Whose Land Is It, Anyway? Part 2

My focus in this series, Whose Land Is It, Anyway, is Israel and Palestine. However, I do not come to this concern as a blank slate. I have history, we all have history, some of which does not directly involve this holy and sacred land in the Middle East.

For me, there is other holy land, too–as a citizen of the United States, there is the land comprising the 50 states.  For people in other nations, they may well consider the land of their nation holy.

In fact, all land is holy, part of the divine Creation of which each of us is a part. Without the land of the earth to stand on we would not be.

Massasoit commons wikipedia org
Massasoit commons.wikipedia.org

The native people European explorers and settlers encountered in the Americas knew this truth in a deep and powerful way; it was a core belief on which they all lived. In fact, they rejected the idea than anyone could own land to the exclusion of others. The land belongs to all.

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit (leader of the Wampanoag in what is now Rhode Island; despite this quotation, he did sell land to the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony to keep the peace)

Against this vision of common wealth, resources shared for the good of all, immigrants from other places arrived, many of them wanting to create a new life very different from their former ones, including the real possibility that they could finally own land on which to live and even work. No longer would only a few rich, often titled, persons own land, but everyone, or at least many, could own land, too.

westward expansions of US solpass org
solpass.org

There were inevitable clashes, the newcomers wanting what the natives already had, namely land, and the natives sensing a threat to their ability to continue to live in traditional ways. And as the numbers of immigrants swelled, so did the demand for the land.

What began on the east seaboard became inevitably a push all the way to the west coast, from Atlantic to Pacific. In between were many battles, even real wars, between the increasingly dominant power of the U.S. Government and a land-voracious society on the one side and increasingly desperate native tribes and leaders on the other.

American Exceptionalism 1872 painting by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn com
“Manifest Destiny” painting by in 1872 by John Gust (after Thomas Hart Benton) cnn.com

Manifest Destiny, the belief that not only could the United States conquer the entirety of land between the coasts but also was called to do so by divine Providence, became the rallying cry. This nation was understood to be ordained to take possession of all it could see between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Land became the commodity and the native people who sat on it became the victims of an overwhelming power, forced to retreat on to reservations where they were told they could keep their native customs (of course, it is not easy to be a hunting and gathering people without large expanses of land).  Most of the time, the promises made to the natives were not kept, certainly when those promises got in the way of settlers claiming the land they wanted.

Today, Native Americans struggle to retain their identity, some still living on reservations and others integrating more into the wider society.

American Indian and Alaska Native Lands in the US one of many feathers com
oneofmanyfeathers.com

And the land? It is still here, more polluted in many cases, and much of it far more densely populated (as well as much still open space) and all of it is “owned” by someone–according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Report in 2007, about 60 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned. The Federal Government owns 29 percent of the land base, mostly in the West. State and local governments own nearly 9 percent, and Indian trust land accounts for about 2 percent.

The natives never claimed to own it, but they did claim to live on it and from it. Many no longer live on reservations and are part of the majority society (even as many of them retain identities as native peoples). But the part on which they can live in community more as their ancient teachings guide them is very small.

Whose land is it, then?

The answer seems simple: those who control access to the land own the land.

And yet rarely, if ever, was a full and fair price paid to the natives. They may not have wanted to sell, but perhaps we could claim some moral high ground if we finally paid what we said it was worth.

I leave this very simple version of the story at this point, inviting the reader to reflect on the value of land and people, and how we are called to live in peace with all.

How can we find peace standing on holy, yet so often bloodied, ground?

 

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrimage Home

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness
flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5
pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map
simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map
potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.

One Nation Under God–Whatever You Think about, or of, God

Spiritual journeys are often arduous affairs. Many people who have shared about their own admit that they went places they did not expect to be, saw things they did not expect or maybe even want to see, and changed more,and in ways other, than they thought possible or even desirable (at least initially).

Mother TeresaMother Teresa, for example, wrote (in private diaries only published after her death) that much of her journey of caring for the poor, exhibiting what the world saw as enormous faith, was marked by a lack of faith in the presence of God. Nonetheless, she kept going until the end.

