It seems rather appropriate that the May 2013 CPT delegation to Palestine began in the days between Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sunday. Pentecost, on the one hand, shows us that God comes to us in community, uniting us in our diversity of nations. Holy Trinity Sunday, on the other, shows us that God is, in essence, a community, and that we are invited to experience God as the mysterious dance of three-in-one. Our delegation of thirteen, from the U.S., Canada, Scotland, and Romania, has dwelt in both of these mysteries together as we’ve felt God uniting us despite various religious and national differences.
Earlier this week, I read the lead article from the newest issue of Consp!re Magazine, by David Hilfiker (you can read it on the Conspire website, conspiremagazine.com). The gist of the article is that significant, deadly, climate change is no longer an “if,” or a potentiality, but a nearly unavoidable inevitability. A 2 degrees Celcius increase in global temperature is considered the point of no return–currently we are at .8 degrees increase. Basically, Hilfiker says that the amount of popular, governmental, and corporate radical change of lifestyle and practice needed to avoid such an increase by 2050 is pretty much impossible at this point. The best we can do is prepare to help those most vulnerable to the types of catastrophic effects that this change is likely to have. Droughts, famine, severe weather events–people with wealth will have the ability to distance themselves from some of these effects, but those at the margins, and many developing countries, will suffer enormously.
I’ve met David a handful of times, and I know from his own testimony and from that of others that he has struggled with depression. He may be the sort who is always more likely to see the glass half empty (or in this case, 2/3 empty), but something about his article reminded me of the writer of Ecclesiastes.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
If you’re not careful, you can read an article like David’s and feel completely despairing. That may be a necessary step, to sit in the reality of just how far we’ve gone. For me, it makes me understand Ecclesiastes a little better–how much of our lives are just a chasing after the wind? How much time do we waste on the meaningless–accumulating wealth, the attainment of prestige, buying loads and loads of junk.
Here are some other words from Ecclesiastes that seem particularly apropos:
4 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
2 And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
3 But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.
8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.
10 Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
11 As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?
12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich, their abundance
permits them no sleep.
13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
14 or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.
15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry in their hands.
I know that it’s not helpful to dwell forever in hopelessness. But maybe one of the problems in our current situation is that too few people have wrestled with the consequences of our chasing after the wind. David’s article was a wake-up call for me–not that I wasn’t conscious before, but now I feel a greater sense of urgency. I can only pray that others feel such an urgency.
As part of my Master’s degree in Music at Catholic University, I am taking a course, “The Music of the Holocaust Era.” In addition to studying specific works that came out of the Holocaust (both by Jewish and non-Jewish composers), we are discussing the environment that musicians were faced with under the Nazi regime. Part of this discussion has been the entire mindset of the Nazi party’s efforts to eradicate the Jewish population (as well as a number of other “other” groups).
What it boils down to, at least from my perspective, was an arbitrary distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Jews were declared inherently different from true Germans, out to bring about the economic and political ruin of the entire country. Even though families had intermarried, Jews had fought in wars on behalf of Germany, were successful musicians who had contributed to the vast cultural depths, they had to be expelled from the country and eventually from existence. That is the irrational logic of the Holocaust. It was implemented under the guise of patriotism and propaganda and enforced with violent repression.
In our day, in the United States, there is currently a controversy over the US Drone policy. The US has been killing so-called enemies at will and with little accountability or oversight for years using these remote controlled planes. While their use has been opposed by many, the recent outcry has been due to the now-public memo which lays out the “legal” justification for killing pretty much anyone perceived to be a threat, including U.S. citizens. It’s the “U.S. citizens” part that is now causing the stir.
But what the lunacy of Nazism teaches us is the absurdity of these nationalist distinctions, “American,” “German,” “Pakistani.” People should rightfully be concerned and outraged at the killing policies of this administration, but not any more so because they now include US citizens, but simply because these policies kill humans. In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the government would kill its own citizens because other, arbitrary, divisions are actually more important. Muslim? Ties to “radical” groups? Family member who is in prison? In US history, it was at one time American Indians, then African Americans.
