Thursday, September 23, 2010

Walking the Ben Franklin

Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence, yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily, with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.
--Henry David Thoreau, from the Journal (October 24, 1843)
When I was in high school in the mid-1970’s, my daily pre-occupations consisted mostly of baseball, girls, and marching band. I worried little about my future and understood even less about the problems of others. What I had planned for Friday night and whether the brown-haired girl in science class liked me were high on my list of concerns; the Energy Crisis, Watergate, the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam formed merely the historical backdrop of my existence. I was interested in the world’s problems, but only superficially, and without the perspective that life’s experiences can bring.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I was the all-American boy, achieving academic honors while earning varsity letters in two sports and playing snare drum with military precision during halftime at football games. I laughed a lot back then, told corny jokes, watched old fashioned cartoons, and made frozen soft pretzels on steamy summer nights when the Mets or Phillies were on television. Much has happened since and, though I miss those days, I long ago abandoned the intellectual provincialism of what was a simpler, more innocent time.

Upon graduating high school over 33 years ago, I left for college in the Midwest and discovered a love of learning that has stayed with me ever since. Then I was off to Washington, D.C, and three years of law school, where I developed skills in critical thinking and mixed with more ethnically diverse and worldly students, many having arrived from the nation’s top schools, others having left accomplished careers in journalism, science, politics, and business. The world and its opportunities seemed unlimited then; my greatest worries concerned grades and exams, summer job opportunities, and career choices.

Twenty-five years have passed since I finished law school and, life’s tribulations having taken their toll, I find myself worrying more than I used to, and laughing less. Money and finances, work and fatherhood, marriage and divorce, have all contributed to the reality of dreams deferred and plans unmet.

I walk a lot now. And think. At lunch hour on weekdays, when time and the demands of my job permit, I escape from my office on the 21st floor and walk a few blocks to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the avenues are wide and expansive, the streets lined with trees and flags of many nations, the sidewalks less crowded. Walking along the Ben Franklin, I achieve a temporary reprieve from the stresses of work and the hustle of life. Starting from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, I wander by the fountains of Logan Square, past the Free Library and the Franklin Institute, and stroll along the half-mile stretch of tree-lined sidewalks leading to the Art Museum. I would like to tell you that I think great thoughts, that I find solutions to the world’s most pressing troubles. But mostly I just think; and walk; and worry, about my kids and my family, the economy, my job, my life and the lives of those closest to me.

On certain days, particularly in the fall, when the air is crisp and the sky a deep blue, my daily walks aim to soothe the soul, though reminders of life’s realities are ever present. The exhaust fumes of passing buses assault my senses, while homeless men on park benches beg for change. The dust and debris of local construction projects penetrates my lungs and sticks to my clothes on warm, humid days. On certain walks, on my best days, I am reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is then I develop perspective born of understanding, that my worries are of my own making and pale next to the genuine troubles seen in the many desperate faces I pass.

“To be awake is to be alive,” wrote Thoreau. When I look skyward and absorb the city air, when I let my mind wander ever so briefly, I feel awakened to life’s infinite beauty. Thoreau reminds us, “When we are unhurried and wise we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute value, that only petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.”

Compared to when I was younger, my worries now are less mundane and self-centered, and extend beyond the confines of my limited, undeserving causes, for they concern the destiny of others; my daughters, who find themselves embarking on their own life journeys; my family and friends, who confront issues of health and jobs, of loss and love.

Thoreau wrote that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Although quoted and discussed for more than a century, the power of these words from Walden penetrates deeply. By them, I believe Thoreau meant that most of us live life complying with societal expectations and fail to find true meaning, ignoring life’s small joys and soulful pleasures. Many are afraid to discover passion and fail to find contentment in daily living. The need to conform, the failure to dream, for some even the failure to think for oneself, leads to the quiet desperation of which Thoreau speaks. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” writes Thoreau, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

When possible, I will continue to walk the Ben Franklin, absorbing the warmth of the sun and the vitality of the sky, listening to the whispers of God as I breathe in life and open my mind to the needs of the soul. I will think. I will worry. And on a good day, if I am lucky, I will be awakened to the wonders of life.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Search for Meaning on 9/11: Missing the Wisdom of Abraham Joshua Heschel

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God’s commandment. . . .
--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

As I write this, our nation prepares once again to commemorate the tragedy and loss experienced on September 11, 2001. During the past nine years, we have embarked on two wars, buried over 5,660 American soldiers, and we continue to deploy more than 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are embroiled in a national debate over the meaning of religious freedom and the limits of the First Amendment. Muslim-Americans throughout the country feel under attack, blamed unfairly for the atrocities of their most radical brethren. Plans to build mosques in several states are opposed by vocal mobs chanting anti-Islamic slogans, mirroring the controversy over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero. A lunatic fringe, led by a fundamentalist “preacher” in Florida, disgracefully talks of burning the Koran (their plans canceled for now), thereby insulting and inflaming the world’s Muslims.

My oldest daughter, Jennifer, was born twenty years ago today. On her eleventh birthday, the meaning of September 11 was forever altered and serves now as a timely reminder that our lives are short, the search for meaning more urgent, as the world is so much grander than each of us. This year, as well, September 11 overlaps with the Jewish High Holy Days, starting with Rosh Hashanah, which calls upon Jews the world over to engage in further reflection and contemplation. What better time, then, to turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel – rabbi, theologian, social activist, and mystic, widely admired by Christians and Jews alike – for counsel and guidance in these troubled times.

Although he died in 1972, I believe we need Heschel’s prophetic voice now more than ever. So much of what he said in his lifetime is relevant today. For the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and for others seeking to make sense of it all, Heschel’s experience in the Holocaust – he lost two sisters at Treblinka and his mother died of a heart attack when the Nazis came to her door – and his words of spiritual healing and enlightenment despite these experiences, speak deeply. Unlike many of his contemporaries following World War II, Heschel never blamed God for the Holocaust. God did not commit the evil perpetrated in the concentration camps and gas chambers, he argued. It was, rather, the depravity of human beings acting in defiance of God and of faith. Heschel contended that God suffered with the victims, and would today teach us that the atrocities and evil committed on 9/11 were inflicted not by God, nor by Islam, but by nineteen fanatics who misinterpreted their religion and blasphemed God.

If Islam committed any crime on 9/11, it was the same crime committed by Christianity during the Holocaust – that of silence, the failure of peace-loving Muslims to speak out with sufficient force against the misguided members of their faith, far too many of whom believe that the Koran requires acts of martyrdom and violence against perceived infidels. “The opposite of good is not evil,” Heschel declared often, “the opposite of good is indifference.” Heschel understood that only human beings could challenge injustice, that God needed humans to correct the wrongs in society. Having lived through the rise of Hitler in Germany, he was all too aware of the capacities of mass silence and indifference. “How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person? . . . In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Of course, Heschel was a man of action and not merely words. He fought all forms of anti-Semitism, campaigning for the rights of Soviet Jews and lobbying the Pope during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s to renounce church teachings that demeaned Jews or anticipated their conversion. He fought racism and segregation, marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. If history were any guide, he would today have spoken forcefully against the rising tide of Islamophobia in the United States.

Heschel saw the divine in every person and emphasized the holiness and sanctity of every human being. “We are called upon to be an image of God . . . and the task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” Heschel believed that what ailed modern society was the lack of a personal awareness of God. He spoke convincingly of encounters with the mystery of the “divine” that is both within each of us and beyond us; that “discloses unity where we see diversity; . . . peace where we are involved in discord.”

Heschel connected with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and with King in particular because he believed, like King, that the God of the Bible struggles with us, suffers with us, and is affected by how human beings treat one another. “God stands in an intimate relationship to the world,” Heschel believed, and thus God “has a stake in the human situation.” Because God is “intimately affected” by the treatment human beings afford each other, “God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil.” The political implications of Heschel’s theology are clear: created in God’s image, we are each a reminder of God’s presence; when we engage in acts of violence and murder, we commit such acts against God’s divine likeness. “Whatever I do to man, I do to God,” Heschel explained. “When I hurt a human being, I injure God.”

In an age when religion divides people and nations, Heschel emphasized the common underpinnings of faith. Although profoundly devoted to his own tradition, he believed deeply that people of different faiths must talk to one another in a spirit of humility and respect, not to change or convert the other, but to better understand one another. “We must choose between interfaith and internihilism,” he often said, “No religion is an island.” Although most of Heschel’s ecumenical dealings were with Catholics and Protestants, shortly before his death he flew to Rome (against his doctor’s orders) to attend a conference of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders on the future of Jerusalem. “It is important to remember now,” Heschel said, “that, while I have prayed from the heart for Muslims all my life, I have never prayed with them before, or been face-to-face with them to talk about God . . . we must go further.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, a professor at Brandeis University and former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, has explained that Heschel

. . . [L]iked to tell the Hasidic tale of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad who invited a group of disciples to come share with him in a ride in his coach. “But there is not enough room!” a disciple cried out, “the rebbe will be crowded.” The master replied: “Then we shall have to love each other more. If we love each other more, there will be room for us all.” Heschel understood that all of humanity rides in that coach, one that can be either the divine chariot of God or the crowded, sealed railway car. The choice, he insisted, is a human one, and we who have escaped the terrors of hell are here to help all our fellow humans make that choice. [From the essay Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Memoir]

Heschel taught that God depended upon humanity to repair and heal the world. The God of the Bible was like the parent of all humanity, “who cannot stand to see the suffering of God’s children.” For Heschel, it was very simple. God needs his children to take care of each other.

For a society obsessed with non-stop consumerism and technologically driven noise, Heschel taught the value of the Sabbath as a sanctuary in time, when “we are called upon . . . to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.” The concept of the Sabbath urges a day of rest, reflection, study and prayer that is essential to the dignity of human beings and the nourishment of the soul. “The modern man does not know how to stand still, how to appreciate a moment, an event for its own sake.”

Throughout his life, Heschel remained devoted and secure in his Jewish faith, though he openly acknowledged the depth and beauty of other faith traditions. He gave us the tools for religious dialogue, believing that no one possessed a monopoly on the truth. It was clear to Heschel that people of different faiths needed one another. His interfaith involvements extended beyond his alliance with King and the civil rights movement, and included his work with the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council, and a visiting professorship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he developed a close kinship with the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Heschel understood in all of these encounters that, although their religious beliefs and practices differed, all lived in the presence of God. “There is no human being,” Heschel said in 1961, “who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship.”

Regardless of one’s age, race, religion, or ethnicity, Heschel believed we must never lose sight of our humanity, for we all possess a soul, a spirit, a heart, and a mind, and it is imperative that we use them. His wisdom transcended generations, cultures, and religions, and the quest for common ground inspired his theology. “Oceans divide us, God’s presence unites us,” he said. “God is present wherever man is afflicted, and all of humanity is embroiled in every agony wherever it may be.”

Because Heschel spoke so eloquently on Christian-Jewish relations and the need for dialogue, I am certain that, were he alive today, he would have spoken with equal passion about Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations. To Heschel, each and every person was sacred. “To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God.” His voice is sorely missed in today’s world; if only the power of his words could be felt by the likes of radical jihadists, intolerant fundamentalist preachers, and others who remain closed to sharing, learning, and listening to people of different cultures and faiths. “Unless we learn how to help one another, we will only weaken each other.”

He opposed religious parochialism. “Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each other’s failure? Or should we pray for each other’s health, and help one another in preserving our respective legacies, in preserving a common legacy?” For Heschel, as for us all, the answer is obvious: “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Turning the Page on a Tragic Mistake

It is easier to lead men to combat, stirring up their passion, than to restrain them and direct them toward the patient labors of peace.
--Andre Gide

On Sunday, February 23, 2003, less than one month before U.S. military forces invaded Iraq, I stood before the congregation of Reformation Lutheran Church in Philadelphia and asked everyone present to pray for peace. The war with Iraq was a near certainty, I said, and “while all of us are patriotic Americans who oppose the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, as Christians we are also called to be peacemakers and justice-seekers. We have a responsibility to weigh the ethical concerns raised by this impending war and to make a faithful response.” I asked everyone there that morning to join in a collective petition for peace urging the President to “Drop Rice, Not Bombs” on the people of Iraq. “This is a symbolic gesture, of course, as rice is a symbol of life and sustenance, but it is an important gesture, to let the President know that there are many patriotic Americans (and people of faith) that are not convinced that this war is being conducted as a last resort or that all possible alternatives to war have been pursued.” Following the service, over 100 congregants signed the petition for peace and it, along with a hundred packets of rice, were delivered directly to the White House.