It is this kind of patience, perseverance, that so many lack. Our Western culture lives on the fast track, wanting only sound bites for answers, quick fixes that may make the fixer feel good but do not really change anything.

I am struck by how this desire for the quick fix is infecting the political arena in the United States today. It reminds me of an earlier time in our national life, a tumultuous time before the Civil War. Slavery was unsettling the nation to be sure, but there were other stresses, too.

Citizen Know Nothing
“Citizen Know Nothing” by Sarony & Co., lithographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One was immigration. Wave upon wave of immigrant from Europe–many Irish and German Catholics arriving in the late 1840’s and 50s–scared those already here. They feared the country would be taken over by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

A political movement arose, under various names, but ultimately came to be known popularly as the Know Nothing Party  (because members, seeking to keep their membership and work a secret, were encouraged to say, “I know nothing,” when asked if they belonged). It officially became the American Party, and other combinations of terms, designed to highlight their belief that only nativists (but not Native Americans, of course), not these Catholic immigrants, were the true Americans.

It would be easy to say the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, today are like the Know Nothings. But in fact the Know Nothings supported many progressive measures. They often supported regulation of railroads and other institutions and free public education, and many opposed slavery and spoke against concentrations of wealth.

immigration wall at Plymouth Rock
http://www.freedomsphoenix.com

What does connect these Know Nothings with contemporary Republicans is fear, fear that someone from the outside is destroying the nation. Today, it is immigrants from Mexico (“build a wall” so no more come in, and send all the ones here back), and now, thanks to twenty or so state governors, it is immigrants fleeing the chaos and terror of Syria (because among their number are sure to be some ISIS-inspired terrorists seeking to come here to destroy us).

And there is another fear, namely that elites–the so-called mainstream media today is the favorite–are selling out all the good, ordinary Americans. Certainly, the anti-politician rhetoric of Messrs. Carson and Trump, and their supporters, reflect this belief. Another target of many, though not all, are the banks and other concentrations of wealth.

All of this feels very scary to many of us. Simplistic solutions to complicated problems rarely help, certainly scapegoating groups does no good, and insisting that one ideology or religion has all the answers has never worked, and will only promote totalitarianism.

ilearnamerica.com
ilearnamerica.com

Is it possible to say a nation is on a spiritual journey? I hope so. We are in the midst of great turmoil. We are being shown things about ourselves that many would rather not see (e.g., the continuing violence against African-Americans). Indeed, many refuse to even look. Instead, they apply angry rhetoric and harsh policies to avoid having to deal with complicated realities.

I continue to pray, and hope, however, that all this is leading us to a deeper place, a place where we can finally face the fact that our nation, though wonderful and beautiful in many ways and surely the land that I love, is not the paragon of virtue and freedom we claim to be–indeed that we never have been–and that we need to find ways to lower the decibels, listen more to disparate voices on the margins and work with other nations in constructive ways (even recognizing their own national needs as legitimate, not just ours).

What helps me pray, helps me to share this hope? I remember Mother Teresa who stayed the course. She wrote in her journal in 1961, as revealed in the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

“Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

donmilam.com
donmilam.com

According to those who have studied her life in depth, she died with this struggle still very alive in her. Her spiritual adviser of many years, Rev. Joseph Neuner, helped her realize that her feelings of abandonment only increased her understanding of the people she helped. And she identified her suffering, and their suffering, with that of Jesus.

Our answer as a nation is not to lash out at others unlike us, to find easy fixes in blaming others, but to go more deeply in our own souls, as individuals and as a nation, and persevere in creating more justice and more opportunity and more openness everywhere in the world.

The answer to our troubles, our need, lies not so much in politics (necessary as good politics is), as it does in spiritual depth–I don’t mean religion, even though I am a deeply religious person, because we are a secular society–but I do mean in going on a spiritual journey together.

We must find a way to knit our hearts together without blame and recrimination, without scapegoating or false divisions.

One nation under God (whatever you think of, or about, God).

Who Is A Yank? 

Jonathan and I saw an excellent production of the play, Yank!, at Richmond Triangle Players. It’s one of those bittersweet love stories about two people–in this case two men, Stu and Mitch, in Uncle Sam’s World War II Army–who fall in love against many odds, and then almost make it to happy-ever-after bliss.

RTP Yank!But they don’t quite make it–and I don’t want to give away the entire story, so all I will say is that one is braver, and clearer, than the other.

Of course, we are talking about an era in which, despite the need for soldiers to fight Nazism and its ally in the East, Japan, the U.S. military regularly gave dishonorable discharges to service members who were identified as homosexual. So the struggle of Stu and Mitch to survive in love takes place against the backdrop of powerful institutional homophobia. [Note: this is a work of dramatic fiction, but it is based on painstaking research and reviewing diaries and published stories of many gay and lesbian service members from World War II).

This leads me to something else significant this week, namely comments by U.S. Congressman Dave Brat from the 7th District of Virginia. The freshman representative has been clear in his opposition to “path to citizenship” for any undocumented immigrants, including it seems any idea of treating the children of these immigrants with dignity and acceptance of the reality that for many this is the only country they have ever known.

Rep. Dave Brat
Rep. Dave Brat

He says he is angry at colleagues who suggest that undocumented immigrants who want to enlist in the military are showing their patriotism. Here is what he said just last week, on the radio:

I wanted to stand up and shout, I mean, ISIS is willing to serve in our military as well. . . . Part of the reason Rome fell is because they started hiring barbarians, otherwise known as Germans at the time, to be troops in their own army. What’s going on is the decline of western civilization at the highest level.

Once again, people are being told they are not worthy of serving our nation, and this time, as earlier in the case of homosexuals, immigrants–even those who want to defend our country–are seen as dangers to our national security.

In fairness to the Mr. Brat, he clarified his remarks, at least about the ISIS connection, by saying, “Take the “because they want to [serve]”  logic further: ISIS terrorists want to serve, too. Should we let them? Of course not.”

That might work in a high school debating class, but Brat ignores the bitter taste the comment leaves in the hearts and minds of the immigrants. Linking ISIS and “barbarians” to immigrants who came here seeking better lives–not to destroy the country but to share in its bounty, and to build it–and their children who have only really ever lived in one country, namely the United States–feels like an expression of contempt.

That is what Stu and Mitch had to battle in earlier days in our military, and what many others fought against in the witch hunts days of the McCarthy era. Contempt for being human beings with sexual and affectional feelings that others judged . . .  well  . . . contemptible.

Union colored troopsIt’s what slaves and freed Africans had to endure when they wanted to join Union Army units to fight the Confederacy. Few believed they could fight, but of course they were smart and brave, just like white counterparts (and eventually, they were allowed to fight, thanks to Union generals Benjamin Butler and Ulysses S. Grant, even though in segregated units). It’s what Native Americans faced in Virginia when they wanted to enlist to fight Nazis in World War II. Thanks to the Racial Purity Act of 1924, “Indians” (as they were known then) could enlist but not as “Indians”–because according to this heinous law, there were only two races in Virginia, white and black. Many of them, wanting to defend their country, went to other states to enlist, so they could be patriotic and also true to themselves.

Mr. Brat should know this history, but I doubt he does. Or if he does, he chooses to forget it. Perhaps he is more concerned with Rome.

Oh yes, if you want to know about one of these “dangers to national security,” check out this excellent column by Bart Hinkle in the Richmond Times Dispatch, “Brat Jumps the Shark on Immigration,”  http://www.richmond.com/opinion/our-opinion/article_379737a9-2a5b-5d81-b40d-5ce0df06ab19.html.  He will show you how scary one of these dangers, a man by the name of Cesar Vargas, really is.

Then, you’ll be really grateful to Mr. Brat for sounding the alarm.

Folks Are Still Trying to Kill the Dream. We Have to Keep Marching

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.

I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.

So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.

MLK-Silent-about-things-that-matter
photo from InspirationBoost.com

People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.

But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.

He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.

In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of  the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.

But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr- Sitck with love
photo from InspirationBoost.com

The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.

Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.

State Senator Dick Black photo from jimhuber.org
State Senator Dick Black (photo from jimhuber.org)

As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.

Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?

I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.

He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.

And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.

Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.

MLK and Heschel and Torah and Abernathy
Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel (left), Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others marching (photo from http://www.bu.edu)

And that means we have to live in love.

It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.

Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?