Yes, go somewhere and read the names of people killed in Gaza

On Tuesday, I went with my wife Dana to one of the actions calling for an end to the violence in Gaza organized by “If Not Now,” a Jewish group here in NYC. I wanted to thank them, and also encourage everyone I know, Jews and non-Jews alike, to participate in their events if you’re in one of the cities where this movement is happening.

This particular event was one of those creative Jewish reinterpretations of something — in this case, Tisha B’Av, a day in the Jewish calendar set aside to grieve past tragic events that have befallen the Jewish people. There was also much to grieve regarding Gaza — by then, over 1,800 Palestinians had been killed, and Israelis live with daily fear from the ongoing bombardments and their own casualties.

In addition to some readings, we read aloud, together, the names of people, some Israelis but overwhelmingly Palestinians civilians, who had been killed in Gaza since the previous Friday.

When reading the names, which generally includes the place where they were killed, and sometimes their age of death, there are things that I couldn’t help noticing. The name of an adult woman, then the names of her children who died with her. A pair of two year olds with the same last name (twins). Five people with the same last name and the same place of death — a family. That happened repeatedly while reading the names: three, four, even nine people from a single family killed together.

Many of us are aware of the sheer number of people being killed (as of the day I’m writing this, it’s now over 1,900) but we shy away from looking at lists of individual names, or looking at pictures of each of them. But by reading the names, this situation becomes more real and demands further action from us.

It’s important not to just read the names and immerse ourselves in righteous anger, but to notice that we are grieving, and to think about how to proceed. We cannot, even in our justifiable grief, just demand retribution — although I guess you could, but then you would will have to go later and read more names, then more and still more. That’s not the way for me. Instead I’m focused on getting to the roots of violence and despair that are at the base of this, and support for the families experiencing the long-term effects of war.

As part of the event, we turned to a stranger to talk for a couple minutes. I talked to a woman named Rachel, and we talked about what had brought us there. I told her that I was grieving the deaths in Gaza, but also my brother, whose yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) was in a few days, and he had also been killed in an armed conflict. My brother Eddie was killed by the Red Army Faction in 1985 while serving in the US Army, in an attack targeting the US Airbase at Rhein Main. So along with the many civilians killed in this event, my thoughts are with the families of all combatants killed as well — which we also read at the event, names drawn from this site that the IDF keeps of solders killed in this conflict.

Afterwards, Dana and I agreed that we had to find something to do. Speaking the names out loud with that group of people forced me out of despair and into action. We decided to start by supporting organizations that address the overlying political issue but also the need for humanitarian aid. We picked two groups:

It’s sad to read the names. You might mispronounce them, you might cry. Take someone with you — it’s a little overwhelming.

There’s a principle in physics called the observation effect — the sheer act of observing a phenomenon changes it. Well, there is the life-version of that as well. The act of observing war or violence changes it, probably because it changes us from spectators into actors.

Go be with people and read the names, and then see what you can figure out in terms of action for a long-term sustainable peace in Gaza. If you need more ideas for things you can do, let me know and we’ll think together.

To get you ready, here’s a clip of If Not Now in action:

 

For Christmas, let’s remember what’s fundamentally Christian

Works of Mercy Catholic Workers from Jim Forrest on FlickrMy wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic (confirmed and all) but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. Even so, I find myself explaining some of the finer points of Christianity in our household. That’s because there are so many supposedly Christian folk who do very unkind and ungenerous things. Since my wife is no fool, she interprets Christianity by what Christians do, not by what they say.

And since it’s Christmas time, some Christians are saying and doing so many unkind things. Maybe it’s that I’m hearing too much about what’s on Fox News, with its insistence that everyone say “Merry Christmas” or their vocal opposition to fair pay for low-wage workers… you are not making the case for what it is to be Christian, much less why people would want to be Christian.

I want to bring us back to three Christian fundamentals that A: make the world a more decent place and B: bring Christianity a great reputation when Christians do them.

1- Love everyone as if they are your brothers and sisters. Everyone.

Okay, this includes strangers, people different from us, and people we don’t even know. From any and all countries and even people of other religions (self-disclosure: this would include me now). In case this is unclear, take a look at Luke 10: 25-37, where the greatest commandment includes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and someone asks Jesus, “but, really?” and he answers, “yes, really” and we get the tale of the Good Samaritan helping a complete stranger.

In terms of being “fundamentally Christian,” this one instruction offers a simple answer to all sorts of questions. For example, it means that we care about people and want to help them in any circumstance.

Instead of making arguments against health care insurance reform such as “why should I support change to the health care market to require insurance companies to cover infants when I’m too old to have children?” (Forgoing at the moment the myriad other reasons that is a ridiculous question.) I find myself shaking my head… why call yourself Christian then insist, “I’ve got my health insurance, but I don’t know why you think you need health insurance.”

This also means it’s fundamentally Christian to be against war, since war involves killing your brothers and sisters.

There is no “us versus them” in this directive to love your neighbor — it basically turns the whole world into “we” and a “we” that we are compelled to act for. This is pretty cool, and when I remember being Catholic, this is one of my favorite parts, a practice that I still work to hold onto.

Being self-interested is not fundamentally Christian. Being kind and generous to all is.

2- Christians live by example instead of condemning others.

Okay, and then there’s that great Jesus story that culminates in “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Which is a story about how it’s easy to be harsh on other people even though we generally want to be treated mercifully. I didn’t understand this story when I first heard it as a young person (I didn’t know what adultery was, and I was particularly puzzled as to why you would “stone” someone when you could just shoot them… I was very young.)

But at the core of the story is that if we want God’s mercy we would do well to show mercy to others, since we have plenty of our own sins to be worried about. Think of all the scenarios this covers… opposition to the death penalty, opposition to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” This ethic in action brings us deep things like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work to lead the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa (and his support for restorative justice). We can still hold out accountability, just not harshness.

My mother and I talked about this concept of not judging people harshly when she was dying (when we had many long philosophical discussions, some of which involved how to respond to my brother’s murder). We talked about the Lord’s prayer, and how it says, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

My mom was laying in a hospital bed with a tube coming out of her nose and not much time left and she said to me with some despair, “Kath-a-leen, nobody cares about the second part of that as much as the first part.” Nobody? Really? Sometimes Christians hold themselves to a low standard.

But I care about it. This is one of my favorite part of the Christian doctrine because it’s hard to do in the moment, but it has so clearly made my life easier than if I were lugging around all that criticism and judgement.

Judging others harshly is not fundamentally Christian. Showing patience and compassion to all is. 

3- Question powerful institutions and be on the side of the underdog.

Here, I look to the recently-sanctioned nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who focus on doing good deeds and helping oppressed communities rather than enforcing randomly selected pieces of Christian doctrine (since there are plenty of biblical directives that Christians disregard, after all). Not that the Pope and I completely agree on this what this looks like — he has supported the bishops’ criticisms of the nuns for spending too much time on social justice.

Unlike the first two fundamentals, which I think of as hard but make our daily life easier, this one makes it harder because it involves siding with the “weak” and probably angering the strong. It means getting our hands dirty and sometimes, putting ourselves at risk.

I’ll give respect to the Pope for his commitment to live in relative austerity and reach out to prisoners, atheists and, well, pretty much everybody. Then there’s his recent exhortation (seriously, that’s what it’s called) to stop worshipping money like it’s God. He’s not using his powerful position to align himself with powerful institutional forces, and of course, he’s being criticized for it. Good for him. Good for all of us.

Aspiring to power and wealth is not fundamentally Christian. Siding with the disenfranchised is.

When you stick to the fundamentals, Christians can be a pretty awesome force for good in the world. These fundamentals are also where Christianity overlaps with many other great religious traditions as well as many great secular ideas that make the world more livable for all of us. So, please focus on these: for all our sakes.

