of other co-inhabitants of what the Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.”

How do people grow up thinking that they are the only people on earth who deserve any rights, any privileges, any chance of a fulfilling life? How do they grow up never, ever thinking about the needs of anyone else other than their closed community?

How is their curiosity so suppressed that they don’t ever wonder what it’s like to be an African kidnapped from her homeland and brought to a strange country where she must work and possibly (probably) be raped by someone who thinks he “owns” her?

How is their imagination so stifled that they cannot imagine what it was like to be a Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian peasant and suddenly find you’re the “enemy” to airplanes that drop bombs and napalm on your or murder you just because you happen to live where the “enemy” lives?

How did they never develop any sense of empathy that would allow them to imagine having their children kidnapped by the very people they thought would help them?

While “utopia” literally means “nowhere” (from Greek, uonot and topos – place), it was coined by Sir Thomas More to mean a place where all are equal in social status, in economic status, and in political status, a Garden of Eden if you will. More himself, we know now, cared little for the equality of women, whom he scorned, and married only so that he wouldn’t burn in hell for having sexual thoughts and desires.

Still, More’s notion of Utopia lives on, and Wilde’s concern was that our map of the world ought to include a vision for that perfect place. Being gay, and being therefore a criminal who was sent to prison for being gay, Wilde would have had a vested interest in a place where homosexuality was not a crime.

So should we, and let’s include color of skin, religion, language, and ability in there.

As for Thoreau’s beautiful sentiment, shouldn’t we extend cherishing others’ hopes and being kind to other peoples’ dreams to everyone on this planet? Why limit our empathy? Who are we to say that anyone else should not have hopes that we respect and dreams that we do not trample on?

Only willful and determined and carefully cultivated ignorance could possibly account for people to think they are supreme and that anyone not like them is not to be regarded equally. By “ignorance,” I mean ignoring everyone else who does not look, act, or talk like them.

If their ignorance wasn’t so destructive, I might look for excuses why white supremacists grew up without a map of the world or the empathy to cherish other peoples’ hopes and dreams. But that ignorance is evil and deadly, and there is no excuse for it.