Category Archives: Politics

Cooking, Pulling Weeds And Resisting

I never thought I’d hear myself say this: Trump gave me a huge gift when he was elected.

It’s hard to imagine myself saying that because my inspiration usually comes from very different kinds of sources. Yet perhaps it’s just the mind- and spirit-numbing nature of Trump’s presidency that compels me to reexamine myself and clarify my course through life.

Like the 2008 recession, Trump’s presidency causes me to take additional steps on my journey toward self-awareness. Taking these steps involves some education and some house-cleaning to bring my values in different segments of my life into alignment. Most importantly I had to recognize both my limitations and my abilities as I figure out how best to respond to an event I experience as nothing less than a cataclysmic step backward in our culture and democracy not to mention our responses to a suffering planet.

I never considered myself a “political” person. In fact, until 2008, I was fairly apathetic for reasons I’ve explored with myself in recent months. Post Jan. 20, I tried to get politically involved in the traditional sense of that word. I attend meetings, I volunteer occasionally, I go on marches. I’ve learned a lot, but one of the things I have learned is that this isn’t the best place for me to contribute passionately and knowledgeably. Of course I’ll still continue to be as involved as I can, but I needed to focus my energies in other directions:

  • I deepened my exploration of veganism through my own cooking and writing.
  • I jumped at the opportunity to create recipes to go with the boxes that come from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Bob’s Fresh and Local.
  • I understand my volunteer work in the farm fields in a different way, as something much deeper and broader than physical and spiritual health.
  • With a fairly extensive background in academics behind me but little involvement for a quarter of a century, I decided to work my way through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I wanted to discover in greater depth what it has to say about human life in relation to the planet and other life on it. My blog posts on this topic, largely notes to myself as research, will become the basis of a book. More importantly, my research is providing me with a strong foundation for steps toward meaningful activism. At the very least, it provides me with information I use in evaluating people and policies.
  • I’m teaching for the first time in many years, which demands from me further clarification of my thinking and message.
  • I decided to engage with my synagogue in ways I haven’t before, to take on a role beyond participating in services and preparing food now and then. While it’s shaky ground for me to take on a role in shaping policy, I hope it will be a growth opportunity I can manage.

I think these steps toward more and deeper engagement in various aspects of my life will begin to converge at some point. As my passions become more focused, a path toward taking on my part, however small, in reshaping our world will become apparent.

My engagement with food and the environment developed over the course of 45 years, not so much through academic or professional expertise but through hands-on involvement. I had the opportunity to create a large organic garden in 1972 following the birth of  my first son, the same year that hippies tore up the turf in Berkeley, California. I think part of their impulse probably matched my own, a reaction against Big Food, Big Ag and Big Brother, who don’t always know best. I felt that packaged foods, pesticides and our alienation from nature were somehow an assault on our physical and spiritual health.

I read as much as I could put my hands on at the time. One little book in particular drove my decision to become vegetarian, a path that has had its zigs and zags. That book was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. Her message still resonates with me today, that there is a social justice connection to what we eat.

Until I worked in the food industry, though, I didn’t make that connection at a gut level. Then one day I was writing a post and came across an article that mentioned the life expectancy is lower in Mississippi than in the rest of the country and related it, at least in part, to food culture — and to the non-availability of truly nutritious food.

As Michael Pollan pointed out, yams in the produce aisle don’t have health claims attached to them since that won’t make money for Big Food, and our government subsidizes things like corn, that produces cheap high fructose corn syrup. And as that article pointed out, large food deserts force people into gas stations for food products, and gas stations are even less likely than supermarkets to feature nutritious life-sustaining foods. Something clicked about the relationship between food, social justice and public policy, and I really got it.

There was another milestone two or three years ago, well after I began my exploration of veganism. As I expanded my understanding of justice beyond the human realm, I worked hard to adjust my cooking practices, to separate from well-loved recipes, to find my new cooking philosophy or adapt my old one (real food) and to represent myself through food passionately and deliciously among family and friends already wearied from my years of vegetarian experiments with them. Then one day I looked down and noticed my leather shoes and realized with some shock how segmented my own thoughts are. I grew up in a world in which animal products were pervasive. There was simply a disconnect for almost all of us between the lives of our fellow creatures and the food we ate and clothes we wore. Despite my efforts to resolve that disconnect, there it was.

It’s curious how  we can think we’re fully conscious, making choices based on our values…and then discover our own human frailty, the ways we are embedded in cultural perspectives. And that took me to a path of reexamining another cultural perspective, our deeply held belief that we are superior to other creatures.  My husband’s offhand comment started me along my thought path. My biblical studies are guiding my next steps.

My studies and cooking are one avenue to focus my thoughts, prod myself to examine my cultural assumptions and modify my course through life. My work at the farm, something I had time to take on once I sold my cafe, is another.

I love the beautiful, fresh real food sparkling in the sun with drops of moisture. I love having my hands in the dirt that produces the food. I love experiencing the rhythm of the seasons in my body as I work out in the fields. I love the little lessons I learn in each moment that I work. I imagine the deep wisdom I find in the Bible comes in part from its source in a more agrarian world.

But it is the complete exhaustion at the end of the time I work in the fields, especially at the beginning of the season when I’m rusty after the cold months when my exercise levels drop, that takes me back to Diet for a Small Planet and the lessons I learned from Frances Moore Lappe about social justice. Considering those who do this work for long hours every day, struggling to support families on little pay and with no recognition or appreciation, living with insecurity and worse, brings me back to her themes.

This connection, this social justice theme, connects me to biblical themes of justice within communities and among nations, justice for all life on the planet, environmental justice. It reminds me that every area impacts and influences the others. It is all interconnected.

I was struck this week by this line from Leviticus 18:28 following a set of moral injunctions: “…that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Like human beings, like our fellow creatures on the planet, the land itself has moral consciousness. It is all interconnected, and our sins against one impact the other.

Cooking and digging in the dirt along with biblical stories, then meaningful study of this text, have had a significant role throughout my life in shaping and reshaping my consciousness about creation, my place in it and what I need to do at this time in our history.

And so I arrive at how cooking and working the fields became my political activism.  First, my work encouraged me to lift the veil, to look at what is behind the things I see in front of me, whether on my plate, in the claims on commercial foods, or in the pages of the Bible.

Each breath I take with clarity of consciousness, each bite of food, each interaction with another person or with a community of people, is activism. Only with clarity of consciousness about the reasons for my own choices can I have a larger role in shaping my communities.

And there are many ways for me to do that, to be active, including:

  • cultivating the habit of looking behind the veil,
  • sharing ideas about the implications of what we eat
  • sharing the specifics of delicious, healthful, affordable eating,
  • supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and
  • supporting other community efforts directed toward food and environmental justice.

I continue to learn about so many aspects of my world, so many things I didn’t know or that I kept from coming to full consciousness. I’ve lived long enough to see how the action of many individuals can change things and to learn that ONLY the action of many individuals can reshape the culture. And I have Trump to thank for intensifying my effort and compelling me to find the political meaning in my work.

From Bob’s Fresh and Local website:

“But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” ~ Wendell Berry – The Unsettling of America
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Our Not-So-Intimate Connection To The Earth

My grandfather in his back “yard” in front of the chicken house. He was also a community college founder and president.

The biggest change the Industrial Revolution brought was opening the flood gates to a disconnect between human beings and the rest of creation.

We approach a time when we will experience the devastation that results from that disastrous disconnect, when we will experience what happens when our attitude toward creation is one of colonization instead of interdependence.

I believe the primary element in the education of every child in school today must be learning of our intimate connection to the land, other life on the planet and the food that sustains us.

Until we reestablish that connection, solutions to the many problems that face us will remain elusive. Reestablishing that connection for every child, no child left behind, can restructure our moral perspective as a society from the ground up. Solutions will begin to emerge on that restored foundation.

I’ve thought a lot about my own political engagement or comparative lack of it. I always come back to the same thing. I feel overwhelmed by the flood engulfing us. For me, slowing down that flood means engaging with its cause.

I believe its cause is the failure, on a massive scale, of our ethical foundation. When money and power drive our decision-making process rather than working cooperatively and respectfully with each other, our fellow creatures and the planet, any solutions are patches.

Slowing down the flood requires me to do what I can to deepen and enrich my connection to our planet, our fellow creatures and our food and where I can, help others to do the same.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Thoughts On Failed Societies And Hope

File:OIL WASTE ON BARREN HILLSIDE – NARA – 542512.jpg

A great calm settled itself on me this week after weeks of feeling completely overwhelmed by events, frantically trying to figure out what I can do to stop the flood, what I can do to stop the world from dissolving around me. What brought me this calm feeling is my weekly Torah study as I realized we have been here before.

I read the Torah as an extraordinary, powerful and poetic account of human experience in the real world, human experience within creation that recognizes a connection to the transcendent dimension beyond it. It is a statement of our interdependence — on each other, with the rest of creation and with transcendence. It describes how the relationships between these domains should work, must work for our own survival.

The Torah teaches, through its “ordinances,” the attitude of humility we should maintain in relation to transcendence, the attitude of care and compassion toward the rest of creation, and the requirement not only for care and compassion in relation to our fellow human beings but for justice.

Torah also relates the consequences of failing to maintain correct relationships, putting forward the case that all is interdependent. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in others. Rules or guides for social relationships and a correct relationship with nature are as immutable as rules that guide our relationship with transcendence, and the consequence of repeated and widespread choices to ignore the guides in any dimension causes a roll back of creation, a reversal of the story in the first three chapters of Genesis.

As I read these powerful words each week, I find that they speak to me of my life experience in these times. They speak to me about what happens when a society fails to maintain correct relationships (Torah Ecology: Va-era/Bo). They speak to me about trying it again within a fourth, perhaps more intimate, domain, “neighbors,” about how relationships should work between these neighbors, between all human beings, the rest of creation and transcendence (Torah Ecology: Beshallach and Torah Ecology: Mishpatim).  And they speak to me about what happens when a society fails to live in right relationships. They speak to me about an economy of consequences (in a section of Vayera, Gn 18:16-33), where the righteous actions of 10 could have saved a corrupt civilization.

In Mishpatim, Moses brings down from the mountain a series of regulations that governs relationships within the community of Israelites.  While we don’t read the end of the story in this portion, we know it: the society will fail, as any human institution does that fails to recognize the freedom not only of human beings but of our fellow creatures and all of creation in a relationship with transcendence. The prophetic reading for Mishpatim, the Haftarah, associated with this Torah portion tells us of that failure:

“You turned and profaned my name and caused every man his servant and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and you brought them into subjection, to be to you for servants and for handmaids…you have not hearkened to Me to proclaim every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim for you a liberty… <so> I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth… bodies shall be for food unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 34:16-22).

The judgment Jeremiah pronounces is inevitable, irrevocable: “So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence” (Jer 14:11,12).

The prophet Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576 b.c.e. His career, lasting more than 40 years, spanned the reigns of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoaichin, and Zedekiah. Jeremiah’s opposition was unrelenting, and he was even imprisoned at one point — yet he persisted in his message.

Jeremiah’s prophecy proclaimed the coming destruction and the reasons for it.  When the people’s relationship with their neighbors is wrong, out of balance, when they deny fundamental freedom and justice to their neighbors, their relationships with all other realms are disrupted. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in all.

The nation as a whole, not in part, was declared guilty of:

  • Love of other gods
  • No love for the truth
  • False prophets
  • Kings and princes who do not seek justice
  • Adultery, theft, and murder among the people
  • Exploitation of the poor

The nation brought inevitable consequences upon itself, and these consequences are described in cosmically cataclysmic terms, a roll back of creation, like the destruction that came to the Egyptians in the Ten Plagues, a reversal of the creation stories in Gn 1-3:

“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord…” (Jer 4:23-26).

We live in times like Jeremiah’s. The crimes he lays at the feet of his nation are in our headlines every day.  They form the slogans on banners and in political campaigns. Like the ancient Judahites and the Egyptians before them, we live in a failing society. I contemplate these specifics of our own imbalanced relationships:

  • We disdain religions, science, expertise of any kind, any perspective not our own.
  • We reject truth claims and accept fake news.
  • We follow people who claim they will save us.
  • Our leaders do not have as their primary goal seeking justice.
  • Serious crimes go unpunished, crimes against humanity and crimes against creation, while many are falsely imprisoned (Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).
  • We exploit the poor and disadvantaged. The “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[6] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%.

Further, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. Worldwide we kill to eat more than 150 billion animals every year and 90 billion marine animals. Of those, the average number of animals killed for food per year per American is 280, while the average number for each human being on earth is about 21. Even as we guzzle the earth’s resources, we waste 40% of our food and create who knows how much material waste? Walking distance from me, a new bank building was razed to the ground to make way for newer construction.

We not only continue to guzzle but anticipate sucking even more life from the planet without cessation as the president signs resolutions that trample on the rights of people, allow pollution of our water and air and decimation of our fellow creatures, domestic and wild. We see our leaders, with an absence of humility, wield narrow religiously motivated regulations like weapons instead of encouraging discussion, understanding and respect for the values of others and of their religious and secular traditions and commitments.

We watch as the government hides what we are doing in order to relieve citizens of their moral complicity, which might otherwise cause them to speak out. Legally entering refugees are quickly sequestered in hidden rooms at the airport for deportation, and those who came over the southern border, some here for many years, some with permission, are rounded up at night. EPA and animal welfare records disappear from the internet. Daily our government erases our modern Bible, our record of the ways in which human activity has devastated creation. The process will hamper future efforts to hold back the flood waters.

When I watch a president carelessly guzzle hamburgers made from the flesh of farmed animals, killed out of sight to separate us from the moral responsibility of taking life; when I see his trophy-hunter sons proudly displaying a beautiful but lifeless animal they killed and offering trophy-hunting opps through the White House; when I see that our society has coughed up a Steve Bannon or a Stephen Miller to positions of prominence in our nation; when I see a president more intent on bragging about his election victory than on honoring the men and women who serve us every day; when I watch the gates close to desperate people seeking compassion and safety; when I hear of mounting attacks on minorities and disadvantaged; when I watch unrelenting attacks on truth and fact day after day; when I see policies that deprive citizens of their basic rights and continue the trend of sending money to the top 1%; when I see us utterly neglecting the less advantaged as we slash programs for them, I feel as though a flood is rushing in upon us. And it is.

This flood is the inevitable consequence of what our society has become. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, it is an inevitable consequence. We are not at the end of those consequences yet.

Our system of justice will see further perversion. Human rights will see further erosion. The innocents and those without the resources to resist will suffer more. We will devastate the creation that surrounds us even further, oblivious to the life that is in it while proudly marching with pro-life banners. Our neighborhood, our nation, is failing. We are profoundly out of balance.

So I feel this deluge, I feel its inevitability, and I suffered from my unspoken awareness. Until I was able to fully identify my profound sense of inevitability and name it, I rushed about trying to plug holes in the great dam, engaging in frantic activity that would never stop what was coming.

We are, indeed, in very literal ways, experiencing a rupture in the fabric of creation, a roll back. And here’s the unlikely idea that brought me peace this week: In a strange way, it is reassuring to know it has happened before, others have experienced this cosmic cataclysm and preserved something of value.

In addition to naming this cataclysm I was reminded that Jeremiah’s message has another aspect to it. He brings not only the message of the inevitability of consequences but the inevitability of restoration, not a restoration of what was but of what might yet be: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). It was futile for that small nation to fight the armies of Babylon, but even as the walls of Jerusalem fell, its inhabitants could plant trees and build. They could preserve the great principles that should have guided their society. They could get their society ready for a better day that would come.

Although we live in times that pronounce a judgment on us, times when pre-creation darkness descends on us, the inevitable consequence of our failure as a society, we also have an opportunity to build and plant. We have an opportunity to preserve something that will guide us in a restart. When we restart, things may not look the same as they do today — but they shouldn’t.

If our nation produces and chooses leaders who value successful competition above all else; if we moment-by-moment absolve ourselves from the moral responsibility we have for life on the planet, whether our fellow human beings in Syria, our “neighbors” in minority communities in the U.S., or farmed animals bred as commodities to be killed after short lives of abuse; if we fail to protect wildlife, showing compassion and respect for all our fellow creatures on the planet; if we indulge our impulses and greed; waste our precious resources; deny facts or the possibility of truth; or arrogantly insist on our ideologies whether left or right, religious or secular, we will fail. We are failing.

So what to preserve? What to plant and build? When I read Torah, its words speak to me of life in these times, of preserving life in these times, of what we must hold onto going forward. These powerful narratives tell me what I need to do as the destructive forces reach the walls of the city:

  • They tell me that the values at the base of our society are wrong. They may once have been reasonable, even inspiring ideas, but they are now completely corrupt, a progressive process that culminates in our time. Values which discount everything but individual self-interest, values that put us completely out of balance with every thing outside ourselves, cause a roll back of creation. Within our lifetimes, without a course adjustment, we may see that happen literally.
  • They tell me our task is so much greater than voting in a different government. We must, rather, replace the values that drive our country today with different, sustainable values, values of interdependence, cooperation, compassion and justice.
  • They remind me to be humble in the face of transcendence, humble in the face of what others might know that I don’t.
  • They tell me to love truth, reject ideologies that obscure truth, and resist following leaders who say they will save us.
  • They tell me about an economy of consequences. If Americans on average eat 280 animals per year, some of us must eat none, and I see the number of those doing just that growing. If Americans usually participate in a food supply mechanism that supports waste and injustice, I need to do my best to support ways of doing food that create a different narrative. I can support my local food coop and work in the fields at my CSA, planting and harvesting, supporting local farmers and putting my body into the work of a different way of doing food.
  • They tell me that all change begins at the local level. G-d created…then brought a flood to destroy it all and start over. In the new creation, G-d focused on a local group. That local group, the “neighbors” of the 10 Words or Commandments, Israelite society, also failed. Apparently G-d thought that was still a good plan, though, because the ongoing story tells us that G-d was ready to try again with that local group. We may be limited in what we can achieve nationally right now, but we can do a lot in our neighborhood.

We need wisdom from every source to address this transformation of our society. I have unique insights to share based on my life experience as does my Muslim neighbor as does a secular humanist or political activist or individual experiencing life in the coal belt. Subsistence farmers bring as much wisdom and experience to providing food as does Big Ag. Someone who simply sits and watches the sun rise and set each day has unique wisdom. We need it all, every bit of wisdom and expertise from every person on this earth, to not only pass through these times but to discover the seeds that will let us plant, the stones that will let us build.

We can and must build a society that inspires in its citizens a capacity for humility and radical amazement in the face of the wisdom throughout creation, a society that teaches its citizens how to live in harmony with their fellow human beings, fellow creatures and the natural world, a society that teaches that each citizen can make a unique contribution to building a meaningful life for us all on this planet and that includes each citizen in that project.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Reclaiming The Burning Bush

This post ended up being lengthy because it’s actually two in one. A podcast I viewed as I was writing helped me look at my topic through a different lens, and I started to write a note…which turned into a post of its own. I decided to leave it here as a note here since it’s relevant to my discussion.

THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE RELIGIOUS CIVILIZATIONS & SACRED TEXTS

Questions about the source of the Bible or the sacred scriptures of religions hold little meaning for me, although the stories of origin do. I like to study the text I have in front of me, accept its unity regardless of its source, and discover how it speaks to me.

Similarly statements about what a religion is or isn’t hold little meaning for me. From my perspective, a religion is how its adherents at any point in time understand its sacred stories and traditions and apply them in their lives and in the world.

Religions evolve and change. If they don’t, if they are fixed throughout time, there is no opportunity for people to engage with them, to make them a foundation for living in the world. Religions are living, not static. They are an interaction of ideas and texts and stories and songs and ethics and rituals and laws that engage people in different times and places throughout history, changing as people bring them to life in particular situations.

Because of this perspective, I squirm when a religion is characterized as a “religion of peace” or a “violent religion.” Just as every major religion has violence in its history — each also has powerful messages of compassion, healing and hope.

So as I accept the unity of a sacred text, or at least those texts that present themselves as unified, I also accept the unity of religious cultures at any point in time. Negative or violent movements in a religious/cultural framework are not separate from the religious/cultural framework itself. These movements may not define the religious culture, but they are not separate from it.

I apply this perspective to every religious culture and therefore consider Nazism as much a function of Christian religious culture in a certain time and place as I do Islamic terrorism a function of Islamic religious culture in a certain time and place and the Massacre of the Innocents or the murder of Rabin functions of a religious culture in certain times and places.

From that perspective, if the religious right wants to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, then they also must claim responsibility for policies completely antithetical to messages in a text they claim as the foundation of their religion. In addition, Judeo-Christian religious culture in the U.S. at this time in history must claim resurgent hate movements and activity in this country as our own.

A BURNING BUSH: COMPELLING IDEAS AND VALUES THAT LEAD TO CREATIVE ACTION IN THE WORLD

The fact that religions change over time doesn’t mean they don’t offer us universals, ideas and values that emerge from a unified consciousness.

I’m thinking about the length of time religious civilizations have lasted, most for millennia.  Even Islam, the most recently arrived of the world’s major religions, has a 13 century history and today is experiencing a resurgence. A new report from the Pew Research Center tells us that Islam “will nearly equal Christianity by 2050 before eclipsing it around 2070, if current trends continue.”

The United States has been a nation just since 1776, 240 years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of history. Just over two centuries for our democratic experiment…vs. 13 centuries of Islamic civilization and three, four or more millennia to date for other religious civilizations.

Some even suggest, if the U.S. doesn’t change its current trajectory, it is on the downward slope toward ending its experiment in democracy — while Islamic religious civilization is resurgent. If Islam hasn’t yet found its footing, we are losing ours according to many on both the left and the right.

I wondered what gives religious civilizations their staying power, and why our bold experiment in democracy is cracking at the seams after such a relatively short life?

I had this thought: a compelling idea with its associated values is a bush that burns — but is not consumed. It propels a society forward, providing the framework for achievement, creativity, growth and development. It is an idea so compelling that it arrests our attention and both inspires and leads us throughout history, although its surface appearance may change. Years ago I heard a marvelous recording that captures the universality of this idea, although in the form of a staff – The Peasle Tree Sermon.

Despite anti-creation forces in every religious civilization, they have also all been forces for good in the world, creative energies, burning bushes that provide those compelling principles and values that drive adherents to work for a better world.

Our democratic idea was a burning bush at one time in history, but it seems to be no longer. Why? Instead of railing about criticism of the U.S. and its policies coming from within and without, perhaps we should pause to consider what these criticisms and this anger are telling us about who we are at this moment in time. Perhaps we should stop shouting slogans and posturing and reassuring ourselves for a moment and listen to each other and contemplate. We might be astonished to discover how many of us have the same concerns and would respond to the same strong message if our anguish and our desire weren’t camouflaged under our cultural battle cries.

HOW THE BURNING BUSH LOST ITS FIRE

At risk of vast over-simplification, I want to share some thoughts about why our idea seems to have lost its force and power to lead us after just 240 years while religious civilizations are still here millennia after their ideas and values first entered history.

Our founding fathers recognized that unregulated democracy creates injustice and so forged us as a republic, intending to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, we learned from our history that capitalism requires checks in order to work for the broader society. The more we remove these restraints, the more our burning bush loses its fire.

The cry of the French Revolution, which we embraced at our inception, is no longer heard in our land: liberty, equality, brotherhood. This was an idea and a set of values that inspired people so profoundly that they were willing to give their lives to make it a living principle, much the way religious martyrs throughout history have done.

The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France offered us another myth about ourselves, a vision for who we could be at our best, in the words of Jewish-American, Emma Lazarus, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This myth is one that seems at best out of sync with our action in the world.

But the failure of checks and balances isn’t our only problem. As I have had the opportunity to be more reflective in the last two or three years about food choices and our food supply, I’ve come to see my world through a different lens. The problem I see at the root of our food supply, the problem that poisons the food chain, bringing chronic disease, death, injustice, poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, is the same problem that permeates our culture, our politics and our world. It is the same problem that makes our republic no longer a burning bush, no longer a compelling ideal.

In addition to eroding those checks and balances that were carefully built into our constitution, we have allowed another imbalance to take over our society, and that is, secularism, including an ideal of unfettered relativism. While the founding fathers may not have been Christians in the image of today’s evangelicals (some left their Christian faith and practice to become Deists, and many others were influenced by Deism, a Enlightenment rationalist idea) they were not anti-religion or anti- spiritually rooted values. Indeed many founding documents and artifacts draw on Hebrew scripture for inspiration. The framers of the Constitution simply believed that the tenets of a specific religious profession should not be part of the constitutional and legal framework of the United States. The way we have translated the idea of separation of church and state would probably surprise them today.

Secularism and relativism bring many important benefits, often including respect for those whose cultural norms and expressions don’t match our own — but coupled with an erosion in how we value our own republic with its system of checks and balances, we have created a society which repudiates the values found in every major religious culture. Successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism rule the day while we continue to claim we are caring and compassionate. Yet our actions demonstrate the truth of what we have become.

We must claim this current version of our American ideal as part of what America is. Just as we can’t say any religion is a religion of peace or of violence, we cannot say America is a caring and compassionate country — but we also don’t have to let this vision of banning Muslims and rounding up Mexicans and censoring science and debunking our institutions and values define us completely. Both are part of who we are today at this time in history. We are no longer, if we ever were, a shining city on a hill. That is our myth about ourselves, our vision that sustains us and guides our action in the world when we let it.  At present, when we even think of it in the rough and tumble of daily life, it is a myth in remission.

REGAINING THE BURNING BUSH

I am not saying that myths are bad things. They are constructs, as is anything in the created world, including language itself, our vehicle for communication. It is impossible to comprehend reality without looking at it through a construct. Every religion knows this and has its myths of origin, its myths that explain the world and its relationship to transcendence. These myths contribute to creating us as human beings and build our worldview according to a set of beliefs or principles and values.

Similarly rituals and law codes create us, teaching us how to live within a society. Basic to every major religion are codes that inculcate caring and compassion and behaviors that build society.

The myths of religious civilizations, the rituals and the codes that emphasize caring and compassion, are burning bushes that have inspired adherents for millennia. I maintain that our history of secularism, relativism and capitalism demonstrates these principles cannot sustain a democracy. Therefore they cannot serve the same purpose as spiritual value systems that recognize the interdependence of human beings with creation and transcendence. The lessons we teach, the ways we create human beings in our society, based on successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism will never maintain their fire. They will achieve their ends by asserting power. There is no other possibility. These are not values for which people will willingly give their lives.

Many on the right stake their claim to leadership on a specific religious worldview and frame the left as godless secularists. Many on the left undoubtedly add to this image when they ridicule and discount what they portray as simplistic religious ideas.

Let’s consider, for a moment, that human engagement with transcendence and ultimate meanings is, rather, audacious, as are all ideas about the value of human life on this planet. Engagement, a process, is audacious. Asserting that one knows ultimate truth is human arrogance — but so is rejecting engagement in the process of discovery and connection. Some humility from both directions is probably in order.

I think perhaps the left has been too quick to see what is negative about being “religious,” however we define that and for whatever specific faith.

There is this fact — for a civilization to survive over millennia, even to thrive, its adherents must be inspired and driven by compelling principles and values. These principles and values must be communicated in meaningful ways that shape people’s lives in the world. All mainstream religions can claim major success in this respect by virtue of their long-term and continuing energy and ability to inspire. Our 240 year old republic, in the meantime, struggles.  Half of our citizens aren’t even inspired to vote much less offer their lives for the current principles and values of our society.

I think we on the left need to look closely at what religious civilizations teach us about serving as a burning bush for the long haul. All major religions emphasize values of caring and compassion. All remind us to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the forgotten among us. And all use myth, ritual and ethical codes to teach us those values, to shape us as human beings.

The left needs to actively re-engage with the meaning of our existence in the context of transcendence and ultimate unity. From this engaged perspective, it must forge a vision, a message, that reinspires its current adherents and shapes and inspires new generations to transform society.

By transformation, I mean we must dismantle the worn out foundation on which we operate today, overwhelmingly secular, relativist and capitalist. We must pour a new foundation, one resting on the principle of the unity of all being, a principle that expresses itself in caring and compassion in every word, action and policy. A principle that expresses itself in community, the kind of community we all want, a community where no person is forgotten or diminished. A principle that expresses itself in our connection to and dependence on the rest of creation.

While we need the humility to recognize as many different paths to enduring truth as there are people in the world, we also need the audacity to engage, to reclaim the enduring significance of a burning bush, a bush that burns but is not consumed, to lead our society forward.

* * * * * *

*NOTES: Yesterday as I was continuing to edit this post, a friend shared a fascinating podcast with me which I believe discusses in a different way some of the same issues I struggle with above.

I was recently alerted to my own dissatisfaction or paradoxical relationship to what Ken Wilber calls the “green” movement, a point of view that asserts there is no absolute truth, that all truth is context specific and relative and that all points of view or cultures or belief systems have equal value.

On the one hand, as you can see from what I have written, I gravitate toward and am trained in cultural studies of religion. This is the method by which religion is taught in universities today — culture and time specific and relative. There are many advantages to this method, and it allows a measure of objectivity, understanding and respect that exists only uncomfortably with assertions of the truth of myth, an approach invariably associated with ethnocentricity, according to Wilber. I’ll add to that anthropocentricity.

On the other hand, as Wilber explains, this “green” perspective becomes mired in self-contradiction and finally, leads to nihilism. If no value statement is superior to any other, then value statements about the green approach itself is also not superior to any other. This leads to an idea that there is no way to say what is true or what superior values can guide us in this life. If there is no difference between bad values and good, in fact no good or bad values, just values — well, why choose one or the other? And if there is no reason to choose and no absolute truth, how is there meaning in our human activity? Why bother with anything, including living?

I sensed but haven’t been able to verbalize this paradox with regard to my studies. I came up against it at a personal level in my late teens when I arrived at a point that I felt there were only two possible responses to questions about the meaning of life: yes or no. Stark, simple, no elaboration needed. A “yes” choice is a biologically driven choice on the one hand, since life wants to live — and a leap of faith on the other hand.

I came up against it again recently in a series of classes I recently took in religion as a refresher. There was a discussion question to Pope Francis’ 2016 statement: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the Pope told journalists who asked his opinion on Trump’s proposals to halt illegal immigration.” The question we were asked was, is Pope Francis correct in making this statement?

From the perspective of the cultural study of religion, he was not. Pope Francis is Catholic, and Trump is Presbyterian. Who says what Christianity is or isn’t? Christianity is what people who consider themselves Christian do at any point in time, etc. As I said, I understand this perspective and the benefits it offers…but I found myself having a negative gut reaction to it. My instinct tells me that if the world and our lives are to have meaning, we require definition, boundaries within which we live, we must make choices on the basis of values we can judge to be superior to other values.

Finally I recognize that the conundrum of the left matches my own conundrum. If we disparage religions as blind and ethnocentric — say that all values systems are equal and that ethics or beliefs are situational and relative…how can we assert a message superior to others? How can we make a statement that has the power to move people, a message we can claim is superior to the message that currently invigorates and moves the right to action?

Here is how I resolve this dilemma for myself. How this works in a political framework, I’m not certain, and that is what I tried to deal with in this post. A statement from Mishna Haggiga guides me: “Whoever speculates on one of four things should better not have been created: what is above; what is below; what is before; and what is after.”

Although the statement, like any scriptural statement, has a context-specific point of origin and addresses context-specific questions, it also has a universal dimension. In that respect, it is similar to statements we hear in so many forms from so many different contexts: we can’t know the mind of G-d, be in the present, develop an attitude and practice of caring and compassion toward the world around us. For a person who, like me, accepts a spiritual dimension, that is the backdrop for everything, it informs everything, but my focus and attention are on how I live in the world. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t want to follow philosophical ideas to their logical end point. They will inevitably fail.

My academic training and my “green” orientation keep me humble. I accept that any worldview is a construct. It might be ultimate or absolute truth, but there is no way any human being knows that for certain, and we are all shaped by our historical and cultural environment, me as much as anyone else.

My personal experience tells me we cannot live without these constructs, and Wilber’s comment defines that conundrum, laying bare the ultimate nihilism of a cultural studies approach. And so I would call the construct that I choose “functional.” I choose it because it works in the way I want it to work in my life: the worldview I choose gives me hope, guides me to be the best person I can be, inspires me to engage actively in the world in which I find myself, inspires me to create.

If there is one absolute, as Wilber points out, it is the persistence of pattern in creation. One of those patterns is that life is creative. Another is that all life ends. So I sought and found a functional worldview that inspires me to become part of that creative activity in the time between my beginning and my end.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

My Statement of Faith During National Tragedy

March for Women Chicago 2017, a miraculously warm and sunny midwinter day in Chicago when 250,000 people turned out instead of the anticipated 50,000.

I believe there is a creative energy behind and in creation. That energy created the world and suffuses it with wisdom and beauty. I also believe there is a destructive energy in creation. I see this in the paradox that is the basis of our lives on earth: our survival depends not only on creating but on destroying life. We destroy in big and small ways in every moment.

The Jewish mystics of the 16th century saw these energies. Unlike the philosophers who claimed one energy is G-d and the other is not, the mystics boldly claimed both are G-d. In balance, these energies sustain a harmonious natural order. Human beings are responsible to keep these energies in balance. Each smallest act of every human being contributes to the energy that is G-d. If evil acts prevail, there is disruption in the harmonious energy force some of us call G-d. Interdependent as we all are, and as we are with this force in the cosmos, disrupted energy reciprocally influences the world.

Hinduism captures this paradox in Kali: “Kali is the Hindu goddess (or Devi) of death, time, and doomsday and is often associated with sexuality and violence but is also considered a strong mother-figure and symbolic of motherly-love. Kali also embodies shakti – feminine energy, creativity and fertility.”

As I view with dismay the activity of our current president, a man whose name I will no longer promote by using it, I have to remind myself that he is a mere playing out of destructive energy, the result of disruption in the spiritual energy field. He and his more dangerous adviser, Bannon, whom I believe will soon run the country and bring great death and destruction, will not last. In the bigger picture, despite their grandiose visions of themselves, they are mere specks of dust.

I think of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who brought such great calamity on his people as he brutalized and tried to stifle the yearnings of his Hebrew slaves, and I think of Hitler, who murdered 6,000,000 Jews and at least 6,000,000 others whom he considered inferior or “betrayers.” The wider my frame for my picture of human history, tho, the more these men and other tyrants fade into oblivion. Instead, the real leaders of history, some whom we all recognize, some who were never known beyond their neighborhood, stand out in my heart and my memory and my soul, and their armies will prevail. These true leaders represent creative energy and inspire creativity and generosity of spirit in those whom they lead. They lead us all toward harmony with our neighbors and all of creation through their own lives.

The rabbis of the Talmud attributed the destruction of the 2nd Temple to “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred. In Tosefta, the rabbis said the destruction was “because they love money and each one hates his neighbor.” They point to prevailing qualities in a broken society, a society dominated by destructive values. We are here.

But I also see and feel an opposing creative energy, a moral force, rising and gaining strength in response to these materialistic men grabbing power in the U.S. and other parts of the world and the societies that generated them. I feel this opposing creative energy rising around the world, in every religious culture, every ethnic culture, every nation-state, every political party, every gender, every age. This rising energy will prevail and move us toward a world of true harmony, or at least will move the needle closer to harmonious relationships with each other, with nature and with the energy that gives life to all of creation. We will push back the needle on the Doomsday Clock.

How do my beliefs play out in the real political world? I am a Spiritual Progressive. I believe the most urgent task confronting us is the spiritual transformation of society: a Spiritual Progressive “seeks to transform our materialist and corporate-dominated society into a caring society through consciousness raising, advocacy, and public awareness campaigns that promote a “New Bottom Line” based on generosity, peace, and social transformation.”

Going forward, I will judge every candidate for office based not on their party and not on their unquestioning support for any single issue but on their commitment to the principle of social transformation and on their ability to effectively lead people toward bringing it about.

“The NSP shifts mass consciousness by challenging status-quo ideas about what is possible.” If you would like to read more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives and what a Spiritual Progressive is and learn specific steps you can take to help transform our society, please visit www.spiritualprogressives.org/newsite.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Journaling and Journeying: Pro-life and Pro-Choice

JOURNALING

When I woke this morning, it was sunny for the first time in weeks. I believe everything is interconnected, interdependent, so I took the sunshine as a signal that my mental and spiritual condition would reshape itself today, and I shouldn’t stand in the way of that process. The sun is struggling a bit, and so am I, but I am open to what comes.

In that frame of mind and spirit, I sat to journal for the second time in, well, months. Last year, I took a class in journaling and learned to create a regular space in time to sit and write on a single word or phrase or idea without stopping for 15 minutes. While I practiced that technique, I discovered it was much more than a way to record my thoughts at any point in time, although it is that. It also took me on journeys into myself to places I wouldn’t otherwise have reached.

When I put things into words, it makes conscious what was unconscious and amorphous. I can get hold of an idea, turn it and consider it and follow its lead to shape another word or thought. Making something conscious is a creative act, and it leads me on a journey to other words, drawing other thoughts from that amorphous place that is unity. Sometimes we call that unity G-d.

In the first chapters of Genesis, G-d creates with words. Consider that for a moment.  The “earth” is “tohu va-vohu,” formlessness and emptiness. G-d speaks, and shapes emerge through the differentiations language provides: light and dark, waters above and waters below, land and sea and vegetation. G-d fills those environments with life, using words: sun, moon and stars, creatures of the land and sea and air, and finally, a human being. Words are creative. Words give shape to “tohu va-vohu,” and they transform unconsciousness to consciousness. Words create the world and the life in it.

I’m thinking about consciousness today because when I sat to journal, what I wanted to write about is a set of labels we created in our country, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and my thoughts led me to consider consciousness.

A teacher once said to me, religion is the language of “as if.” That being the case, our juxtaposition of pro-life and pro-choice creates an orthodoxy of extremes, and we are living today as if that alienated state of being were ultimate truth.

These labels we have chosen set out the terms of a complex moral dilemma in a framework that invites conflict. These words as we wield them fail completely to take us on a journey into ourselves. They fail to strengthen our connection to the unity in and behind all being.

Words are powerful and creative, yes, but they also differentiate. There is a balance, and we cling to these phrases in a way that our words only differentiate us, forcing us into limitations of thought that drive us further and further apart from each other and from whatever idea of G-d we hold.

JOURNEYING

In Starting Thought, I shared this idea about food: “As we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life.  How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.” In an age of “alternative facts,” this is one incontrovertible fact for all of us. In order to live, we must take life.

Our profound and primary moral dilemma as human beings is to decide what life to take. This dilemma presents itself to us in every moment. Every religion deals with this dilemma and provides its own tools to navigate it.  Because religions are complex responses to complex human experiences and dilemmas, the answers within any religion are never black and white but rather nuanced, showing us a path for exercising consciousness, thinking and decision-making. Any seemingly clear-cut statement demands interpretation and exceptions.

Some of us prefer not to deal with moral dilemmas and follow what we perceive to be clear-cut prescriptions in religions. Or we remove the reality of these daily choices from our field of perception. Factory farms are an example of this path. Picking up a package of meat in plastic wrap at the store effectively separates us from the reality that we allowed suffering and caused the death of a creature.

Using words as labels to say who we are and what we think instead of using them to explore ourselves and others, instead of using them to create, is another way to escape struggling with the moral dilemma at the root of our existence in the world. And to be sure, not one of us can give each second of our existence the focus and thought it requires if we regard it as a dilemma between taking and giving life — so we accept certain norms and engage in certain rituals that don’t require minute attention.

And so I wanted to think about these labels today when I sat to journal: pro-life and pro-choice. In sharing my thoughts, I’m not focusing on individual experiences and dilemmas, stories of personal suffering and joy. These stories are at the foundation of any discussion, and our experiences shape us — but it’s not where I am going to focus in this post.

I also don’t want to sink into consistency or a debate framed by specific theologies. Of course my religion and my culture influence my thinking profoundly, just as my experience does. Those are facts of human existence for us all.

What I want to do is simply share some (now elaborated) random thoughts I had this morning and encourage responses — because while words make us all creators, words we exchange with others create in a different way.

PRO-LIFE & PRO-CHOICE IN THE BIBLE

Today we use “pro-life” as a label, but I want to explore broader meanings. I believe for many who assign the label to themselves and use it as a litmus test for others, it really means “pro-birth.” Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, a noted international lecturer as well as a former fellow at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, England, author of numerous books and articles and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, captures this thought with her words: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Certainly the Bible is pro-life, but the conversation is framed very differently from the way we frame it today. I suggest the framing, through stories, is more nuanced, richer and less polarizing than our current framing in a label. “Choose life that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19). Contemplating the meaning of this phrase is a lifelong journey in a world where the one incontrovertible fact of our existence is that we must take life in order to live.

The phrase also highlights that the Bible is fundamentally pro-choice. This phrase doesn’t compel us to choose life, however we understand the word. It tells us to choose it and informs us that choices have consequences. Chapter 3 of Genesis makes the same points about life. The first human beings receive instructions. They make a choice that gives them moral consciousness when they eat from the Tree of Good and Evil. And there are ambiguous consequences of their choice: warned that if they make the “wrong” choice, they will “surely die,” when they do make that wrong choice, they are cast into life. Would it have been better for human beings not to have moral consciousness, indeed, not to live?

So the biblical text is perhaps not as unequivocal as we thought. It is pro-life and it is pro-choice. Choosing has consequences, the consequences play out forever, and categories of right and wrong aren’t always that clear. Indeed, we might even call these categories labels, and this is one reason I think the Bible presents a richer and more complex framework for thinking about these issues than we provide in our modern cultural and political debate.

CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BIBLE

As I thought further, connecting word to word during my 15 minutes this morning, I came to the word, “consciousness.” It’s a word we toss around a lot these days with phrases like “conscious choice,” reminding ourselves to think about our actions in the world, about how our choices affect not just ourselves but the world beyond ourselves. Three things occurred to me about consciousness in the Bible:

  • Consciousness is creative.
  • Consciousness is fundamental to choosing. Without it, choice is a non-issue, a moot point.
  • Consciousness is also fundamental to life. If there is no consciousness, is there life? Conversely, is there life without consciousness as we define it?

The Bible suggests all three premises in the first chapters of Genesis in the nuanced way that stories do. The words resist precise definition, and we should as well, at least during a thought and discussion process.

That third point in particular, the relationship between consciousness and life, seems a little tricky. There are definitely things in the world we say are living, but we wouldn’t necessarily go on to say they are conscious. On the other hand, perhaps that is a matter of definition. While plants perhaps don’t have consciousness according to our current definition, they react to their environment and communicate among themselves. Similarly bacteria and amoebas react to their environment, live in colonies and communicate among themselves.

In a beautifully nuanced story, the first three chapters of Genesis tell us that all of creation is an outpouring of G-d’s consciousness and creativity. Similarly, G-d requires creativity from all creatures. When G-d creates land, sea and air creatures, G-d tells them, be fruitful and multiply, which we can understand as, be creative. And G-d uses the same words when G-d creates humans. That vegan world exalts life, the result of G-d’s creativity through the use of words, a product of consciousness.

Humans are creative beings before they are conscious beings. Even in their pre-conscious state, they possess freedom of choice. When they exercise their freedom of choice, they gain moral discernment and responsibility and are thrust into life, assaulted with its reality.

Not until human beings eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil do they become conscious, and not until they are ejected from the Garden, thrust into life, do they have opportunities to exercise it through conscious choice-making. Eating from the Tree is not a moral action since human beings are not conscious. This suggests pre-conscious human beings are not responsible, although their actions nonetheless bring consequences.

So the Bible associates consciousness and moral responsibility with life in the world, not necessarily with an abstraction of life, a pre-conscious life, life that is not confronted with choices. In fact, the Bible associates consciousness with all creatures, because all creatures live outside the Garden in the world along with human creatures.

Yet even as we associate consciousness and life, we can’t be too quick to say there is no life before entry to the world. At the same time the Bible associates consciousness with life in the world,  it allows for a time/space where there is life without consciousness.

With consciousness, choice and responsibility, we are in the image of G-d. This suggests that a fetus, while as much an expression of G-d and consciousness as anything in the world, is not yet in the image of G-d. And life itself is ambiguous. G-d tells the human beings if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they will surely die. Yet when the humans beings did eat, choosing not to follow an explicit instruction from G-d, they gain consciousness, and both they and their fellow creatures are thrust from the Garden into life, an environment of birth and death and choice and responsibility.

There were consequences for all creation in that human action. Was the action good or bad? The consequences of it? And it is these nuances, this ambiguity of meaning, that prompts us to think more deeply about what life is as we contemplate decisions of life and death.

The Bible presents us with a nuanced tale that, among other things, explores the relationship between ultimate unity, life and consciousness,  choice and responsibility, a complex interweaving in which all these ideas, expressed in the words of a story, are inextricably linked.

CONSCIOUSNESS & HUMAN LIFE ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

As I wrote in my journal today, I wondered, when does consciousness begin in a human being? An article in Scientific American provided me with these facts:

  • Babies lack self-awareness, although they have some basic level of unreflective, present-oriented consciousness.
  • The substrate of consciousness, the “thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content” begins to be put in place during the 24th to 28th weeks of gestation.
  • In the third trimester, the infant is almost always in one of 2 sleep states, active and quiet 95% of the time, the remaining 5% a transition between the two.
  • Do infants dream, a different kind of consciousness? We don’t know.
  • At birth, the dramatic events of a birth, some would say an assault, cause the infant to wake up, draw its first breath and begin to experience life.

Other writers say:

  • A human fetus begins to develop a corpus callosum (inter-hemispheric communication) and the sulci (ridges that are a sign of intelligence) only after week 13 and the myelination and rapid synapse growth happen during week 23 and 28 respectively. So the fetus cannot be called a sentient, self aware, conscious being until this point. It is more of a reflexive low level organism until then.
  • Different people define it in different ways, so it is anywhere from Week 23 in gestation to 15 months after birth. 
  • Our best guesses suggest it’s somewhere between formation of brain-matter appropriate to cognition and “other-awareness.” The measures we gauge by tend towards the beginnings of the ability to communicate or differentiate.

An article in Wired describes research showing that “babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.”

As I read these comments and consider the science, I can’t help but be struck with the insights of the first chapters of Genesis into life and consciousness, pre-conscious states, language and creativity, both reflecting the scientific information we now have and enriching our understanding even further with a nuanced story.

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

We live in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The natural process we are part of requires taking life to sustain it. This, indeed, is the focus of my blog, to think “out loud” about these issues in direct and oblique ways.

Some point to the biblical prohibition against murder as a way to justify a prohibition against abortion, which some interpret as murder. I have tried to raise here, though, some questions about life and consciousness to consider. There are many ways in which a fetus is not the same as a conscious human being. If our category for judgment is, on the other hand, life, “life” is in everything. If it is sacred and worthy of preservation, we must think about it on a continuum not in terms of life is here, not there. It isn’t possible to live in the world without taking life.

But even if we were to apply the murder prohibition only to a fully conscious human being in the world, there are questions that demand thought and interpretation against other moral considerations. In our law code, we allow self-defense. Killing a person because they threaten your life is not murder. Further, all creatures, even humans, have had to deal with what to do with weaker fellow creatures in hostile environments in the course of our history.  Should we judge others in circumstances we can’t imagine for choosing life so they may live? Issues of life and death demand thoughtful, informed discussion, not labels.

With regard to our national debate on abortion, framing our discussion in terms of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” not only oversimplifies, blocks creative thought and discussion and causes alienation, it utterly neglects to address important ethical dilemmas like the moral value of life at one place in the continuum and life at another place on it, why the decisions we make about life and death are important to to the moral foundation of a society and so concern that society as a whole, how we can balance the fundamental necessity of human freedom and choice with living in community and more.

Science provides insight into questions of life and death and consciousness, things we can consider as we weigh these issues. On the other hand, sacred scriptures of all religions offer a better framework for considering issues of life and death than the one we use in 21st century America with its juxtaposition between pro-life and pro-choice, as if they are opposed.

DEFINITIONS & LAWS

Even as our definitions in any discussion of life and death will inevitably have illusive boundaries, living productively and creatively in the world requires that we interpret and define. We must have guidelines for behavior, even laws, if we are to live together as a community.

While there is a reality beyond our immediate cultural and religious context, a continuum of life, of consciousness, a unity, we connect to that experience of unity, that pre-conscious state, in a variety of ways. Even with full knowledge of the unity that surges through everything, our every day world requires that we make choices, often centered on the claims of moral issues that bump up against each other. Rarely but occasionally, the moral choice is clear. Other times, several moral issues bump up against each other, and we call that clash of issues an ethical dilemma. Life itself is, as we have seen, founded on an ethical dilemma, taking life to sustain life.

For the most part, we make decisions about these ethical dilemmas alone or in discussion with a close group of others concerned with the same set of issues or who might be impacted by a decision. Issues like life and death that impact society and our ability to live together require a more broadly based consensus or legislation. Most societies have written law codes and create some mechanism for interpretation and revision.

Legislation becomes even more complicated in a modern world where societies are multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-gendered. Moral codes are born out of specific historical and personal experiences and deserve respect in any conversation about legislation that impacts the lives of us all.

Just as the words an individual uses in writing or speaking represent a creative process, so are laws the result of a creative process of exchanging words with each other and making choices. Even if we believe our laws were not a human process, that a supernatural G-d delivered the words to the inhabitants of earth, the process of understanding and interpreting the words is. This process is an answer to questions about how can we live together in community, still leaving people room to exercise that fundamental aspect of their nature as conscious human beings, choice. Laws are not a final resolution of what is right and what is wrong.

How can we talk and legislate on a label like “pro-life?” Certainly we can talk, trying to get at what it means, or at least what it means to ourselves and to others. It is useless for legislation, though, because as a slogan, it can have no meaningful definition.

Everything lives. One person’s choices on that continuum are not another’s, and not one of us can say for a fact where “life” begins and where it ends. Similarly we cannot say with certainty what consciousness is and which aspects of creation evidence it.  All we know with certainty is that there is a paradox at the root of our existence, and in the course of our lives, we will take life to survive. Perhaps we are not aware that we’re making that choice — but we are, in each moment.

Do these dilemmas and our multi-ness mean we cannot make any laws? Of course we must, we can, and we do. But legislation is based on careful definitions, not slogans, and on broad-based consensus. We’re not even close. We haven’t even begun to have meaningful discussions.

For a person shaped by a biblical perspective, human moral dilemmas and the responsibility to make moral decisions are an emblem of being in the image of the creator. In the world, in the face of moral dilemmas, our choices aren’t always clear, and the choices we each make are shaped by our unique circumstances, only one aspect of which is the society in which we live.

These dilemmas require more than labels from us. They require us to use words creatively to search ourselves and our neighbors and to make choices and laws as best we can based the insights we gain through caring, thoughtful, open conversation. Using words to create meaningful lives is, from the biblical perspective, another emblem of being in the image of the creator.

I always return to my own sacred text as my best framework for framing words, creating thoughts and ideas and practices and making moral decisions.  I encourage others to share the riches and wisdom of their sacred texts or any source of wisdom or information on which they draw to help us think together about the deepest paradox of life, that we must take life to sustain life. At the same time, we must find ways to live together in our world as moral human beings, each making our own conscious choices to sustain ourselves while keeping our footprint as small as possible.

*Note: In this discussion, when I write about what the Bible tells us, it is shorthand for this is how the text speaks to me. I put my comments out here for your consideration in thinking about these issues and shaping a new framework for conversation.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Time To Start Spinning

Ghandi is well-known for the non-violent resistance techniques he taught and modeled during the struggle for Indian independence from a colonial power. What we perhaps don’t as often remember is that he spun the cloth for his own simple clothing and taught that it was a duty of every Indian to do the same.

Here is his rationale: “He chose the traditional loincloth as a rejection of Western culture and a symbolic identification with the poor of India. His personal choice became a powerful political gesture as he urged his more privileged followers to copy his example and discard—or even burn—their European-style clothing and return with pride to their ancient, precolonial culture.4 Gandhi claimed that spinning thread in the traditional manner also had material advantages, as it would create the basis for economic independence and the possibility of survival for India’s impoverished rural multitudes.5 This commitment to traditional cloth making was also part of a larger swadeshi movement, which aimed for the boycott of all British goods. As Gandhi explained to Charlie Chaplin in 1931, the return to spinning did not mean a rejection of all modern technology but of the exploitive and controlling economic and political system in which textile manufacture had become entangled. Gandhi said, “Machinery in the past has made us dependent on England, and the only way we can rid ourselves of the dependence is to boycott all goods made by machinery. This is why we have made it the patriotic duty of every Indian to spin his own cotton and weave his own cloth.”

It occurs to me that we have been colonized in the United States by corporate interests. For almost half a century, I have resisted this corporate take-over with my food choices. I believe my individual choices are important, but I think the time has come to connect with others to turn my individual choice into a political and economic statement.

I hope like-minded people can come up with one or more symbolic gestures as powerful as this one that Ghandi advocated to state our opposition to Trumpism and the values it promotes. If we can all unite behind this set of actions, it will have a strong economic impact, but even more importantly, it will make the case that our dismal failure to vote in sufficient numbers in the 2016 campaign didn’t.

It also occurs to me that the place we should look for this action or set of actions is in the food supply chain, which affects so many critical aspects of our lives on this planet: our moral sensibility, the environment, corporate/colonial rapaciousness, poverty, waste, health and more. I read a wonderful post this week envisioning a sustainable system, which I must add is NOT industrial agriculture — nor is it, according to this writer, universal veganism.

With such a vision in mind, perhaps there is some person or group out there capable of leading a resistance through mass action along the lines of Ghandi’s resistance. In the course of carrying out this action, an action in which every person could participate, we would not only deliver a strong economic and political message, but we might impact the environment sufficiently to counteract some of the damage this regime promises.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Election 2016: Keeping the Faith

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One thing that all major religions have in common is a powerful message of hope. Judaism expresses its hopeful message in a variety of ways, in its sacred texts, its prayers and liturgies, its mandated ethical activity and its rituals.

Ritual is non-verbal communication. In Jewish practice, ritual reminds us who we are and does that through describing our relationship to G-d, our fellow creatures and nature. It creates a space in time when we restore the harmonious relationships G-d intended for creation. We call the Sabbath, for example, a “foretaste of the time of the Messiah,” 24 hours in the present that reflect the way our world will be every day when Messiah finally comes.

Typically our ritual practice revolves around Shabbat and life cycle and year cycle  occasions. I’d like to explore the idea of how ritual can work for us in another framework.

Today, 12 days after the election of 2016, I woke again feeling as though I had suffered a profound loss. It reminds me of when my Dad died in the sense that it is both an emotional and a physical sensation. It is jarring to see life go on as usual around me and difficult to reconnect to it. It occurs to me that in Jewish ritual, I have the tools to help myself reconnect in a positive, life-affirming way.

I am thinking of the rituals associated with death and mourning. A Kittel is a white garment worn for the Passover Seder, on Yom Kippur, for the marriage ceremony and in death. What can these occasions possibly have in common? Each represents a profound transition from one state of being to another.  It feels to me as though this country is living through one of those profound marking points in its history, one of those moments like the murder of President Kennedy or the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11, that we will look back to and know the ground shifted under our feet. Engaging in a ritual that takes note of this profound transition from one state of being to another seems appropriate.

“Sitting Shiva” (Shiva meaning seven) refers to the seven days of mourning following the death of a loved one. For seven days, a community cares for the mourner, visiting, bringing food, making certain there is a Minyan to recite Kaddish. It is a time for condolences, yes, but also a time to remember and reflect, to share stories of the one who left the earth, to listen to the mourner sharing his or her memories. While the mourning period doesn’t end with the conclusion of Shiva, this space in time is an important step back toward life. And that is something that we, who share these feelings, must do — remember those steps we have taken, those things we have accomplished and prepare ourselves to go back to work.

And finally, Kaddish. I remember a song that I particularly loved when I grew up in my Dad’s church, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was a powerful hymn when the congregation sang it together, and I felt the meaning of holiness viscerally. I haven’t checked, but I suspect the song was inspired by the Kedushah (same root as Kaddish), a central Jewish prayer with a section that begins, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” that is, holy, holy, holy. Kaddish, also meaning holy, is recited several times during every service, bridging between sections of the service and the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of the service. The prayer requires at least 10 people (a Minyan, so it is important that for each day of Shiva, a mourner has at least ten people from their community to support his or her Kaddish).

These are the words of Kaddish, with a nod to the awkwardness of gender-specific pronouns. I don’t usually change them for the sake of familiarity and smoothness of flow within a community that allows me to enter a ritual space. I know G-d is neither male nor female but both. I am making an exception because of the context of this discussion, when many whom I know and love are especially sensitive to misogyny in our leadership and culture:

Glorified and sanctified be G-d’s great name throughout the world
which S/he has created according to Her/His will.

May S/he establish Her/His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May Her/His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be S/he,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

S/he who creates peace in Her/His celestial heights,
may S/he create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

The prayer is a profound affirmation of hope and faith at a time when one is most tempted to question the ultimate nature and purpose of human existence. It anticipates establishing G-d’s kingdom on earth.

And what is that kingdom? For that, I look to the first chapters of Genesis, 1-3.  That kingdom in the Garden, as G-d created it, is one in which human beings live in the right relationship to G-d, their fellow creatures and the rest of creation. It is a harmonious system of differences, without the sense of otherness, fear and enmity that characterizes our world.

The rest of the Torah and all other sacred Jewish scripture, its laws and teachings and discussions, its prayers and its rituals, tell us how we can live in the real world beyond the Garden, doing our best in a messy existence to live in right relationship to G-d, our fellow human beings, our fellow creatures and the planet — and to keep the faith that someday the ritual spaces we create will extend throughout creation.

In a time when we seem tragically far from that ideal, when our leaders cynically focus on our “otherness” stirring up us/them fears and hatreds, when we breed 9 billion animals every year in this country just to slaughter them, when we edge closer and closer to making this beautiful earth uninhabitable for organized community, it is easy to lose faith.

I believe each of us must return to our sources to find those vehicles that help us reconnect to life and community after loss, maintain faith and hope, and do our work in the world, whatever it is for each of us, to create a better future.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Trump vs. Hillary: Sometimes the Best Person Doesn’t Win

In my doctoral program, I was required to engage in a project I didn’t much like. In fact, I didn’t like it so much that I almost left school over it. It involved counting words in texts and comparing the counts. The project didn’t require knowing the meaning of the words — just counting them.

Being a “deeper meaning” kind of wonk, I resented taking all that time for what seemed a superficial enterprise — but I learned something. I learned that sometimes there’s a message at the most superficial level, and it’s important to pay attention to that message too. I’ve used that word counting technique many times since those days.

One of the times I used it is just recently, to analyze the home pages of the two 2016 presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What I found startled me, and I was dismayed. It also explained a lot to me about how a lying, dangerous demagogue can attract such a following in this country.

The campaign pages change almost daily at this point, but at the time I checked, here’s what I found. Trump is a brilliant content marketer. If he wins, it will be his content marketing that wins this campaign. Hillary, or those who work on her behalf, are not as skilled at messaging.

Let’s not make the mistake, as I did in the course of my doctoral program, of saying that’s just a superficial thing, and it has no meaning. It has meaning, and the meaning might determine the course of this election.

I will highlight three items: branding, framing the other candidate, and vision.

Branding. OK, here’s where the word count comes in. I counted the number of times the Trump name appears on Trump’s page and the number of times Hillary’s name appears there. I performed the same exercise on Hillary’s page. I used Trump’s last name because that is what he has chosen as his brand. I used Hillary’s first name because that is her brand.

Trump mentions his own name 15 times on the page. Hillary appears three times, not as “Hillary,” her brand, but as Hillary Clinton. “Clinton” is used by itself two more times. The Hillary brand does not appear. Branding — “Hillary” gets 0% of the coverage on Trump’s page. If we use the appearances as part of “Hillary Clinton,” she gets 20% of the web real estate on Trump’s home page. The Trump brand dominates.

Hillary mentions her brand name five times. “Hillary Clinton” appears three times. The Trump name appears five times, four as “Donald Trump,” not the branded name, and one in the sign before the fold, “Love trumps hate.” If we count those appearances just as we did Hillary Clinton on his page, Trump gets just as much name real estate on Hillary’s home page as she does.

Framing. When Hillary’s name appears on Trump’s home page, it is framed by keywords that shape her image in the way the Trump campaign wants to shape it: losing, untrustworthy, failed foreign policy. Headlines tell us in bold caps, “L.A. TIMES/USC DORNSIFE POLL: TRUMP 47%, CLINTON 40%.” Next we see, “DONALD TRUMP TELLS VETERANS HILLARY CLINTON CAN’T BE TRUSTED TO OVERHAUL VA.” And finally, “OWNING THE 3RD TERM: OBAMA-CLINTON’S FAILED FOREIGN POLICY UNLEASHED ISIS, TERRORISM & SUFFERING.” Did we get the message here?

Trump is not effectively or memorably framed on Hillary’s page with one exception. Here are the contexts: “We put Hillary Clinton’s resume side by side with Donald Trump’s…” Yes, and? “Donald Trump got one thing right during his terrifying RNC speech…” A little better thanks to the almost incidental use of one keyword, “terrifying.” “Get the facts about Donald Trump and the 2016 election…” Why on earth would anyone who hasn’t already formulated an opinion go to Hillary’s website for the facts about Trump? Why not use the facts in short, pithy, memorable terms, to frame Trump on the home page? Let them link to the full post?

And finally, we have the financial attribution at the bottom of the page: “Paid for by Hillary for America, a grassroots campaign of 1.5 million donors committed to electing Hillary Clinton (and keeping Donald Trump out of the White House).” And why would we want to do that? Did the page tell us? No, so again, the Trump name uses up valuable real estate without framing.

Now the exception. “Love trumps hate.” It’s memorable. It’s lower case (diminishing Trump). It makes the point. It presents Trump’s name above the fold, but the power of the message probably makes up for that.

Vision. The biggest problem with Hillary’s home page is that it fails to present a vision, and this indeed is one of her major campaign flaws. Bernie Sanders commented on this issue at the end of his campaign. She cannot be the lesser of two evils; she must provide a vision for the country. I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s look at the details of the home page that make this problem clear.

Trump’s website above the fold provides us with an energy-filled picture from the RNC convention, bold red, white and blue balloons filling the picture along with Trump’s family on stage. The contribution form to the left proclaims, “America is Back
I am Your Voice.” To the right, we see this message: “It’s a very exciting time for America. Your voices represent a bright new future for our great nation full of more opportunities for everyone, not just a select few. Together, we have created a movement that continues to gain momentum. Together, we are making history. Together, we are bringing back the American Dream. The time is now. Together, we WILL Make America Great Again!”

On first coming to the page, above the fold, we know the vision Trump wants to project through keywords: excitement, energy, movement, momentum, opportunities for everyone (not just a select few), making history, bringing back the American Dream, together. Finally, we get Trump’s well-known, therefore memorable, slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Notice those keywords. Where have we heard “movement,” “opportunities for everyone,” “select few,” “voice,” “making history” and “together” before? Trump steals them from the Democrats, effectively speaking not only to his own but to unwary others.

Before the convention, Hillary’s campaign home page had no keywords or statements connected to her vision for America above the fold. Zero. Currently there are two pieces of content that start to edge in that direction: 1) “Love trumps hate,” which both frames Trump, as we have seen, and presents an alternative concept, love and 2) the “History made” button. In much smaller words, it says, “Stronger together.”

This is an improvement over the pre-convention page but in my opinion, not enough of one. Barak Obama wasn’t elected because he was black but because he presented a powerful vision of who we are and who we can be. Hillary Clinton will not be elected because she’s a woman. She must present a vision of who we are and who we can be that is inclusive, and that vision gets a start in the phrase, “Stronger together.” Our entry to the page, the material above the fold, doesn’t communicate effectively and strongly enough who Hillary is, what her vision is and that she is the person to work with us to fulfill it. What we know about her is that she is a woman, and she broke the glass ceiling. That’s meaningful to many but not to all she needs to attract, and it shouldn’t be enough for anyone.

The remainder of the page for both candidates shows a similar energy and sharp focus on the Trump home page and missed opportunities to do the same on Hillary’s home page. Every phrase and every caption on the Trump page hits hard to either frame Hillary or promote well-known Trump themes, well-known because they are presented through memorable slogans and hot button keywords. The captions on Hillary’s page are uninspired: “Jobs and wages…” What about them? What do we learn about Hillary from this header? “Immigration reform…” Yes? Trump is for immigration reform also.

Final words. Hillary wasn’t my choice of candidate, and she is flawed. I also know that she isn’t as flawed as what Trump and other Republicans manage to project in memorable slogans and words that way too many now accept as complete truth. Objective studies show that Hillary lies far less than all other candidates with the exception of Bernie and that Trump lies constantly. That’s the game of politics, though, and with regard to Hillary, Republicans play it better.

We can’t all be a Barak Obama with his extraordinary rhetorical ability to provide us with a vision. We can’t all be a Bernie Sanders with his very different way of engaging us in a vision. Hillary has a long record of doing things that improve lives, though. I appreciated the glimpse of that provided in the convention. I hear, not only from those on the stage last evening but from friends who know her, that she is personally warm and caring. She works hard, she has a lot of expertise, and she pushes hard to accomplish things on behalf of a platform that, for the most part, especially now that Bernie pushed for changes, I strongly support. I’m going to accept the flaws, and I’m going to accept that our leadership will not be as inspirational if she is elected.

But if she’s going to be elected, Hillary needs a team that works better on her behalf, a team that gets the opposition framed the way they must be and keeps them there. A team that presents a vision for America that inspires and engages people, that works for the people who will determine, in a way like never before, the future of this country.

So far they haven’t done that. In addition to browsing the candidates websites, yesterday I filled in the unsubscribe request for the DCCC. My email box is filled, multiple times every day, with emails that usually start with, “We’re livid,” or “We’re terrified,” or “It’s scary.” These emails requesting contributions have little valuable content, and they project a poor image: hysteria and incompetence. Democrats, we need to do better! While it’s important to point out factually and consistently the real dangers Trump presents, WE MUST PRESENT A VISION. That is what will win.

It’s time for Democrats to take back the words Trump stole from us in the opening to his home page. It’s time for us to weigh every word and every image we put out to be certain we communicate excitement, energy, movement, momentum, opportunities for everyone (not just a select few), making history, bringing back fulfilling the American Dream, together.

Let’s add one more concept, engagement or individual empowerment. As President Obama reminded us last night, we don’t need to be ruled by one person who will “fix” it — we need to shape our own future.

But we also need the campaign to do a better job of shaping Hillary’s message and projecting it on her behalf. They need to find the words and promote them expertly, consistently and massively. We need to know what Hillary represents for America ABOVE the fold and everywhere else that we connect with the campaign, and we need a sharp, unhysterical contrast with Trump.

If the campaign does its part, and if we do ours, and we elect Hillary, we will get part of our progressive agenda now instead of the world a dangerous demagogue promises to create for us.

And then we have an opportunity to fulfill that vision, because the words won’t mean much without results. If we elect Hillary and she succeeds with us in fulfilling some part of the Democratic platform, if more people experience the benefits of living in America, then we can hope for a truly progressive administration next time.

A Day for Decisions

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Yesterday 49 people were killed in Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I was heartsick when I heard the news. I cried this morning when I read the text messages of Eddie Justice to his mom before he was shot to death.  I thought of my own family. My heart is with all those who lost someone they loved.

Yesterday I heard President Obama’s words and felt his deep sadness, frustration and anger.  Today I listened first to Secretary Clinton speak, then Trump.

I made my decision about the election to come. Although I have not supported Secretary Clinton, I now know if she is the Democratic nominee, and it seems she will be, I will support her without reservations. If I had the option to vote for Bernie Sanders for president, I would do it. But as the candidate, Secretary Clinton is NOT the same as Trump. She is NOT the lesser of two evils. She is not different from Trump by degrees but is, rather, radically, profoundly different from him. And despite its many problems and establishment interests, the Democratic Party is NOT the same as the Republican Party to the extent that the Republican Party supports Trump and brought him near to the presidency. These are different universes.

As a Jew, at the time of a death or on each memorial occasion, I recite the Kaddish, which I would like to share here:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort, to which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,
to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel, to which we say Amen.

These words don’t speak of death but of life. They reaffirm the values Judaism teaches and praise the God in whom we believe.  In the same way, Secretary Clinton in her words today reaffirmed the American values of inclusion and our responsibility to others at home and in our global community. She reaffirmed values that I grew up with and which are dear to me. They are the values on which this country was founded even though we have never yet lived up to them. We have tried, we have made progress, and we can and must do more, a lot more — and she spoke of that. She spoke of a vision of our country at its best, of how we can be.

Trump, too, struck every chord in just the right way. The right way to generate fear and anger among Americans. He undermined the President of the United States, calling on him to resign. He spoke of exclusion. He recited his usual litany of utter falsehoods. He linked the economic fears and insecurities of Americans to immigrants. He used, as he always does, defamatory words repeatedly. Soon they will no longer sound strange and offensive but commonplace. He used the word “Islam” (not even Islamic terrorism) again and again as he spoke about terrorism and finally complained that the floods of immigrants are “promoting Islam” among their young people and ours.

Trump concluded with a statement that he pledges to “protect and defend all Americans who live inside our borders…All Americans living here and following our laws, not other laws, will be protected.”

If everyone in the U.S. followed our laws, not other laws, we would still have slavery. So I will make a pledge also. I pledge to follow American laws unless they conflict with my other laws and values, and I respect the right of others to follow the laws and values of their religions or ethical codes.

I suppose some will say that Christian and Jewish laws and values are in accord with American laws and values while Muslim laws and values are not. This is nonsense. It’s not the way religions work. Do we really want to judge religions by the actions of extremist groups that grow up in their context for a variety of historical, social, cultural and economic reasons? Do we really want to discount the evidence of 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. and 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, people like us who just want to live decent lives, caring for their families and communities in the framework of their religious and cultural heritage?

Trump is a German Christian (whoops, comes from a German Christian heritage). By Trump’s standards, he and his family should have been banned entry to this country and should, now that they are here, be under surveillance. His family comes from a country that sustained the murder of 12,000,000 innocents in concentration camps, masterminded and carried out by a man who could not have come to power or retained it without the support of a significant number of Christian churches and the people who were in them. I don’t know “what the hell happened there” any better today than I did when I started asking that question as a very young Christian teenager, and I doubt anyone else really does either. So I guess until we do, all Germans and all Christians should be banned from the U.S. Ridiculous and offensive comment, isn’t it?

What we do understand about what happened there is what we can hear and see in media of the time — we see a man who used media tools brilliantly to generate fear and anger among Germans. He undermined the constitutional government. He spoke of exclusion. He recited a litany of utter falsehoods. He linked the economic fears and insecurities of Germans to people he saw as outsiders, Jews, Gypsies and others. He used defamatory words repeatedly until they no longer sounded strange and offensive but were commonplace. And so the most enlightened country in Europe retrained their brains and the brains of their young people to support an evil system. As part of that, Hitler employed Christian catchwords and phrases to shape his evil ideology and used it to convince his fellow Germans that they were actually following the dictates their religion, in reality Hitler’s vile perversion of it, for his own narcissistic, opportunistic ends.

It sounds to me a lot like the man who is plastered across all our media day in and day out in this country, the United States of America. His vision of America, of what will make it great, is utterly repugnant.

The vision that Secretary Clinton presented today is the image I will support. I believe that a strong Democratic turnout is all that will defeat Trump, and I believe he must be defeated, once and for all. Then we can continue to build a progressive movement and will someday be able to support a candidate who unequivocally represents those values and that vision. As a friend said to me recently, building a movement is step-by-step. We need to keep going. We need to take our country back from the haters and excluders and narcissistic opportunists who have no value higher than themselves and their own financial grandiosity.

The Dalai Llama said, “The purpose of religion is to control yourself, not criticize others.” Those who hold to a faith tradition in this country, including myself, have plenty to do examining and re-examining the roots of our own traditions and how they have interacted with economic, social and political situations throughout history, how they have changed, what themes have been emphasized more strongly at any point in time, the extent to which those situated expressions of their religion correspond to their most deeply held values. Or don’t.

But if anyone would like to learn about other traditions, not criticize but learn, Harvard currently offers an excellent series of classes in Religious Literacy free of charge online. Islam is in progress right now. The class is a wonderful opportunity to understand some things about Islam and to meet wonderful people, Muslim and non-Muslim, who also want to learn and who share in extraordinary ways.

After listening to a eulogy by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine, at the funeral/life celebration of Mohammed Ali this past week, I connected with another project with which Rabbi Lerner is involved, the Network of Spiritual Progressives. This organization “seeks to transform our materialist and corporate-dominated society into a caring society through consciousness raising, advocacy, and public awareness campaigns that promote a “New Bottom Line” based on generosity, peace, and social transformation. The NSP shifts mass consciousness by challenging status-quo ideas about what is possible.”

The NSP mission: “Instead of a bottom-line based on money and power, we need a new bottom-line that judges corporations, governments, schools, public institutions, and social practices as efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent they maximize money and power, but to the extent they maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and our capacity to respond with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.” – Rabbi Michael Lerner

“You don’t have to believe in God, deny science, or be part of a religion to be a spiritual progressive.”

As I reflect on yesterday’s events, I know I need to respond with more than reflection. I will redouble my own efforts to be a better person and to make the world better. I’ll work the fields in my local CSA not just for my own pleasure but because it supports a back-to-basics spirituality through engagement with the earth. I will cook at home from local and organic foods because it supports spirituality through the most basic mechanism of providing healthy, sustainable, life-giving food. I will do what I can to recognize and call out racism and bigotry. I will support any candidate, even one very flawed, who can possibly beat Trump in the election and who offers a vision of caring and inclusivity. I will continue to reexamine my values as they apply to situations in this country and around the world. And I will find ways to support a spiritual reawakening in America, such as that promoted by the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

It is not a virtue for a leader to say what people want to hear. It’s not leadership. Sadly, what too many people want to hear is a vision of this country that will lead only to dead ends and more tragedies, here and around the world.

I want to thank President Obama for inspiring me with his vision and reawakening me to the value and importance of politics and political leadership.

And I want to thank Bernie Sanders for broadening my vision and revealing me to myself as a Progressive. I didn’t know.

I want to thank friends and my rabbi of the last six years who have shared their thoughts and wisdom as I try to find my place.

And I want to say thank you to Secretary Clinton for saying the right thing today. After the tragic death of so many, I wanted to hear words that presented a vision of the best we are capable of being in this country. Words do count.

There is only one path to healing this world and this country: inclusivity and respect for all people, every race, every ethnicity, every nation, every gender identity or sexual preference, every religious and cultural heritage.  All people.

6/14/2016 Update: This morning President Obama spoke again about Orlando and reflected on Trump’s words yesterday and throughout this campaign season. Here is part of his presentation. I will miss him when he is no longer president. His beautiful intelligence, his dignity, his humanity, constantly inspire me and make me proud to be American.