Tree of Life and All Souls

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Day of the Dead William Adolphe Bouguereau(1825-1905)

“Day of the Dead” – William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The death of 11 worshipers in the sacred space of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh is no longer the latest heinous act of gun violence in America. There is more to come in a country where the rhetoric of fear and hate divide us with lies and diatribes.

All Souls Day on the Christian calendar calls for deeper reflection about the living and the dead — not just some of us, but all of us: Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform); Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Sufi); Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Protestant); Hindu, Buddhist, Jaianist, humanist, animist, agnostic, and atheist — all of us.

There is only one of us. Humankind. A species free to eat from the Tree of Life that blesses or the Tree of Death that turns us into twos and threes, this or that, with words and arms that send 11 Tree of Life worshipers to their graves with forked tongues about good and evil and the planet itself.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_GreeceThe people of the Tree of Life know this. They named their place or worship after the Torah story of Humankind (Book of Genesis 2-3). Now in the deadly silence following the death of Abel, the people of the Tree of Life hear the different Voice that cries out, in love, for Cain. “Humankind, who are you? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground. There is only one Earth. There is only One of you — one Soul, one Breath — not two, or three, or….” (Genesis 4).

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is related, The Eternal One.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson , Essays.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2018

 

 

The Abel Project in the City of Cain

The same day America honored the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington most remembered for Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, America’s first black President, who had just delivered a great speech in honor of Dr. King’s dream, appeared on the Newshour to discuss military strikes in Syria.

Irony of Ironies

Martin Luther King, Jr. was as deeply committed to peace and to non-violent, non-military solutions to global problems as he was to ending racism. As his analysis of the national, international, and human condition continued to develop, he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, capitalism, and imperialism. He grasped as well as any public figure of his time, and of ours, the insidious institutional power of an unelected, undemocratic web of the economic-military-corporate complex at work behind the scenes of American public life.

President Obama’s speech from the same spot where where Dr. King had stood 50 years before at the March on Washington was a potential seminal moment of American history. It was a great contradiction to that potential to view the President’s interview on The Newshour (PBS) later in the day regarding Syria. I couldn’t put together the President’s honoring of Dr. King’s dream just hours earlier with his entertainment of military action in Syria. For whatever reason, the media did not seem to notice the incongruity and the irony.

The Newhour also featured a conversation among foreign policy experts about the advisability of “punishing” Syria for crossing the red line of chemical weapons. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer’s raised the gravest voice of caution. “Stay out militarily.” He also reminded the other two panelists and the viewing audience that the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped the bomb. The world has not forgotten. Click HERE to listen to the conversation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence because he issued a clarion call for the dawning of the City of Peace in the midst of the City of Cain, the city of bloodshed. In King’s view you can never get to the City of Peace by means of the methods of the City of Cain: violence, the lex talionis, or worse.

Ethical decisions, in personal life or in international affairs, are rarely simple. Our hearts go out to the innocent children, women, and men who died from chemical weapons in Syria. We want to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We want to help. We want to stop it. That sense of compassion is as it should be. All hearts should break over this horror. But something else is called for before we act on the impulses of the compassion.

It is also worth remembering who it was that first asked the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was Cain, who made the statement to God to put the blame for his own homicide back on the One who held him responsible for the senseless murder of his brother Abel in a fit of anger. “Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it.” Dr. King and others who choose the methods of non-violent resistance to great tragedies like the one in Syria interpret the instruction to Cain – you must master your anger – as the instruction to master one’s own knee-jerk retaliatory response. Patience is required. Taming the lion that crouches at our own door is a chief task of becoming genuinely human.

The Blood of Abel and the City of Cain

For Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and a host of un-noted, anonymous souls, the way of violence, even in behalf of the good, represents a failure to tame the lion crouching at our door and further entrenches the City of Cain.

Beyond the philosophical-ethical-theological considerations are other facts. The “red line” of chemical weapons is one that was crossed years ago. It was crossed in Vietnam. A trip to the nearest Veterans Hospital is a humbling reminder. It was the United States that used Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Our hands are not clean. As much as we might like, we do not speak from moral high ground. We have already crossed the red line. The moral finger we point toward Syria points back at us. To unleash even the most minimal, narrowly targeted Cruise Missile strike on Syria from a warship from the coast of a tinder-box in a far off place is like throwing out a boomerang expecting that it will not return to us in retributive violence. As Dr. King understood so well, violence begets violence.

As if that were not enough, the struggle in the Middle East is confounded by another form of political-economic-cultural-religious-military violence: the American corporate presence in the oil fields, arranged by American and Saudi elites (Sunni Muslims), and the expropriation through the United Nations of Bedouin Arab land to create a homeland for the survivors of the holocaust of World War II Germany. The intent, so far as the general public was concerned, was compassion. Provide a safe place, a homeland. But the homeland belonged to someone else when the United Nations expropriated it for the creation of the State of Israel, and the Arab world has never forgotten the way it happened.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” drove popular sentiment to support the creation of Israel. Why the homeland was not carved out of Germany or perhaps France is an interesting question. Or why the United States did not carve out of our vast geography a territory in the United States of America as a safe haven, is a question long since ignored by nations who thought they were taking the moral ground but not forgotten by Palestinians, Shiites, and most of the Middle East.

Those questions aside, Israel today is a sovereign State in the midst of an Arab world that resents both its presence, the history of its creation, and the United States as its most faithful ally and supporter.

Behind it all stands a military-industrial-technological-corporate complex that feeds on mistakes like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question of whether we are our brother’s keeper, responsible to play policeman to the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. never lunched on the food at the lunch counter of the military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. Nor should we. Neither should the President. Neither should Congress.

The Abel Project: We are the World

An alternative to a military response with potential catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and for us is the neglected methodology of nonviolent, passive resistance by which Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi changed the world.

If we and the rest of the world believe in the City of Peace and wish to redeem the blood of Abel in the City of Cain, let the recording artists of the world with the full support of the United Nations, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches (Orthodox and Protestant Christians), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and international Jewish organizations representing the spectrum of Judaism lift the people’s voice so clearly across the world that it cannot be ignored.

Call it “The Abel Project” – named for the innocent who was lost to the world, the slain brother of Cain, whose blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Let there be candlelight prayer vigils for an end to the way of Cain in Syria. Let the lighted candles in every national capitol, every state or provincial capitol, and in cities and towns around the world make the statement that we, the people of the world, led by the three warring children of Abraham and Sarah (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), stand for the transformation of the redemption of the blood of Abel and in the name of the City of Peace.

The President can contribute to that effort but he must not attempt do it alone. Nor can he lead it.

Unleashing the potential of a worldwide vigil in the spirit of “We are the World” must rely on the untapped power of the United Nations as a force for peaceful resolution, the original dream that inspired its Charter. He must do it not only with our closest allies in the West but with the leaders of nations that resent our history in the Middle East and Southeast Asia who are suspicious of American saber-rattling from the Western presumption of moral high ground. The voice of the world must include the two warring branches of Islam – Sunni and Shiite – whose tensions and hatreds also lie at the center of the conflict in Syria and most of the Middle Eastern Arab States.

If he does, the irony between the August 28, 2013 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the poor people’s march on Washington and the evening news will resolve itself in a new decision to honor the legacy of the fallen witness to the power of non-violent resistance and the power of love as the only method and power that ever really change the City of Cain. For the sake of Abel, our slain ancestral brother, let the candles be lit across the world.

Why is pop culture fascinated with the end of the world?

Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism asked the question after release of the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth. Here’s how I responded.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death makes the case that our culture is death-denying.

One could argue that our fascination with end of the world films and stories is an entertaining and objectified way of dealing with one’s own personal destiny. Every death is “The end of the world.” The end of the world writ large on the planetary screen moves the issue into the world of fiction, fantasy and myth from which, like all cultures before ours, we create meaning in the midst of time.

There are other reasons for our fascination, of course. Supreme among them, in my view, is the dualism and the violence that saturate Western culture: God/Satan, Good/Evil, Moral/Immoral, Saved/Damned, Blessed/Cursed.

It is this misreading of ancient Jewish and Christian texts that makes the will to power the central theme of our time. The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama said that all “sin” has the same root. It is the claim of “exceptionalism.” Under the banner of nationalist exceptionalism’s shameless stealing of the metaphor of “the city set on a hill” away from its proper setting in Jesus’ nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, we assume Western Culture and the U.S.A. to be the Golden City and the agent of divine will. The exercise of that fallacious conviction results in wars of foreign intervention, occupation, and “pre-emptive strikes” in the name of national security.

We have become a national security state. The “end of the world” fascination in our time is heightened by the knowledge that global destruction – nuclear night – is entirely possible. We fear it. We know it. Yet we are also a culture addicted to entertainment where our worst nightmares get projected onto a movie or television screen where we know that what we’re watching is fiction. The fiction is almost always a high-tech version of the old racist and xenophobic dualism my generation grew up on: cowboys and Indians.

Beneath the question of why our culture is fascinated with end of the world is human nature itself. We human beings, like all other animals, are mortal. We may be exceptional in that we are (more) conscious and self-conscious, but first and last, we are animals. We are born. We live. We die.

As conscious animals, we are capable of great feats. We are also, so far as we know, the only animal capable of self-deception, denial, illusion, and species suicide. The denial of death is the great denial, and immortality is the human species’ great illusion.

The fact of death looms over life for each of us existentially and for the species itself from the beginning and in the middle, not just at the end.  Death is our shared destiny. Death is extinction. Our fascination with the end of the world is a strange Molotov cocktail comprised of all of the ingredients of the human condition, most especially the spiritual terror of annihilation, and the illusion of winning. It is the ongoing legacy of the biblical myth of Cain, humanity’s “first-born” who kills his brother Abel, the myth that describes our time and place in history.

If, like in the movie, you had only three weeks left before the end of the world… What would you do?

I’d do what I’m doing now only more consciously. I’d continue to write each morning. I’d do my best to live gratefully, attending to beauty in nature and in art (classical music and paintings) and to family and friends. I’d pray more thoughtfully. I’d walk my dogs more joyfully, stop yelling at them for barking, and find a place on the North Shore to look out to the horizon of Lake Superior. I’d eat lobster and Dungeness crab with lots of hot butter and salt, rib-eye steaks, garlic mashed potatoes. I would avoid Brussels sprouts! I’d end each meal with a Maine blueberry pie, flan, or Graeter’s ice cream, and a Makers Mark Manhattan.  Then I’d settle down on the couch next to the love of my life, Kay, by the fireplace, turn off the news, see if we can make a little fire of our own, get anchored again in the Sermon on the Mount, and return to sources of joy and laughter in the poems of Hafiz. I’d give up being intentional/purposive. I’d live in the moment.

Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel

The Ongoing Saga of Cain and Abel

Gordon C. Stewart | published by MinnPost.com

Religion and politics: oil and water? The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity. The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (‘kayin’ which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.” Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? ”

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.

The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.

The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our story is written. Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?