Live Together More: A Conversation With Craig Greenfield

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“Gustavo Gutierrez’s provocative words rang in our ears: ‘You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?’

Subversive Jesus

Craig Greenfield is a man who has made a lot of remarkable decisions. A living embodiment of Jesus’ instruction to practice table fellowship with the poor, Greenfield has dedicated much of his adult life to caring for and empowering children, especially orphans of AIDS and systemic injustice. Greenfield decided to spend six years living in the slums of Cambodia, and then when he needed a break from having his family’s home demolished repeatedly by the Cambodian government, decided to spend six years practising fearless community in the infamous “drug ghetto” of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Along the way Greenfield became the leader of Servants, an international fellowship of people dedicated to living in community with people in some of the world’s toughest places. Greenfield then went on to found Alongsiders International, an organisation which follows that mandate according to his own vision. More recently he wrote a bestselling book, Subversive Jesus; and has become a social media presence as a loving critic of mainstream charities. On Mayday 2016 I sat down at a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s iconic working class coffee shop, in East Vancouver, to talk with Greenfield.

The Tim Hortons on Commercial Dr is cramped, plastic, and opens into a mall. Inside Craig Greenfield was doing what he does, bringing life regardless of surroundings. I found Craig seated at a table with a friend, John Baird. John had tattoos on his face and hands, and his warm brown eyes paid close attention from under his scraggly grey hair. He was wearing a neck brace from a recent bicycle accident. John is a resident of the downtown eastside who became a member of the Servants community Greenfield co-founded in Vancouver more than a decade ago. “When Craig was here”, Baird said, “Craig and his wife, three days a week I went to the community for dinner there. We would sing songs just before dinner. It was the best time of my life, the best time ever.”

John stayed to join in the conversation, complementing it with his thoughtful presence. Craig looked like a friendly pirate, with goatee, broad, open face, and sunglasses perched on his greying hipster mohawk. In fact, Greenfield spent a few rare moments in the spotlight in Vancouver for his Pirates of Justice flash mobs where protesters decked out like swashbucklers shone a light on slavery-like working conditions on the cruise ships that pull into the city. Greenfield played Jack Sparrow to a tee, and you could see it wasn’t that much of a stretch.

Craig’s new book is doing well, #1 in it’s category on Amazon. “It’s been a really positive response. I’ve been waiting for the pushback.” He laughs, and adds, “There was a line in one of the reviews that I loved, ‘Greenfield  veers into leftist economics at times, but we can forgive him that’.” Craig points out that John is in the book too.

“Without Craig and his wife Nay I wouldn’t be here today”, says John. “I wouldn’t have lived.”

Greenfield’s work in Cambodia, which continues today, centres on empowering Cambodian youth to walk alongside younger children, forming mentoring relationships and offering love in a way that saves lives and changes futures. “The children’s needs are so great”, says Greenfield. “Half of their mothers are sex workers. They are thrilled just by the sight of a piece of bread. They will fight over slices of cucumber.”

Craig sees the root causes of poverty in Cambodia and Vancouver as both similar and different. “There is systemic injustice in both countries and poverty that flows out of that. The details are different- war there, the residential schools here (where the government attempted to forcefully integrate Indigenous children). The similarity is that poverty flows out of multiple generations of systemic injustice.”

Greenfield is critical of institutional charities. Echoing the sentiments of activists like Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers Movement) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian liberation theologian), Greenfield argues that instead of advocating for justice, a lot of charity work stops at taking care of the victims of injustice. “I critique it because I want us to go further”, he says, “It’s done with a good heart and I don’t want to discourage people,  I want them to think deeper and more structurally. What transforms lives is mutual relationship, not just hand-outs.”

I pointed out that a friend of mine who works at an institutional charity had said something almost identical to me. Well, I still have to critique those institutional charities, because they may say that, but within their policies the relationships they can have with people are limited. I believe we need to invite people into our homes. People long for change, people have a sense that they want to do things differently. But systems are there to stop us and set us up as benefactors and beneficiaries.”

Living in community with the poor, instead of hiring other people to be charitable for us, is at the heart of Greenfield’s mission. The scriptural heart of Greenfield’s vision is Luke 14:12, which reads:  When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.It’s so funny”, says Greenfield, “because, how clear is that passage? People don’t even try to reframe it or interpret it so it says something else, because they can’t. No one applies it!“

Craig frequently mentions a Cambodian proverb at the heart of Alongsiders:, “It takes a spider to repair its own web.” The vision at the heart of Alongsiders could be summed up as the intersection of Luke 14:12 and this Cambodian wisdom: it is about empowering others through fellowship, not practising charity toward them.

Greenfield says that he grew up with a domesticated image of Jesus. In his teenage years, he rebelled against that, walking away from the faith for years. His parents, though, practised radical hospitality and lived in “a very radical way”. Greenfield seems to have imbibed his parent’s way of life while rejecting the “Jesus meek and mild” of the conservative Church he grew up in. Greenfield prefers the Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.

Despite Greenfield’s passion for his own mission, he is not calling all people to imitate what he has done. “There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book”, he writes in Subversive Jesus. His advice for those inspired by his message is simple: community. “Wherever you are, find ways to bring people together. This is my advice: live together more.”

 

Darkness Descends on the American Election

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for President, speaks at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA. Monday, September 14, 2015. Photo: Christopher Dilts/Bernie 2016

 

As the last few primary results come in, it is now close to certain that Hilary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president. Sanders’ accomplishment has been gargantuan- as well as transforming the tone and focus of the entire Democratic platform, he has come from so far behind in the race he was dismissed as a joke at the start to nearly dethroning Hillary. For many of us observers around the world, the descent of Bernie is the descent of darkness on this election cycle, leaving two singularly uninspiring contenders.

Bernie, despite being a Jewish socialist, has similar values to American presidents of long ago, and would have represented a return to the radicalism and deep egalitarianism of America at it’s best. He also would lead a return to a less socially, internationally and ecologically violent country on many fronts. Sanders is on the NRA’s enemy list, is more prone to education than incarceration, more confrontational towards police abuses and racism, critical of fracking and the fossil fuel industry, and is much less supportive of military intervention on the international stage.

Why is Sanders losing? Well, no doubt it is largely because many voters are attracted to Clinton’s positives: she is a woman; she is experienced in the highest echelons of power; she will protect the interests of the neoliberal status quo. No doubt some truly believe she is progressive or a feminist or has some other ethical principles they admire at her core. That her core is none of these things but rather the pursuit of power itself- equally true of her opponent, Trump- will no doubt be clear to discerning historians of the future.

Calling the election “stolen” or “rigged” is probably an overstatement. It is reasonable to note, however, that both the mainstream media and the Democratic establishment had stacked the decks against Bernie from the beginning. The super delegates who were committed to Clinton before the primaries began also cast a long shadow over the last several weeks.

Sanders’ supporters are angry, and some have become belligerent and abusive. No doubt today the media will begin drawing parallels to Trump’s violent supporters. This is a somewhat overwrought comparison, of course. Sanders’ supporters and Trump’s supporters are angry, yes, and it’s true that they share some of the same grievances- poverty, corrupt politicians, a feeling of disenfranchisement. Trump’s supporters want to rid the US of immigrants and Muslims, to push back against what they see as damaging progressive values, and to solve white America’s problems by re-asserting white supremacy. Sander’s supporters want medicine and education for all, an end to political bribery, an end to subsidies for the super-wealthy, reduced militarism, and justice and equality for all, including non-white Americans. These are important differences.

Sanders himself is reportedly feeling bitter and acting  irritably and combatively in the final days of his campaign. This is surely understandable. Sanders has been slogging away on the Senate floor for decades fighting for the same issues. Videos clearly showing him relentlessly hammering away for justice and reason in the halls of power, saying the same things year after year after year. Since running for President, he has seen a massive grassroots movement rise to support him- witness the massive crowds at his rallies in California, reportedly topping 60,000 people. His campaign has been marked by both principle and beauty- has anyone ever made campaign ads like his? An incredible roster of artists, academics, and activists rose to stand with Bernie, and despite his advanced age for a candidate- 74- his followers were marked more than anything by their youth.

At the same time, Sanders has watched as Clinton misrepresented him, clearly and knowingly lying about his positions. He has seen his campaign undermined in key ways by the machinations of the Democratic party. No doubt Sanders always felt his walk to the Presidency was a fragile thing and felt these tremors keenly, whether they were substantially responsible for the collapse of his campaign or not. Loss, for Sanders, is not just about him- it is about the victory of the establishment and “the 1%”. No wonder Sanders is bitter.

It appears the next president will be another Clinton. Clinton, friend to the wealthy, militarist, in favour of the death penalty, a promoter of fracking and fossil fuels, an architect of America’s addiction to incarceration, a supporter of disastrous overseas interventions. Clinton who changes her mind with the political winds. Secretive, dishonest Clinton. Clinton, who last month gave a speech on inequality wearing a $13,000 Armani jacket. Clinton: business as usual.

Sanders supporters are now adopting one of three postures: 1) they are fiercely insisting Sanders can still win; 2) they are embracing the “Sanders revolution” and focusing on how to carry forward the movement without relying on an Oval Office win; 3) they are overcome with depression and anger. The first response seems tainted with delusion; the third response is understandable but unproductive; the second is surely the best one. It is time for all of us to reflect on the importance of community activism and grassroots change versus the questionable hope offered by big politics.

   

 

 

 

 

 

The Sanders-Clinton Fight is Really About This Philosophical Question

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We live in an age of strategy. Our public discourse is largely, though not exclusively, concerned with “what works”, with large-scale analysis of what we think is likely to lead to what. This is not surprising in a culture dominated by technology, and in which the central metaphors for life are often now fundamentally technological- drawn from computing or systems theory, for instance. The fundamental question is, “How do we manipulate systems to get what we want?” High levels of moral compromise and imperfection are assumed. We are concerned with results, and we assume that the end justifies the means.

The Clintons embody this type of pragmatism. Their policy decisions often included horrible means- go to war, incarcerate more African Americans, preserve the death penalty, enrich the wealthy- which did not themselves embody admirable principles but were seen as means to good ends. Hillary and Bill often defend their past (bad) decisions on the grounds that they did the best they could under the circumstances (Bill) or were simply mistaken in their strategic analysis (Hillary), but insist they had the right principles at heart.

One problem with this approach is that human beings grossly overestimate our abilities to act strategically within complex systems. The “law of unintended consequences” haunts all of our skill at manipulation. This is what “principles” are designed to do: principles are derived from centuries of human experience and are meant to protect us from the mercurial paths of short-term thinking and the hubris of attempting to manipulate complex systems with morally relative but, we think, effective stratagems. When we say a principle is “right”, we mean that on a meta-level that principle yields good fruit, or reflects values which we think are true and worth making sacrifices for.

Sanders is not a strategist; he is a man of principle. This frustrates a lot of people. There are endless calls for him to be strategic and, for instance, renounce his candidacy. To do so would be both against democratic principles (that the people should choose) and would be to yield to someone he considers less qualified. In other words, to do so would be unprincipled and so he will not do it. Some people think that he should be less critical of the Democratic party, as calling out procedural injustices foments division and potentially weakens the party against the GOP (now known officially as the ICP- the Insane Clown Posse!) But Bernie believes that procedural injustices and irregularities should be called out, and so he will do that. Some media commentators repeatedly interpret Sanders’ actions as though he were playing chess, but he’s not. Those who insist on analysing Sanders through a strategic lens consistently misunderstand what he is doing and why.

The fight between Clinton and Sanders’ supporters comes down entirely to this issue: principle or strategy. Few defending Clinton claim that she is a person of higher principle than Sanders. Clinton supporters argue either that she is more likely to win against Drumpf, or that once in office she will have more skill at “getting things done”, i.e. she will be more effectively strategic. Sanders supporters criticise Clinton for her lack of moral consistency (i.e. principle), or criticise her actions for being based on the wrong principles, or they point to the fact that her supposedly superior strategic gifts have in fact led to multiple disasters.

This last point is key because it points to the fundamental argument behind the Sanders-Clinton feud. Sanders supporters believe that amoral strategies have shown themselves to lead to disasters, or in other words, that the strategic approach is not an effective strategy in the long term. Though Sanders supporters will more often argue that Sanders is right rather than that he is smart, they will of course also argue that his policies will work. This is because they believe that acting on principle is, in fact, the most strategic approach.

In the end, then, the argument between Sanders and Clinton supporters comes down to a philosophical fight that is not really between principle and strategy, but is about what is most strategic in the long term. Sanders supporters argue that holding to principles produces the most good over time, and Clinton supporters argue (though this is less clearly articulated on their side I think) that short-term strategic thinking is more realistic and effective for the common good. That is the real fight.

Seeing With Two Eyes: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine

Portrait of a boy with the flag of Israel painted on his face.

Today is Yom Ha’atsma’ut, Israeli Independence Day. My son went to his Jewish pre-school dressed in white and blue to celebrate, and I felt that feeling many Jews know at times like this, the strange mixture of pride, joy and aching sadness. It is tempting to try to simplify the hearts feelings and cancel out one of these clusters of emotions.  I could celebrate the triumphs of Israel and mourn it’s victimhood at the hands of Arab states and Palestinian Arab terrorists, denying that Israel shares any substantial guilt for the suffering of the stateless Palestinian Arabs and blaming it all on the violence of Palestinian Arab political culture; or I could declare Israel a “catastrophe” and blame it for Palestinian Arab and Jewish suffering, seeing the Palestinian Arabs as innocent victims of Israeli-Jewish nationalism and greed. Either choice would simplify my tortured emotions and also provide me with a custom built echo-chamber: either the “pro-Israel” community or the “pro-Palestine” community, where I could find tailor made biased news reports, inflammatory rhetoric, and the twin toxins of self-piteous victimhood and confident self-righteousness.

It is so hard to hold together in one mind the narrative and suffering and humanity of Israel and the narrative and suffering and humanity of Palestinian Arabs. So few people do it well. Those who understand the history of Zionism and Israeli political and social culture and defend Israel from the many unjust accusations hurled at her are so often dismissive of the real role that Israeli militarism, right-wing Jewish nationalism, and the settlements have played in perpetuating the conflict; so often emotionally numb to the extremity of the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian Arabs under the occupation of the disputed territories. Those who have listened intently to the Palestinian Arabs and their stories of human rights violations, poverty, suffering and death, often dismiss the role that Arab hostility to Israel, the cynical refusal to resettle Palestinian Arabs in Arab countries, Islamic anti-semitism, and the Palestinian choice of violence as the main instrument of liberation have played in perpetuating the conflict.

Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen master, said that a person of wisdom must see “with two eyes, not one”. I have begun to find the one-eyed vision of so many commentators on this conflict incredibly tedious. It is so much easier to see with one eye. One can dine on the simple, pleasurable fare of an easy, smooth narrative with a side of sour self-pity and a sweet pastry of strident self-righteousness to wash it all down. Yet this narrative is not simple, and as the Israeli author Amos Oz said wonderfully in his How To Cure a Fanatic, “this is not a wild west movie where all we have to do is decide who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and then cheer for the right one.”

So there is no resolution to the feelings of my heart as I watch my son get ready for a classroom tour of  “Israel” in a pretend airplane. I refuse not to celebrate, and I refuse not to mourn.

 

   

 

The Silent Cost of Shangri-La? The Human Rights Controversy in Bhutan

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For many in the Western Buddhist world, Bhutan has become a quasi-mythical land.  Bhutan is an officially Buddhist Kingdom with ties to internationally popular Lamas. It has become famous for it’s lauded vision of “gross national happiness”. In 2006, it was named the happiest country in Asia and the sixth happiest in the world in a survey based on the Gross National Happiness index inspired by Bhutan itself. In 2012, as a result of an initiative of the Bhutanese government, the UN named March 20The International Day of Happiness. More recently the environmental media declared Bhutan one of the few countries in the world to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.

 

Bhutan is venerated for resistance to modernization and westernisation.  The fact that it is difficult to even visit Bhutan due to its limitations on tourism only increases its mystique. In addition many Western students of Vajrayana dream of retreats in the green mountains and valleys of the “land of the dragon”, where pure teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages are still to be found.    

 

Gross National Happiness

In the 1970’s the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck began instituting his vision of “gross national happiness (GNH)”, which included strong measures to protect Bhutan’s dominant ethnic culture and the religious tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism (which it shares with Tibet). In the 1980s, the Bhutanese government was worried about illegal immigration and preserving the country’s cultural identity in the face of Nepali influence as well as the power of it’s neighboring giants China and India. Bhutan adopted a “one nation one people” policy and introduced mandatory Driglam Namza, the ancient code of social etiquette practised by the dominant ethnic group- people from west Bhutan, who are of Tibetan origin. The government decided to deport thousands of people of Nepali ethnicity, many of whom had lived in the south of Bhutan for generations and are known as lhotshampas (“southerners”). The government passed laws requiring people to wear traditional Bhutanese dress and banned the Nepali language in public, and, human rights groups say, tortured Nepali Bhutanese, who spoke out.  

 

In a harrowing 2013 NY Times article Vidhyapati Mishra wrote an account of the expulsion of his family from Bhutan. He recalls an idyllic childhood on a farm that grew “maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes.” After the 1989 declaration of the “one people, one country” policy things began to change. Hindu seminaries were closed, “traditional Bhutanese” customs were imposed on all and Mishra’s elementary school, which served the Lhotshampa population, was closed down. One day in 1991 Mishra reports, men in uniform came to his house and seized his father. After insisting he put on his bakku (traditional Bhutanese dress), they dragged him from the house kicking and slapping him. As Mishra describes it, “My father was held for 91 days in a small, dank cell. They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chilies in his cell to make breathing unbearable. He agreed eventually to sign what were called voluntary migration forms and was given a week to leave the country our family had inhabited for four generations.” At the time of writing that NY Times article Mishra had been in a refugee camp known as Beldangi 2 for 21 years.  

 

Bhutan’s governmental policies had dreary results beyond the camps for those sentient beings who happened to be Nepali in origin. One refugee, who spent 17 years living in a camp before immigrating to the US, said that when he first arrived in the camp “two or three’ dead bodies” were being taken away every day due to crowding and lack of medicine. The U.N eventually arrived with help, but the governments of Bhutan and Nepal refused to take responsibility for the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps. In 2007, the U.N. decided there was no hope of either country taking them in and started sending the refugees around the world to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Amnesty International says that “the Bhutanese refugee situation has become one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”

 

Many refugees have had difficulty integrating into their new homes abroad. The rate of depression among surviving Bhutanese refugees has been found to be three times that of the general public, and their suicide rate almost twice as high. Vidhyapati Mishra has now relocated to North Carolina, but 27,000 refugees are estimated to remain in the camps.

 

To this day, the Bhutanese government claims that the exodus of over 100,000 lhotshampas from Bhutan was voluntary. Some students of the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who I contacted justified Bhutanese governmental actions with the assertion that some Nepali Bhutanese did not just speak out but engaged in acts of violence against the government and even acts of terrorism against Bhutanese citizens in response to laws perceived as creating a monocultural Bhutan that excluded lhotshampas.

 

Jigmi Thinley, who wrote an article for the “Mindful Politics” compilation put out by Wisdom Publications in 2013, and was given an honorary degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium in 2014, was the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2008-2013. Thinley worked in the Bhutanese government since 1976. He is currently the president of the Council of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. In 2011, when Prime Minister of Bhutan, he announced that the government was open to repatriating lhotshampa refugees following “screening.” He stated:  “They are economic refugees, they are environmental refugees, they are refugees of political instability. And they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But I maintain that the question of whether they are refugees from Bhutan is a subject of discussion.” This statement  sparked outrage among the refugee community. The Bhutanese government disputes the claim that the camps are filled with Bhutanese of Nepali origin, claiming that some of them were illegal immigrants in Bhutan only for a short time or agitators from within Nepal seeking to enter and gain power in Bhutan.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others, contest this, as does the US State Department.  According to Human Rights Watch, who refers to Bhutan’s policies as “ethnic cleansing”: “The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion.” In 2008 HRW noted that Bhutan had not repatriated a single refugee, which is still the case. In 2007 the United States recognized the refugee status of the lhotshampas and accepted 60,000 people from the camps. In 2011 Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Program at Human Rights Watch, wrote an article pleading with the Bhutanese government to at least repatriate some of the elderly refugees in the camps who did not want to be resettled abroad but wanted to return to the homes they remembered. His plea went unanswered.

“What I would like to see,” says Vidhyapati Mishra today, echoing Frelick, “is for the government to admit the remaining unsettled refugees. Some of them have refused to be resettled in the US or elsewhere because they just want to go home. At least the government could admit those who have been resettled on tourist visas to be able to see their own country, but even with a US passport the Bhutanese government will not let us in to see our homeland again.”

When asked whether the refugee camps have been infiltrated by “fake refugees” Mishra says it has not. “A small amount have joined themselves to the refugees through marriage perhaps,” he says, “But their children, once they reach adulthood, must leave the camps and enter Nepal. Perhaps there are a small number of people who have become parts of the families of refugees, but there have been no masses of people coming in. Everyone knows each other in the camps and groups of people coming in from Nepal and claiming to be refugees would be obvious and unwelcome.”   

 

Bhutan Today

 

According to the Diplomat, “Article 7(4) of the 2008 Constitution of Bhutan states that every Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 7(15) adds that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.”

Nevertheless only Buddhists and Hindus are legally allowed to form organizations. 80 percent of Bhutan’s population is Buddhist and about 20 percent of Bhutanese are lhotshampas, most of whom are Hindu. The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 says that its main intent is to “benefit the religious institutions and protect the spiritual heritage of Bhutan,” which is Vajrayana Buddhism. In practice the government reportedly harasses Hindus and obstructs their activities. Bhutan’s roughly 19,000 Christians, who are mostly southerners but also from other ethnic groups, say they are treated like second-class citizens. Christians have applied to be able to function with a legal Christian identity but have been unsuccessful so far. As a result, there are no Christian burial grounds, no Churches, and no Christian book stores.

There are some signs of improvement. According to Freedom In The World 2015, Bhutan is taking steps towards becoming more authentically democratic and towards greater transparency in government and lawfulness in its judiciary. Since 2013, the laws requiring traditional dress in public have been repealed. When the current King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Wangchuk was married, he had a parallel Hindu wedding in the south in an attempt to forge better relationships with the lhotshampas who remain in Bhutan. Local authorities are still reported to severely harass non-Buddhists however, and permits for Hindu and Christian religious activities are very hard to obtain. In March 2014, a group of Christian religious pastors was arrested for holding a worship service and held in jail for a month with no trial or charges laid. In September of the same year, two Christian pastors were sentenced to prison for conducting illegal religious activities.

 

Western Buddhism and Bhutan

Asked whether anyone from the Buddhist community had ever approached him to offer help or hear his story, Mishra says they have not. Nevertheless, and despite his experiences at the hands of Buddhist Bhutan, Mishra retains his respect for the religion. “I have great admiration for Buddhism as a religion. What is happening in Bhutan is not being done by the real Buddhists. Buddhism is being used to justify criminal behaviour.” 

Buddhist organisations in the West associated with Bhutanese traditions have largely been silent on the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Buddhist Bhutan. One webpage on a site run by Shambhala, a major force in Western Vajrayana, at one time had a link to some comments on video by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the issue. They are now nowhere to be found, removed due to issues with ownership rights over the video according to a website administrator.  My request to be directed to the owner of the video or someone else qualified to discuss the issue met with no reply. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed to have tried to inspire high ranking leaders in the Shambhala community to take action on the issue for years but had been resisted or ignored. Others within Shambhala, however, including at least one senior student who studied directly with Chogyam Trungpa, offered help and contacts who might shed light on the situation in Bhutan. Similarly, some direct students of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche offered assistance in finding sources for this piece.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is one of the most popular contemporary Buddhist teachers, and probably the one with the strongest ties to Bhutan. As well as being a spiritual teacher he is also a writer and film-maker and made the first feature film shot in Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians (2003). Although he has been actively teaching in the West since at least 1989, the year that the deportation of the lhotshampas began, and is well known for his frank outspokenness, I could find no public statements of his dealing with Bhutanese human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. A source among his senior students supplied me with some anonymous opinion pieces written about Bhutan which argued that the actions of the Bhutanese government were substantially justified by their need to retain cultural and political stability as a distinct nation state. The pieces also argued that the Bhutanese government had taken steps to limit abuses of lhotshampas by citizens and government officials, and that the situation was more complicated than western media sources represent it to be. Finally, the anonymous essays echoed Jigmi Thinley’s assertion that the people in the camps were not definitely refugees from Bhutan. As stated above Vidhyapati Mishra, who lived in Beldangi 2 for 21 years, dismissed the claims of “fake refugees” as untrue and making little sense.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Many in the Western Buddhist community do not countenance government actions which compromise the human rights and dignities of refugees and illegal immigrants, nor those of ethnic or religious minorities. It hardly seems correct to rationalize or overlook the situation when an explicitly Buddhist country chooses realpolitik over compassion, or defends its culture and borders with outright aggression, violence and ethnic cleansing, as the evidence suggests.

How should the Bhutanese government deal with these issues? The UN resolution on the rights of refugees would suggest that those in the camps, or who have been relocated, should be allowed to return. That would be a beginning toward redressing well-evidenced injustices visited upon the lhotshampas.  Both Frelick and Mishra have argued that the least they could do is to allow the elder refugees still in the camps to return home. As for the repression, harassment, and persecution of religious minorities, that is both against Buddhist principles and common sense. Human societies, like gardens, flourish when there is a healthy diversity and what polyculturalists call “fertile edge”- the place where two systems meet. Perhaps it’s time for Bhutan to fear diversity less.  

 

The Other Jew at The Vatican

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Bernie Sanders’ acceptance of an inviation to speak at the Vatican drew a lot of attention this week.  J.J. Goldberg speculated in the Forward about Sander’s embodiment of the Jewish social justice tradition and the Vatican’s recognition of such implied in the invitation. Sanders was quoted in the NY Times saying that he thought Francis has played “an extraordinary role, and with great courage” in getting the world to think more about the “moral economy and how we have to deal with economic and environmental and social injustice.”  Sanders continued: “I would just be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I rejected this opportunity, so I’m delighted to be going.”

The Hill cited the perplexity many observers felt over Sanders’ decision to leave the campaign trail for the trip just days before the New York primary. But the trip is actually pure Sanders- he has chosen the sheer beauty and idealism of the trip over staying in NY to drum up support for his candidacy. And alright, alright, maybe he’s canny- after all, is there a better imprimatur on Sanders status as a real global force than an invitation to the Vatican?  Sanders’ main vulnerability is the perception that he is an ungrounded idealist. The more official affirmation he gets, the better. Nevertheless the trip does seem a gamble, at least as far as the NY primary goes.

Gathering less attention is the other Jew at the conference: Jeffrey Sachs. Economist Sachs is scheduled to give the keynote address, examining changes in the global economy since the writing of Centesimus Annus, and thus visioning how John Paul’s 1991 papal encyclical letter on the economy and worker’s rights can be applied now.

Sachs is a powerhouse.  Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, he is widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. Sachs is is special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, a position he also held under Kofi Annan. He is director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a member of the International Advisory Council of the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE). Sachs has authored three New York Times bestsellers: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004 and 2005, and was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 2015 for his contributions to solving global environmental problems.  He is a heavyweight. And he’s on Team Sanders, acting as foreign policy advisor. When Paul Krugman , who has been consistently critical of Sanders, published a harsh piece in the NY Times last week, Sachs tweeted, “It’s incredible that a silly rant like this passes for commentary at the NYT.” Sachs’ pitch for Sanders before the upcoming primary: “We have a real chance for a President with great values, honesty, decency, experience & vision. @SenSanders for the NY Primary on April 19!”

Goldberg is right to argue that Sanders and Sachs represent a particular strain of Jewish values concerned more than anything with the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and critical of militarism and kings. That tradition is the prophetic tradition, as I’ve argued elsewhere.  

Hilary Putnam: Secular Philosopher and Religious Jew (July 31, 1926-March 13 2016)

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“On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced……there is no philosopher since Aristotle who has made creative and foundational contributions in all the following areas: logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political thought, philosophy of economics. philosophy of literature.”

Martha C. Nussbaum (Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago Huffpost March 14)

Hilary Putnam was born in Chicago and raised in a secular family with a left-leaning gentile father and a Jewish mother. One of Putnam’s fellow pupils at school was another left leaning Jew, Noam Chomsky, who remained a friend throughout his life. In fact Putnam’s last post at his blog Sardonic Comment was about a debate he was having with Chomsky. Putnam’s first teaching posts were in math and philosophy at Northwestern(1952-53) and Princeton (1953-61) and then as professor of the philosophy of science at MIT (1961-65) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy.

Putnam focused on philosophy of science, epistemology, and the mind. He was a critic of both Behaviourism and Type-Identity theory, each of which seek to reduce mental states to physical ones. Behaviourism claims that mental states are simply what we do, or are inclined to do, in certain circumstances (being in pain, for instance, is just the way we typically react to physical injury by flinching from its cause, crying out, etc.) and Putnam proposed a thought experiment: would stoic Spartans trained not to react to pain thus not be in pain?

He vigorously critiqued Type-Identity theory, which holds that  mental states will “turn out to be” particular types of brain states just as we have found heat is “just molecular motion” and water “just H2O”. Putnam argued that mental states are “multiply realisable”, i.e. the same mental state, for instance an experience of pain or desire, could be generated by different physical bodies- humans, cats, or whales. Therefore one can not be reduced to the other.

Putnam also famously argued that meaning was neither subjective nor objective. Meaning depends on external states of affairs; but the nature of these as we experience them are relative to language. “Thus the world is both ‘objective’ and not ‘objective’; we cannot ask what is the case without choosing some system of concepts (and no one system is uniquely fitted to describe ‘the world’); but once we have a system of concepts in place, what is true or false is not simply a matter of what we think.” Our linguistic system is thus like a fundamental axiom: once it is set, which statements within it are true or false are not subjectively so but objectively are so dependent on the rules of how our language and the external reality interact.

While revolutionising philosophy, Putnam was also involved with radical politics. At MIT in 1963 he organised against the Vietnam war, and at Harvard he organised campus protests and publicly burned draft cards. In 1965 he became a member of the Progressive Labor party (promoting, in his own words, an “idiosyncratic version of Marxism-Leninism”), and would stand outside factory gates to discuss politics with the workers. On campus he disrupted the classes of Richard Herrnstein (co-author of the allegedly racist Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life), and he lived in a commune with students. As Jane O’ Grady wrote in a recent obituary, “for a time his students had to spend his lectures twisted round to look at him because he refused to sit at the front; although, in his more dogmatic Marxist phase, he spoke on a podium and advised students to read Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The Harvard establishment was in despair”.

Putnam took intense pleasure in thought. After reading aloud from a philosopher’s work in a lecture, he would laugh with delight. Putnam valued the willingness to think in complexity and nuance, famously saying, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” As Martha Nussbaum recently wrote, “The glory of Putnam’s way of philosophizing was its total vulnerability. Because he really did follow the argument wherever it led, he often changed his views, and being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful, evidence that he was humble enough to be worthy of his own rationality”. In fact Putnam became so well known for changing his mind that the Philosophical Lexicon named a moment of intellectual time a “hilary”, as in, “That’s what I thought a few hilarys ago.” 

In 2008 Putnam published the surprising Jewish Philosophy As A Guide To Life, which analyzes the thought of Wittginstein, Buber, Rozensweig, and Levinas (a group he called 3 ¼ Jews). In the introduction to that book Putnam describes how he came to write it. In 1975 the older of his two sons surprised him by wanting a bar mitzvah. Putnam got in touch with a Rabbi he had met and been impressed with years previously, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. Gold had been Rabbi of Harvard Hillel when Putnam gave an erev shabbat talk there on his reasons for opposing the Vietnam war. Putnam and his wife agreed to attend services with their son for a year while the boy prepared for his bar mitzvah, and by the end of the year the service and prayers, in Putnam’s words, “had become an essential part of our lives”. Putnam davenned every day for the rest of his life. How did a self-described “naturalistic philosopher” reconcile with his newfound religiousness?

According to Putnam, for many years he simply did not reconcile them. The philosopher and the religious person lived side by side but did not enter into direct confrontation. This could not be the final resolution for a questing mind like Putnam’s, of course. In an attempt to explain his perspective, over which he said that he still struggled and expected to struggle, Putnam wrote:

“Physics indeed describes the properties of matter in motion, but reductive naturalists forget that the world has many levels of form, including the level of morally significant human action, and the idea that all of these can be reduced to the level of physics I believe to be a fantasy. And, like the classic pragmatists, I do not see reality as morally indifferent: reality, as Dewey saw, makes demands on us. Values may be created by human beings and human cultures, but I see them as made in response to demands that we do not create. It is reality that determines whether our responses are adequate or inadequate. Similarly, my friend Gordon Kauffman may be right in saying that “the available God” is a human construct, but I am sure he would agree that we construct our images of God in response to demands that do not create, and that it is not up to us whether our responses are adequate or inadequate.”

Ruth Anna Putnam has said, “If you would like to make a gift in Hilary’s memory, please donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104.”

A View From The North

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Like a river of bullshit it flowed: fetid, revolting, and fertile with dangerous life. To watch the invasion of America by the circus-hallucination reality-tv politiporn of Donald Trump and the swaggering John Wayne insanity of Ted Cruz seems at time like watching the invasion of civilization by a an unthinkable horde barbaric.  What does it mean that simaltaneously we have the rise of ISIS, Al-Quaeda, Boko Haram, etc. in the Middle East while in America we see the rise of Trump and Cruz? Not that there is a moral equivalence between Daesh and Donald, at least I hope there isn’t, yet there is a similar madness, a similar horrific urspung of primal perversity in both cases which makes one fear that some sectors of the political stage are devoluting into a gangfight of swaggering mafiosos. Meanwhile Clinton, the true blackstar giving off obfuscation instead of light, the mask of a mask, pulls out her latest chameleon skin and says what her advisers tell her to say.

From the other side, the side of holiness, like some neopagan prophecy of the required balancing of darkness and light in the great cosmic harmony comes Bernie Sanders, Brooklyn Jew with white hair glowing like the transfigured robes of Jesus. It is literally like we are watching the writhing mass of American culture coalesce into a living yin-yang symbol before our very eyes.

Bernie Sanders will be president in 2016. Trump will go on to some other grandiose bit of public masturbation. The real fear is: what happens after Sanders gets elected? The Roman empire doesn’t treat socialist Jews all that well. How long will Sanders survive in the white house? I mean, like, literally survive? I hope he has bullet proof pajamas and that wily old zaida survives long enough to turn the American ship away from the brink of disaster and towards the dream of a civilized future where tzedaka u’mishpat (righteousness and justice) are allowed once again to rear their hoary, weary, immortal heads. I don’t agree with Sanders on everything but on most things I vehemently do, and every half-blind donkey who has not been bewitched by Trump’s Reichian fascist-nation into seeing Trump as anything other than what he so painfully, obviously, is, can see the writing on the walls of Trump tower (how have I had to write that man’s name so many times?). Sanders is a decent man and what’s more- a jewel so rare it’s value is hard to calculate- an honest politician. Yasher Koach, Bernie. I pray to see you in the White House.

 

Is Bernie Too Among The Prophets?

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Bernie Sanders is now the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Recent polls have him tied with Hillary Clinton. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed, and mostly quiet. Many Jews have chosen, unsurprisingly, to debate Bernie’s record on Israel. Has he supported the state enough? Are his ties to J Street and other liberal, dove-ish groups a sign that he will not stand up for the Jewish state?

For myself I am not interested in debating Sanders’ record on Israel, and I think other North American Jews would also be wise not to focus on it. The reason is simple: Sanders is running for the US Presidency, and the primary issues that need to be considered are how he will run the country he might be chosen to lead. I also resist the idea that the primary consideration for Jews should be Sanders’ relationship to Israeli security concerns. I think that the primary consideration for a Jew thinking about Sander’s candidacy is his relationship to Jewish tradition and the degree to which he embodies Jewish values.  

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The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw it’s weight behind Bernie, perhaps because until recently they saw him as unlikely to succeed. Or maybe there is a fear of jinxing him: “Shhh, they haven’t really realized that he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote  a few days ago in The Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sander’s ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans- he has risen in the polls purely because of who he is as a human being. Meanwhile big Jewish financiers like George Soros, Donald Sussman, and several others have been backing Clinton, not Sanders.

So what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? Well, it seems that he is comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Sanders has not been making much of his Jewishness, to the chagrin of people like Michael A. Cohen. Cohen recently complained in Tablet that Sanders was downplaying his Jewishness, saying that it “hurt”. Cohen seems to prefer Jewish identity politics to embodying Jewish ethical values. Sanders feels the opposite, and his evaluation is a perfect example of the moralism that is drawing people to him in the first place.

On Chabad,org Dovid Margolin recently defended Sanders’ connection to Judaism, citing his fight for the right for Chabad to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case which paved the way for the now common practice. Sanders was also appreciative of the Rebbe’s stance on education and declared the Rebbe’s birthday “Education Day” in Vermont with these charactarisic words:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education by labouring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children, and whereas he has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and whereas especially in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation, now therefore I, Bernard Sanders, mayor of the city of Burlington, hereby designate yud-alef nissan as the day of educationNote Bernie’s use of the Hebrew “yud-alef nissan” to designate the date, as well as his interesting commentary on Maimonides. Margolin also notes that Sanders and the Rebbe corresponded and Sanders celebrated his re-election as mayor by attending a Purim party in Crown Heights. This writ, from 1985, does not establish Sanders as a Hosid, which clearly he is not. It does show him as sensitive to, and appreciative of, Jewish values and Jewish sages. As some have pointed out, Sanders is more of an old style Yiddish Socialist than a “Socialist”.

Sanders himself, when asked, had made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked  Sanders in October whether he believes in God, Sanders sounded more like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr than Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am what I am….and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

Sanders does not strongly identify with his Jewishness, and his religious sentiments could better be described as a general reverence for life and humanity, a kind of secular, naturalistic spirituality. He and his Catholic wife Jane both say they believe in God but are not involved in organized religion, and that their faith backgrounds inform their moral sentiments. David Harris-Gershon has written in Tikkun, “For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter. What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.”

Jay Michaelson has written, “secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt—if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did—leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice… if we are asking whether Sanders is “religious” in Jewish terms, the reply must be that he is.” I would argue that the evidence supports that assertion with regards to Bernie, who may be the most prophetic politician in decades.

The prophets of Israel were relentless in criticizing the behaviour of Israel and calling it back to its highest ideals. Contrary to the popular vision of them as diviners of the future their primary job was calling people back to the ethical demands of God. Their vision had social justice at it’s core; for them this equalled fidelity to God. In the words of Jeremiah (22:13-17): “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He vindicated the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord.”  Isaiah sums up the prophetic vision well (1:17): “Learn to do good; seek justice, fight oppression; bring justice to those without a protector, plead the cause of the vulnerable.” Or Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Judge truly, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the vulnerable, those without a protector, the foreigner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Israel’s wisdom literature agrees: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).”

Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets as follows, in words I challenge you not to associate with Bernie Sanders: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (The Prophetic Imagination)

These are, of course, the very criticisms levelled at Bernie: that the future of justice that he fantasies is not thinkable, that it is indeed pure fantasy and cannot be implemented. Many would argue otherwise. Many would just like to see somebody really try for a change. That is why Bernie is so popular with millennials.

The Jewish Candidate

Bernie Sanders is relentless and consistent in his criticisms of the financial elite, his calls for a political system free of legal bribery, and his defence of education and the needs of the poor for fair wages, medical care and enough money to live. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery and to pull America away from militarism and hatred of the stranger. All of these themes echo in dozens of verses and laws structuring the political vision of the Torah and running deep in Jewish consciousness, even when they are obscured by fear or effaced by our falls into chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may not be just the Jewish Candidate by ethnicity. Ironically this secular, non-observant Jew may be the candidate that best embodies the political values of the Torah, which is to say, the ethics of the Jewish tradition.

 

Some Thoughts On the Children Burnt Alive in Dalori In The Form of a Prayer

 

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Father in heaven, any words seem trite in the face of children burnt alive in their huts by Boko Haram two days ago, an unknown amount of children among the 86 people murdered. Yet we must keep speaking. We must keep finding meaning, we must keep speaking what truth we can, what solace and protest we can, because if we stop speaking, if we stop trying to understand, we will vanish into a horrible silence in which we say and do nothing.

Mother of spirit, my conscience tells me that those children, who a survivor heard screaming in the flames as their homes burnt down, must now be in your arms if you are worthy to be called the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekka, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. As their bodies screamed their souls must have already been halfway out the window of this world into your waiting arms. This world created so we could learn to love, in which all of us everyday in ways small or big choose often, too often, to hate instead.

My conscience tells me this must be so, or else the world we live in worse than meaningless. Some will be offended that I contemplate a God at all in these circumstances, will wish that I only be angry, that I only mourn, that I do not seek any solace. Some take a curious refuge in meaninglessness, but I can’t see any strong solace there. How could pain plus meaninglessness be better than pain with meaning, pain with God? Does the world need more bald, unhealable rage and sorrow? Oh Lord, I think and hope that believing that Your loving embrace met those injured souls means that this world is not the way it is supposed to be, not the way you want it to be. Things are bleak because of the darkness in our human hearts, but things are not hopelessly that way. We must fight against the violence done to the innocent, not by doing violence to the guilty but by remembering and embodying the mercy you desire. We must not go silent, not go cold, not become comfortably numb. We must keep alive a heart beating and burning for what your heart desires, and the love you bear each one of us.

Creatorgive us strength to see above the fire and the water, and to walk with faith and hope towards your world.