From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
We are all refugees. At first, as Francis Thompson so eloquently describes, we are refugees from the Hound of Heaven, fleeing into the duality of hopes and fears from the ruthless compassion of the light of truth, from "those strong Feet that follow, follow after."
Later, when we realize what a cruel dictator our 'I illusion' is, we become another kind of refugee, taking refuge in the truth, as Trungpa Rinpoche, himself a Tibetan refugee, describes.
By taking refuge, in some sense we become homeless refugees. Taking refuge does not mean saying that we are helpless and then handing all our problems over to somebody or something else. There will be no refugee rations, nor all kinds of security and dedicated help. The point of becoming a refugee is to give up our attachment to basic security. We have to give up our sense of home ground, which is illusory anyway. We might have a sense of home ground as where we were born and the way we look, but we don't actually have any home, fundamentally speaking. There is actually no solid basis of security in one's life. And because we don't have any home ground, we are lost souls, so to speak. Basically we are completely lost and confused.
Yet even though we are refugees--whether refugees from truth or refugees from illusion, we live in some kind of comfort and convenience. We take it for granted that we will have food, shelter, light, heat, transportation--even internet. Six years ago, the people of Syria also took these things for granted. In fact, they enjoyed some of the best cuisine in the Arab world. Today, middle class Syrians are crossing the Aegean in rubber dinghies, sleeping in flimsy tents in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, or living without jobs, education, dignity or hope in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
We are all refugees. And if we live secure today, who can tell what will happen tomorrow? We are all refugees. Some of us, myself included, have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who themselves fled persecution for the safety of a distant and unknown land. There, they had to start life over again in a foreign language and with different customs.
We are all refugees, yet today some of us have more than others--more comfort, more safety, more security, more rights. If our rights and freedoms have meaning to us, how can we deny them to others, the desperate refugees from a war-torn land? If our spirituality means anything to us, how can we ignore those who are cold and hungry? The refugees come to challenge us to live up to the ideals of liberty and equality that we profess as the basis of Western society. To turn our backs on them is to betray our deepest-held ideals. To close our borders, our doors, our hearts to them is to refuse the challenge they bring--a call on our compassion, a cry for our human caring, a reminder of the transitory nature of our life as pilgrims and strangers in this world--for truly, we are all refugees.
You shall neither mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21
Refugees wait to cross into Macedonia at the Greek border station of Idomeni. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP
The year is 1932.The up-and-coming leader, Adolph Hitler, is drawing crowds, inflaming passions and inciting violence with his demagoguery and anti-Semitism. In the streets and meeting halls of the Weimar Republic, Hitler's Brownshirts clash with Communists and Socialists. Soon the republic will collapse into a totalitarian dicatatorship, a war-machine will be built, and European Jewry will be destroyed as war engulfs the world.
Twenty years later, I was born into a country of postwar austerity, bombsites and burgeoning hope for a brighter future. I was also born into an extended family who had lost many members in the Holocaust. My parents and grandparents lived though cataclysmic events fuelled by hatred and division. In so many ways, their story is my own. My ancestors are alive in me. Events of recent days have stirred this generational trauma that lies always just beneath the surface of my psyche. As I wrote on my Facebook page--my fascism alarm has sounded. It seems I was not alone in this, for the post got more likes, shares and comments than even the cute photo of baby deer in our backyard.
Writing for me is certainly an act of service, a form of activism, a way to awaken hearts--but it is also a journey to innate wisdom. When the events of the world I live in leave me frightened, devastated or frustrated, I turn to my blog. I know I'm not the only one feeling this way, and hope readers will journey with me from fear to courage, from despair to hope, from darkness to light.
As we consider Trump's demagoguery and incitement, his Islamophobia and denigration of Mexicans, African-Americans, women, people with disabilities and so on; as we grapple with the hatred and prejudice expressed within the group mind at Trump rallies, we can best approach the challenge by by applying the principles of prajna and upaya.
Applying prajna refers to the way we work with our own minds. If we hate and detest Donald Trump, we're really activating our inner Trump. If we despise and look down upon those who support Trump, we are becoming the very thing we dislike in others. "I cannot tolerate intolerance," as the famous saying goes. As Trump goads us, the Bernie people, the moveon.org people, the Black Lives Matter people, the 'liberals' or (astonishingly enough), the 'far Left', claiming that we are 'bad people', let's not fall into the trap of deciding 'Trump people' are 'bad people.'
Hitler and his Brownshirts became what they were due to causes and conditions. While some of these causes arose from their own childhood experiences, there were many systemic causes and conditions rooted in the unjust Treaty of Versailles and the hunger and humiliation the German people were experiencing. Meanwhile,the doctrine of anti-Semitism provided a conveniently vulnerable and defenceless scapegoat for the anger of a defeated nation.
In the same way, karmic conditions gave Trump, the rich kid raised to be 'a king and a killer,' an insatiable thirst for fame, wealth and power. And the anger he rouses in his largely working class following arises from many causes embedded in our society. Trump's message of 'making America great again' (whatever that means), making America 'win' again, may appeal to people who lack a sense of worth and significance because they are always at the bottom of the pile. His bigotry gives voice to feelings many have not dared to express until now. Finally there is a target for life's dissatisfactions--undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Leftists, African-Americans, President Obama and so on. These 'bad people' should be taken from our midst to keep us safe, just as the Jews were taken from the midst of German society.
When I hear Trump speak or watch clips of the way protestors are treated at his rallies, naturally feelings of horror, disgust and aversion arise. Still, I don't want to hate Trump or despise his supporters, for given the right set of circumstances--that could be me. So I gently repeat, "May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you have ease of wellbeing", sending the energy of loving-kindness to these fellow sentient beings.
First we apply prajna and work with our own minds, so that when we come to bring upaya, skilful means, into our work in the world, we don't approach the challenge full of our own fear and aversion. Now we must meet the challenge with courage and integrity. Complacency, acquiescence, the collusion of silence--these behaviours will allow bigotry to go unchecked and our society to be divided. At first many thought Hitler was just a funny little man. Why bother to stand up to such a preposterous demagogue? And initially many of us hoped that if we ignored Trump, refusing to give him the attention he sought, the problem would go away--but it hasn't. When Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of interfering in our country's internal affairs by speaking out against Trump, he was offering us a powerful lesson. The man or woman of spirit is a voice for the voiceless.
Who will speak for our undocumented immigrants, who have no vote and no official voice, if I don't? Who will speak for the beleaguered Muslim minority? Who will speak for us, the so called Far Left, if we don't speak out for ourselves? While Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have all raised their voices to condemn Trump's bigotry and "political arson,' we can't leave this to politicians. Each one of us needs to rise our voices loudly and insistently and make it clear that the politics of hate and division has no place in our society.
In the political ferment of student life in Seventies Britain, a Socialist was someone who quoted Das Kapital like a Baptist quoted the Bible. The rest of us were a bit scared of both, Socialists and Evangelicals. At the time, it scarcely occurred to me that the caring society I was so proud of, the NHS I was training to work in, were major Socialist achievements.
Then the Eighties rolled around, bringing Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Compassion became countercultural and the mandate for selfishness replaced the call to caring. New words began to enter our vocabulary--'trickle down economics' for example. But as an immigrant to the US during the Reagan era, I never noticed anything trickling down to me.
America was full of surprises, not all of them good. For example, apparently there were only two political parties, and as far as I could see, both of them would fit into Britain's Conservative party. Liberal was a term of insult rather than the political party my parents supported, and Socialism was apparently synonymous with Communism. Universal healthcare was regarded with suspicion by those who most would benefit from it and 'Welfare' was a despised term rather than the proud achievement of health and housing for all.
It was while I was working to start a food Coop in Boulder that someone called me a lefty for the first time--and they didn't mean it kindly. I had never been called a lefty before for any other reason than being left handed! Meanwhile, I had begun to appreciate that everything I respected in a society-- 'each for all and all for each,' compassion and care for all, the Welfare State, was encompassed in the term Democratic Socialism.
As I watch Britain's Conservative Party dismantle all I admired and loved about my homeland--the place where my family lives--as I listen to America's right wing rhetoric growing increasingly strident, I've realized that, even though I'm very different from those orthodox Marxists I found so funny years ago, I am actually a Socialist. The Neoliberal economics of continuous growth on a finite planet are leading us towards a devastating endpoint. Already sixty-two billionaires own more that 3.5 billion poor people. The economics of caring and sharing may be a left turn--but they represent a turn away from certain destruction.
Thanks to Social media, people of compassion and integrity are getting an opportunity to be heard as never before within the political arena. Of course, the corporate media don't like them, giving them the smear treatment or worse still, the silent treatment. But Jeremy Corbyn is now leader of Britain's Labour Party and Bernie Sanders has become, despite all odds, a realistic candidate for President of the United States. Let's give all the support we can to those who stand up for a Caring Society.
Palestinians wait to get through at checkpoint at the separation wall in Bethlehem [file photo], (Photo: Activestills.org)
A separation wall encircles
Birthplace of Prince of Peace
I want to write a poem about it
But I can't find the words.
It ought to be a rap
That's not my style.
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Today, much too far.
Would they let the shepherds through the checkpoint?
Or foreign dignitaries bearing gifts?
How far is it to Bethlehem?
My favourite childhood carol
Choked by teargas, drowned by gunfire
I ought to write a poem
But I'll never have the words
To speak this tragedy, express this travesty.
I was just a young teenager during the six-day war. Unquestioningly, I supported Israel. I believed what my grandmother said--we had to have our own country, because during the Holocaust no country would accept us. At fifteen, I didn't think in great depth about whose country Israel was before Jews got there, or what was happening to the previous residents. After all, Jews were profoundly ethical people--Grandpa told me that every month when we visited. If Israel was a Jewish state, surely everything would be done in an ethical way.
In the nearly fifty years since that war, I've had time to grow up, time to study Middle Eastern history. My unquestioning support of Israel is long gone. To say I'm 'pro-Palestinian' would be a misnomer. True peace activists hold a non-partisan stance. It's not that I'm pro-Palestinian--it's simply that I've come to understand that all true religion, including Judaism, calls on us to protect the poor, the weak and the defenceless, to be a voice for the voiceless and speak for peace and kindness. So how can I support the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, the blockade of Gaza, the killing of civilians, the imprisonment of children, the demolition of homes as an act of collective punishment? The Hebrew prophets call us to stand on the side of the oppressed, and that's where I stand.
In the last weeks that my late mother still had the power of speech, she reminded me of a moment of profound awakening. After my first year of paid work as a junior doctor, I spent my accumulated salary on taking my parents to the Holy Land--Israel and the West Bank. There we saw refugees living behind barbed wire. We talked to Palestinians who shared their grief and frustration with us. We awoke, the three of us, my parents and I, to the Palestinian cause. Looking back, I can see that in one of my final conversations with Mum, she was reminding me to keep holding that torch, once she and my father were no longer there. Injustice is being perpetrated every day in our names--the names of those who lost family in the Holocaust. With my parents gone, I'm left to say, 'not in my name!'
Israel and Palestine--a topic I tend to avoid in this blog, because so many of my friends and supporters will be angered by these words. I'm sorry, dear friends, I don't want to hurt or offend, but my mother's memory calls me to speak out. Walls don't bring safety, guns don't bring peace and I can't trade someone else's rights for my security. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1: 17). Having nowhere else to go but social media to fulfil this call of the Hebrew prophets, here I am.
Of many events that took place for us this year, from a pilgrimage to Tunisia to an unprecedented expansion of Alandi Gurukula, by far the most momentous was the death, on 15th October, of my beloved mother, aged ninety. I'll be dedicating this year's letter to her legacy.
On 5th July 1948, Britain's NHS (National Health Service) was born. The world's first publicly funded single-payer universal healthcare system officially started when Health Secretary Aneurin "Nye" Bevan opened Trafford General Hospital in Manchester. At the time, my mother, then Joyce Board, was a medical student at London's Royal Free Hospital. She was to spend her entire working life as an NHS doctor, and at the end of her life was cared for lovingly by NHS Wales.
Nye Bevan opens Trafford General Hospital
Joyce's personal legacy is inseparable from the vision of healthcare as a right, free to all at the point of use--a vision to which she dedicated her life. As a poor child growing up on Skipton Street, a South London slum, Mum became aware early in life of the challenges poverty brings. She vividly described the day she accompanied her father, a lab technician at Bart's Hospital, to a Christmas party at a doctor's house. When the little girl asked to wash her hands, she was brought into a beautiful bathroom with a claw foot tub. It was a far cry from the toilet she shared with several other families, and the tin tub brought out for a weekly bath. Immediately, little Joycey decided that she too would become a doctor and have a lovely bathroom! And despite poverty, the Great Depression and the ravages and dislocations of the Second World War, the young Cockney girl fulfilled her ambition.
The birth of the NHS paved the way for Mum to have a future quite different than that of doctors of previous generations. Instead of running a business and receiving payments from patients, Joyce was paid by the government as a public servant, free to provide care to all, regardless of ability to pay. Soon the NHS was to train generations of doctors and nurses who believed in healthcare as a right and found their greatest satisfaction in providing quality care on the basis of need.
In December 1951, two and a half years after the birth of the NHS, I was born in a small town in the Midlands as a member of the first generation entitled to receive cradle-to-grave care from the new healthcare system. In fact Mum, Dad and I all spent our first Christmas in St Mary's Hospital, Dad sick with brucellosis, Mum recovering from the birth and I, a tiny premature baby, in an incubator. I wonder how our little family would have survived without the NHS! A few months later, Mum was back at work as junior partner in general practice. However, she soon saw that the life of a GP was not optimal for a wife and mother--and began to shape her career within the NHS' nascent public health system. This started with infant welfare clinics and soon blossomed into care of children with special needs. Joyce would pay a home visit, assess the child and assign the needed services. Most of her work was among mining families in rural Nottinghamshire. The poverty of these families made a lasting impression. " The woman of the house makes her husband a bacon sandwich to take down the mine. She gives the children bacon rind sandwiches and she herself takes a bit of bread and wipes it around the frying pan for a taste of bacon," she told me.
Meanwhile, as I attended primary school in Melton Mowbray and Mum cared for the needs of children in the community, universal healthcare was slowly beginning to spread around the world, coming to Sweden in 1955, Iceland in 1956, Denmark and Japan in 1961 and Saskatchewan, Canada in 1962. The revolutionary vision of healthcare as a right, afforded to each on the basis of need rather than wealth, was beginning to become the norm rather than the exception.
In 1966, I announced to my parents that I had decided to become a doctor. Of course, Mum was delighted. A few years later I began my training at Bart's Hospital--the same place where my late grandfather had been a lab technician. London's diversity was thrilling to me and played out in unique ways within the fabric of the NHS. The hospital porters were, almost without exception, Sikh. On my midwifery rotation at Hackney hospital I also noticed that Italians did the cooking and catering, the senior nurses were Irish, the student nurses Philipina or Malaysian and the midwives Jamaican. Meanwhile, many of the resident doctors were Bengalis or Palestinians. Our different cultures and accents enlivened the workplace and everyone seemed cheerful and at home amid this 'London soup.'
Even more thrilling was the opportunity to provide the finest care to the homeless residents of the City of London. This came into clear focus during my Casualty (ER or A&E) rotation at Bart's. The police would bring in an elderly tramp found injured, coughing or comatose. Nothing delighted me more than to see the old man clean, warm and comfortable in a hospital bed, having his pneumonia or TB treated by world-renowned doctors. And then, since we were not allowed to discharge an elderly person to the streets, the social worker had to find housing for him!
While I studied medicine in London, Joyce was ascending to the top of her career, reaching the level of Senior Consultant in the new specialty of Community Medicine. Much as she enjoyed her professional success, the most important thing for her was the opportunity to help shape a caring society, ensuring the provision of quality services for special needs children and their families as well as for other vulnerable populations. Mum still remembered the 'bad old days' before the welfare state and took great pride in being part of the creation of a society based on the premise, 'Each for all and all for each.' Her chosen specialty led her to look beyond the confines of hospital care to the larger issues confronting the county, the nation and the world as whole. Britain's 'care for all' promise meant that everyone--the young, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the disabled, as well as addicts--must be provided the opportunity to receive the needed services.
As the decades rolled on, Mum went from being a provider to a recipient of services. In the last months of her life, she received outstanding care from NHS Wales. I sat with her during an in-depth visit from the District Nurse, to determine what services and support she might need while ageing at home. Soon after, Joyce suffered a stroke. The EMT who arrived with his ambulance, very promptly despite the rural setting, made a careful assessment. Mum reached hospital quickly and was immediately taken for a CT scan. Thereafter, she got outstanding care in the Acute Stroke Unit at Bronglais Hospital. Not only was the care timely and compassionate, there were no worries or concerns about 'what is your insurance,' no copays or deductibles, no lingering bills to burden the family. Universal healthcare, free at the point of need--Joyce Hudis dedicated her life to it and benefited from it when she herself needed help.
In the US we feel uneasy about universal healthcare. After all, 'each for all and all for each,' is a Socialist concept--and until recently Socialism was a dirty word akin to Communism. Now that an avowed 'democratic Socialist', Bernie Sanders, is seeking nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, perhaps we can break that taboo. I've lived in a country that had universal healthcare in an integrated health system and I've lived in one that doesn't. If there is a benefit to not having universal healthcare, I've yet to discover it. But this I do know. If, in the dying years of the British Empire, a nation with great poverty and a rigid social class system could reinvent itself in few brief years, out of the rubble of war, into a welfare state with universal cradle-to-grave healthcare--it can be done. It has been done and it can be done. All it takes is the will to care. Healthcare is a right; let no one deprive us of it. As neo-liberalism rushes toward its inevitable end of oligarchy and corpocracy, it's time to seek sustainability in a new approach.
Each for all and all for each,
A fresh new song is in the air.
All for each and each for all,
For a world ofsharing and caring.
Since I wrote the Caring Community Song in spring, many remarkable developments have taken place in the sociopolitical sphere, and most have arisen from the grassroots. Not only has Bernie emerged as a potential presidential nominee--Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of Britain's Labour party, Justin Trudeau has become Canada's Prime Minister and Podemos has made a great showing in Spain's elections. The people demand the fall of the oligarchy! The people demand true social democracy! We are glimpsing the power we have if we stand together and call for caring community.
For a tear-jerking glimpse of Britain's NHS, listen to this beautiful rendition by the NHS choir.
Wishing you a joyous New Year and peace and prosperity during 2016!
It's a historic moment. After over twenty years of talking, wrangling and inaction, world leaders have signed a legally-binding climate deal--even agreeing that ultimately warming should be limited to 1.5'C, rather than the previously-discussed 2'C.
We've all been fighting for this for years--and of course, it isn't what we asked for. As we knew going into the talks, current pledges by nations will bring us to a catastrophic 2.7-3.5'C. The document also says that we need to reach net zero carbon emissions in the second half of the century, whereas the UN's own climate science panel is much more specific, saying we must to get there by 2070.
There's climate science and there's climate politics. Climate politics means striking a deal that oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia will sign. We knew this all along. COP21 won't save the world--but it will send a message. The message to global financial markets is loud and clear--the fossil fuels era is coming to an end. Put your money elsewhere. The oil still in the ground is worth billions of dollars only if there's a market for it. No market, no profit. Instead, investors will be looking to renewables and the low carbon economy, spurring increased development and implementation of green energy, electric vehicles and so on.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature is speaking loudly and clearly. Record floods in Chennai, record floods in the UK, record droughts in the Sahel, record droughts in the US, record fires in Australia...to mention but a few of her recent messages. She'll continue speaking and waking us to the need to change.
Before the Paris talks, we'd been sitting with an empty cup for twenty years. Truly slow service at the World Café! During the talks we lifted our voices. The type of tea being brewed wasn't really what we ordered. For example, emissions from shipping and air traffic were left out of the mix. Now the tea is poured. Our cup is half full--and that's progress. It is indeed historic.
Let's take a moment to join the applause, then consider how to get the other half-cup. As one Paris delegate, activist Anieesa Khan said, real change doesn't come from governments, it comes from grassroots action. So, what can we do?
Press your church, university or city to divest from fossil fuels.
Promote, volunteer for and vote for the potential world leaders who will make a difference-- such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. (Canada, congratulations, you did it!)
Be a voice for justice and peace. Every action you take on behalf of social justice and human rights will have a positive feedback towards environmental concerns. Climate justice, social justice and human rights go hand in hand.
Eat less meat. Get your dairy from small local producers. Cattle feedlots produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2.
Keep fighting fracking. Here's what Cornell professor Robert Howarth told The Nation: "If we stop producing methane, which means stop doing fracking of natural gas and oil, the world wouldn't run up against that (1.5'C) limit for about 50 years. So we could buy ourselves 25 to 35 years of time, which is critical."
Walk, bike, take the bus. It's what you do every day that counts. You don't need to go into agonies of guilt over an occasional plane trip, but choose nonstop flights and only for longer journeys.
Most of all, stay positive, keep hope alive and remember the seventh generation. Cynicism, bitterness and despair will only lead to apathy. Without us, all of us, there would have been no COP 21 and no Paris agreement. We can't save ourselves and our fellow species by acting from fear or anger, still less by giving up and withdrawing from the fight.
Get up, stand up, stand up for your right Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight Get up, stand up. Life is your right So we can't give up the fight.
Love will save us, gratitude will save us. With a big thank you to all Paris delegates who stayed up night and day to bring us the climate agreement, let's have a nice slow sip of the tea they have poured us, take a breath and keep on fighting as open-hearted warriors.
It's been a hard week on the justice and peace front--a week of violence, mayhem, hatred and prejudice. Wednesday saw the horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino. I was saddened by the deaths and injuries; the grief of those who lost loved ones. I was devastated that such an apalling act took place in a centre for developmentally disabled people. And then the final twist of the knife--the perpetrators were Muslim. We could only wait, in anguished anticipation, for the backlash against innocent Muslims.
And backlash indeed there was, culminating in Donald Trump's outrageous, unconstitutional and preposterous proposal to ban all Muslims--about a fifth of the world's population--from entering the US for any reason.
News of the next blow reached us via our Black Lives Matter contacts. On Friday evening, while on social media, we learnt of the death of stabbing suspect Mario Woods, shot twenty-five times by six San Francisco policemen--the 307th African American killed by police this year, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org. After watching witness video of the shooting, we found this killing even more horrific in its own way than the San Bernardino mass shooting--because Mario Woods was killed by public servants whose job is to protect us and keep us safe.
Just as I felt I could bear no more, came the stabbings at Leytonstone Underground Station in London, perpetrated by a would-be terrorist. Yet in that deepening darkness, finally we saw some rays of hope. First, l'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the courage and heroism of the San Bernardino police officers who responded to the 911 call--truly living up to their 'serve and protect' mission, placing their own lives at risk as they sought to 'bring calm to chaos'. Residents of San Bernardino came together to share grief and support, through interfaith vigils, free cupcakes and community expressions of care for those affected. Wherever there is the human heart, we will find beauty, courage and tenderness. We must keep this faith in human goodness, even when confronted again and again with acts of evil, racism and hatred.
And, friends, we can also light up the darkness with sparkles of British humour, one of the greatest gifts my native land has to offer. Leytonstone has several things to teach us. While Mario Woods died clutching a kitchen knife, shot twenty-five times in what has been described as an execution or firing squad, the Leytonstone stabbing suspect, Muhaydin Mire, was taken into custody after being subdued with a taser. During the attack, Mire shouted, "This is for Syria, my Muslim brothers!". In response, an onlooker shouted the now-famous words, "You ain't no Muslim, bruv, you ain't no Muslim." These spontaneous words didn't come to excommunicate a man we now know was mentally ill, rather, they express that such conduct is radically un-Islamic.
As Londoners trend #YouAintNo MuslimBruv to the top of Twitter, they speak not just to one deranged man, but to all who want to divide us, want us to live in fear. If you are a person of hatred, of violence, of prejudice in your thoughts and actions, if you seek to divide and spread fear, then whether you are Trump or a terrorist, a police officer or a priest, you ain't no Muslim and you ain't no Christian either, you ain't no Jew and you ain't no Hindu or Buddhist, for you have slammed shut the door of the human heart, the home of true religion. And instead of cowering before you, instead of closing our own hearts, we're going to keep lighting candles and making cups of tea, we're going to keep giving out free cupcakes and most of all, we're going to keep smiling--because you can never take our humour away from us.
A candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the San Bernardino shooting on December 3, 2015 at San Manuel Stadium. Photo: Marcus Yam/2015 Los Angeles Times
It's the season when we feel a sudden flush of concern for the usually-forgotten homeless population. Our mailboxes are full of charity appeals, and we're eager to help make sure nobody dies of cold on our streets and everyone gets a feast on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. But there's one homeless Denver man who didn't get his turkey dinner this year. He missed it because he was killed a few days before Thanksgiving.
Life is dangerous of course, for homeless people. But Michael Lee Marshall wasn't killed on Denver's streets. Instead, he died in the Denver jail at the hands of those whose avowed duty is to serve and protect. Michael had schizophrenia. After 'disturbing the peace' at a Denver motel, he was arrested. At the jail, a sheriff's deputy restrained the frail fifty-year-old facedown on the ground with a knee in his back. We don't know exactly what happened next--but he was pronounced brain-dead when he reached hospital.
Michael had a lot of cards stacked against him. He was mentally ill. Suffering paranoid schizophrenia from the age of sixteen already placed him in a marginalized and vulnerable position. He was homeless, as so many chronically mentally ill people are. He was in a disadvantaged age group, an older person too young to be considered a senior. But Michael was also African-American. I can't help but wonder if any of this disastrous chain of events would have happened to a white man in Michael's position. Denver has a bad record with regard to violence against prisoners of colour.
There's a lot going on at the moment for the Black lives Matter movement: the recent anniversary of the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the Black Friday protests in Chicago that peacefully shut down an upscale shopping mall, the protests in Minneapolis after the police shooting of a young black man. It's easy for Michael Lee Marshall's death to pass largely unnoticed--although a vigil was held outside Denver Detention Center the next day. But as a Justice and Peace blogger living in Colorado, I can't let this tragedy go unmentioned. My emotions are still raw--Marshall's death touches so many nerves, not only about how we treat people of colour but also about how our society relates to those who are mentally ill, homeless or both. I want to raise my voice in outrage. I want to say, "This must stop. End violence against inmates." I want to speak truth to power--although those in power probably won't read this blog. But perhaps most of all I want to speak to all of us--the kind and compassionate people. The vulnerable in our midst need us to remember them and to raise our voices on their behalf. It's our job to be the friend of the friendless and voice of the voiceless.
10th October: A peace march in Ankara, Turkey, turns to carnage, more than a hundred people killed by a suicide bomb. We're left without words, our emotions raw, thinking of the beautiful country where we were welcomed with so much friendliness and hospitality.
15th October: My mother dies, three days into our nine days of fire ceremonies for Divine Mother. Prayers for her mingle with our intense prayers for all the world's refugees and conflict areas.
31st October: A Russian plane crashes in the Sinai desert, killing two hundred and twenty four. Despite being recently bereaved myself, I can't fathom the grief of someone who lost their son, daughter-in-law and two-year old granddaughter as they returned from a happy vacation. Intelligence soon emerges suggesting this, like the Ankara attack, is an ISIS bombing.
12th November: two suicide bombers detonate explosives in Bourj el-Barajneh, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, killing forty-three. A Shia mosque and a nearby bakery are targeted--places that are bound to be crowded with ordinary people, for bread and prayer are central to Middle Eastern life. Many of our friends never hear about this, since it receives minimal coverage. Our news source, Al Jazeera, is on the scene, making sure we take the sorrow of our Lebanese sisters and bothers to heart.
13th November: There are multiple attacks against Shia in Baghdad, including a suicide bombing of a funeral at a Shia mosque that kills 19 people. ISIS claims responsibility.
13th November: The Paris attacks kill more than a hundred and twenty people who were out enjoying a Friday night in the home of joie de vivre. It's a punch below the belt. Again I'm left without words, emotions raw, thinking of such sorrow in the beautiful city where I spent a happy summer decades ago.
For years we've been praying our hearts out over the unraveling situation in the Middle East and North Africa, weeping with those who mourn, yearning for the safety of the refugees. Now we see, for the first time, suicide bombs in Western Europe--the very place to which refugees are fleeing for safe haven from bombs, guns and ISIS. Amid the raw emotions, the pain, shock and horror, I ask what is needed--what is needed from me, as someone who has dedicated their life to world peace? What is needed from us, the privileged inhabitants of wealthy nations. What is needed from us, the human race?
We need to mourn. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. We need to mourn for Paris, certainly--and for Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Aleppo, Burundi, Borno, St Petersburg, the West Bank and Gaza too. Only when we are able to mourn together can we find healing.
We need to be painfully aware. This means seeking out news sources that give us a real picture of the suffering of our fellow human beings--and taking the time to absorb and digest what we see, hear and read. It means feeling the losses of people of different continents, cultures, religions and skin colours as our own.
We need to stand in solidarity; solidarity with France, the birthplace of the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité--liberty, equality and fraternity. And we need to stand in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in conflict areas around the world.
We need to maintain compassion and an open heart. Please don't let these incidents turn us against the refugees, simply because they, like the attackers, are from the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.
We need to commit our lives to the ideals France espouses: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let us turn our sorrow to compassion, our shock to activism, on behalf of those who are not free, those who are not treated equally, those who remain ignored, unheard, outside the bounds of our fraternity.
With his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis is very much the man of the hour. But Francis is far more than a beloved, charismatic figurehead. He is also a powerful prophetic voice for the social teachings of the Catholic Church. We may not have been able to see Francis on his recent visit, but we can draw close to him through studying his teachings. In particular, Pope Francis has recently authored an encyclical--a papal letter--addressed not to Catholics alone, but to all humanity.
Francis has entitled his encyclical Laudato Si, Praise Be, after the great Canticle of the Creatures written by his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. In his encyclical, Pope Francis calls our attention to the devastating environmental impacts of industrialized society, with special reference to global climate change.
Last semester, I taught toxicology and environmental medicine to my students. In the course of the semester, we looked into many interlocking concerns, including pesticides, genetic engineering, mining, toxic chemicals, radiation, air pollution, waterway pollution and climate change. We saw that, just as a chronically ill person may suffer from several co-existing and mutually exacerbating conditions, in the same way, numerous interacting and mutually exacerbating stressors affect our biosphere. Often, the students complained, "This is depressing!"
What do we mean by this? How do we respond to the current ecological crisis? And how does Pope Francis invite us to respond?
Faced with species extinction and looming environmental catastrophe, we may prefer not to know too much. "Ignorance is bliss." If we avoid the news, isolate ourselves as much as possible from current concerns; perhaps we could lead happier, less stressful lives. How does it help me to worry about Tuareg nomads in Northern Mali who cannot find water for their livestock? Isn't it better just to get on with my own life? In fact, when I was growing up, Timbuktu was an idiom for a place too far away to worry about. I didn't know a real Timbuktu actually existed, still less that it was an ancient seat of culture and literature in Mali.
Laudato Si was published in May of this year and soon became an important theme of our summer holiday. Picture us sitting in an attic room on the slopes of Etna, reading the encyclical together as we avoid the noonday heat, or gathered in my mother's flat in West Wales, as the three of us read together, Mum just as inspired as Sadananda and myself. I had many aha moments as we read, the first being the answer to the question, "Why do we need to know this?"
To this burning question, Pope Francis replies: "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."
Becoming painfully aware is a vitally important teaching which reminds me of the Four Steps of Reconciliation. Fist comes recognition--we must recognize and understand the impacts of our actions, as a person and as a species. Second comes repentance. This is the moment when we understand not just cognitively but also emotionally; we feel the pain we have caused. This is painful awareness. Out of this arises reparation--our willingness to make good, to give back. Finally, we commit to rehabilitation, the step of making the needed changes to prevent the issue happening in the future.
We, as a human species, need to reach out for reconciliation with other species and with Mother Earth. We who enjoy all the luxuries of industrialized society need to reach out for reconciliation with the Tuareg and all the other poor and vulnerable victims of climate change, who themselves have never experienced the benefits of life in developed countries, but must pay a high price for what we enjoy. The things we take for granted have had impacts that rob them of the traditional lifestyle that brought them joy and meaning. But by the same token, small actions of awareness and compassion on our part could have benefits beyond our imagining in lands we have never seen.
Laudato Si is a lengthy and thoroughly researched letter. It must have taken tremendous effort on the part of an elderly man to write such a letter, personally intended for each and every one of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists alike. I would encourage each one of us to take some time to study what Francis offers us and to see how we personally are called to respond. (Here's the link to it). Above all, I invite us to take to heart the call to painful awareness. Becoming painfully aware of the impacts of our actions and the effects of what we enjoy, making it our own personal suffering, let us look to the big and small ways in which we can make a difference.
"Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs".