Sacred Earth

June 18, 2015

I have not yet read Pope Francis’s new encyclical, but I have no doubt that it will change many people’s minds about the relationship between religious faith and conservation of the planet we call home.

As a Quaker, I have always believed that “earthcare” is as fundamental to faith as care of the soul, the body, and all living things. Pope Francis, whose namesake brought the natural world and the spiritual world together, is a fitting spokesperson for this point of view, not only among Roman Catholics but among Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith.

Religious conservatives have for too long controlled the discourse regarding what most of us consider the signal problem that our society faces in the 21st century: climate change. Deniers, such as the Koch brothers, have poured millions into a campaign that, if successful, will alter the views of the coming generation, who must make the hard choices about cutting greenhouse gas emissions and weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Their Heartland Institute tried to destroy the career of my friend, Peter Gleick, for his work on water conservation.

If the world’s huge Roman Catholic population is awake to the problems of climate change, as many in the developing countries face threats to their livelihoods from its effects, they will heed Francis’s words and begin to change the discourse. I have faith that this new awareness will bear fruit, and thank Pope Francis for his courageous leadership on one of the most contentious political, and religious, issues in history. Pax tecum.

Self-Mutilation in Syria

February 27, 2015

There are many tragic ironies in the events playing out in Syria, Turkey and Iraq this month. For those who care about art and culture, the most horrific can be seen in an ISIS video now available on the New York Times website: the mutilation of precious stone artifacts in the Mosul Museum under the banner of an Islamic jihad. What we are really seeing is Arab cultural mutilation on a grand scale, but every human feels the blows and cuts falling on beautiful statues of our ancestors in Mesopotamia.

Times reporters suggest that the militants doing this damage are motivated by a need to be noticed, much as adolescent girls who cut their wrists want attention from distant parents, and they are not wrong. The same desperate emotions are at work. Young men volunteering to die with bombs strapped to their chests offer their own flesh. Men with hammers and chisels remove the flesh of effigies that symbolize the very identity of a great civilization whose genes they share.

Alas, many will look upon these barbaric acts as fodder for more hatred of the other, and more violence will ensue. Those seeking a different way, those whose empathy and sense of loss are touched, will feel a different pain. Nothing will bring back the lost treasures, but perhaps we can better understand the deep roots of this conflict, and our own part in its escalation after the Iraq wars. These young men are our children. The statues are part of our collective identity as humans. Their mutilation cuts at the very flesh of our quest for civilization in its highest forms in art, justice, equality, and peace.

We needn’t know the names of Hammurabi’s judges, the artists of Ishtar’s golden dragons, the Assyrian and Babalonian gods, or any ancient place name along the Tigris, to understand the stakes in this culture war. The earliest marks of human civilization are being erased before our eyes. Intervention can prevent this collective death wish among our Syrian brothers. Inaction will enable the mutilation to persist.

Love Shared in Prisons

February 10, 2015

Imagine if you can a group of hard core felons sitting in a circle with a Quaker volunteer, silently contemplating the goodness in their fellow inmates. At the end of the meeting, all clasp hands and, again in silence, radiate calm amongst themselves. In their weekly meetings the individuals share their stories with each other, offering simple words of affirmation, support, and love to each in turn. Many who participate are transformed, re-entering society with renewed hope and positive energy. Others remain incarcerated, but spend their remaining years working to spread love among their fellow prisoners.

Scenes like this take place in prisons throughout the United States every week. Amidst the news that more and more men and women (mainly people of color) are entering our overcrowded prison system, these small steps toward healing are not often noted.

The Alternatives to Violence Project has been working in prisons, and in communities, throughout the world for decades. Its volunteer coordinators now include scores of former inmates such as Ray Rios of Brooklyn, who chairs the organization in the United States. Ray’s life was transformed by AVP, and he continues to dedicate his time to its furtherance here and abroad.

AVP is a remarkably simple and successful vehicle for teaching the most damaged and hopeless among us the power of love as an alternative to the enmity that is so pervasive in our society. It is so powerful that even violent criminals succumb to its transformational effects.

Remarkably, the participants in AVP do not necessarily become Quakers or learn about the spiritual dimensions of that faith. Yet they experience something spiritual in their troubled lives that can often transform their hatred into respect for their fellow humans. They re-enter society with confidence and a fierce desire to do good.

Imagine, as John Lennon did, a world in which the alternative to violence was peace.

Pope Francis and Poverty

December 25, 2014

Pope Francis’ startling Christmas sermon to the Vatican elite has echoed across the world, bouncing from one critical listener to the next like a squash ball in a closed court. When I heard it I thought first of his courage and toughness, wondering how he would fare after the powerful and patently evil curia digested his metaphors and oblique references to their laziness and corruption. He has no fear of their power. They will fade before his visionary leadership. He had a much more ambitious goal with this humble speech to the assembled laity at St. Peter’s. He sounded the alarm to the entire world: a transformation is upon us; embrace it or get out of the way. Change is coming.

For more than a quarter century the world has needed a religious leader with the courage, moral authority and clear vision to take on the increasingly cynical power elites who have controlled political, economic, academic and theological discourse during these troubled times. When John Paul II helped to bring down the Iron Curtain Catholics cheered, but were soon disillusioned by his narrow moral vision and authoritarian tenure in Rome. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church endured its most corrosive crisis in more than a century: the cover up of priestly sexual abuses, particularly in North and South America. Reeling from this blow, Rome stumbled with Benedict, but then elected the unlikeliest candidate imaginable as his successor.

Francis, like his namesake, is a man of peace who sees the plight of the world’s poor as the inevitable result of crony capitalism, authoritarian regimes, and economic inequality. Poverty is not simply a condition of the least fortunate, but rather a pervasive moral issue for the world today. Poverty of vision, poverty of ideas, poverty of spirit, poverty of leadership. Francis called upon his flock to struggle against this pervasive abnegation in their midst. The world is listening, and his words will bring a new ethic to those who hear their truth.