We don’t have to look far to see how these distinctions apply other other groups in the US especially when you look at immigration stance and policy. We are told, by both liberals and conservatives, that we have to fear the influx of Latin American people coming to the country. We can’t grant them citizenship, even if they fought in the military, go to college, support the economy, excel in the arts and culture…sound familiar?
I’m not suggesting that the US government is the same as the Nazi regime, but merely highlighting that the xenophobic philosophy that led to the Holocaust and the underlying philosophy behind US “homeland security” are not that different.
Over and over, stories from Germans who lived during the Holocaust have claimed that there was nothing that could be done. People who spoke up were killed. Musicians who protested saw their careers end or were sent to the camps. But antisemitism didn’t appear out of nowhere in 1933. Perhaps in some sense, by the time Hitler came to power and made policy what was already accepted sentiment, it was too late. Christians and other people of good will waited too long and so they were left with the option to become martyrs or to become complicit. That is a choice that we should all pray we never leave ourselves with.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Exactly one month ago, my grandfather passed away. He was a kind and gentle person, and perhaps the most generous I’ve ever known. He was not extremely wealthy, but lived simply and with the mindset of someone raised during the Great Depression. He saved wrapping paper, coins, dollar bills, and anything small that might be useful later on. And he was usually right. He wasn’t a hoarder–he didn’t arbitrarily hold on to just anything. Every quarter or dime he received in change, he would place into a used Peanut Butter jar with a slit in it, like a bank, and then when the jar was full, he’d give it to one of his grandchildren (or all three) to roll and count and then keep.
He took care of his possessions, still using tools, dishes, appliances, and many other things that he’d owned for decades. Included in this was his record player. Over time, though family had given him CD’s and a CD player (his favorite place to play CD’s was on his TV’s DVD player), he always kept and would play his favorite records.
Now his record player sits in my living room, and the first thing I did when I brought it home was to set it up and play one of his Glenn Miller albums. Like everything else he’d owned, the turntable is in pristine condition. And though I grew up listening to records on my parents’ turntable, listening on his these few weeks has been a new experience.
I can step into his world in a way I never had before, understanding more about his life and the world in which he grew up, went to war, had a family, all through the crackle of sound imprinted on a vinyl record. Vinyl is both clean and exact, yet also gritty, not always smooth. My grandfather’s life was similar. It contained the precision inborn in his personality and ingrained from decades in the military, yet was gritty, never going strictly according to plan. The more I listen to records, both his and mine, old and new, the more I understand his life.
I am continually amazed at the ways music has this ability to connect and re-member us to one another, and I am grateful especially in this case for my grandfather’s unwillingness to get rid of this treasure from 30 years ago.
As I’ve been starting on my journey with the Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge, trying to do something every day which doesn’t compute, each day has brought with it the excitement of “what will I do today?” It really is all about plotting goodness. I get energized brainstorming for the day.
For now, I’m taking my initial cues straight from the poem. On day 1, I denounced the government and embraced the flag by not voting and writing a letter to a soldier in Afghanistan. Day 2, I loved someone who did not deserve it by sending chocolate to a hawkish lobbying firm in D.C.
Yesterday, day 3, I must confess was a bust. I thought all day about how to enact this desire, to practice resurrection like a fox. But, I was busy with school and other activities. It was a humbling reminder of my own imperfection, that my spirit was will but my flesh was weak. Practicing resurrection requires our own death to self and to the busyness of life. It never ceases to amaze me, the paradoxical nature of the kingdom of God, that to gain life we must lose it. To be born again, we must die to ourselves. To help birth the kingdom of God, we must take up the cross. Resurrection can’t come without death first.
Though I fell short on day 3, I did spend the time thinking of other ways to live life more paradoxically. Another line in the poem is to “Work for nothing.” Today, I did just that. I gave a check to my work for the amount of a day’s wage. I wavered between telling my boss and not, and settled on not. Though part of the point of the WBMFC is to confound others, it’s primarily letting go of my own inner attachment to violence, money, status, etc. I need to be freed from the politicos of my own soul. I don’t want my mind to be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. I don’t want to fear my neighbors. My quest to practice resurrection each day is not just about public declaration of my belief in the coming kingdom. It’s about my own liberation. It’s about making tracks in the wrong direction. A fox does that by instinct and I too must leave behind a life that confounds the very powers that want to keep me buying and voting and fighting. I can only lead a life that doesn’t compute when I learn new instincts, when I imagine new solutions to old questions.
So friends, I implore you too, to do something every day that doesn’t compute. Don’t let a window be placed in your mind, where the whole world can see you move along like a machine.
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
Day two of the Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge (WBMFC), I spent a long time this morning trying to decide on something that “will not compute.” See, the thing about the WBMFC is that it’s not just about doing something nice, but about doing something that makes people stop and scratch their heads a bit and say “This doesn’t make any sense for what I’ve assumed this person to be.” To be honest, it’s a hard challenge!
Yesterday I signed up to send a letter to a military person in Afghanistan and will mail my letter tomorrow. My letter is not angry or preachy, it’s not a political rant about the horrors of war. Rather, it’s a plea for recognizing humanity.
Today, after much deliberation, I decided to find an organization that stands for something that I completely oppose and send them something nice. I looked at a few, including Secure America Now but couldn’t find their office address. I kept searching and eventually found Keep America Safe, located right here in D.C. (surprise, surprise). Keep America Safe is an organization that lobbies for higher defense spending, stronger military, and more fighting “terrorism.” I probably would be the last person on earth to send them a message of support. From my perspective, they would be a group that doesn’t deserve to be loved.
But, in the spirit of the WBMFC, I sent them a nice box of chocolate-covered fruit, courtesy of Edible Arrangements, with a message saying that I’m praying for them to learn the things that lead to peace, to love their enemies, and help the world beat swords and guns into plowshares. In the same way I need to remember that soldiers are people, not mindless robots (though the military does its best to make them that way), I also need to remember that people who spend their lives advocating for fear and war to be the M.O. of a society are still people.
Anyone else up to the WBMFC?
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
This poem has been on my mind for the last while. It’s by Wendell Berry, and is excepted from “Manifesto,” a poem from the Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Every stanza in it releases me to live life more fully. It names the evil I’m surrounded by, it calls forth my humanity, it reminds me that I’m not a machine, but a creature like the fox.
I was especially thinking about this poem on Election Day. Today, I’m fasting, both from food and from voting. I may vote again one day, but I’ve refrained for a variety of reasons. However, re-reading this poem has reminded me that I don’t want to be predictable; I need to be more like the fox.
I recently celebrated a birthday and have decided to take the “Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge” (my term):
Everyday do something that doesn’t compute.
I want to try for the next year, to do one thing a day that doesn’t compute and try to post it here. So, today on election day, I’m going to start. Here’s what I’m doing, taking a cue from WB (“Denounce the government and embrace the flag”):
I’m not going to vote, and I’m going to write a letter to a military service person in Afghanistan.
I am firmly pacifist and abhor the wars this country is involved in. Yet, in my pacifism, I often forget that the people fighting in the wars are actually people. They become issues, or lumped in to the policies of war-mongering that the government lives by. I can’t support anyone’s decision to join the military, to be willing to kill at the whim of a general or president. By writing a letter, I hope to remind whomever I write to, of his/her humanity and the humanity of the enemy.
Why this “won’t compute”
For a lot of people, choosing not to vote is either an act of apathy or an act of anger against a rotten system. I can identify with both of these to some extent. But I want my choice to abstain to be rooted in genuine compassion and action for what I do believe in: the Prince of Peace.
Maybe you’ll join me. What about your life doesn’t compute (in a good way)?
Pace e bene.
**Read my next post for Day 2 of the Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge