Dead young men – a Rabbi’s perspective

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia is one of the more interesting religious leaders of our time. Views from the Edge republishes this week’s “Shalom Report” with permission.

Dead Young Men: 50 Years Ago and Now

Spirals of Violence — or Nonviolence

Dear friends,

I spent several days last week in Mississippi –Mourning the murders of three young men

  • 50 years ago (and many others before and since);
  • Celebrating a Mississippi that today is very different;
  • Facing the truth that Earth and human communities –– especially, still, those of color and of poverty –- are being deeply wounded by the Carbon Pharaohs’ exploitation and oppression;
  • Talking/ working toward a future of joyful community in which Mother Earth and her human children can live in peace with each other in the embrace of One Breath.

And then, a few days later, came the news of the murders of three young men just weeks ago –- three Israeli youngsters — their bodies, like those of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Earl Chaney, hidden while the search went forward for them.

But not only them. The violent deaths of young Palestinian boys/men as well, during the Israeli Army crack-down on the West Bank. Their mothers also mourning. As the New York Times reported the day before the three Israeli bodies were discovered:

“Most Israelis see the missing teenagers as innocent civilians captured on their way home from school, and the Palestinians who were killed as having provoked soldiers. Palestinians, though, see the very act of attending yeshiva in a West Bank settlement as provocation, and complain that the crackdown is collective punishment against a people under illegal occupation.”

Is there a danger of “moral relativism” in mentioning these deaths together? Is the cold-blooded murder of three hitchhiking youngsters morally equivalent to killings carried out by angry, frightened soldiers faced with a protesting mob? At the individual level, No.

But at the level of decision-making and public policy, there is also no moral equivalence between a cold-blooded military occupation and the impotent rage of the occupied.

Above all, there is no “relativism” in the tears of mothers.

Some Israelis and some Palestinians have joined their sorrow over the killings of their own children to work in the Circle of Bereaved Families for a peace that would end the killing. (See

Others –-including some Israeli cabinet ministers in the last day — have defined their deaths as the warrant for more killing.

But Mississippi did not change through threats like that. It changed because an aroused American citizenry from outside Mississippi allied itself with the oppressed community inside Mississippi to demand – through nonviolent direct action and through passing laws — that an oppressed population of black folk be freed to achieve some measure of political power.

As a result of that arousal, the deaths 50 years ago have made a visible difference. Fifty years ago, a scant few black Mississippians had been allowed to register to vote. As the “Freedom Summer + 50” gathering opened last week, thousands of black Mississippians who are devoted to the Democratic Party intervened in a Republican primary to prevent the nomination and for-sure election of a far-right Tea Party candidate.

Important change? Yes. Enough change? No.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no sufficiently powerful outside energy has made the commitment to bring all its lawful, nonviolent power to bear to achieve a two-state peace. So the violence worsens in a downward spiral of injustice.

What the gathering in Mississippi showed was that even when change is still necessary, even when injustice still continues, there can be an upward spiral, growing from past transformations into future ones.

For the gathering at Tougaloo College addressed the future as much as the past. The memory of youthful deaths so many years ago –- we recited their names, we sang their songs, we welcomed their families — became the celebration of youthful courage that had led to serious change. So not only many veterans of 1964 were there, but also many many young activists, come to learn and be inspired.

So we addressed the injustices that persist, and we took up some levels of injustice that fifty years ago were not on anyone’s agenda. Even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, did not envision a massive disruption of the planetary climate system and the web of life it has nurtured for millions of years.

So there was a confluence of issues almost unimaginable in 1964 when Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP staff brought together two excellent workshops on ”climate justice.” They were the first climate–action settings I have ever seen in which people of color — Black and Hispanic and Asian and Native — were at least half of those present.

Many spoke of two clear cases in their own region when the fossil-fuel Pharaohs had shattered the lives of poor communities of color even worse than they had damaged prosperous whites:

  • How Hurricane Katrina (which was greatly worsened by the oil rigs that chopped up marshy wetlands that used to absorb much of the energy of hurricanes when they hit land) had most damaged the poor folk who were living closer to the river (because houses were cheaper there).
  • And how poor folk also were the slowest and still the least served by relief and reconstruction efforts after the BP Oil blow-out in the Gulf.

And we learned as well how on a global level the overheating of our planet was hurting and killing the poor even worse than others: How droughts in California, the US corn-belt, central Africa, and Russia had raised the price of staple foods so badly that those who were teetering on the edge in poverty fell into hunger, and those who had been hungry faced starvation. And some who were starving fought civil wars to get their hands on food.
We discussed alternatives for climate activism. Some of us talked about the model of the “Freedom Schools that emerged in 1964, teaching where the impulses to learn and teach were deeply interwoven with the impulse to heal the world. Those Freedom Schools helped give birth to the Teach-Ins against the Vietnam War that flowered in the spring of ’65.

Could we create new Freedom Schools, new Teach-Ins, to fuse the science of climate and the facts of Corporate Carbon domination with the strategies of change? Was our gathering itself a kind of Freedom School, a Teach-In, with the young and the old teaching each other?

And Freedom Summer inspired co-ops, the redirection of our money from feeding bloated corporate power to nourishing the seeds of a grass-roots economic democracy. In that spirit, I shared The Shalom Center’s campaign to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) and handed out copies of our “Action Handbook” on specific steps for how to Move Our Money. See

All of us learned more deeply how important it is to recognize and act on the true linkage of what we might call eco-social justice.

And we learned that what happened fifty years ago in Mississippi sowed the seeds of our ability to recognize and resist new depredations of today. We saw how deeply the nonviolent movement of fifty years before had, even when some of its activists were killed, given continuing birth to nonviolent responses to make more necessary change.

I ended one of those workshops by invoking the spirit of Vincent Harding. If he had not died just a month ago, I said, he would have been deeply pleased by our intergenerational learning, and he would have brought his own deep listening and the quiet with which he surrounded his own wise words.

And most of all, he would have brought his willingness to invest his life in the effort to use nonviolence to expand democracy, to win justice for those who have been oppressed.

And now, in the wake of the news from Palestine and Israel, his ghostly, powerful presence actually reminds me of the Unity of that long effort. For just two summers ago, Brother Vincent took part in a delegation of American Jews and Blacks to visit the occupied West Bank and bring hope to Palestinians committed to nonviolence.

Brother Vincent would have wept over the deaths of the young men of both peoples. As do I.

May the tears we shed become the wellsprings of transformation, not revenge — as they did in Mississippi.

And may we teach the intertwinement of eco-social justice, learning anew from Freedom Summer’s creativity to go beyond our forebears — as they did.

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace! — Arthur

Hide-and-Seek: Oysters Can’t Hide

Oysters can't hide!

Oysters can’t hide!

The subsistence fishers who have inhabited Isle de Jean Charles since 1830 see things differently from BP and the mainline press.

‘Come to Louisiana. Everything is fine’ say the BP ads. Well, they’re not fine. There are no oysters. There are no shrimp,” said Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw during a recent three hour conversation in Chaska, Minnesota.

Chief Naquin and Kristina Peterson were on route to Duluth for a consultation of American indigenous people focusing on the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana, the site of the vanishing traditional home of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe.

Kristina is a professional community disaster recovery specialist who splits her time between the University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology (CHART) and the Blue Bayou Presbyterian Church in Gray, LA, where she is the Pastor. Kristina had come to Chaska, MN two years ago as speaker for First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally, a community forum of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church.

For three hours we discussed what was happening three years after the ecological tragedy America has almost forgotten.


The people of Isle de Jean Charles have been there since 1830. They re-settled there after fleeing the U.S. government’s forced re-settlement program, leaving their native lands in search of a place where they could continue their culture and live together in hiding.

The place that became home was a piece of solid land hidden deep in the freshwater marshlands of the Louisiana Delta. When they settled there, the island measured 10 miles long by five miles wide.

From there they fished the coastal waters abundant in oysters, crabs, shrimp, and fish. They grew their own vegetables and fruit trees, and used its green pasture for horses and cows. The members of the tribe in hiding shared their seafood, dairy products, chickens, and produce with each other in a barter economy.