I am certain that President Bush never saw our petition or our packets of rice, and I am under no illusions that our symbolic action had the slightest affect on U.S. policy. But I am proud of the stance that we took that Sunday and I continue to believe that we were right to oppose the war. For me, it was not an easy gesture to make, for I love my country and I feel nothing but honor and respect for the men and women of our armed forces. No one knew for certain how things would turn out. But in the words of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., former Chaplain of Yale University and Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, “There are two kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.” And while my brand of Christianity may be heretical to the likes of Glenn Beck and many conservative Christians, I am drawn to the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, who in the end sacrificed his own life in resisting Hitler: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but make it. To that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods.”

From the oval office this past Tuesday, President Obama formally announced that the “American combat mission in Iraq has ended” and that “the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.” The president acknowledged that he was opposed to the War in Iraq from the start – it was a key reason I supported him over Hilary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 – but he said this week, rightfully, that it was “time to turn the page.” Our efforts must now be on helping Iraq to secure a future of stability, peace, and self-rule that permits a nation of extremely divergent sects to achieve a semblance of democracy.

The future of Iraq remains volatile and uncertain; disenchantment is rife and its various factions of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds remain deadlocked over forming a government. It may be decades before a full accounting of the war may truly occur, but an interim reckoning seems appropriate before we as a nation, once and for all, can truly “turn the page.”

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the stirrings of democracy in Iraq, however feeble at present, are the two positive outcomes of the war. But do the ends justify the means? And at what cost?

The human cost of the war has been tragic. So far, over 4,400 Americans have died in the Iraq War. This is not just a number, but a heartbreaking reality for the families and friends of loved ones who paid the ultimate price. All were the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of loving families; many also were husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, who have left a lifetime of heartbreak in their wake; most were children themselves, so young and vibrant, with decades of life and potential taken from them, often in an instant. The pictures and dates of those who died can be viewed on a Washington Post website, which helps to personalize, in a small way, the tragedy of war and the profound nature of our losses in this conflict.

Not to be forgotten are the more than 35,000 Americans who were wounded during the Iraq War. Many lost arms and legs or were forever disabled or scarred, physically and mentally, their young bodies broken, their emotional and mental health damaged. They return to the “normality” of life in the United States suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, a sense of lost purpose, and uncertainty as to their self-worth. The Army Times reported in April that there are 18 suicides each day among returning veterans, which should constitute a call to action in itself.

Often overlooked is the human tragedy and devastation that we inflicted, directly or, in the nuance of military jargon, as “collateral damage.” Conservative estimates report that we killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians in the past seven years. You won’t find a website with their individual pictures and, for most of us, it is just a number. But allow your conscience to imagine the tragic truth, that each person killed by us was a mother, father, brother, and sister. And how many people did we maim and injure that survived our carnage?

We have spent, to date, nearly $800 billion on the Iraq War (well over $1 trillion counting Afghanistan) and we did so without requiring any sacrifice of non-military families. We not only spent the money without paying for the war, we combined the heightened military spending with huge tax cuts for our wealthiest citizens and turned what was a budget surplus into the largest deficits in U.S. history.

The Iraq war disastrously shifted attention away from the more important fight in Afghanistan and cost us years in our fight against those who attacked us on 9/11. Whatever successes and gains we made in the search for bin Laden and the destruction of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan following the tragedy of 9/11 was lost for several years once we shifted attention to Iraq in March 2003.

Our intervention in Iraq made Americans less safe. It left Iran, a far more dangerous threat to American interests, free to pursue its nuclear program, to finance extremist groups, and to meddle and wreak havoc in Iraq and elsewhere. Moreover, only after we invaded Iraq did it become a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, something it was not before Saddam was ousted. Iraq is a Muslim country in a region steeped in deep resentment of western occupation. Throughout the Muslim world, leading Islamic clerics, such as those at Al Azhar University in Cairo and the Lebanese Shiite scholar, Sheikh Fadlullah, each of whom condemned what happened on 9/11, gave their blessing to fight against the occupation of Iraq, which they believed was justified by the Koran’s prescriptions of “defensive” jihad, when a Muslim land is under attack by non-Muslims. Essentially, a growing global movement was energized by the war in Iraq, with jihadists flocking to the country from places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen. As U.S. forces violently bombed and destroyed much of Baghdad, the entire world watched on CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Internet. A less effective counter to terrorism could hardly be imagined.

Much damage was caused to U.S. credibility by the Bush Administration’s attempted oversell of the war and its embellishment of the Iraqi weapons’ threat (with the complicity and silence of most Democrats). On March 16, 2003, Vice President Cheney said, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly. . . [in] weeks rather than months.” On February 7, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the war “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Bush’s Budget Director, Mitch Daniels, told media outlets in early 2003 that the war and post-war reconstruction would be an “affordable endeavor” not likely to cost more than $50 to $60 billion.

The justification for war was never convincingly made, and all subsequent rationalizations still fall short morally and ethically. President Bush initially attempted to use Iraq as a test case for the administration’s doctrine of pre-emption, which called for early unilateral action against enemies suspected of posing a threat to the United States. The administration implied that Iraq had some undefined connection to 9/11 – something that was not true, which President Bush himself later acknowledged – yet at the time of our invasion, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that Iraq had been complicit with Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks. The administration also pushed hard the notion that Iraq possessed a large number of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), that it was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, and that Saddam was likely to hand off such weapons to terrorists. Yet the evidence is now clear that Iraq’s weapons’ threat was not urgent, if one even existed. In March 2003, the only possible danger lay in the distant future, when U.N. sanctions against Saddam would eventually be removed. But this was hardly justification for seven-and-a-half years of war, as less forceful alternatives were always present. Unlike some on the left, I believe President Bush acted in good faith and was convinced that Saddam possessed WMD’s – indeed, most all of us did at the time – but it is now well established that the intelligence data was manipulated and inconvenient truths selectively discarded.

It was not a just war. We attacked a country that posed no imminent threat to the United States. This was not a defensive war or even a legitimately pre-emptive war. While deposing Saddam was a worthwhile objective, it was contrary to all standards and norms of international law to invade a country solely because we thought its leader a brutal dictator or violator of human rights. If one country can justifiably attack another simply because it believes the other country’s leadership immoral, or evil, or worthy of removal, there would be no reliable notion of sovereignty, chaos would ensue, and many countries throughout the world would be legitimate targets of hostile aggression. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the War in Iraq, suggested in late July 2003 on Meet the Press that the lesson of 9/11 is “that you can’t wait until proof after the fact.” But as Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “According to this logic, it didn’t matter if there were proof of Saddam’s imminent danger. Follow that logic further and the White House could remove any foreign leader without proof of imminent threat.”

Our actions also fell short of just war theory because they were disproportional to the perceived harm. Deposing Saddam was one thing; killing more than 100,000 civilians, wounding and maiming hundreds of thousands more, causing widespread destruction, and occupying the nation for seven plus years, was far beyond what anyone anticipated or could ever have been justified. The global faith community was right for opposing this war from the outset and the government of the United States was wrong for fighting it.

But it is time to move forward and to take lessons from the past. As the President said in his oval office address last Tuesday, one such lesson “is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power – including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example – to secure our interests and stand by our allies.” We should honor and take pride in the service provided by our men and women in uniform. Long gone are the days of Vietnam, when blameless soldiers were derided and scorned for the unwise decisions of misguided politicians. “Our troops are the steel in our ship of state,” the President reminded us, “And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the predawn darkness, better days lie ahead.”

Wars are sometimes necessary, but they must always be a last resort, for the costs of war are astronomical, the burdens of war often too great to bear. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, we must in the end always “seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.”