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.

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

Re-Occupation and Resistance: The Rise of A New Type of Indigenous Politics

Unistoten_2Two narratives. The one you’re likely to read in mainstream Canadian media: a group of First Nations people have set up a protest camp in Northern BC to block proposed pipelines.  The other, which you will find championed on sites like unistotencamp.com, says that the Unis’tot’en camp, created by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en, are not a protest camp. They are camping on their own unceded land to protect it from invasion and abuse at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. There is a world of difference between these two stories. One sees the Wet’suwet’en as having sovereignty over their land as an equal treaty partner with Canadians and the other sees them as First Nations resident in Canada and blocking public roads and waterways to protest a Canadian business venture. If the difference seems anything but momentous you have not yet grasped the new era of Indigenous politics in Canada.

As the clan website states, “The Unist´ot´en homestead is not a protest or demonstration.  Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water. Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist´ot´en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory.  Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands.  We recognize the authority of these systems as predating and independent of Canadian law.”

The Unis’tot’en “camp” is not really a camp, it is more like a homestead. Freda Huson, one of the main spokespeople for the camp, has lived there for three years. Several cabins, gardens and other structures have been built specifically to act as obstacles to pipeline construction, and there is currently a project underway to build a healing centre. In accordance with Wet’suwet’en law, entry into Unist’ot’en territory is controlled by checkpoints at two locations on Unist’ot’en Territory. “Free, prior and informed consent protocol”, a concept enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is conducted at checkpoints leading into the camp. Visitors must in effect pass through customs before they can move what from a government perspective is simply one piece of crown land to another, but to the Unis’tot’en is a passage from Crown land to Wet’suwet’un territory.

Support for the camp is not unanimous among the Wet’suwet’en, whose five elected chiefs are in favour of some degree of pipeline construction. The opposition is being lead by the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and particularly the Gilsehyu (Big Frog) clan, within whose territory the Unis’tot’en camp appears to fall (there are some internal disputes over land boundaries). The Unis’tot’en represent a movement within the Wet’suwet’en to lay claim to the authority and heritage of their people in a way which will preserve the land they live on and stop the pipeline projects.

The BC government is considering 6 different pipeline projects which would cut directly through Wet’suwet’en land. The Wet’suwet’en, like most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while the Supreme Court has recognized that these territories are unceded in the landmark Delgamuukw v. the Queen the government continues to issue permits on land whose jurisdiction is disputed. According to the Unis’tot’en, the pipeline projects threaten the land and water of the Wet’suwet’en. There is particular concern over the ecology of the salmon population, as fishing is an essential livelihood for the Wet’suwet’en.

The clan is building a network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become major forces in the Canadian economy. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations, or better “re-occupations”, this year.Throughout BC there are similar stories of small groups of Indigenous Canadians standing up against International energy giants who have been given permits and support from the provincial government. Lax Kw’alaams members voted earlier this year to reject a $1.15 billion benefits package with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is led by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, over environmental concerns. The Lax-Kw’alaams are one of the allied tribes of the Tsimshian people, the largest Indigenous group in Northwest BC. They have set up protest camp on Lelu Island, where Pacific Northwest wants to create a port which would endanger the local ecology. More recently the Lax Kw’alaams went to court to claim title to the land in order to block the project.   “The greatest threat to our traditional territories is that we forget that we own it”, said Christine Smith-Martin, who is identified by the band as a leader in their “reoccupation” camp.

Close to Vancouver a confrontation has been taking place for months between Kinder Morgan and various protesters, including prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous players, on Burnaby Mountain. The City of Burnaby itself has been fighting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion which would go through the Burnaby Mountain conservation area. The dispute dates back to Dec. 16, 2013, when Trans Mountain asked the energy board for a certificate for the expansion project. The City of Burnaby’s bylaw battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline was recently dealt a blow by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who  declared that the National Energy Board rulings take precedence over that of the municipality.The Metro Vancouver city has tried to obstruct the laying the 1,100-kilometre-long pipeline between Alberta and coastal B.C.  The expanded pipeline would ship almost 900,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Burnaby’s fight against Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline now appears destined to go all the way to the Supreme court as  Mayor Derek Corrigan intends to appeal the BC court decision. On Nov 20 Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was arrested by RCMP, joining more than 100 others who had been willingly arrested since police began enforcing a court injunction issued a week before ordering protesters to stand down.

“I don’t know who Kinder Morgan is, they are not lords of my land,” Vancouver Metro news quoted Phillip as saying before his arrest. Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told a crowd of protesters that his nation doesn’t consent to Canada issuing rights to third-party interests with no regard to Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title. Here too on Burnaby Mountain the word of the Chiefs is clear: this is their territory and they are not being consulted.

That these claims are being made in a Metro Vancouver jurisdiction is no longer surprising: last year, the Year of Reconciliation,  City Council, headed by Mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared that the city of Vancouver exists on unceded aboriginal territory. “Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender,” reads part of the motion.

“These lands belong to us,”  Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, recently told Yes! magasine. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”

The new Trudeau government has said that it will implement the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32 of the declaration requires obtaining from indigenous peoples “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories”. For some non-Indigenous Canadians the prospect is frightening. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and chair of the “aboriginal futures research program” at the Frontier Center for Public Policy, warns that endowing aboriginal peoples with too much power could “handicap Canada’s resource industries”.

For some non-Indigenous Canadians, the prospect of handicapping at least some of resource industries (like mining, oil and gas) is actually an attractive aspect of increased power for Indigenous peoples. As Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul recently wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback, “There is already a consensus between Aboriginals and the environmental movement.” That being so, some Canadians are slow to recognize the claims that Indigenous peoples have in accordance with the treaties on which Canada was built, treaties which view them not as subjects but as partners. As Saul recently argued in the same book, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “honour of the Crown” demands that Indigenous peoples be treated not only from a legal-technical perspective but from an ethical one which recognizes the history of Canadian violence and treachery towards Indigenous peoples and treats them in accordance with the original intent of the treaties.  From this perspective economic concerns must take a back seat to the more fundamental question of honourable relations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples. Yet the habit of seeking to limit Indigenous power and control resources is old and well entrenched in Canadian policy and public discourse, both consciously and unconsciously.

Nor is this issue limited to Canada. As Saul writes, “The relationship between the environment, indigenous people and commodities extraction is on the agenda everywhere.” It is clear to anyone breathing fresh air as opposed to sand that the future belongs to the environmentalists if it belongs to anyone. It will need to. This can only bode well for the hopes of those clans and bands who are linking their claims as Indigenous peoples to the defense of the land. It is also true, however, that recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is not inherently a means to protect ecologies. There are many in the Indigenous communities who wish to profit from resource extraction themselves, and recognizing their self-government in their own territiories necessarily means them making decisions which might or might not be ecologically sound. Only time will tell whether Indigenous peoples will be leaders in transforming the resource sector into a sustainable industry or not. Those who say that recognizing their sovereignty is a matter of justice, however, argue that taking a risk on increasing Indigenous power is not only reasonable but is required by conscience.

Meanwhile at Unis’tot’en winter is settling in. Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers are tending the permaculture gardens, hunting, and staffing the checkpoints and lookouts across the land.

 

Genesis 1,2 as Protest

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The Creation of Adam by Samuel Hardridge

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah’s concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. For me a curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives. Below I’ll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation  from this perspective, through which it is revealed as a narrative of protest and radical revisioning of the human being.

Why Was Humanity Created?

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in the Torah is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive but that’s a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Deity said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Deity created the human in his image; in the image of Deity he created them; male and female he created them. Deity blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Deity saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “YHVH Deity formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. YHVH Deity planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….YHVH Deity took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l’avodah) and to look after it (l’shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as created to “rule the earth” benevolently and to tend and take care of God’s garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God’s purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he wanted to have someone to give to” (Hasdai Crescas; Ramchal) comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose than to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God’s creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and good will of the true Ruler above. The vision of Genesis is echoed in the structure of the political state imagined in the later parts of the Torah: a confederation of tribes with no king where everyone is protected from debt or loss of land, limits are placed on slavery, and everyone, including servants and animals, gets one day a week off to rest (a truly radical idea in the ancient world and becoming radical again in our day). Even more radically, every seven years the earth gets a year off to rest. One shift from this over arching vision of egalitarian protest occurred later when Israel insisted on “having a king like the nations around us”. After warning them that it will lead to their exploitation YHVH grudgingly acquiesces, than proceeds to try to work with Israel through their Kings (which is mostly a failure, see the books of Samuel, Kings 1 and 2, Chronicles and most of the Prophets).

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted in comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn’t state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum’s fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assembly by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and so “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- out of military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk. That this mythology represents a theology of Empire should require no extensive argument.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine Servant Class refuses to work for the Divine Overlords, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn’t reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?).  This flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has God bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“hamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (see also Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b’tselem Elokim (in the tselem of Deity)”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Torah, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God’s likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. This leap in sensibility that happened in the ancient near east- the leap required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fertility to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of the earth and to rule over it benevolently- is an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity. 2,500 years later we are still struggling toward fulfilling it, with failure a deadly peril.  

 

Learning To Love Donald Trump

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Donald Trump. A few years ago  many of us had heard little of him, and he was easy to avoid (a desire even scant acquaintance inspired). When I visited my grandparents in North Miami Beach, a hell of over-development and rampant consumerism against a backdrop of magical beaches, I would grimace at the Trump Towers. They are an opulent and wasteful cancer on the coastline (one of many, admittedly), pumping ocean water 24 hours a day into elaborate fountains ornamenting massive driveways leading to a kind of hyper-real excess of the obscene, grandiose cartoon towers jutting preposterously into an innocent sky.

Recently Trump has become hard to ignore. His hate speech, pompous posturing, and fascist, fear-mongering rhetoric are by now well known. His popularity makes him terrifying to increasing numbers of people throughout the world, a living, breathing, billionaire obstacle to the progress, even the continued survival, of human civilisation.  Which brings me to my question. Can we learn to love Donald Trump?

Why do I ask? Not because I think he is inevitable, or that he will win the presidential race. I don’t think that is the case. For the record, I think the miraculous is in the offing and Bernie Sanders will win. I am curious about loving Trump because many of the beloved teachers of humanity tell me too. The Buddha advised us not to harbour hatred or animosity for any human being. If you think that does not apply to Trump, consider the following quote:

“Even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, if you entertain any hatred in your heart on that account you are not my disciple.” (Kakucadapamma Sutta)

Then there’s Jesus. He’s also pretty clear: “Love your enemies…..anyone who harbours anger in his heart is a murderer….anyone who calls his brother “Fool!” is liable to judgement….judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew)

The Rabbinic Jewish tradition states, “Anyone who gives into anger is an idolater….every thought of anger generates a thousand demons, even if the anger is over an ethical matter.”

So…..how do we love Donald Trump? Are we supposed to find something loveable in him? Are we supposed to rationalize away his ignorance,  malice, and self-indulgent opportunism? Are we supposed to accept him as he is?

I think not.

I think the key may lie in understanding better the nature of love. What is love, and what does it do? George Macdonald, a favorite mystic and theologian, offers some help.

Macdonald explains that 1) love is not acceptance. Love wishes to make more lovable what it loves. In other words, love wishes the loved well- not to be as he or she is. 2) Love does not abandon. Love never gives up, never closes it’s heart.

Thinking this over I was reminded of the amazing story of the conversion of Larry Trapp. Trapp was a “grand dragon” of the Klu Klux Klan who became badly disabled. When a Jewish family, the Weisslers, moved into his neighbourhood he threatened and harassed them. The Weisslers responded by reaching out to him and challenging his views, though not hatefully. They  then pursued him with kindness. They offered to bring him groceries and treated him with love. One night they visited him at his house and he begged them to take away all of his Swastika rings, telling them he wanted out of the Klan. The Weisslers took the rings and gave him one they had bought by chance earlier as a gift. Weissler left the Klan, became an informant for the police, and eventually- in a truly stunning move- converted to Judaism in a synagogue he had once planned to blow up. He died two months later holding the hands of the Weisslers, may he rest in peace.

The Weisslers demonstrated true love. They did not accept Trapp as he was, but they did love him with an ultimately redeeming love. I don’t personally know Trump, of course. Yet I am considered about the condition of my own heart, that cavernous mansion of which many rooms are unknown, and even more in disrepair. Trump is, of course, not the only issue there. In fact he’s a bit player compared to some others: ISIS, for one. Human traffickers. There’s no need to multiply the list. Yet what’s true for Trump is true for others: to love them is to hold on to their humanity even when they seem to have let go of it. It is to love them, which means to pray for them. To pray that they awaken to love, that they fill themselves with humility and wisdom, that they repent. That they go from villains to teachers.

Whether this seems true and important to us or not depends on the value we place on the cleanliness of our own hearts, and whether or not we recognize the danger of letting strange and dangerous beasts breed there. To do this is not just (or shouldn’t just be) “virtue signalling”, a technique by which we signal our superiority to others by claiming to be free of hatred and anger. I for one am not free of either: my natural propensity is to have disdain, hatred and anger for people of the moral quality of Trump or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. To work to let go of these emotions and replace them with love, as defined above, is an act of protest in the days of the “outrage machine” known as the Internet. It is to protest common humanity and the priority of love in the face of hatred, dehumanisation and polarisation. I think it is an internal move which is essential to both our future and the wellness of our souls.

So will you join me in prayer for Donald Trump?

If prayer is not your practice, try metta bhavana. You might just find that some part of you feels inexplicably better afterwards.   

 

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Trump Towers, North Miami Beach.

Beyond Us and Them

Jesus and Gandhi on the Politics of Polarization

When I was younger I used to go to protest marches. Although initially energized by the solidarity and sense of positive power that gathered around the protesters I usually found that by the end of the march I felt alienated and dispassionate. I felt that way not about the cause, but about the gathering. It was hard to put my finger on what the problem was at first. Something about the tone: angry, self-righteous. Confrontational. In one phrase: us against them.

I don’t deny the existence of bad guys in the world. But I do think they are exceedingly rare. Duplicity, self-absorption, ignorance, opportunism- these are very real, and all of us are guilty, or at least I am. But real villains- they are few and far between. What I disliked about the energy of the protests was the sense that we were on the side of heaven- righteous, possessed of the truth, and in a holy wrath- and our opponents were benighted, evil, ignorant, and even subhuman- “pigs”, as one common slur goes.

There are three things I dislike about this approach. 1) It is not true. 2) The sense of righteousness- the sense of moral and intellectual superiority- can itself become an addicting brew, intoxicating the conscience and leading one to a view life through a distorting glass that renders everything falsely black and white. 3) This approach, so often hostile and dehumanizing, is both violent and ineffectual. It is violent because it is tainted with ill-will, and ineffective because it blocks off communication between parties in conflict and instead of reaching out to and activating the good in the other side. It provokes defensive postures with all the blindness they also bring.

Of the three the last may be most serious. As long as we demonize our opponents we will provoke them to withdraw behind defences and in turn demonize us.

Gandhi developed a strategy of political transformation which worked in precise opposition to the above dynamic, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of a combination of a commitment to non-violence with an appeal to what was highest in one’s opponent. “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion….there must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure.” (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Interestingly, Jesus used a similar method. A case in point is the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In this story Jesus is passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, having avoided the town’s desire to give him hospitality. A tax collector (ie. a wealthy Jewish collaborator with the Romans) runs ahead of Jesus and climbs into a tree to see him. Jesus, seeing Zaccheus, tells him that he will stay at his house. The crowd, up until now in love with the new celebrity preacher, becomes incensed. They would have expected Jesus to upbraid Zaccheus for being of the “1%” and lecture him on how he should quit cooperating with Rome and make restitution to his own people, a people afflicted with poverty and crushed beneath the heel of the Romans. But he doesn’t do that- instead, recognizing the potential good in Zaccheus, he appeals to that good point, showing the man honour and going into his house. Zaccheus, moved, in fact does pledge to make restitution to those he impoverished. He decides this his own free will, as a transformed man.

As the great African-American mystic Howard Thurman, a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in Jesus and The Disinherited, it is surely a very important fact that when the great messenger of God arrived he was born as a dirt poor member of an oppressed minority living under colonial domination. As such Jesus made three important choices: 1) between resistance and accommodation he chose resistance; 2) between violence and non-violence he chose non-violence; and 3) rather than hating his enemy and cataloguing their wrongs he preached, “Love your enemy” and catalogued his own people’s wrongs.

This takes courage. When the Roman government is taxing you to death, outlawing your religious freedoms, killing your leaders as political dissidents, and who knows what else, it takes amazing hutzpah to wander the villages pointing out to your fellow Jews what they need to do to set their own spiritual and moral integrity in order.

What most interests me this approach is the way it undercuts the us versus them approach on two counts: 1) it slays the two-headed beast of self- glorification and denomination of others, with all the blindness it brings in its wake; and 2) makes room for dialogue through appealing to common humanity.

It is so nice to feel one is on the side of angels. Canadian and not American is how it sometimes goes where I live. A worker and not a boss. With the Palestinians and against the Israelis. A treehugger, not a resource manager. An atheist and not a religious nut. Or vice versa. But people, and life, are endlessly more complicated. Only with a careful, loving understanding can we come to anything like the truth of our common humanity, common needs, and common guilt.

And why do we need the truth? An old Jewish saying points out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת) when written in in Hebrew, uses three letters that all have two legs. Falsehood, by contrast (שקר) is written with three letters that each have one leg or sit on a curve. The lesson? Falsehood is a bad foundation; only truth lasts. Denomination, half-truths, and manipulative propaganda will not produce lasting good. That can only arise from the complex and humbling truth.