“My mother told me every time I went out to play, ‘If you see a stranger, hide.”’


As Chief Albert tells the story, the accelerated erosion of the Gulf coastlands dates to the early 1940s. Big oil received a license from federal, state, and local authorities to dig canals through the Delta marshlands in search of oil. The new canals cut every which way, often crisscrossing, in search of liquid gold. And as they did, the marsh began to disappear. The salt water of the Gulf of Mexico seeped further and further into the Delta.

Chief Naquin and his people do not forget. They have long attention spans. They remember that oil canals were created by licensed permission under specified conditions. They remember that the licenses had time limits The time limits have long since passed. They remember what others have ignored or conveniently forgotten: the terms of the licenses required the oil companies to remediate the land at the conclusion of the license period.

The reclamation never took place. The Chief remembers. Click HERE for BP’s online promotion of its work to restore the Gulf of Mexico since Deep Water Horizon. There’s nothing about the canals or the licenses that required reclamation of the Delta.


The island that once measured 10 miles by five miles has shrunk to two miles long and one-quarter mile wide. The island will not survive.

Chief Naquin has been working to negotiate a suitable substitute for their ancestral home. The Army Corp of Engineers offered an alternative site that would have kept the tribe together, preserved their way of life, and helped bring income to the tribe by means of a visitor center for tourists.

A condition of occupying the new land, however, was that 100% of the tribe’s members vote Yes on the proposal. The vote was 85%. The 15% minority are mostly older people who have lived their entire lives on Isle de Jean Charles and insist they will go down with the island.

“When’s the last time any city, any nation, any group, any organization was asked for a vote of 100%?” asks Chief Naquin. “It’s impossible. We had 85% but it wasn’t enough.”

There is no hiding place. There is no lasting hiding place.

Perhaps survival beyond hiddenness is the lesson of Isle de Jean Charles. Not just the Chief’s people who once hid from hostile powers in the Louisiana Delta, but all of us who hide from the harsh reality of the crony capitalism that grants a permit to oil companies to cut their canals through our fragile ecosystems and then allows those same companies to disappear into hiding from the initial terms of the licenses.

They call the oil rigs “rigs” for a reason. The whole thing is rigged.

If we see a stranger on what used to be Isle de Jean Charles; if we see canals still crisscrossing through the marsh; if we’ve seen the fires of Deep Water Horizon light up the Gulf of Mexico and slick the waters and estuaries with black gold; if we’ve seen the evidence of breaking-and-entering in the house of the Gulf Coast waters, if we see empty oyster shells where once there were oysters; if we’ve heard about the oil companies hiding without anyone playing seek, we can ignore the game or we can seek and find for the sake of survival.

There is a stranger on our island. The fire of Deep Water Horizon lit up the horizon to expose his hideout. The blazing fire in the Gulf of Mexico three years lit up the world with a previously hidden truth that called us to embrace the more transparent future we share with the shorebirds, shrimp, crabs, and oysters.

The oysters can’t hide. Will we, who can make moral choices, hide, or will we seek and call to account the strangers on our island?

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.

Deep Water Horizon Three Years Later

This conversation about BP, the oil companies, coastal erosion, and the distribution of the BP Settlement Fund took place at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska one week before the 3rd Anniversary of the Deep Water Horizon explosion.

Albert Naquin is Chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, a subsistence fishing community whose traditional land and way of life are vanishing quickly.

Kristina Peterson is Pastor of the Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church in Gray, LA and a disaster recovery professional and researcher with the University of New Orleans Center for Hazard Assessment, Response, and Technology. Kristina was a speaker at First Tuesday Dialogues in Chaska, MN one year after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon. She returned with Chief Albert for this conversation on their way to a conference in Duluth, MN of indigenous people who live along the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in the Louisiana Delta of the Gulf Coast.

The off-camera voice later in the conversation is the editor of Views from the Edge and Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill.

“Something is very wrong with a system that puts corporations above people.” – Kristina Peterson