Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Meadow Across the Creek"

I am six years old. I skip along a dirt road on the edge of the Ghanaian fishing village where we live, feeling the heat of the sunset against my face as it turns the world a deep reddish gold. Palm trees sway, and hibiscus flowers tremble and begin to close in the early evening breeze. My brothers race ahead and my little sister walks behind hand in hand with my parents, their voices drowned by the sound of the ocean. The smell of sea salt mixes with the smoke of cooking fires. Soon the sun will set behind the distant mountain but for one last moment it gives me everything – beauty, glory, happiness. It is my first explicit memory of utter mind-blowing joy.

This memory is my personal ‘Meadow across the Creek’, to echo Thomas Berry in The Great Work. It is my first awareness of my place in the world, and the absolute greatness of that world. It is a sacred memory, one that informs my life both in terms of recognizing the glory of our planet, and the interconnectedness of that recognition with a sense of love for family and place. Later, I will want my children to feel what I felt, and as a teacher I will want my students to feel it too. Berry notes, “if we observe our children closely in their early years we see how they are instinctively attracted to profound experiences of the natural world.” The world awakens the aesthetic instinct which yearns to be fed and then to feed the world in return.

As a chaplain at a Catholic high school, it is one of my tasks to offer students and staff experiences of the sacred, and to walk with them in their challenges and their joys. This is a cooperative venture, and together we rely on our shared talents to offer the widest variety of experiences possible. My husband Brian, an Outdoor Education and Special Education teacher at the same school, helps in designing activities that offer experiences of nature to students at all levels of achievement. The sense of the sacredness of the universe is open to all, regardless of abilities or talents. As Thomas Berry states, “This we need to know; how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.”

The role of experience is critical here. We cannot talk ourselves or others into experiences of the sacred. We can only live these experiences. Sure, we need to talk in order to better understand and share our experience, and build relationships of compassion and love. But the primary sense of sacredness comes from the experience of love itself, an intimate relationship with the world since all that is loved and everyone who is loved come from the Earth. The Word that transcends all words is in the World itself, in fact, the whole cosmos.

Too often in schools, as in homes and churches, we attempt to draw students into contemplative prayer without helping them first experience the greater sense of the sacred in the world. That sense can come through any subject matter, and any revelatory experience, but an initial lasting connection must be made to the primary fact of God’s presence in the world. We must begin with the world.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mountain Pine Beetles, and Salvation

We drive along the TransCanada Highway last summer, leaving BC’s Rogers Pass behind, the mountains slowly separating themselves into wider valleys as we head east toward the Alberta border. The mountains throw themselves upwards, stark and majestic, dressed in dark pines, but scarred here and there with localized clear-cutting. The road twists, and as we come around a bend, a mountain rises before us clothed thinly in the reddish hues of dead pines.

“Mountain Pine Beetle,” Brian says, “millions of hectares of pines are already history.”

“How is it being dealt with?” I ask.

“Clear-cutting. Worst thing, because not just the pines, but everything else is lost too. And it hasn’t stopped the problem from getting worse.”

I am brought back to earth. After an incredible week of hiking in some of the most beautiful places possible, I had been basking in an idealized sense of the interconnectedness of all creation. And sure, that interconnectedness is still there, but I’ve just been reminded of all its dangers.

I wonder if the mountain ecosystems can be saved, and immediately begin to reflect on what is meant by ‘saved’. Christians will tell you that Christ’s death on the cross ‘saved’ them, offering them an otherwise unobtainable redemption and salvation. Sadly though, for many Christians, this idea has been diminished to a perception of atonement (Christ’s sacrifice on the cross) that trivializes that great act and equates it to some kind of magic trick which, ‘abracadabra’, saved all Christians and nobody else (after all, Christ is our ‘personal’ savior). There’s a na├»ve selfishness to traditional atonement theories of redemption that are decidedly un-Christlike. Reminds me of, well, pine beetles: So what if the world is destroyed if I am full (read ‘saved’)?
What then is the atonement really all about?

Christ’s death is a call to humanity to be prepared to sacrifice for each other and for the world, to live in peace, and to act out of love no matter the price. God’s presence lives on in the world after all. The redemption offered by the cross is like love, a gift meant to be given continuously, not a one-time event. Christ calls us to share that redemption in all that we do through loving each other. We offer it to the world each time we repair broken relationships with others or creation, and each time we have the courage to hold to our commitment to life no matter the cost. Redemption is something that spreads outward, not something that’s taken in. Christ’s redemption is for all time, but like his whole life, it’s also a ‘way’.

Instances abound of this as people exercise their conscience and live by their courage. I think of Franz Jagerstatter giving his life rather than becoming a Nazi and killing Jews. I think of Dorothy Stang refusing to back down from her stance in solidarity with the people and ecosystems of South America. I think of the growing number of teenage Israelis imprisoned for refusing to do their mandatory military service, because they cannot condone the unrelenting violence against Palestinians and their land. God is present beyond any religious tradition.

I am suggesting then that, just maybe, God became incarnate in Christ specifically as a human to teach us through solidarity about our potential to love each other and the world. I am suggesting that this redemptive and transformative message can be found throughout all of scripture, peeking out from behind harsher more exclusionary texts that reflect the human (and often patriarchal) context at the time of their writing. I am suggesting that salvation is a ‘group thing’, something for all of us beyond the personal and beyond the self. I am suggesting that the pine beetles cannot stop themselves, but that maybe, with God’s help, we humans can.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Nelson Mandela, Terrorism, and Reflections on Gaza

Serena dances in my mind, pigtails bouncing, voice raised high in song. The little Palestinian girl shows me her fancy footwork in my dream, as she did one starlit night in Bethlehem two years ago. She dances and smiles, and then her face stretches into a scream and I awake, soaked in sweat, helpless.

The terrifying heartbreak of the bombardment of Gaza drives me awake at night, unable to look away from the truths revealed in the images of one blood-soaked child after another.

We do not learn. Education, technology, wealth, faith – Israel possesses all of it – but none of it has been able to curb the willingness of the Israeli government to first dehumanize and then rain death and destruction on Palestinians. Israeli human rights groups protest, the UN condemns, Palestinians plead, we sign petitions – nothing helps.

Canada and the US are of course complicit. We are told a fiction by our governments – that Israel is defending itself, that it’s a conflict between two equal sides, and that Palestinians are irrational and unwilling to negotiate. All this while Israel bulldozes Palestinian homes, throws up UN condemned illegal settlements on Palestinian land, harasses Palestinians at checkpoints, shoots unarmed protesters, surrounds Palestinian cities with huge stone walls (limiting access not only for people but also for food and supplies), stands idly by while Israeli settlers cut down Palestinian orchards or spray paint “death to Arabs” on buildings, and now, once again, bombs the civilians of Gaza. The travesty of suffering of Palestine began with the Naqba in 1948, and has continued unceasing until now. When will it end?

The mainstream media will tell you that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and that they started the current cycle of violence in Gaza. It is sadly quite true that Hamas engages in terrorist activity. But it is not true that they started it. This matters, because the clue to how this can end is found in the cause from which it began. The bombardment of Gaza cannot be understood outside the context of the illegal Occupation of Palestine by Israel.

To try to discuss Palestine without taking the Occupation into account would be like trying to discuss the actions of Nelson Mandela’s ANC without taking into account the original sin of Apartheid.

Few people may now remember, but Mandela was a founding member of the terrorist wing of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He did not begin as a terrorist or end as a terrorist, but for a while, in the midst of the horror of Apartheid, he dipped into that dark evil. He has largely been exonerated across the globe, and seems elevated posthumously nearly to the status of prophet today. And he deserves it. Most people would probably argue that, faced with the suffering of black South Africans, he was pushed into a violence beyond reason.

Interestingly, only a small number of South Africans ever joined the terrorist wing of the ANC despite the brutality of Apartheid. Similarly, only a small number of Palestinians have joined in the violence of Hamas. Israel too, has had to make military service mandatory in order to ensure enough people will engage in violence against Palestinians, and still the number of refuseniks is growing. There is hope within the human race.

But the Occupation must end. The ‘Original Sin’ must be eradicated. Palestinians must be accorded the dignity to live, move, work, eat, grow, and love that we all desire. Violence will never be the solution. Most Palestinians who suffer at the hands of Israel will also never have engaged in violence themselves. This is the message of Christ on the cross, who went to his death rather than strike back at the Roman Occupiers of his day. But Christ did not go silently. His life was a testimony to loving the outcast and the different, to building relationship beyond the sanctions of society, and to speaking for compassion and truth. His voice still echoes across the ages, calling Christians to follow in his footsteps.

This is where we come in, across the globe and in every nation. The Palestinians have exhausted every peaceful avenue at their disposal. Every time they negotiate, Israel intensifies the persecution while the world is distracted by the so-called Peace Talks. The UN has sanctioned Israel and its atrocities in 67 resolutions, without any cessation of persecution.

So it is now up to us. We cannot sit in our armchairs idly condemning violence unless we lend our voice and participate in creating peace. We must speak, loudly and clearly. We must attend peaceful protests and vigils. We must let our faces be seen. We must write to our political leaders. We must support the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). We must produce a collective cry of “no more” that will break down the walls and the checkpoints and free the Palestinians. And then we must support the process of reconciliation that will be so necessary to create a peaceful future for all.

Only then can the children of Palestine truly dance free once again.

For a super quick and really well-done overview of the history and current situation in Israel and Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) has produced the following 6 minute animated introduction:
The following article in the New Yorker is very well done:
For books “I Shall Not Hate” by Dr. Izzeldin Abouleish whose two daughters and one niece were killed in the 2009 bombing of Gaza is excellent.
For a quick and comprehensive read, Ben White’s “Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide” (2009) is great and includes maps and stats.
Other excellent and well-respected authors include: Gideon Levy (Israeli journalist), Mark Braverman (Jewish American writer), Elias Chacour (Palestinian Bishop), Ilan Pappe (Israeli historian), Dr. Norman Finkelstein (Jewish American prof whose parents were holocaust survivors) and Amira Hass (Jewish Israeli journalist who lives in the West Bank). On Facebook, check out ISM (The International Solidarity Movement), Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), CJPME (Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East), and Dr. Norman Finkelstein. Photo at top courtesy of