Oh, and if you’re celebrating it, have a great Christmas!

Image from the “Works of Mercy” series by Ade Bethune, a Catholic Worker and artist, courtesy of Jim Forest on Flickr.

Nelson Mandela: Both World Leader and Convicted Criminal

In hearing people talk about the passing of President Nelson Mandela, I’ve noticed that people don’t use the word “convicted criminal” to describe him, presumably out of respect. But “world leader” and “convicted criminal” are both chapters of his story. We act as if one term describes his greatness and the other is a blemish on it. But they are both part of what made him an exceptional leader that came at a point when the world needed him.

Nelson Mandela’s first arrest was in the early 1950s, and he went on to be arrested and convicted on multiple occasions. In U.S. terms, Mr. Mandela was (like some of my favorite people) a “felon” multiple times over. In the U.S., a list of arrests — even for legitimate political activity — can lead to problems ever securing a good job, home or an education. And it generally rules out a future in American politics.

The term “convicted felon” or “convicted criminal” in the U.S. is applied to people for one conviction or twenty, for political crimes or crimes of addiction or of poverty. Then people are judged harshly for a lifetime, as if a criminal record tells you everything you need to know about them. How we use the word “criminal” and how we act on it are ultimately short-sighted and unfair. And we all lose out as a result.

In Mr. Mandela’s case, the ruling white government of Apartheid South Africa locked him up to stop his political activity, and they also bet that labeling him as a “convicted criminal” would invalidate him. Convicting and imprisoning him was supposed to make people forget about him. It was supposed to make people stop listening to him. It was supposed to make him just another criminal black man.

What they didn’t account for was the unrelenting number of Black South Africans who would not be deceived by that label, and who would still listen to and accept Mandela’s wisdom and leadership. They didn’t account for Black South Africans who would connect with people around the world to advocate for this “criminal.”

Mandela did not become president on his own — a nation of people accepted him as a leader and made him a president. For decades, they rejected the label of “criminal” as something an unjust government had placed on him. 

Honestly, many of my friends with previous felony convictions were not convicted for political crimes protesting large injustices. (Like many other people in U.S. prisons, they mostly did stupid and/or hurtful things while in the grip of addiction.) But many of them have the experience of being a prisoner in common with Mr. Mandela. They’ve experienced the isolation, the mistreatment, the separation from their families and for some, the deaths of family members while they were incarcerated.

And like him, they also somehow, miraculously, endured prison and came out wise and compassionate leaders. But many of them still face big barriers in reaching their potential because of the harsh label of “felon” or “criminal” that is attached to them by the people around them.

Before you say, “but Mandela was no common criminal” I want to remind you that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, plenty of people described him as a criminal and as a terrorist for the violent actions of the ANC (such as 80s-U.S. Congressman Dick Cheney). His role as a future president and transformational world leader was by no means assured.

One lesson I take from the story of President Nelson Mandela is that today’s prisoner could well be the next generation’s transformational leader. If the rest of us act that way.

Anyone who has never been in prison can ask ourselves — Do I go along with the myth that a person who has been incarcerated would not be a great employee or neighbor or leader? Do I hear the label “criminal” and take it as if that judgement is negative and permanent? Because if so, we need to think about how we can do better.

I look forward to the day that “convicted criminal” is not seen as a blemish. (Meantime, I generally use the phrase “formerly incarcerated person” or “person with a previous felony conviction.”) I continue to work for a community where no one is judged for life by the fact that they have a previous felony conviction, and that they can still reach the greatness they are capable of — whether in their family, community, or country.

The world has lost a giant in President Nelson Mandela — someone whose achievements are nothing less than making the world turn on its axis differently. I find myself a little sad, although I also think that he gets to rest after a long life of service to his country, his people and the world.

Thank you, President Mandela, and thank you, South Africa, for showing us how to recognize and facilitate great leadership from someone who was once labeled “a criminal.”

%d bloggers like this: